Obituary: The Times, London, UK
WEDNESDAY NOVEMBER 28 2001
Precocious poetic spirit whose inspiration hit troubled times in the postwar years, but re-emerged in the later decades of his life
One of the last survivors from the literary 1930s, David Gascoyne once described himself as "a poet who wrote himself out when young and then went mad". Like a not dissimilar predecessor, Chatterton, he was a "marvellous boy" in his time, original and creatively precocious in his youth and early manhood.
Like those two similarly precocious spirits of that era, George Barker (a close friend) and Dylan Thomas, he was essentially a neo-Romantic and had something of the self-destructive impulse which went with that. In the ultimate analysis he promised more than he could deliver. But what he did deliver was, in the early days certainly, completely unusual and arresting.
Like Barker and Thomas, too, and in contrast to the other leading English poets of the age, Auden, Spender, Empson, MacNeice and Day Lewis, he had not been to university, a fact that may account for the sense of inner spontaneity, a spirit completely free of cleverness.
Yet Gascoyne was familiar with contemporary Europe and European philosophical and artistic movements to a degree many of his contemporaries were not, and was in tune with Surrealism and Existentialism in their early days. The involvement with Surrealism tended, in the end, to hang like an albatross round his neck, and he had to repudiate it. But gradually, as the years went by, and he and his work emerged from beneath the wreck of his early hopes, the scope of his lifetime’s achievement as poet, translator and memoirist became apparent.
David Emery Gascoyne was born the son of a bank manager in Harrow in 1916 and educated at Salisbury Choir School. There, his restless creativity somewhat alarmed his stolidly bourgeois parents.
At Regent Street Polytechnic he met George Barker, who was to become one of his greatest friends. But he failed his exams and left in 1932.
Gascoyne was 16 in 1932 when Auden’s The Orators and his own imagistic Roman Balcony and Other Poems were published. It was the beginning of an auspicious period for him: in 1933 A. R. Orage published Ten Proses and Surrealist Cameos in The New English Weekly; Geoffrey Grigson included Gascoyne’s first purely "automatic" Surrealist poem, And the Seventh Dream is the Dream of Isis, in one of the early numbers of New Verse, which had appeared for the first time that year; Alida Monro persuaded Cobden-Sanderson to publish Gascoyne’s first and only full-length novel, Opening Day.
The advance royalties made it possible for him to make his first visit to Paris, where he spent his 17th birthday. In Paris he made several new acquaintances, including Cyril Connolly, visited the ateliers of S.W. Hayter, Max Ernst and Jean Hélion, and met Paul Eluard and Salvador Dalí. By the mid-1930s Gascoyne had become prolific as poet, novelist, essayist and reviewer. Apart from New Verse his poems and translations were printed in The European Quarterly, The Bookman, the New Statesman and Nation and in the Left Review symposium of 1937, Authors Take Sides on the Spanish War, among others.
Gascoyne returned to Paris in 1935 to research a book on Surrealism. He was already in correspondence with Eluard, and he met André Breton who made a lasting impression on him. His A Short Survey of Surrealism (1935), with a dust jacket designed by Max Ernst, was the first book-length historical account of the movement in English. It was followed in 1936 by his own collection of Surrealist poems, Man’s Life Is This Meat, and by his translations of Breton’s What is Surrealism? Back in England in 1936 he co-curated the International Surrealist Exhibition with Roland Penrose and Herbert Read at the Burlington Galleries (where with the aid of a spanner he was able to extricate Dalí from suffocation in a diving suit as he delivered a lecture).
In November, and now a member of the Communist Party, he travelled from Paris with Roland and Valentine Penrose to Spain in the throes of civil war. In Barcelona, he translated news bulletins during the day, broadcasting them in English each evening for the propaganda bureau of the Catalonian government, from a studio near the port.
Gascoyne travelled backwards and forwards from England to the Continent throughout the rest of the decade, living in Paris for long periods between 1937 and 1939. His Journals of that time reveal friendships with Dylan Thomas, Julian Trevelyan, Kathleen Raine, Antonia White and Norman Cameron, who introduced him to American poetry, which he found "more exciting than English poetry". Anäis Nin, Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller, too, were among his friends.
