On The Thirteenth Stroke
of Midnight is the first published
anthology devoted exclusively to British Surrealist poetry and associated
historical documents. Far more comprehensive, due to its particular focus,
than Edward B Germain's collection, English and American Surrealist Poetry
(1979), hitherto the only
mainstream selection available.
Editor Michel Remy ('that most unlikely creature, a French enthusiast for English Surrealism' to quote George
Melly) is a professor specialising in modern art and literature at the
University of Nice. He was founder of the Surrealist review Flagrant Delit (1980-1985), is associated with the Phases movement
and the London Melmoth Group. He is also author of Surrealism in Britain (1999), an essential study of this neglected
subject, and contributed an essay, 'The Visual Poetics of British
Surrealism', to the volume Surrealism: Surrealist Visuality edited by Silvano Levy for Keele University in
1996. In this essay he identified the indigenous forces that have resisted
the introduction of Surrealism in Britain, a key issue which will be
discussed later. Remy has also co-curated exhibitions of Surrealist art and
is the author of numerous articles and prefaces from 1975 to the present. He
has taken a particular interest in the work of Emmy Bridgwater, Edith
Rimmington, David Gascoyne, Samuel Haile, Conroy Maddox, ELT Mesens and John
Welson, situating these artists in their historical and political context.
'This anthology is a fascinating record of a neglected strand of British
poetry from the 1930s to the 1980s. British Surrealist writing is at last
given a chance to voice its subversion' (blurb)
On The Thirteenth Stroke of Midnight is
much more than a representative anthology of British Surrealist poetry, as a
glance at the contents will confirm. In fact it is a complimentary source to
Remy's previous volume Surrealism in Britain. This publication from Carcanet is a timely
opportunity to assess the impact (subversive or otherwise) of Surrealism on
this side of the Channel.
So, what do we find between the covers?
We find the usual notice of acknowledgements and a list of illustrations
detailing the 49 black and white images distributed throughout the text.
There is an introduction entitled 'Hearts on Fire in the Snow' being a brief
history of Surrealism in Britain. This historical overview covers 'The 1936 Exhibition',
'Politics and Aesthetics', 'The War', and 'The Permanence of the Surrealist
Spirit'. This is followed by an assessment of Surrealist Poetry in Britain
('For the Snark was a Boojum You See'). Here the poetry is evaluated from
five separate viewpoints: 'The Precipitation of Images and The Principle of
Non-Contradiction' (Gascoyne, Del Renzio, Watson Taylor); 'The Revolt Against
Univocity' (Lye, Maddox, Morris, Welson, Davies, Earnshaw, Melly); 'The
Fading Prospects of Origins' (Bridgwater, Rimmington, Colquhoun, Mednikoff,
Pailthorpe); 'Calls to Revolt and the Liberation of Desire' (Penrose,
Roughton, Brunius, Mesens); and 'The Quest for Collective Memory' (Jennings).
There is also a note on texts 'published for the first time... sourced from
the author's private papers and estate archives...' testimony to our
professor's comprehensive and detailed approach to research.
Of interest to the cultural historian is a section devoted to Manifestos
and Declarations of Surrealism in Britain (1935-1947), here are gathered together eight polemics, including:
'First English Manifesto of Surrealism. A Fragment' (1935) and 'Declaration of the Surrealist Group in
England' (1947). Aside from the illustrative artwork there are six facsimile
reproductions of sheets and pamphlets as originally printed in the period
1936-1944: 'Declaration on Spain' (1936); 'We Ask Your Attention' (1937); 'No
Dream Is Worse...' (1940); 'To The Workers of England' (1939); 'Idolatry and
Confusion' (1944); 'Incendiary Innocence' (1944). These latter abrasive
polemics arising from the divisive 'Del Renzio Affair' of 1944. Ahead of the
main body of the poetry anthology is a section By Way of a Preface, 'The Inevitability of Surrealism'. This comprises
several pages of short extracts with many lacunae from as yet unpublished
notebooks written in the late 1930s and early 1940s by British painter and
potter Thomas Samuel Haile (1909-1948).
