David Gascoyne, by Patrick Swift, 1958
10 October 1916|
25 November 2001 (aged 85)|
Isle of Wight
|Education||Salisbury Cathedral School and Regent Street Polytechnic|
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. 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. At this exhibition Gascoyne had to rescue Salvador Dalí from the deep-sea diving suit—that Dalí had worn to give his lecture—using a spanner.
Gascoyne was an active anti-fascist, taking part in several protests against the British Union of Fascists in London's East End. Gascoyne joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1936 and travelled to Spain, where he broadcast some radio talks for the Barcelona-based propaganda ministry. However, he soon became disillusioned with the treatment of the POUM and the Spanish Anarchists by the Communists, and left the party. Gascoyne had become friends with Charles Madge and through him became involved in the Mass Observation movement.
The diaries Gascoyne kept for six years from 1936 put forward a kind of existentialist auto-criticism, recording with great honesty his acute emotional and spiritual crises, his struggle to accept his sexual identity as a homosexual, and his affairs. Apart from his involvement with communism and Mass-Observation, he had friendships with Dylan Thomas, Kathleen Raine, Lawrence Durrell, Henry Miller and others. Also apparent is a strong engagement with existentialist philosophy.
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.
Gascoygne 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). 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 being lost for some time and were published in two separate volumes by Alan Clodd at Enitharmon Press. When a third book was found, a collection including the additional material was edited by Lucien Jenkins for Skoob Books Publishing. For this 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.
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 and edited by Tambimuttu) received 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 received critical notice. When in his later years his attention was drawn to a 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 assertion that he was still widely read.
Bibliography and criticism
- Night Thoughts: The Surreal Life of the Poet David Gascoyne – by Robert Fraser (OUP, 2012) ISBN 978-0-19-955814-8
- David Gascoyne A Bibliography Of His Works – by Colin Benford (Heritage Books, 1987) ISBN 978-0-9512220-0-3
Selected works to 1984
- 1932 – Roman Balcony (Benford A1)
- 1933 – Opening Day (Benford A2)
- 1935 – A Short Survey of Surrealism (Benford A3)
- 1936 – Man's Life is this Meat (Benford A4)
- 1938 – Hoelderlin's Madness (Benford A5)
- 1943 – Poems 1937-1942 (Benford A6)
- 1950 – A Vagrant and Other Poems (Benford A7)
- 1952 – Thomas Carlyle (Benford A8)
- 1956 – Requiem (Benford A9)
- 1956 – Night Thoughts (Benford A10)
- 1965 – Collected Poems (Benford A11)
- 1970 – Sun at Midnight (Benford A12)
- 1976 – Three Poems (Benford A13)
- 1978 – Paris Journal 1937-1939 (Benford A14)
- 1980 – Journal 1936-1937 (Benford A15)
- 1980 – Early Poems (Benford A16)
- 1984 – Journal de Paris et d'Ailleurs 1936-1942 (Benford A17)
- 1984 – Five Early Uncollected Poems (Benford A18)
- 1984 – Recontres avec Benjamin Fondane (Benford A19)
- Goodman, Andrew. Grim's Dyke: A Short History of the House and Its Owners, Glittering Prizes ISBN 978-1-85811-550-4, pp. 17–18
- Obituary:David Gascoyne Valentine Cunningham, The Guardian, 27 November 2001. Retrieved 17 June 2014.
- Rachel Lichtenstein and Iain Sinclair: Rodinsky's Room (London, Granta, 1999), p. 85. ISBN 1862072574
- Patrick Deane, History in our hands : a critical anthology of writings on literature, culture, and politics from the 1930s. London ; Leicester University Press, 1998. ISBN 9780718501433, (p. 63-4).
- Roger Scott, "Gascoyne, David Emery (1916–2001)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, UK: OUP, 2005) Retrieved 10 October 2016.
- Andy Croft, Red Letter Days: British Fiction in the 1930s (London, Lawrence & Wishart, 1990), p. 345.
- Obituaries: Retrieved 10 October 2016.
- David Gascoyne Collection at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
- Robert Fraser: David Gascoyne and the Missing Portrait (drawing by Bettina Shaw-Lawrence) 
- Tambimuttu: Re-inventing the Art of Poetry Illustration at the British Library.