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Poetic fashions ebb and flow and there are always marginalised figures that pursue fields of interest that are on the edge of acceptability. The boundaries of poetic discourse are always blurred and being challenged by successive avant-gardes. The poetic field itself is infinitely expansive rather than limited to easily identifiable categories due to the nature of language and to the bohemian inclination towards difference and the other. If we remove this from our analysis we have a less than dynamic vision of poetic discourse and endeavour and fail to see the myriad ways poets have produced sound and written texts, have questioned how to use language, form and the lyrical voice. In short, we fail to see that there is a vast history of alternative poetries. These poetries have been concerned with the interface between the public and private, between the self, experience and language in place and time and how to produce a radical poetics for most of the last century. These poetries can be seen as counter to the Movement and its successors and their continued anti-modernism and anti-internationalism, which in the words of Andrew Crozier and Tim Longville ‘foreclosed the possibilities of poetic language within its own devices.’ (A Various Art Carcanet Press 1987 page 12) Overall and underlying this has also been a continuous dispute about what constitutes the central tradition of English poetry.
The impact of this cultural nationalism has been such that many Forties poets have been attacked and forgotten. Their history of outward-looking and international engagement has been marginalised and downgraded by Movement and post-Movement critics. This is seen most clearly in the omission of Dylan Thomas, W.S. Graham, Norman Cameron, Lynn Roberts, Ruthven Todd, Nicholas Moore, George Barker, Humphrey Jennings, Philip O’Connor, Kathleen Raine, George Reavey, Sean Rafferty, Wrey Gardiner, Tambimuttu, J.F. Hendry, Burns Singer, Henry Treece, Hamish Henderson, Ruth Pitter, Vernon Watkins and their friends and associates.
The situation of one Forties poet was such that in April 1974 he found himself listening to a woman read the poem ‘September Sun: 1947’ to a group of mental patients on the Isle of Wight. A tall, sad looking man in a group of severely depressed inmates finally convinced Judy Lewis that he indeed was the poet, David Gascoyne, who had written the poem. Here we are in the midst of a hole in Gascoyne’s life. This is the man who had been a massive presence and key figure in the late Thirties and Forties in English and French culture mixing and arguing within Marxism, psychoanalysis, Catholic mysticism, alchemy and Surrealism. This is the man who in 1964 had been arrested at the Élysée Palace on his way to warn President De Gaulle of a forthcoming apocalypse and whose previous twenty years of life was still cast in shadow, seemingly lost, albeit highlighted by his December 1955 radio meditation, Night Thoughts and the publication of his Collected Poems in 1965.
He had been a precocious figure. He had published his first poetry volume, Roman Balcony (1932) aged 16, in the vein of Rilke, first novel Opening Day aged 17, written A Short Survey of Surrealism (1935) aged 19 and helped organise the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition at Burlington House in London. His immediate circle was a distinct mixture of neo-Romantic poets that frequented the bookshops and pubs of Fitzrovia, Dylan Thomas, George Barker, Ruthven Todd, Roger Roughton and Norman Cameron, and recent Cambridge graduates, Humphrey Jennings, Roland Penrose, Charles Madge and Kathleen Raine. He had spent 1933 in Paris having been drawn by the avant-garde magazines he found in Zwemmers bookshop in Charing Cross Road in London. He was soon at the centre of the Surrealist movement in Paris with André Breton, Max Ernst and so on. From his Collected Journals 1936-1942 (Skoob Books 1991) we find Gascoyne in London and Paris advocating a revolutionary literature that is not didactic or social realist and striving to move into a deeper literary area than that occupied by the Auden Generation. In Paris he absorbs himself in European poetry and philosophy and writes Hölderlin’s Madness (1938), inspired by the translations of Jean Pierre Jouve, and sees the need for a great spiritual reawakening and rebirth to be part of any political revolution. Writing at a time of international danger, he turned to the Book of Revelation and the concept of the artist as a prophet. From the same period that he wrote Poems 1937- 1942 (Poetry London Editions 1943), illustrated by Graham Sutherland, and was translating Breton, Eluard, Dali and so on for Roughton’s Contemporary Poetry & Prose magazine, he interestingly compares his European conception of poetry with the Auden Generation’s poetry of rhetoric and argument. For him poetry is, in essence, a journey of discovery to the void and beyond and operates on a deeper level than that of statement or reportage.
