Writing the Night
- Selected Poems by David Gascoyne
Enitharmon, 253 pp, £8.95, November 1994, ISBN 1 870612 34 5
In the Thirties and early Forties the English poet David Gascoyne was much enamoured of the Continental, Late Romantic image of writing and of the writer as a visionary misfit. By the end of the Thirties, his place in the great Euro-Visionary Song Contest was almost secured. He confessed his ambition in his Journals in 1938:
Want to write an essay on ‘The Apotheosis of Lautréamont’ ... stressing the importance of the ‘magical’ theory of poetry in the understanding of L; the surrender of English poetry to rationalism, of English poets to rationalist critics and of the necessity for the poet today to create a super-rationalist faith ex nihilo. Reiteration of the idea that the practice of magic (in poetry) involves ‘damnation’ (Hölderlin goes mad, Rimbaud abandons writing, Lautréamont dies abnormally young): i.e. the poet’s destiny is to risk madness despair and death for the sake of a possibility of a redeeming existence by means of the secret power of the Word.
In a footnote to this apotheosis of the poet as doomed super-rationalist, avatar of the ‘secret power of the Word’, Gascoyne invoked the entire canon of the damned: Hölderlin, Nerval, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Esenin, Mayakovsky, Hart Crane, Lorca and, as a lone, unlikely English representative of the same tradition, A.E. Housman. Earlier in the same year, having been sent new books by Auden, Spender and MacNeice from Faber, he reflected on ‘the great gap between their generation’s conception of poetry’ and his own: ‘what I call poetry is not understood in England, but I believe it to be something of far greater value than what is at present understood there.’ Reiterating the big names of his tradition, he announced: ‘I belong to Europe before I belong to England.’
Gascoyne made a glittering start. He published his first book, Roman Balcony, in 1932 while he was still at secondary school in London. Barely 17, he appeared in Alida Monro’s anthology Recent Poetry in 1933 alongside Yeats, Eliot, Auden and George Barker. Then, on leaving school, he published a novel, Opening Day, and before long his work could be found in the small magazines of his time such as Geoffrey Grigson’s New Verse and his friend Roger Roughton’s Contemporary Poetry and Prose, Browsing in Zwemmer’s as a schoolboy, he had encountered Surrealism in its heyday and news of the Surrealist revolution in Europe in the mid-Thirties transformed his life. His journals of the time are the record of a passionate cross-Channel love affair with the Parisian avant garde (and varyingly intellectual fringe members of both sexes on both sides of the Channel). He spent his most creative decade commuting between bohemian Surrealist Paris, dominated by its belligerent pontiff, André Breton, and his parents’ comfortable bourgeois home in Teddington. Like Herbert Read, he became an English go-between for French Surrealism and readers in Britain. He translated Dali, Péret, Eluard and Breton and wrote commentaries – such as A Short Survey of Surrealism published in 1935. He was one of the few poets this side of the Channel to qualify as a bona fide Surrealist. His second book of poems, published in 1936, was modishly entitled Man’s Life Is This Meat and demonstrated a concerted English attempt to dally in the magnetic Elysian fields of Surrealist art. It included poems to Dali and Tanguy, ‘Charity Week’ inspired by Ernst’s collages in Une Semaine de bonté, and ‘The Very Image’, a poem whose stanzas, Gascoyne tells us, could each have borne one of Magritte’s titles. One of them is called ‘Gnu Opaque’ which Gascoyne explains was an instance of ‘objective hazard’, being taken from the watermark on the paper he wrote it on. It ends: ‘It isn’t easy to see in this light / And night writes no replies.’ Writing the night was one of the Surrealists’ dreams, but, as Gascoyne’s solemn imitations too often remind us, dreams sometimes pall in the cold light of print.