The thoughts of Haile utilised here 'by way of a preface' illuminate some
aspects of a local, British interpretation of Surrealism during the 1930s and
1940s. Haile posits the existence of an 'nth dimensional' extension to
existence (or dimension k) wherein 'the object and the subconscious approach
one another aesthetically'. Here we have the central issue of the 'subconscious'
(or Freudian unconscious) rightly given pride of place in an evaluation of
According to Remy, Haile's ideas comprised a key theoretical assessment of
the basic principles of Surrealism by a British artist. Further, Remy's
observation that, even though the notebooks mainly relate to painting, they
apply equally to writing, as both media are of 'comparable importance', is a
salutary reminder than the 'movement' under scrutiny here is extremely
diverse. The movement has never been confined to a single identifiable style
or 'school' of art/painting. Indeed, being applicable to any mode of
expression including theatre, film and photography and to all kinds of
flotsam and jetsam 'within our grasp', Surrealist ambitions extended far
beyond the 'aesthetic' and, on various occasions, repudiated (in no uncertain
terms) any narrowly 'aesthetic' emphasis.
Haile's approach may, in fact, be more akin to late English Aestheticism,
than the French avant-. This is apparent in his 'Political Standpoint' which
strikes one as taking an au dessus de la melee position regarding everyday ideological matters:
'naturally the artist ignores all calls of duty to such abstractions as Flag,
Fatherland and Freedom', he says. An observation introduced by a more or less
provocative remark to the effect that it 'matters little... if it is the
people's wish to cut each other's throats'.
Haile's disdain for the idea of freedom and his linkage of the term with
'Flag' and 'Fatherland' run counter to 'classic' Surrealist politics which,
though standing in opposition to the nation, religion, pacifism and the
family, placed the cardinal virtue of freedom at the very centre of all endeavours. To quote the Manifesto of 1924 'The mere word "freedom" is the only
one that still excites me'. Haile, nevertheless, provides a ringing endorsement
Surrealism as 'the only proper and valid interpretation of contemporary
reality' while saying with some foresight that 'Surrealism as we see it today
is only a beginning... it does not expect to remain stationary'. In this he was
In the Acknowledgements Remy mentions the support of Desmond Morris (1928-)
and John Welson (1953-) 'among the staunchest heirs of Surrealism in
Britain', these being the only contributors to this volume still living at
time of publication. Morris has contributed twenty-three biomorphic style
graphic images, including several illustrated 'Letter Poems' ('an original
form of combination of the written and the visual') which is by far the
greatest number of illustrations from any single contributor. Other
illustrations are by artist-poets Bridgwater, Colquhoun, Earnshaw, Maddox,
Rimmington and Welson . The cover artwork features a colour reproduction of
the painting 'Bursting Song' (1948) by Emmy Bridgwater.
At the back of the volume there is an encyclopaedic section, a General Index
and an Index of Poem Titles and First Lines. This encyclopaedic section
significantly enhances the role of the book as a reference source. Here, the
curious researcher will find: a Chronology of Surrealism in Britain (1925-1979), a Glossary of Surrealism in
Britain: Key Persons and Publications,
and a Select Bibliography organised
into five topical groupings: 'British Surrealist Publications' (1936-1980),
'Major Surrealist Exhibitions and Catalogues' (1971-2011), 'Works on
Surrealism In General', 'Works on Surrealism In Britain', 'Works By and On
Individual British Surrealists'. This latter section incorporates short
filmographies devoted to filmmakers Humphrey Jennings (1935-2012) and Len Lye
The anthology of poems and texts, the raison d'etre for the book, consists of 162 individual items from
21 poets and is arranged in alphabetic order of author's name. In terms of
volume of contribution the most space is devoted to Gascoyne (17 pieces),
followed by Bridgwater (14 pieces), Rimmington (13 pieces), Morris (13
pieces) and Roland Penrose (11 pieces). Other contributors, in alphabetical
order are Brunius, Colquhoun, Davies, Del Renzio, Earnshaw, Jennings, Legge,
Lye, Maddox, Mednikoff, Melly, Mesens, Pailthorpe, Roughton, Taylor and
Some items have been translated from the French such as the poems 'Can You
See' and 'I Love' by Jacques B Brunius. There are several poems by Mesens
from his Troisieme Front/Third Front extracted from the London Gallery Editions publication of 1944,
translated by Mesens himself with help from Penrose.