To those who want to limit the horizon of English poetry, Gascoyne is simply brushed aside as a figure caught up in obscure French poetry and Surrealism, neatly forgetting that he was a distinctly English poet, working as much in the English visionary tradition as that of European poetry and philosophy. The arc of his poetic development is distinctly international and draws upon a wide range of sources. It stems from a period of rich intellectual exchange in Paris and London that provided the context to his poetry. I would like to say a few words about that context and offer some introductory notes to some of his poems.
Gascoyne’s Poems 1937-1942 marks a movement away from his earlier Surrealist work, Man’s Life is This Meat (1936), which established him as the leading surrealist poet in England.
Published by Tambimuttu, a Sri Lankan poet and publisher of Poetry London and PL Editions, it includes a cover and several edgy and alarming black and red ink drawings by the painter, Graham Sutherland, that augments and adds to the effect of the whole. Sutherland had exhibited at the 1936 Surrealist exhibition. Here his work seems to be echoing Gascoyne’s journey towards revelation.
The book is full of dedications and notations to the bohemian culture of Paris and London. The most dominant word in the book is sky. There are translations of Jouve, elegies for Wolf Berthold and Roger Roughton, a poem to Benjamin Fondane, as well as a whole section in French dedicated to the memory of the composer, Alban Berg. A range of traditional and modernist forms and styles are employed that serve to upset any natural flow to the book.
Gascoyne’s over-riding intellectual concern was to unite the subjective and the objective, the personal and the political, surrealism and political commitment. He strived to formulate what he called ‘dialectical supermaterialism’ a reconciliation of metaphysics with revolutionary ideology. His poetic sources and inspirations are a distinct amalgam of the visionary landscapes of neo-Romantic poetry and painting, such as his mentor, the editor of New Verse, Geoffrey Grigson’s enthusiasm for Samuel Palmer and the landscape of southern England, the surrealists reading of Freud, such as Salvador Dali’s theory of paranoia which inspired Jacques Lacan’s development of the concept of the Imaginary and Jean-Pierre Jouve’s work on sublimation, which connected Freud with Christianity, and mixing of the mystical and the erotic in his quest to move beyond the void. Gascoyne was actively reading the latest philosophical and psychoanalytical essays, absorbing Heidegger and early existentialist writings, translating a wide range of new essays and poetry by Dali, Breton, Eluard, Jouve that was tackling ontological questions. All this was fuelled by a growing amphetamine addiction at a time of uncertainty over his sexuality. He later confided that these were the two major omissions from his Journals. (Collected Journals pp. 336-402) He was actively talking about these matters in the cafés and bars of Montmartre and undergoing psychoanalysis with Jouve’s wife, Blanche Reverchon, which proved unhelpful. All these sources were instrumental in leading Gascoyne to a more visionary, religious poetry. Jouve, in particular, had written that the only answer to the void of time was to find in the poetic act a religious perspective. (See A.T.Tolley’s The Poetry of the Forties in Britain Manchester University Press 1985 chapter on Gascoyne)
I would like to briefly look at two of Gascoyne’s poems, ‘Ecce Homo’ and ‘The Gravel pit-Field’, from Poems 1937-1942.
Here’s the first four stanzas of ‘Ecce Homo’
Whose is this horrifying face,
This putrid flesh, discoloured, flayed,
Fed on by flies, scorched by the sun?
Whose are these hollow red-filmed eyes
And thorn-spiked head and spear-struck side?
Behold the Man : He is Man’s Son.
Forget the legend, tear the decent veil
That cowardice or interest devised
To make their mortal enemy a friend,
To hide the bitter truth all His wounds tell,
Lest the great scandal be no more disguised:
He is in agony till the world’s end,
And we must never sleep during that time!
He is suspended on the cross-tree now
And we are onlookers at the crime,
Callous contemporaries of the slow
Torture of God. Here is the hill
Made ghastly by His spattered blood
Whereon He hangs and suffers still:
See, the centurions wear riding-boots,
Black shirts and badges and peaked caps,
Greet one another with raised-arm salutes;
They have cold eyes, unsmiling lips;
Yet these His brothers know not what they do.