In the Journals he records his disenchantment with Surrealism and search for a new poetic language and sensibility; his struggle to come to terms with his homosexuality; his growing amphetamine addiction; and his engagement with Existentialist philosophy.
In 1937 he first made contact with the poet-philosopher Benjamin Fondane and discovered Pierre Jean Jouve. It was a significant turning point. He entered into analysis for several months with Jouve’s psychiatrist wife, Blanche Reverchon. Gascoyne’s Hölderlin’s Madness (1938), with four original poems interpolated in the "free adaptations" of the German poet, was his response to Jouve’s Poèmes de la folie de Hölderlin. In Gascoyne’s third collection, Poems 1937-42 (1943, with eight striking reproductions in colour by Graham Sutherland), he found his mature voice and emerged as a religious poet. Cyril Connolly claimed that the poems "take us in their chill, calm, sensitive language as near the edge of the precipice as a human being is able to go and still turn back".
Gascoyne failed his medical for military service, and worked for a short time early in the war as a ship’s cook, then joined ENSA. On his first postwar visit in 1947 to Paris and the café frequented by the Surrealists he was "excommunicated" from the group by Breton who, after reading his Ecce Homo, accused him of being a Roman Catholic.
Gascoyne’s postwar work lacks his previous intensity. His satirical one-act play, The Hole in the Wall, on the state of English theatre (pre-Osborne and Pinter) was produced in 1950, the year A Vagrant and other poems was published. In autumn 1951 Gascoyne, Kathleen Raine and W. S. Graham left for the US, where they gave readings as "Three Younger British Poets".
Back in Britain Longmans Green commissioned his Thomas Carlyle (1952) for their series Writers and their Work, but Gascoyne was suffering from writer’s block, the first of several instances of the affliction. Then, in 1953, Douglas Cleverdon commissioned Night Thoughts for the BBC Third Programme. This he finished and it was first broadcast on December 7, 1955, offering to listeners the essence of his "religio poetae".
The following year he attended the first performance, with Peter Pears as soloist, of his poem, Requiem, written in Paris in the late 1930s for the composer Priaulx Rainier as a text to be set to music.
Between 1954 and 1964 Gascoyne lived in France, publishing very little. Then, after a serious breakdown, he returned to England to live with his parents on the Isle of Wight. He worried that his parents must think him "a complete failure" and was relieved when his Collected Poems appeared the following year. After his father’s death acute depression dogged him and over the next 11 years he endured further periods in hospital.
His marriage, in 1975, to Judy Lewis, restored much self-esteem. He began to write again, contributing reviews, translations, and occasionally poems, to newspapers and periodicals. The publication - in the order of their mysterious reappearance - of Paris Journal 1937-39 in 1978 and Journal 1936-37 in 1980 brought enthusiastic reviews.
In May 1981 in Paris he took part in Homage to David Gascoyne, organised jointly with the British Council, and a selection of his translated poems became a university set text, Miserere (Granit, 1989), in France. He achieved public recognition in Italy, too, where he was presented with the Premio Biella-Poesia Europea for his translated collection La Mano del Poeta (1982). In 1985 his translation of Breton’s and Philippe Soupault’s Les Champs Magnétiques was published as The Magnetic Fields.
The past ten years have seen the publication of several works (some recovered from limbo): Selected Poems (1994); Selected Verse Translations (1996); Selected Prose 1934-1996 (1998); Encounter with Silence: Poems 1950 (1998); A Short Survey of Surrealism (reprint, 2000); and April: a novella (2000). In 1996 Gascoyne was appointed a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres in London by the French Minister of Culture.
In the 1990s he suffered a serious fall, breaking his pelvis. From this he recovered, but his frail, stooping but impressive figure became gradually less mobile.
David Gascoyne is survived by his wife Judy.
David Gascoyne, poet, was born on October 10, 1916. He died on November 25, 2001, aged 85.