In fact Surrealist poetry, for all its heroic devotion to spontaneous creativity and the rites of hysteria, wasn’t easy to sustain. Despite the efforts of Gascoyne and Read, and the native tradition of nonsense-poetry, Surrealist poetry proved harder than Surrealist visual art to get through HM Customs. Gascoyne’s ‘Rites of Hysteria’ illustrates the problems:
A cluster of insane massacres turns green upon the highroad
Green as the nadir of a mystery in the closet of a dream
And a wild growth of lascivious pamphlets became a beehive
The afternoon scrambles like an asylum out of its hovel
The afternoon swallows a bucketful of chemical sorrows
And the owners of the rubber pitchforks bake all their illusions
In an oven of dirty globes and weedgrown stupors
Dream-work shouldn’t seem such hard work, or free association so laborious. Everything is overworked in this dutifully ‘wild growth’ of massacres and mysteries, asylums and dreams, stupors and illusions. The exquisite corpses and exotic copulations that animated the art of Surrealists in France have somehow lost their ludic pizazz in Gascoyne’s heavy-footed English: ‘The sewing-machine on the pillar condenses the windmill’s halo’; ‘the icicle stabs at the breast with the bleeding-nipple’; ‘A screen of hysteria blots out the folded hemlocks.’ It was decades later that poets such as John Ashbery or Paul Muldoon helped Anglophone poetry to a convincing use of Surrealist licence for its own ways and meanings.
In any case, at the end of the Thirties Gascoyne himself had effectively abandoned Surrealism, and with it ‘The Rites of Hysteria’ and ‘The Symptomatic World’ (to quote two of his earlier symptomatically Surrealist titles). As he tells us in his Introduction, his discovery of Pierre-Jean Jouve’s Poèmes de la folie de Hölderlin on the quays of Paris in 1937 ‘marked a turning-point in my approach to poetry’; he began to ‘explore other territories than the sub or unconscious, the oneiric and the aleatory’. Psychoanalysed in 1938 by Jouve’s wife, Blanche Reverchon, Gascoyne names Jouve as the major influence on his poetry from this time – an unusual case of what Auden, in his essay on Hardy, calls ‘literary transference’. His next book, Hölderlin’s Madness (1938), was a spin-off from Jouve’s translations, including an essay and translations as well as some poems of his own. Jouve, Hölderlin and Rilke permeate the poetry of his most important work, written in the wake of his Surrealist deconversion and now collected as Poems 1938-42. Though there are few completely convincing or fully achieved poems, it is here that Gascoyne’s claims are most fully tested and that he gets closest to realising his high ambitions as an English visionary poet – ‘the socket-free lone visionary eye, / Soaring reflectively’ which he invokes in ‘The Fortress’ – though once more in the shadow of Platonic ideals realised on the other side of the Channel (‘the further shore’).
His Journals of the time record how grand those ambitions were (‘One is impelled by a kind of pretentiousness so incredible that it simply has to be taken seriously,’ he noted in July 1939). On the eve of the war he wrote:
Sat on a bench in Leicester Square gardens, realising that I have definitely ‘been called’ to be one of those who are to announce the true underlying event that is taking place during this century; aware of being perhaps the only human being there, in the middle of London, with an idea of what is really happening at this time upon the planet.
It was, he thought, like acting ‘the final, unwritten act of Hamlet’. With the world in ‘severe crisis’, he felt his ‘interior crisis’ more intensely than ever, and during the early months of the war he seems to have achieved a sense of triumphant missionary certainty about his identity and vocation: ‘My book,’ he announced, ‘will be a sort of philosophically-determined prophecy (The Greater Crisis: the Holy Revolution: the New Christendom).’ The ex-Surrealist had become a metaphysical fantasist. ‘My life,’ he confided to his diary, ‘has passed on to another plane’ while ‘the Future of the Century has begun to burn with an extraordinary, unseen and secret radiance.’ These apocalyptic insights have some bearing on the poetry of ‘The Greater Crisis’ of the early war years – Gascoyne’s time of greatest creativity – but they also prefigure the breakdowns and long periods of hospitalisation that followed the war. The Journals end in 1942, and so to all intents and purposes, despite A Vagrant and Other Poems in 1951 and a few subsequent addenda, does Gascoyne’s poetic career.
