About this work
This is a very moving song from Francis Poulenc (1899 - 1963), even though it does not entirely rise to the highest level of songs by one of France's (and the twentieth century's) greatest song composers.
The song was inspired by the tragic circumstances of the poem's composition. Robert Desnos, a friend of Poulenc's, was a writer who had been a surrealist, but then made a change into writing poetry in the cadences and informal speech of the Parisian common people.
After the German occupation of 1940 Desnos became a very active resistance leader. He was arrested by the Gestapo, which eerily enough made his poem "Le Disparu" (The One who Disappeared, which Poulenc set as a song in 1947) seem to come true.
Then Desnos wrote "Last Poem" for his wife from the concentration camp where he was imprisoned, Theresienstadt (Terezin, Czechoslovakia). There many artists and composers were placed in a sham of a model camp in a cold-blooded effort to deceive International Red Cross inspectors. By 1945, the Nazis no longer made the effort, and conditions there deteriorated. Desnos fell to a typhus epidemic, dying just days after he wrote this poem on a cigarette paper.
It is a short poem, and Poulenc takes the unusual (for him) step of repeating some of its stanzas. The mood of the song is unusually emotional for him, approaching the style of tragic Romanticism. The piano keeps up an implacable tread. This reflects both the opening images of the song -- the poet dreaming he had walked with his wife and talked with her -- but also the grinding machinery of the SS death apparatus mixed with the mood of a long tolling of the passing bell.
The word "ombre" (shadow) recurs repeatedly. In the end, the poet is but a ghost, "the shadow that will come and come again into your sun-filled life."
Its overt tearfulness is unusual for Poulenc. He usually buried deep tragedy within contradictory textures. As a result, critical assessment of this song varies. Poulenc's biographer Benjamin Ivry dismissed it as having a vocal line that is "an overstated whine that does not do justice to the themes involved." This is an unnecessarily harsh judgment, but it is true that the piano part is more striking than the melody.
On the other hand, Pierre Bernac, Poulenc's greatest song interpreter, in his discussion of Poulenc's songs (Francis Poulenc: The Man and His Songs) considered the song "the expression of the profound weariness of a being who has reached the depths of human suffering" and counsels its singers to approach it with a sincere tragic emotion.
As for Poulenc himself, he took an intermediate view. He almost forgot to include it in his Journal, but called it "successful enough." Then he adds, "A Swiss critic wrote that it is the best thing I have done. Poor me, poor him."