Joseph Autran was born in Marseille. In 1832 he addressed an ode to Alphonse de Lamartine, who was then at Marseille on his way to the East. Lamartine persuaded the young man's father to allow him to follow his poetic instinct, and Autran became Lamartine's faithful disciple from then on. His best known work is La Mer (1835), remodelled in 1852 as Les Poèmes de la mer. L'udibria ventis (1838) followed, and the success of these two volumes gained for Autran the librarianship of his native town.
His other most important work is his Vie rurale (1856), a series of pictures of peasant life. The Algerian campaigns inspired him with verses in honour of the common soldier. Milianah (1842) describes the heroic defence of that town, and in the same vein is his Laboureurs et soldats (1854).
Among his other works are the Paroles de Salomon (1868), Epitres rustiques (1861), Sonnets capricieux, and a tragedy played with great success at the Odéon in 1848, La Fille d'Eschyle. A definitive edition of his works was brought out between 1875 and 1881. He became a member of the Académie française in 1868, and died at Marseille.