One of his best ‘metaphysical’ poems of the period, ‘The Wall’, describes a journey from his first territory, a wood ‘whose Grimm’s tale shadow terrified but made / A Place to hide in’ to an ‘ambushed Well’, where his ‘gaze hung in depths beneath the real / And sought the secret source of nothingness / Until I tired of its Circean spell.’ He then tries to return to the ‘narrow onward road’ but is led to the ‘Wall / Of interdiction’. Though it ends on the claim that ‘No wall shall break my will: To persevere,’ the heroic diction of the close sounds phoney. Many of the most telling poems of the period are about comparable states of bafflement, impotence, sterility. ‘The Three Stars: A Prophecy’, a rewriting of Yeats’s ‘Second Coming’, which confronts the ‘No-Time at the heart / Of Time (the frameless mirror’s back)’, aspires to find a way out:
Through all dark still to come, serene,
Ubiquitous, immaculately clear;
A magnet in the middle of the maze, to draw us on
Towards that Bethlehem beyond despair
Where from the womb of Nothing shall be born
Poetically, the magnet failed. ‘The Wall of interdiction’ was to prove harder to break through than he dreamed.
Now nearly eighty and living on the Isle of Wight, David Gascoyne has outlived the MacSpaunday generation and published a Selected Poems with the Enitharmon Press. Working through it, the reader is forced to ask yet again some of the questions that have dogged Gascoyne’s career since the mid-century – along with those of several other poets of the same period. What happened to English Surrealism? Why was it so difficult for English-language poets to ‘belong to Europe’? Why were European Modernism and English verse so hard to reconcile? Can a poet of the later 20th century still convincingly align him or herself to what Harold Bloom, writing of the canonical English Romantics, called the Visionary Company? How do you write what Gascoyne calls ‘post-Auschwitz theology’? Why did his precocious gifts fizzle out after the publication of A Vagrant in 1951? Indeed, why did so many ambitiously international poets of his time dry up or disappear in the middle of the century, whether temporarily (like Oppen and Bunting) or permanently like Gascoyne?
For Gascoyne forms part of a wider still-unsolved mystery. He is only one of a series of disappearing Anglophone poets of the mid-century, some of whom later spectacularly re-appeared. In Ireland, the three ‘internationalist’ poets singled out by Samuel Beckett – Thomas MacGreevey, Denis Devlin and Brian Coffey – all stuttered to a standstill in mid-career: MacGreevey turned away from poetry altogether; Devlin never published another collection after Lough Derg and Other Poems (1946), though his best work was still to come; and Coffey only returned to poetry in the Sixties and after, with great poems such as ‘The Death of Hektor’. Republished in the last decade, their collected poems are only now beginning to have an impact. Similarly, the two Objectivists singled out by Pound – Basil Bunting in England and George Oppen in the States – ceased publishing verse and disappeared entirely from public view for over a quarter of a century, before returning to public view and poetry in the Sixties with their late masterpieces. Having published nothing since 1934, Oppen produced his three great sequences culminating in On Being Numerous in 1968, while Basil Bunting emerged with his plangently ‘native’ post-Poundian autobiography Briggflatts in 1965, having published nothing since an obscure American impression of his poems in 1950. The later works in both their Collected Poems bear the marks of triumph over silence. Even William Empson – a man Gascoyne records as being ‘extraordinarily unprepossessing’ and whose poetry was a ‘bore’ – largely ceased to publish verse after The Gathering Storm (1940). And sadly he never returned to it. One by-product of the storms that hit the middle century, it seems, was a high drop-out rate for poets.
Gascoyne’s new Selected Poems is much fuller than the first of his Collected Poems undertaken by Robin Skelton in 1965, but like his second Collected of 1988, it draws almost entirely on work of the same period, 1932-50, the lifespan of his poetic career. Despite the late Collecteds and the rediscovery and republication from 1978 onwards of his diaries from 1936 to 1942, now all together in the Collected Journals (1991) introduced by Kathleen Raine, Gascoyne has never made a poetic comeback. The new book offers a welcome new gallery for his early work, complete with an informative Introduction, rather than a reshaping of his poetic output. For a moment at the end of the Thirties, having left the British Surrealism-and-Water of such earnest poems as ‘The Symptomatic World’ behind, he briefly came close to becoming an English Rilke or Nerval in the bleak, void-ridden ‘metaphysical poems’ of Hölderlin’s Madness (1938) and Miserere (1942). These books are charged with a real sense of historical crisis, though often tonally insecure and rhetorically archaic as they seek to balance ‘in perfect tension between dark and light / the horrid depth, the spiritual height’ (Gascoyne has a fatal weakness for the Big Last Line about First and Last Things). They need to be seen as part of the larger emergency revival of Metaphysical poetry in the face of the Second World War, alongside, in Europe, Four Quartets, Auden’s New Year Letter and H.D.’s Trilogy and Wallace Stevens’s Parts of a World in the States. Despite their desperate appeal to what he calls ‘the great incandescent power / of sublimation’ and renewal, Gascoyne never matched these poems of personal and spiritual crisis again. ‘The Post-War Night’, ‘Fragments towards a Religio Poetae’, ‘Elegiac Improvisation on the Death of Paul Eluard’ from A Vagrant and Other Poems (1950), are strained echoes of an already strained poetic response to that crisis.
