Obituary: Daily Telegraph, London, UK

David Gascoyne

(Filed: 27/11/2001)


DAVID GASCOYNE, the poet who has died aged 85, published his first collection at 16, and immediately found himself compared with Arthur Rimbaud; and, like Rimbaud, he was to promise rather more than he performed.

Indeed, when his Collected Poems was published in 1965, when he was nearing 50, there were many who assumed that he had been dead for some time, if they knew of him at all; but this volume showed that he was perhaps the most significant of those poets who, although younger than W H Auden, had had to contend with the shadow which he cast over the 1930s.

The comparison with Rimbaud was appropriate for other reasons. Aged 14, Gascoyne had translated the French poet's Illuminations with the aid of a dictionary, a task which probably inspired Gascoyne's interest in Surrealism.

There is also some truth in the French writer Philippe Soupault's remark: "David Gascoyne is not an English poet; he is a French poet writing in English."

David Emery Gascoyne, the son of a bank manager, was born at Harrow, Middlesex, on October 10 1916. The family later moved to Bournemouth, and Gascoyne was a chorister at the Salisbury Cathedral Choir School. After his family moved back to the London area, he attended Regent Street Polytechnic.

David's parents knew Alida Monro, the wife of Harold Monro, who ran the Poetry Bookshop; and it was she who persuaded the firm Cobden-Sanderson (who had published her own husband's posthumous Collected Poems) to take on a first book by the young Gascoyne.

This collection of poems, Roman Balcony, appeared in 1932, when he was 16. The book ends with a prose piece typical of its time and of Gascoyne's preoccupations: "Call and awaken us. We languish in darkness. The melancholy wind sings soft songs of despair. The trees are dead. We weep. All's finished. Death."

The next year, Gascoyne published Opening Day, a novel told in relentless detail - so much so that a great many words are required in order to get its protagonist from a pavement and on to a bus. Nonetheless, it was a remarkable achievement for an adolescent.

Gascoyne continued to write poetry in the early 1930s, but he also published - in 1935 - A Short Survey of Surrealism. As a literary movement, Surrealism was largely a French phenomenon, and Gascoyne translated and promoted a number of the French Surrealist poets. In 1936 he published his own collection of Surrealist verse, A Man's Life is This Meat.

In 1936 Gascoyne joined the Communist Party for a while; but his perspective was made all the more tortured by his homosexuality, and ultimately he was more interested in the interior life than in the political.

In 1933 he had visited Paris, where he met Cyril Connolly, one of the many literary figures who played a part in his life at this time; others included Charles Madge, William Empson, Dylan Thomas, George Barker, Kathleen Raine (a lifelong champion), and Antonia White.

Gascoyne's life in the second half of the 1930s was chronicled in two journals; these assert that "my one desire is to be as intensively alive as possible in the present" - an aim in which he to some extent succeeded; but the pages also record his listlessness ("no vice is more particularly mine than sloth") and innumerable aborted literary projects.

If it is not the "pages and pages of turgid unreadable nonsense" he feared, the journal certainly becomes more animated with his move to Paris in August 1937, where he lodged in the same house as e e cummings, and came to know Dali, Max Ernst and Andre Breton.

The move to Paris jolted him into writing poetry again, notably in Holderlin's Madness (1938). His poetry had by now become sharper, shorn of its wilder imagery; an example is his well-known poem written at Christmas 1938, entitled Snow in Europe:

Out of their slumber Europeans spun
Dense dreams: appeasement, miracle, glimpsed flash
Of a new golden era; but could not restrain
The vertical white weight that fell last night
And made their continent a blank.
Hush, says the sameness of the snow
The Ural and the Jura now rejoin
The furthest Arctic's desolation. All is one;
Sheer monotone: plain, mountain, country, town:
Contours and boundaries no longer show.
The warring flags hang colourless a while;
Now midnight's icy zero feigns a truce
Between the signs and seasons, and fades out
All shots and cries. But when the great thaw comes,
How red shall be the melting snow, how loud the drums!
On his return to England Gascoyne served as a ship's cook (he was turned down for other military service), and he took to acting in rep and for ENSA. As "David Emery" he appeared with Joan Greenwood in an Ivor Novello comedy at Welwyn Garden City, and at the Ambassador in a first play by Ronald Miller.

Before the war's end he had left the stage, and found that writing came only fitfully. He spent a year in Canada (to which his parents had emigrated) and America, where he had a last encounter with Dylan Thomas. In 1956 he produced one of his best works, the prose poem Night Thoughts, a wireless piece for several voices.

After this, he spent a decade in France; by now his writing ability had left him to the extent that he could scarcely write a postcard to his parents, who had re-crossed the Atlantic and settled in the Isle of Wight. He was also addicted to amphetamines, which he had begun taking as a cure for persistent catarrh, and in 1964 suffered a breakdown.

He spent several months in a Parisian psychiatric hospital, after which he returned to live with his parents. After they had both died, he suffered further bouts of serious depression requiring hospital treatment.

It was only later, after his marriage in 1975 to Judy Lewis, that he regained a measure of equilibrium. They met when Gascoyne was in a mental hospital on the Isle of Wight, and she was reading poetry to the inmates. They lived on the Isle of Wight, in the house that had belonged to his parents.

Gascoyne wrote little poetry in the second half of his life, but an edition of his Selected Poetry came out in 1995, followed by Selected Prose in 1998. The latter contained articles, reviews, memoirs and other pieces written over the previous three decades. He also contributed to television and radio programmes both here and abroad.

A selection of his verse translations - most of them from French - was published in 1996. In the same year he was appointed a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture.