David Gascoyne (1916-2001) was born in Harrow, the son of a bank manager, and educated at Salisbury Cathedral School. However, it didn't take the young Gascoyne long to leave this conservative background behind, publishing his first poetry collection at the precocious age of sixteen. An early trip to France in 1933 brought him into contact with the Surrealist movement which became a vital influence on his work. Friendships with Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, André Breton and Pierre Jean Jouve date from this period and Gascoyne became an important conduit for their ideas in Britain. However, publication of his third collection, Poems 1937-42
, marked a shift in Gascoyne's work towards a more explicitly religious sensibility which led Breton to "excommunicate" him from the group. The post-war period proved difficult for Gascoyne, as his tendency to depression was exacerbated by amphetamine abuse resulting in periods of hospitalisation. However, his marriage in 1975 to Judy Lewis brought about a remarkable renaissance: he began writing poetry again and new editions of his earlier work brought him back to public attention. It's entirely fitting for a poet whose outlook was always international that, before he died, he was appointed Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et Lettres by the French government.
This recording is a moving testament to Gascoyne's physical and mental endurance. He came of age in a period when poetry and radical politics went hand in hand and his anguish at the fate of the world's "Bombed and abandoned cities" ('Ecce Homo') remained undimmed. In his late poem, 'Prelude to a New Fin-de-Siècle', this takes the form of a litany of the century's wars. In the face of atrocity Gascoyne wonders aloud what poetry can do: "- If this is a poem, where are the images?/- What images suffice?". Gascoyne's imagination was always stalked by despair but his strength in not yielding to it gives his poems their iron-like durability. He believed in "The faithful fire of vision" ('The Sacred Hearth') even though it abandoned him for long periods of his life. It's appropriate that this recording ends with his fragile yet powerful voice reaffirming his belief in creation with an image that harks back to his surrealist heyday: "Then as the day approaches the bird flies without wings;/It vomits forth the rainbow".
His recording was made for The Poetry Archive on 20 July 2000 at the poet's home on the Isle of Wight, UK and was produced by Richard Carrington.