The main section is devoted to poets who came to prominence as representative
of Surrealism in the late 1930s in the wake of the London International
Exhibition of Surrealism of
June-July 1936 held at the New Burlington Galleries. It's scope covers the
period 1933, from Gascoyne's 'And The Seventh Dream...' through to the two most
recent poems in the collection which are by Toni Del Renzio and date from
February 2000. Other recent poems are by John W. Welson and Desmond Morris,
dated 1983 and 1989 respectively.
The supporting material enlarges the research scope of the volume to a much
greater extent. The manifestos, polemics and declarations cover the period
1935-1947. The formal chronology covers the period 1925 to 1979, noting the
first academic references to Surrealism by Anthony Blunt (1925) and the first
showing of Surrealist avant-garde films by the London Film Society (founded
in 1925 by Ivor Montagu and Sidney Bernstein) between December 1925 and 1930.
The bibliographies are even more extensive and, taken together, cover various
kinds of publications from 1928 through to the most recent item, Les
Annees Londoniennes de ELT Mesens by
Remy himself, the date of which is 2013. The listing of 'British Surrealist
Publications' covers the period from 1937 to 1980. The listing of 'Major
Surrealist Exhibitions and Catalogues' covers the period 1971-2011 (i.e. only
recent exhibitions are covered), while the listing of general books and
surveys is more limited still, ranging from Alquie's Philosophy of
Surrealism (1955) to Whitney
Chadwick's Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement of 1985. Of some interest are entries in the
bibliography of magazine articles relating to Surrealism in Britain: here are
noted several items by Remy himself including his 'Visual Poetics of British
Surrealism' (1995) and a handful of early articles by Anthony Blunt, Barry
Byrne and Cyril Connolly. The title of the Blunt article refers to
'Superrealism', while in the New Statesman of 14 December 1935, Cyril Connolly proclaimed
'It's Got Here At Last.'
The illustrations are in the main drawn from the latest phase of Surrealism
in Britain, from 1960 onward. The most recent illustrations are by Morris and
date from 2009. Of historical interest are the drawings by Emmy Bridgwater
and Edith Rimmington, all dating from the 1940s. Rimmington's drawings are
from the publications Message From Nowhere (a collection edited by Mesens, 1944), Free
Unions Libre (the polemical
post-war collection edited by Simon Watson Taylor, 1944), and cover art from
the magazine Fulcrum, edited by
Feyyaz Fergar (1944). The drawings by Emmy Bridgwater are from as early as
1942 and represent an enigmatic, fantastical vision incorporating
semi-automatic 'doodle' features, as in But It Is The Heart Of The Mermaid
That Bleeds (circa 1947).
Dates of composition and source are given at foot of each text entry
throughout the anthology section, while trouble has been taken to research
various archives for hitherto unpublished material, including texts by
Gascoyne (from The British Library via Gascoyne expert Roger Scott) and
Mednikoff (Tate Archives). Texts by Pailthorpe, Mednikoff and Penrose have
also been located in the Archives of the National Galleries of Scotland
especially for inclusion in this anthology.
