Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Simon Turner - A Beginner's Guide to British Surrealism (1): Introductory Comments

Surrealism, that hoary old conglomeration of Freudian psychoanalysis and good old-fashioned turn of the century French decadence, never really took off in this country, for a number of reasons.  Herbert Read helps to clarify matters in long essay on the subject, where he defines aesthetics not in terms of historical forward momentum - symbolism overturning realism; Modernism overturning symbolism; the Movement overturning Modernism, and so on into the sunset - but as a continuous Manichean struggle between Classicism and Romanticism.  The Classical impulse is towards linguistic and formal order, intellectuation and orchestration, the Romantic towards an overabundance of imagination, a realiance upon organic rather than imposed form (Creeley's dictum that 'Form is never more than an extension of content' comes to mind).  It's an oversimplifcation - or my rendering of Read's argument is a crude oversimplification - but it's a useful one.  Generally, British poetry hasn't trusted Romanticism until its practitioners are good and dead (Keats and Shelley helped matter by dying young), or can be proven without a shadow of a doubt to adhere to old fashioned Tory principles (step forward, Bill Wordsworth).  When they're alive and kicking, writers of a Romantic bent tend to be labelled hellraisers, poetasters and general disruptors of the common good: those writers most lauded in the public imagination, at least in the twentieth century, are of a distinctly Classicist hue: Auden, Eliot, Larkin, Betjemen, all fit the pattern, however greatly their work varies in terms of its aesthetic choices.

Unsurprisingly, Read sees the Surrealists - both on the continent and in Britain - as following the Romantic camp, and his reading of the British Surrealist movement attempts to place them within a tradition of Anglophone visionary writing, including Blake and Coleridge, looking further back to Christopher Smart and the Book of Revelation as founding texts for Brit-born Surrealist practice.  

Another reason Surrealism didn't quite take is that it swiftly mutated into something quite different, as its chief exponents - David Gascoyne, Hugh Sykes Davies, Humphrey Jennings - found themselves drawn towards other methods of expressing their poetic vision.  In Gascoyne's case, the limitations of orthodox Surrealism quickly made themselves felt, and his later work fits broadly into the category of mystic of religious visionary writing.  Sykes Davies only produced a small handful of strictly Surrealist poems and, whilst powerful, he rapidly shed that method of composition, and moved towards instead a brand of Eliotean high Modernism, as a critic and a writer.  Jennings, meanwhile, was a pioneer of documentary film-making, as well as having a hand in the foundation of the Mass Observation movement, though neither career-branch was entitrely free from the influence of Surrealist philosophy.  Aside from the defection of its high priests, British Surrealism was, more importantly, overshadowed by the internationalist Modernism of Pound and Eliot, and the more meliorative elaboration on Modernism proposed by Auden, Spender, MacNeice and Day-Lewis.  Later, the New Apocalyptics - Henry Treece, Dylan Thomas, Nicholas Moore, and Norman MacCaig amongst them - raked up the embers of Surrealism, but it was never a coherent movement, and was equally afflicted with the defection and ambivalence of its individual members as British Surrealism had been.

What will follow over the next few weeks will be a series of short sketches of the leading figures of British Surrealism: what I think their important works were, why I think they matter, and why I think they're ripe for re-engagement.  Don't say you weren't warned.  First up: Hugh Sykes Davies.          


Serenity Science said...

The series looks interesting, though not sure about the reasons given for British Surrealism's lack of success. Here are my suggestions:

Britain didn’t need it, for it had its own tradition of fantastic literature

A more relaxed literary culture

No equivalent of the Catholic Church in British life

Breton didn’t speak English

Communism always a minor cult

(I develop these ideas a little on my site)

billymills said...

There's alot to be said about Sykes Davies; his book on English Grammar, thae novel The Papers of Andrew Melmoth about the rat man in the London sewers. I touched on it here: