Obituary: Independent, London, UK

David Gascoyne

David Emery Gascoyne, poet: born Harrow, Middlesex 10 October 1916; FRSL 1951; married 1975 Judy Lewis (née Tyler); died Newport, Isle of Wight 25 November 2001.

When a poet as pure as David Gascoyne dies, the main fact about him cries out to be said. This is that although he was a precocious and prodigious talent, publishing his first book of poetry Roman Balcony at 16, his definitive A Short Survey of Surrealism at 19, and helping to organise the 1936 London International Surrealist Exhibition at 20, he was first and foremost one of the great religious poets England produced in the 20th century.

It is Tambimuttu's Editions Poetry London volume Poems, 1937-1942 (1943, illustrated by Graham Sutherland) on which this view is based. Gascoyne published several other outstanding volumes of poetry, such as Man's Life Is This Meat (1936), Hölderlin's Madness (1938), A Vagrant and Other Poems (1950) and Night Thoughts (1956), excelled in translation especially from French, Spanish and German (Péret, Breton, Eluard, Jouve, Dali, Novalis), and wrote prose of charming breadth and disarming depth, gathered in Selected Prose 1934-1996 (1998). He went to Paris at 17 on the advance from his only novel, Opening Day (1933). So there was more to him than his unconquerable religious core.

Gascoyne was an endearing man with one of the sharpest consciences. He took on the nightmare of history, documenting his approach to it in his Paris Journal, 1936-1939 (1978). His resolution was the "Christ of Revolution and Poetry" (from his poem "Ecce Homo") suspended over, we can imagine, "Bottomless depths of roaring emptiness" (from his poem "Inferno"). Gascoyne couldn't cheat. He was the authentic man of Martin Heidegger's Being and Time. For the inauthentic one, he took note of the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre "borrowed" from Heidegger's philosophy. David Gascoyne, to be sure, was no great humorist, but he could be found lying in a ditch on a summer evening, immaculately dressed with a spotted bow tie, drinking whisky from a bottle with a female friend. Although addicted to amphetamines for many years of his life, he kicked the habit and came back to us mightily restored.

Born in Harrow, Middlesex, in 1916, he left Salisbury Cathedral Choir School at 14 for three years at the Regent Street Polytechnic. Like his friend George Barker, whom he met there, he was an autodidact. This coloured much of his career, but did nothing to lessen his commitment to his vocation as a poet. To see him at 19 seated for a week at a table in Salvador Dali's flat in the Rue Gauget in Paris, translating Dali's La Conquête de l'irrationnel ("The Conquest of the Irrational", 1935) or helping the irascible painter out of the diving bell at the Surrealist Exhibition, because he could see he was being asphyxiated, is to glimpse the characteristic totality of his commitment. He immersed himself in the world of the Surrealists, living with them, taking their radical political agenda to heart.

But life alone in a room in Paris before the Second World War elicited a strange birth. Gascoyne discovered, through Pascal, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Léon Chestov, the elusive mystery of Christianity:

Existential philosophy is a struggle for liberation. With it, an essentially Christian philosophy enters the history of Western thought.

That is from his 1949 essay on Chestov written at 33. Chestov died virtually unknown, but it is typical of Gascoyne that he recognised his value as a philosopher. This value may be indicated by Gascoyne's swipe at Sartre:

The important point that Sartre misses is that neither belief nor disbelief can be taught to anyone, and atheism, as soon as it becomes specific, is a belief: a belief in the non-existence of the spiritual dimension of reality, resting on a refusal to recognise that there is a Ground of Being.

It is no exaggeration to say that David Gascoyne's life was a long search for meaning. And, if the mind has mountains, it most certainly has "cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed" into which he plunged. Gerard Manley Hopkins, quoted here, could be thought of as a role model, if we leave out the Catholicism, for, like Hopkins's, Gascoyne's best poetry comes to us precisely because an outwardly religious stance offers no ground of being for either poet. Both follow the path known as the via negativa. It is cruel to think of Gascoyne's life after the war tucked away with friends in the South of France or living a monk-like existence in Paris - only to be sucked into insanity.

In 1964 he tried to break into the Elysée in Paris to see de Gaulle. Later in London he tried to break into Buckingham Palace. He did these things because he fell in a big way for the delusional world of speed. Here are some 1992 judgements on himself: "I became dissatisfied with Surrealism"; "The root cause of my mental breakdown was a severe and prolonged amphetamine addiction"; "I am a poet who wrote himself out when young and then went mad."