Gascoyne’s greatest difficulty as a poet was anchoring his ‘visionary’ scenarios in time and place, especially through the most crucial anchor of all, what Stevens called the ‘speech of the time’. On the evidence of his verse, he had no ear far speech at all, a risk for any poet but perhaps an especially dangerous one for a would-be ‘metaphysical’. Gascoyne divided up his mid-century poems into ‘Metaphysical Poems’, ‘Personal Poems’ and ‘Time and Place’, and it is this poetic division of labour that weakens his work in each category.
The crisis of the European war, though indirectly, provided some urgent coherence to his poetry of coherence lost. To make sense of it, Hölderlin’s Madness and Miserere sought to resurrect and intertwine two redemptive mythical archetypes, Orpheus and Christ. The brief sequence ‘Hölderlin’s Madness’ portrays the ‘agonising land’ like a ‘vast denuded body torn and vanquished from within’, and seeks via the myth of Orpheus with his ‘shattered lyre’, to evoke some spiritual renovation: ‘O milk of love lave the devastated vale,’ he prays, invoking presences of the ‘Unseen in the sky’ to ‘pass through and again / Like golden bees the hive of his lost head’. Miserere, like Nerval’s ‘Christ on the Mount of Olives’, tries to rewrite the Crucifixion as a story about contemporary post-Christian religious crisis among the ‘clefted landscapes’ and ‘our about-to-be / Bombed and abandoned cities’. Invoking a ‘Christ of Revolution and of Poetry’, it prays that ‘man’s long journey through the night / May not have been in vain.’
When Gascoyne said he belonged to Europe rather than England, you can see what he had in mind, but too much of the poetry as a result seems to occupy an uneasy linguistic no man’s land, somewhere between Paris and home in Teddington. Like Devlin’s and Coffey’s, much of his output was translation from the French – there are translations of Breton, Jouve, Péret, Dali, Eluard, the Surrealist Manifesto – and even his best poems – the ‘Rites of Hysteria’ or Hölderlin’s Madness – read like stalled translations of poems that might well be arresting in another tongue. Though they report back home from the vanguard of France and Germany, too many of the poems read as arrested utterances from an earlier period of English verse – the period of Keats, Shelley, Beddoes.
Take the sonnet, ‘Morn to Mourning’, one of the ‘Metaphysical Poems’ written after Gascoyne emerged from the spell of Surrealism early in the Second World War:
Morning. Full chorus of the birds. A Sun
Of nascent ardour in the sapphire dome.
Now Memnon’s massive kings with mouths of stone
Chant their aubade. Now down the valleys come
Innocent minstrels in whose unstained eyes
Vision unfolds vibrating like a flower ...
Yggdrasil, Jordan and Orpheus follow Memnon’s massive kings down the sonnet’s Shelleyan corridors of poetic power. The close ironises such ‘innocent’ Romantic rhetoric, but in terms which hark back to the same period:
Flocks graze ... But what chill shadow, not of cloud,
Is this that darkens noonday’s crystal? Whence
Comes that far wail of mourning through the groves?
Keats’s chastened autumnal music echoes here, across the revisionary Keatsian note of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, with its ‘wail of shells’ and so on. As a result the ‘chill shadow’ doesn’t evoke the pressing presence of the war so much as the burden of the poetic past.