‘Ecce Homo’ is often quoted as the poem that led to Gascoyne’s ostracism from official Surrealism for it reference of ‘Christ of Revolution and of Poetry’ in stanzas 10-12. Gascoyne’s Christ, though, as Kathleen Raine has noted, is like Blake’s, the ‘divine humanity’ in all humankind, the spirit of Imagination and of prophecy. (See Kathleen Raine ‘Introduction’ in David Gascoyne: Selected Prose 1934-1996 Enitharmon Press 1998 page 18) The poem turns upon a mystical response to international fascism that places the current international violence in the context of larger and more enduring suffering, ‘the slow / Torture of God’ ‘in agony till the world’s end’.
Gascoyne at this time was also deepening his reading within the European alchemical tradition. He had known the work of Emmanuel Swedenborg since he was a schoolboy at Salisbury Cathedral School and had progressed through the German alchemical tradition from Cornelius Agrippa’s Occult Philosophy (1650) to Novalis’ Hymns to the Night (1800). The concept of the eternal is certainly derived from his reading of Boehme and Novalis’ and his reading background in Blake.
In his Journal entry on 23rd April 1939, we find Gascoyne in the midst of spiritual experience and writing: ‘The essential nature of the experience being Negation. The void, das Nichts, Nada, le Néant. Practically the only image that presents itself at all strongly to me is a black vacuum in (or through) which two eyes are fixedly staring’ and searching for the right tone to write poems about man’s present spiritual crisis. (Collected Journals page 256) In ‘Ecce Homo’ he calls upon the ‘Christ of Revolution and of Poetry’ to ‘Redeem our sterile misery’ so that ‘Man’s long journey through the night / May not have been in vain’. The ‘Miserere’ section of Poems sketches a ‘revelation of despair’, the contemporary spiritual condition, and shows a divine presence in moments of lucid subjectivity. This subjectivity returns the world to an authentic objectivity. It is suffering and a journey to the edge of the void that allows this transitory illumination of the divine presence or god of imagination. The void, here, being the result of the negation of the divine presence. This worldview is a distinct mixture of alchemical, surrealistic and ontological thinking stemming from the cafés and bars of Paris’ Left Bank inscribed within an English visionary landscape, as in poems such as ‘The Gravel-pit Field’.
Here’s ‘The Gravel-pit Field’:
Beside the stolid opaque flow
Of rain-gorged Thames; beneath a thin
Layer of early evening light
Which seems to drift, a ragged veil,
Upon the chilly March air’s tide:
Upwards in shallow shapeless tiers
A stretch of scurfy pock-marked waste
Sprawls laggardly its acres till
They touch a raw brick-villa’d rim.
Amidst this nondescript terrain
Haphazardly the gravel-pits’
Rough hewn rust-coloured hollows yawn,
Their steep declivities away
From the field-surface dropping down
Towards the depths below where rain-
Water in turbid pools stagnates
Like scraps of sky decaying in
The sockets of a dead man’s stare.
The shabby coat of coarse grass spread
Unevenly across the ruts
And humps of lumpy soil; the bits
Of stick and threads of straw; loose clumps
Of weeds with withered stalks and black
Tatters of leaf and scorched pods: all
These intertwined minutiae
Of Nature’s humblest growths persist
In their endurance here like rock.
As with untold intensity
On the far edge of being, where
Life’s last faint forms begin to lose
Name and identity and fade
Away into the Void, endures
The final thin triumphant flame
Of all that’s most despoiled and bare:
So these least stones, in the extreme
Of their abasement might appear
Like rare stones such as could have formed
A necklet worn by the dead queen
Of a great Pharaoh, in her tomb …
So each abandoned snail-shell strewn
Among these blotched dock-leaves might seem
In the pure ray shed by the loss
Of all man-measured value, like
Some priceless pearl-enamelled toy
Cushioned on green silk under glass.
And who in solitude like this
Can say the unclean mongrel’s bones
Which stick out, splintered, through the loose
Side of a gravel-pit, are not
The precious relics of some saint,
Perhaps miraculous? Or that
The lettering on this Woodbine-
Packet’s remains ought not to read:
Mene mene tekel upharsin?
