David Gascoyne

David Gascoyne
David Gascoyne

David Gascoyne, by Patrick Swift, 1958
Born 10 October 1916(1916-10-10)
Harrow, London
Died 25 November 2001(2001-11-25) (aged 81)
Isle of Wight
Occupation Poet
Nationality English
Education Salisbury Cathedral School and Regent Street Polytechnic

David Gascoyne (10 October 1916 – 25 November 2001) was an English poet associated with the Surrealist movement.


Early life and Surrealism

Gascoyne was born in Harrow the eldest of the three sons of Leslie Noel Gascoyne (1886–1969), a bank clerk, and his wife, Winifred Isobel, née Emery (1890–1972). His mother, a niece of the actors Cyril Maude and Winifred Emery, was one of two young women present when dramatist W. S. Gilbert died in his lake at Grim's Dyke in May 1911.[1] Gascoyne grew up in England and Scotland and attended Salisbury Cathedral School 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 Hölderlin'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, which he helped to organise, made him one of a small group of English surrealists that included Hugh Sykes Davies and Roger Roughton. Ironically, at this exhibition, Gascoyne had to rescue Salvador Dalí from the deep-sea diving suit—that Dali had worn to give his lecture—using a spanner.


Gascoyne had become friends 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 Dalí, Max Ernst, André Breton, Paul Éluard and Pierre Jean Jouve. His poetry of this period was published in Poems 1937-1942 (1943) with illustrations by the artist Graham Sutherland.

His poem Requiem, dedicated to the future victims of war, was written to be set to music by his friend Priaulx Rainier. Her Requiem was premiered in 1956. She died on Gascoyne's 70th birthday, 10 October 1986.

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 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.

External links

Some of Gascoyne's literary papers are held in the David Gascoyne Collection at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Selected works

  • 1932 - Roman Balcony
  • 1933 - Opening Day
  • 1935 - A Short Survey of Surrealism
  • 1936 - Man's Life is this Meat
  • 1938 - Hoelderlin's Madness
  • 1943 - Poems 1937-1942
  • 1950 - A Vagrant and Other Poems
  • 1952 - Thomas Carlyle
  • 1956 - Requiem
  • 1956 - Night Thoughts
  • 1965 - Collected Poems
  • 1970 - Sun at Midnight
  • 1976 - Three Poems
  • 1978 - Paris Journal 1937-1939
  • 1980 - Journal 1936-1937
  • 1980 - Early Poems
  • 1984 - Journal de Paris et d'Ailleurs 1936-1942
  • 1984 - Five Early Uncollected Poems
  • 1984 - Recontres avec Benjamin Fondane


  1. ^ Goodman, Andrew. Grim's Dyke: A Short History of the House and Its Owners, Glittering Prizes ISBN 1-85811-550-4, pp. 17–18

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