Obituary: Guardian, London, UK

David Gascoyne

Poetic champion of surrealism whose vision survived insanity to flourish again in later life
Valentine Cunningham
Guardian

Tuesday November 27, 2001


David Gascoyne, who has died aged 85, was that rarity among 20th-century English writers: a poet who sustained a fully European consciousness and enjoyed a wide European reputation. The last survivor of the neo-romantic group of poets, who included Dylan Thomas, WS Graham and George Barker, he achieved early importance and fame as Britain's first serious advocate of surrealism as a mode of writing poems and painting - he remained more or less loyal to the surrealistic vision all his life.

Born in Harrow, the son of a bank manager, Gascoyne was educated at Salisbury cathedral choir school - where he absorbed something of the religiosity that became an aspect of his writing - and the Regent Street Polytechnic. He was extraordinarily ambitious and precocious; his first volume of poems, Roman Balcony, appeared in 1932, while he was still a schoolboy, and his only novel, Opening Day, was published the following year. Much of it is the story of an aesthetic youth, like himself, falling out with a father who does not care for his son's cultural pursuits.

On the proceeds of the novel, Gascoyne went to Paris, arriving on or around his 17th birthday, and hunted out the works and the acquaintance of surrealist notables such as André Breton and Paul Eluard. His A Short Study Of Surrealism appeared in 1935. By then, his poetic work had appeared in an anthology edited by Alida Monro, wife of Harold Monro, of London's Poetry Bookshop, and he had been taken up by Geoffrey Grigson in the most important of the period's little magazines, New Verse, appearing alongside the slightly older WH Auden.

In 1936, his surrealistic verse collection Man's Life Is This Meat was published by the Parton Street Press. In the Parton Street cafe, he mixed with teenage radicals brought on by the publisher David Archer, a feisty group including Esmond Romilly and Philip Toynbee. His closest friend was George Barker.

Gascoyne was also in at the foundation of that pioneering sociological survey, Mass-Observation, and remained close to one of its instigators, the painter Julian Trevelyan, as well as to the poet Kathleen Raine, then married to another another Mass-Ob chieftain, the poet Charles Madge.

This was a time when radical poetry and politics mixed naturally. One day, Gascoyne might be scrapping with Oswald Mosley's fascist thugs in London's East End, the next assisting at the opening of the first international surrealist exhibition in London. By rushing out to buy a spanner at a local ironmonger's, he became the person who saved Salvador Dali's life, when the painter could not get out of the deep-sea diving suit and helmet he had donned for the occasion.

Gascoyne's translation work began in the mid-1930s, with works by Dali, Benjamin Peret and Eluard. His version of Breton's What is Surrealism? came out in 1936. By then, he was in Barcelona, broadcasting republican propaganda from loudspeakers in the Ramblas.

He spent much of the later 1930s in his beloved Paris, where he lodged with Lawrence Durrell and Anais Nin, and cultivated the acquaintance of surrealist poets, as well as people like Picasso and Henry Miller. The 19th-century lyric poet Friedrich Hölderlin provoked a turning point for Gascoyne's work at this time, but he was a dangerous friend, too; like Hölderlin, Gascoyne was already troubled by depressions, and what he feared might be madness - or "going out of my mind", as he noted in July 1939.

Driven back to London by the German occupation of France, he lodged with the painter Lucian Freud. His poetic talents achieved wide recognition with the publication of Poems 1937-42, by Tambimuttu's Poetry London Press, with illustrations by Graham Sutherland. In 1947 he was back in Paris, living a rather bohemian life. His aptly titled A Vagrant And Other Poems came out in 1950. As a now established poetic figure, he went with Kathleen Raine and WS Graham on a Three Younger British Poets reading tour of the United States, and became a well-known figure on the BBC Third Programme.

But depression, fuelled by amphetamine abuse, took its toll. The writing dried up, and, in the 1960s, Gascoyne retreated in despair to his parents' home on the Isle of Wight, fetching up, after his father's death, in the local asylum. There, a miracle occurred. A therapist named Judy Tyler Lewis read one of his poems, September Sun, to the inmates. When he claimed it as his, she thought it one more of his delusions. But they married, and lived happily thereafter on the island.

Gascoyne's writing took off again. His fine and revelatory 1930s journals were published by the Enitharmon Press in 1978 and 1980, with jackets designed by Julian Trevelyan. Lovely, staunch, memorial and elegiac poems flowed, especially tributes to the friends and colleagues he had known and promoted. His writing life was the essence of loyalty; he was a truly magnanimous man.

The latest of his Collected Poems was published by the OUP in 1988. He became a celebrated lecturer, especially on the art movements he had been associated with - his best reviews and memorials are in the 1998 volume of Selected Prose, 1934-96. He is very good on the custodian relicts of great poets and painters, as well as on his time in mental hospital.

It was fitting that Gascoyne should, in October 1990, unveil the memorial in Madrid's Residencia de Estudiantes to the five British writers killed in the Spanish civil war. It was a joy to see the love between him and Judy, the way he relied so much on her through tiring days, but also to watch the affection with which this grand survivor of poeticised struggles was held by Spanish writers and critics.

Judy's sustaining was a great strength through his last days. In many ways his rescuer, and greatly cherished for it, she survives him.

David Emery Gascoyne, poet, born October 10 1916; died November 25 2001