For someone who identified with Surrealism for such a relatively brief period, Gascoyne casts a long and willowy shadow. He was the author of the first published English Surrealist poem, ‘And the Seventh Dream Is the Dream of Isis’, printed in issue 5 of New Verse (October 1933) when he was 17. His position here isn’t simply one of historical curiosity or precedence, nor about his youth: the poem is enduringly good, as is the other work of this early, Surrealist phase. (Scans of the original New Verse publication can be found here).
His ‘First English Surrealist Manifesto’ and A Short Survey of Surrealism are still readable and engaging, and the Manifesto in particular has been received appreciatively in recent years for such comments as ‘Just when the country is enjoined by its government to a travesty of rejoicing in the names of patriotism and imperialism, despair is the principal reaction of the poets’
For a period he was a deliberate and committed Surrealist, and this commitment is probably what still causes Gascoyne’s name to ring. When Paul Eluard introduced Gascoyne to Roland Penrose in Paris it was, as Penrose put it, ‘an encounter of two explorers who had discovered independently the same glittering treasure’. Gascoyne’s famous eruption ‘Why do we know nothing of this in England?’ was followed swiftly by his declaration ‘Something’s got to be done’. It was Gascoyne’s feverishness as much as Penrose’s organisational calm that fuelled what emerged of British Surrealism in the 1930s.
Notwithstanding the orthodox Breton-influenced Surrealism of the Manifesto and the Short Survey, as well as the former’s straightforward leftism, Gascoyne’s involvement with the movement did not last long. He turned increasingly towards a strain of poetic mysticism that had affinities with that of his close friend Kathleen Raine. He sought, accordingly, to distance himself from the febrile Surrealist he had been before the war.
Editors went along with this misleading presentation. Until recently the various editions of his ’collected’ poems either selected from or omitted all together his Surrealist poems, usually dismissing them as unrepresentative or ‘juvenilia’.
Nor has Gascoyne yet been served well by a biographer. Robert Fraser’s 2012 biography is particularly keen to shake off Gascoyne’s lingering link with Surrealism in order to see him solely as a professional poet, part of a literary coterie. Fraser’s attack on Breton’s cutting remark ‘I am given to understand that you have become a Roman Catholic’ is aimed largely at ignoring the developing content of Gascoyne’s poetry.
Yet, for all that he was trying to change his poetic engagement with the world, Surrealism definitely still lingered as a presence. At the time of his second breakdown he suggested that he had finally resolved all the issues he had been struggling with through (and since) Surrealism: Fraser ignores this as a pretty important indicator of the lingering seriousness of his engagement with Surrealism. Again, for all Gascoyne’s distancing of himself from his earlier poetic associations, he seems to have been generous with his time for visitors (including members of the Stockholm Group) who wanted to discuss Surrealism.
That Gascoyne sought to find a route away from Surrealism does not negate either its evident continued grip on him at some level or, more importantly, his achievements when he was a Surrealist. He was clearly still at some level responding to what he himself had written in 1935:
‘Surrealism is the Dialectical Solution to the Problems of the Poet’.