David Gascoyne

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The cover of Gascoyne's 1935 book A Short Survey of Surrealism
The cover of Gascoyne's 1935 book A Short Survey of Surrealism

David Gascoyne (October 10, 1916 - November 25, 2001) was a British poet associated with the Surrealist movement.


  • 1 Early Life and Surrealism
  • 2 Politics
  • 3 Later Life and Works
  • 4 Gascoyne's Reputation
  • 5 Bibliography
  • 6 References

Early Life and Surrealism

Gascoyne was born in Harrow and grew up in England and Scotland and attended the Choir School at Salisbury and Regent Street Polytechnic in London. He spent part of the early 1930s in Paris.

His first book, Roman Balcony and Other Poems, was published in 1932, when he was sixteen. A novel, Opening Day, was published the following year. However, it was Man's Life is This Meat (1936), which collected his early surrealist work and translations of French surrealists, and Hoelderlin's Madness (1938) that established his reputation. These publications, together with his 1935 A Short Survey of Surrealism and his work on the 1936 London International Surrealist Exhibition, made him one of a small group of English surrealists that included Hugh Sykes Davies and Roger Roughton.


Gascoyne had become friendly with Charles Madge and through him became involved in the Mass Observation movement. He joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1936 and broadcast some radio talks for the Barcelona-based propaganda ministry. However, he soon became disillusioned and left the party.

Later Life and Works

Gascoyne spent the years just before World War II in Paris, where he became friendly with Salvador DalĂ­, Max Ernst, Andre Breton, Paul Eluard and Pierre Jean Jouve. His poetry of this period was published in Poems 1937-1942 (1943) with illustrations by the artist Graham Sutherland.

He returned to France after the war and lived there on and off until the mid 1960s. His work from the 1950s appeared in A Vagrant and Other Poems (1950), and Night Thoughts (1956). Interestingly, this later work had moved away from surrealism towards a more metaphysical and religious poetry. After suffering a mental breakdown, Gascoyne returned to England and spent the rest of his life on the Isle of Wight. He appears to have written little from that point on. Publication continued due to various 'rediscoveries' of his works, with a number of collections and selections of his work from Oxford University Press, Enitharmon and other imprints. Two books of his journals were returned to him after having been lost for some time and were published in two separate hardbacks by Alan Clodd at Enitharmon Press. When a third book was found, a new collection including the additional material was edited by Lucien Jenkins for Skoob Books Publishing. For the latter edition David Gascoyne himself provided what he called a 'postface', one of the most extended pieces of writing from his later years.

It was in Whitecroft Hospital on the Isle of Wight that Gascoyne met his wife, Judy Lewis, in a remarkable coincidence. Judy explains:

One of my favourite poems was called September Sun. I read it one afternoon and one of the patients came up to me afterwards and said 'I wrote that', I put my hand on his shoulder and said 'Of course you did, dear'. Then of course when I got to know him I realised he had.

They married in 1975. David Gascoyne died on 25 November 2001 at the age of 85. Obituaries for him can be found here: http://www.connectotel.com/gascoyne/gascnews.html

Gascoyne's Reputation

In a poetic landscape dominated by W. H. Auden and other more political and social poets, the surrealist group tended to be overlooked by critics and public alike. He, among others, was lampooned by Dylan Thomas in Letter to my Aunt. Although Poems 1937-1942 (illustrated by Graham Sutherland) received some critical acclaim at the time, it was only with the renewed interest in experimental writing associated with the British Poetry Revival that their work began to be rediscovered and discussed. His Collected Poems appeared in 1988 and his work was included in the Revival anthology Conductors of Chaos (1996).

In later years, Gascoyne himself seemed remarkably resigned to the the fact that he had not altogether achieved in poetry what he had set out to achieve when young, and had not sustained his remarkable early promise. He was nevertheless pleased whenever he did receive critical notice. When in his later years his attention was drawn to the balanced assessment of his work by Martin Seymour-Smith in that poet and critic's immense Guide to Modern World Literature (Macmillan), he was gratified both by the tone of the commentary and by the fact of Seymour-Smith's assertion that Gascoyne was still widely read.


A bibliography of David Gascoyne's works, compiled by Colin Benford, was published in 1986 by Heritage Books.

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