But David Gascoyne recovered, most notably through the good offices of an ebullient woman called Judy Lewis, who became Mrs Gascoyne. David's illness had abated but he nevertheless chose to confine himself at times in a mental hospital on the Isle of Wight where he lived. She worked for Mind and read poetry to the patients there. One day he called out, saying he had written the poem she was reading. She laughed and mothered him. But the story turned out to be true. They married and became inseparable.

That was in the mid-1970s. By the 1980s, they were a prominent adornment of the literary world. Gascoyne would have loathed that word "adornment" because he had so exact an attachment to the truth; and the truth was he knew himself to be one of the unpretty load-bearing beams of literature. Devoid of vanity and incapable of self- aggrandisement, when sane, he was nevertheless a tough opponent when it came to literary reputations, even one as established as Nietzsche's. He regarded the German genius as vicious, seeing him as a serious threat to the Christian vision. That this argument could not be upheld drew forth his full ferocity.

Gascoyne's search for an authentic God and an authentic Christianity rested on his self-taught ontological approach to philosophy and his scorching personal honesty. Chestov inspired him to "the violence with which alone is the Kingdom of Heaven to be taken". Because of this, Gascoyne was unsympathetic to the poetry of Philip Larkin, for example, whom he found "dreary and depressing". He was drawn to Dada "because it is anti-literature". He liked Tony Harrison's V, Christopher Logue's War Music and Geoffrey Hill's The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy. But Pierre Jean Jouve was the poet he most admired, calling him the greatest poet he had known: "It was only Jouve who had the idea of spirituality and the erotic force being interconnected."

David Gascoyne was brought up a Protestant by agnostic parents. At eight he was a chorister in Salisbury Cathedral, singing matins and evensong twice a day. As a young man in London, he read Marx, Freud, Spengler. He became an atheist and a member of the Communist Party at 19. After a trip to Barcelona, where he saw how the Communists behaved, he became disillusioned, saying he saw "pretty early that man cannot live by bread alone". When André Breton accused him of becoming a Roman Catholic, because of his "Christ of Revolution and Poetry", Gascoyne saw that the Surrealists were "religiously anti-religious". He saw Benjamin Péret spitting at a priest because he thought it was his duty. "I came to feel that the Surrealists had based themselves on Jacobins, they were all French revolutionary figures - Saint-Just, or Danton."

Wandering along the quais on the banks of the Seine, Gascoyne discovered in a secondhand bookseller's box a copy of Poèmes de la Folie de Hölderlin translated by Pierre Jean Jouve and Pierre Klossowski. This was his opening not only into Hölderlin but Jouve himself. He was soon to meet Jouve and to encounter the spiritual dimension he found lacking in Surrealist poetry. Surrealist poetry wanted to be in the service of humanity, but Gascoyne saw Louis Aragon submit himself and poetry to the Community Party, while Breton became a friend of Trotsky and a Trotskyist. The influence of European poetry took Gascoyne further afield than that. And he always said he belonged more to Europe than to England.

Saint-Jean Perse (in T.S. Eliot's translation), Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud and Mallarmé took up his time. Back in London, David Wright, John Heath-Stubbs and George Barker helped ground him in English poetry, especially the Metaphysicals, but his addiction to amphetamines led him to Hartwell House, a benign home for the mentally disturbed outside London.

In the late Fifties, Gascoyne had gone to live with his parents on the Isle of Wight. His father was a bank manager. David felt his parents thought of him as a failure. When Oxford University Press published his Collected Poems in 1965, he thought they would be impressed. But his father died and David went into a deep depression. "I went off my head in London."

"To me," he said, "poetry is a mysterious gift." Poetry undoubtedly used the life of David Gascoyne as a lightning rod. It excoriated him, but it did not destroy him. The best of his poems burn as brightly now as those Metaphysicals of the 17th century. But Gascoyne's burn with a peculiarly 20th-century flame. "The poet's job," he told us, citing Hölderlin, "is to go on holding on to something like faith, through the darkness of total lack of faith, what Buber calls the eclipse of God."

Gascoyne's life might look a little untidy, but his appearance, like his attitude to poetry, was always immaculate. To hear him through the walls of his bedroom praying on his knees was to hear a man chanting to his maker. We can be certain he died in the middle of a conversation.

Sebastian Barker