Now a breeze gently breathes across
The wilderness’s cryptic face:
The meagre grasses scarcely stir;
But when some stranger gust sweeps past,
Seeming as though an unseen swarm
Of sea-birds had disturbed the air
With their strong wings’ wide stroke, a gleam
Of freshness hovers everywhere
About the field: and tall weeds shake,
Leaves wave their tiny flags to show
That the wind blown about the brow
Of this poor plot is nothing less
Than the great constant draught the speed
Of Earth’s gyrations makes in Space …
As I stand musing, overhead
The zenith’s stark light thrusts a ray
Down through dusk’s rolling vapours, casts
A last lucidity of day
Across the scene: and in a flash
Of insight I behold the field’s
Apotheosis: No man’s land
Between this world and the beyond,
Remote from men and yet more real
Than any human dwelling-place:
A tabernacle where one stands
As though within the empty space
Round which revolves the Sage’s Wheel.
The arc of the poem is from the ordinary objective to the extraordinary subjective with the bleak light of the March evening becoming the light of transformation. Here the imagination takes hold of the real as a succession of image objects is transformed. The snail shells become rare stones and the mongrel bones become relics of some saint, the writing on the woodbine cigarette packet becomes the writing on the wall from Daniel 5:25 and so on. This culminates in the gravel-pit field’s ‘apotheosis’ becoming a ‘No man’s land’ and ‘tabernacle’ enabling a communion ‘between this world and the beyond’. The transformation of image objects is surely alchemical. The poem was written at a time when Gascoyne and other surrealists, such as Breton and Ernst, were drawing upon alchemical sources and inspiration. The use of a gravel-pit is significant in that it is unconsecrated ground and the site of late eighteenth century dissenting meetings, such as held by Dr. Joseph Priestley on 19 April 1793 to preach on Psalm 46 line one ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble’ and on 28 February 1794 and other fast days. (See A Sermon Preached at The Gravel Pit Meeting, In Hackney April 19th 1793) Priestley was also a Francophile, believer in revelation and prophecy and writing at a time when England was at war. The use of ‘No man’s land’ reminds us of that area between two warring forces which is held by neither and where both sides are free to go as well as an area of land that is not owned by any particular individual or agency and tabernacle being a place of worship by nonconformists as well as a receptacle for the Eucharist and a fixed or movable habitation.
Gascoyne’s poems stem from the creative centre of Europe. His concern is essentially with the boundaries and thresholds of consciousness, stemming from the discoveries of Freud, the surrealists, through the early existentialist movement, which Gascoyne splits into two separate groupings and sharply differentiates his perspective from that of Sartre’s, to Heidegger’s thinking on authenticity, being and time, to the frontiers of madness in Hölderlin and his novelist friend, Antonia White, and contemporary occult and magical practice.
It is in the darkness of the last century that he set about trying to find some light, went mad, and recovered to re-read his past.
After Judy Lewis rescued Gascoyne they married and he became part of the poetry reading circuit, reading to packed audiences at Cambridge, the Sorbonne and was later honoured by the French Government. His radio poem, Night Thoughts, with its pre-Situationalist mapping of the deserted city, had an impact on writers and poets such as Iain Sinclair, Jeremy Reed and Aidan Andrew Dun. Reed provided the introduction to Gascoyne’s poems in the Conductors of Chaos anthology (Picador 1996) edited by Iain Sinclair, noting Gascoyne’s ‘total commitment’ to his art and compassion for the outsider that lives by ‘inner rather than social dictates’. (Conductors of Chaos p. 372)
The situation is changing slowly. The Forties is increasingly seen as a watershed decade and more critical attention is being given to its neglected poets. Robert Fraser, who wrote a critical biography of George Barker (The Chameleon Poet: A Life of George Barker Jonathan Cape 2001), is now writing a biography of David Gascoyne and Rod Mengham is also working on a Gascoyne study. Enitharmon Press have recently published Despair Has Wings: Selected Poems by Jean Pierre Jouve Translated by David Gascoyne along with various letters and other materials. More discoveries on Gascoyne’s extraordinary life and previously lost or unpublished material are also forthcoming. There is now plenty of critical attention given to W.S. Graham. There was a recent symposium of essays on Sean Rafferty at intercapillaryspace (intercapillaryspace.blogspot.com) edited by Alistair Noon; Andrew Duncan’s new book Origins of the Underground (Salt 2008) has chapters on Gascoyne and other Forties poets, and Peter Riley has an essay on Dylan Thomas forthcoming in the next issue of Poetry Wales.