In his 'assessment' of the poetry Michel Remy explicitly warns against
evaluations based upon 'traditional criteria' such as taste, beauty,
structure, depth, symbolism and so on. Surrealism, he says, never proposed to
define itself by any particular style or set of techniques. Rather, the
'movement' was driven by 'a body of commitments', or a 'state of mind'. By a
stance he usefully characterises as a 'unilateral declaration of
independence'; a 'militant libertarianism' standing against the conformist
fetishism of liberal humanism or the Leavisite dogma of 'ethical criticism'
typical of the Scrutiny 'Great
A Surrealist work, image, event, text or object aims at a 'dislocation of
meaning' or, to quote Breton and Eluard in La Revolution Surrealiste, a 'debacle of the intellect'. It derives from, or
exemplifies, a mode of revolt against language itself, language as presently
constituted and seen as 'thoroughly debased'; although one should be careful
not to confuse this stance with that of 'linguistically innovative' poetics
prevalent in certain academic circles since the 1970s. Therefore 'quality' is
proportionate to a capacity for 'resistance' (for example resistance to
univocity), and, further, a capacity to create astonishment through the negation of contradictions. To
dislocate the preconceived image track of culture Surrealist poetry
proliferates images of destruction and desecration, it clashes the infinite
with the finite and seeks to replace the processs of teleology, with the
'incantatory process' of unrestrained desire'. This is a poetic that does not
shrink from militant revelations of cruelty, of hysteria and mutation. The
dissection of received notions of 'reality' and the promulgation of
anti-paternal revolt can disclose a 'blank', the inaccessibility of any
'ultimate meaning', the negation of any vestigial sense of false security
derived from the consolations logic or ethics. Discontinuous chains of
meaning, disruptive elemental forces, occult initiations, lexical and
syntactic hiatuses which always return the reader to a primordial blank
space, transcriptions of 'phantasmatic fears' and obsessions, the automatic
resurgence of long forgotten words or the creation of new words. The
psychoanalytic investigations of Pailthorpe and Mednikoff, or the avian
fixations of Emmy Bridgwater and her texts replete with ellipsis, anacolutha
hypallages and interjections, invoke so many 'fragmnts of lost analogies.
'There will be spaces that were stars'.
In the works of Roger Roughton parody and irony are deployed in texts Remy
describes as 'calls to turn away from all academic traditions, calls to the
future, calls to revolt on both the discursive and the imaginative plane'.
Roughton often used simplistic rhyme patterns and cultural references to
expose the nihilistic absurdity of establishment thinking in all its forms.
'To-morrow REVOLT will be written in human hair' is from 'Animal Crackers In
Your Croup' (1936) written at a time when the author was fascinated by the
'Lolita-like persona' of Shirley Temple. In his poem 'Lady Windermere's
Fan-Dance' (1936) there are doggerel-lines like the following quatrain:
Sulphurous clouds from the bank
Are killing the quick in the stream,
Bodies from gunboats that sank
Are menacing guns with a dream...
The anthology itself comprises works in a variety of formats: many items are
in stanzaic free verse style such as Emmy Bridgwater's 'Secrets' comprising
four sextets and two irregular stanzas, or the compressed Surreal 'lyrics' of
Desmond Morris. Other contributions include prose poems or poetic prose
fragments (from Bridgwater, Jennings, Lye, Maddox, Mesens, Rimmington) or
segments of evocative texts included in or extracted from quasi-fictional
novelistic works. These include several London Bulletin texts (1939-1943) by Ithell Colquhoun, later
incorporated into her arcane, alchemical 'adventure novel' Goose of
Hermogenes (1961). There are
extracts from Petron by Hugh
Sykes Davies a Menippean melange of visions, verse and prose. There are
fragments from My Real Life in Exact Proportion to Those Who Cannot Read... by Simon Watson Taylor ('Dressed in a smouldering
glass skirt and the thousand ladybirds of a street's reared-up violence, a
fragile green skeleton sat carefully upon the pure disjointed smiles of
feathery angels...'). There are aphorisms from Earnshaw's volume entitled Flick
Knives and Forks (1981) which
includes such examples as: 'For the sea an island is a fathomless mystery' or
'Faint hearted suicides leap off pyramids'. From David Gascoyne there is an
extract from Automatic Writing
(1936) and The Great Day (Simulation of Paranoia, Acute Mania, Delirium of
Interpretation, Delusions of Grandeur).
There are several pieces by Humphrey Jennings including examples of his
influential 'Reports' and a prose poem. An intriguing item is 'I Have Done My
Best For You' the only known poetical work by the enigmatic Sheila Legge (1909?-1948?)
which opens with a pseudo-biblical vision of a woman with chains on her
wrists, riding a bicycle while flying a banner inscribed with the slogan
THERE ARE NO MORE WHORES IN BABYLON. Immortalised in several iconic
photographs of an event staged in Trafalgar Square in association with the
1936 exhibition, Sheila Legge is known to history as 'The Phantom of Sex
Appeal'. George Melly refers to Mrs Sheila Legge as 'a beautiful Surrealist
groupie' in his 'behind the scenes' memoir of The London Gallery, Don't
Tell Sybil (2013).