Or take his heartfelt ‘Elegiac Improvisation on the Death of Paul Eluard’, a tribute to the Audenesque ‘climate of his speaking’ which takes in such modern details as ‘The boy with a bucket cleaning the office windows’ and ‘a well-informed middle-class man who prefers to remain undescribed’ but ends with another romantic apocalypse:
The truth that lives eternally is told in time
The laughing beasts the landscape of delight
The sensuality of noon the tranquil midnight
The vital fountains the heroic statues
The barque of youth departing for Cythera
The ruined temples and the blood of sunset
The bank of amaranth the bower of ivy
The storms of spring and autumn’s calm are Now
Absence is only of all that is not Now
And all that is true is and is here Now
Inflected via Eliot’s Four Quartets (‘And all is always now’, ‘Quick, now, here, now, always’), Gascoyne’s elegiac words speak less of the dead poet he admired than of a dead poetics. ‘The vital fountains the heroic statues’ speak not of Now but Then. They obstinately refuse to come to new life in the lines. Beside Auden or MacNeice or Empson over here, or Eluard and Bonnefoy in France, Gascoyne’s transcendental dialect seems out of touch with contemporary speech and feeling, only occasionally touching down to notice recognisable speakers in the world of time and place.
The best poems are in fact scattered among those he classifies under the heading ‘Time and Space’. They are completely untypical: ‘Snow in Europe’, dated Christmas 1938, a Hardyesque historical panorama of a Europe about to be convulsed by war (‘When the great thaw comes, /How red shall be the melting snow, how loud the drums’); ‘Spring MCMXL’, a sonnet invoking the spectral apparition of ‘the punctual goddess’ of Spring amid ‘the maze of broken brick’ of London in the Blitz; ‘A Wartime Dawn’, dated Apri1 1940, a remarkably detailed evocation of the city coming back to life ‘before the morning’s hovering advance’, where the ‘dragging crunch of milk-cart wheels’ and ‘windy whistling as the newsboy’s bike winds near’ are set against the fact that ‘one more day of War starts everywhere’; and finally ‘Walking at Whitsun’, where at Marshfield in May 1940, like Edward Thomas in ‘At the Team’s Head-Brass’, Gascoyne reads the English landscape in the light of war elsewhere:
The white dust of a weed-bright lane; alone
Upon Time-Present’s tranquil outmost rim,
Seeing the sunlight through a lens of dread,
While anguish makes the English landscape seem
Inhuman as the jungle, and unreal
I’m sorry Desmond Graham didn’t include any of these in his recent Poetry of the Second World War, because, uniquely among Gascoyne’s work, they evoke not only his characteristically archetype-ridden Shelleyan psychodrama but that particular historical moment of wartime England – as Little Gidding did, but without Eliot’s armour of Anglican attitudes. But to say that is perhaps to measure him inappropriately against just the ‘English tradition’ he so defiantly set his face against.
Having survived amphetamine addiction and years of ‘aural hallucinations, continual inner voices murmuring utterances that were never quite comprehensible’, leading, as he tells us in the Journals, to ‘a kind of paranoia that only momentarily persuaded my simultaneously lucid sane self that I was watched by shadowy vigilante groups’, Gascoyne later dissociated himself from the doomed Euro-Visionary tradition. In his Journals he wrote: ‘Being still alive and re-installed at last on the safer shore of recovered mental balance, I am inclined to shun the histrionic glamour associated with the tag maudit.’ He was as much ‘alarmed as gratified to find myself being placed by a serious French critic in a sort of pantheon devoted to doomed visionaries’.
Gascoyne seems fated to bear witness to what might have been, the Surrealist Revolution that never took place this side of the Channel, the new Apocalypse that never materialised. He is hard to fit into any of the dominant accounts of literary history, except at the margins. Despite his candidly avowed homosexuality, drug-addiction, breakdowns and psychiatric hospitalisations, despite a decade spent haunting Parisian cafés and Surrealist inner circles, despite a later career as an actor on tour in the English provinces, graduating from the Communist Party and Surrealism to what he called ‘dialectical supermaterialism’ and the visionary theology of late poems such as ‘Fragments Towards a Religio Poetae’, Gascoyne’s Poetry hasn’t found its way into the English or European mainstream – even that most potent mainstream of marginality. A tall, stooped, immaculately blue-pin-striped figure at a Cambridge Poetry Festival in the early Eighties, he seemed like an obscure ambassador from somewhere distinguished and important but very far away.