Key figures in the British Surrealist movement of several generations are
well represented here. One must mention Roland Penrose (1900-1984) and the
'impresario' or 'leader' ELT Mesens (1903-1971) as the prime movers of
Surrealism in Britain.
Together with David Gascoyne (1916-1967) these were the three main activists
who 'exported' Surrealism to Britain the 1930s. It was Gascoyne who wrote the
first Surrealist poem in English, 'And The Seventh Dream Is The Dream of
Isis' (included here) which appeared in New Verse in 1933, several years before he wrote A Short
Survey of Surrealism (1935) and
translated Andre Breton's 1934 Brussels lecture What Is Surrealism? Meeting in Paris, Penrose and Gascoyne decided to
'do something in England' and were soon key members of the organising
committee of the International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936. Gascoyne's First
Manifesto of English Surrealism, is
also included here in the section of statements and polemics.
ELT Mesens, a long-standing supporter of his famous compatriot Rene Magritte,
was a poet, collagist, picture dealer and intransigent provocateur, who, with the backing of Penrose, established the
London Gallery in Cork Street (later Brook Street), with its house magazine London
Bulletin (1938-1940) as a
nerve-centre. Over the years the London Bulletin helped promote Miro, Picasso, Delvaux, Man Ray,
Georges Hienein, Paul Nash, Rita Kernn-Larsen and Max Ernst among many
others. Although Mesens turned away from poetry in later years to concentrate
on his visual work, he always maintained a militant anti-clericalism and
'hard line' Surrealist stance. Some of his poems have an unexpected lyricism,
We needed all this time
And some previous centuries
To find again the lonely tree
By the sunlit road
Of encounter and chance.
(from 'The Tree of Knowledge Uprooted, Original Sin Moves Out', 1944)
With the support of Conroy Maddox and others Mesens was also participated in
the famous 'last stand' of the British Surrealist group, an exhibition and
series of events, Enchanted Domain,
held in Exeter in 1967. John Lyle, the main instigator of the Enchanted
Domain extravaganza, exemplified
the confusion of the times by advocating a correlation between Surrealism and
Oriental Mysticism, in the mistaken, (but commonly held) view, that
Surrealist action depended upon the dissolution of the ego. Perhaps Lyle
thought that non-Christian religions are somehow 'subversive' because they
are not monotheistic and substitute the idea of karma for the idea of sin.
Maddox (1912-2005) was 'leader' of a Birmingham outpost of Surrealism that
included Desmond Morris and subsequently founded the late Surrealist coterie
known as the Melmoth Group (1979).
Desmond Morris, a major contributor to, and supporter of, The Thirteenth
Stroke of Midnight, is an artist
and zoologist well known for his controversial and best-selling
sociobiological studies of human behaviour such as The Naked Ape (1967). He joined the Birmingham group with Maddox
after the war and became director of the Film Unit of the Zoological Society
of London. Keen to explore the artistic abilities of primates, Morris staged
a controversial exhibition Paintings by Chimpanzees at the ICA in 1957. The show featured paintings and
drawings by famous chimpanzee artists such as Congo from Zootime (1954-1964)
and Baltimore Betsy (1951-1960). All human art is ape art, of course.
Michel Remy has explained the historical context for the 'importation' of
Surrealism into Britain in the present book and elsewhere. There is a paradox
Ð identified as early as 1947 in the Declaration by the vestigial 'hard core' of the Surrealist
Group around Mesens and Penrose Ð with respect to that overt hostility to
Surrealism typical of the British cultural ethos. As the authors note,
Britain has given birth to many acknowledged precursors of Surrealism, from
Cyril Tourneur to Lewis Carroll (including Swift and Coleridge) and yet very
few 'intentional' self-defined Surrealists in the contemporary sense.
Despite an anarchic 'tendency to irrationality' in English art and literature
it is clearly the case that such movements as Dada and Surrealism remain
'foreign' and maladjusted when transposed to the English context. Victorian
era critics and theorists often regarded Francophile artists and poets (e.g.
Swinburne, Wilde, Beardsley and other aesthetes) as dubious influences,
'cuckoos in the nest' or, even, a dire threat to the moral order. Surrealism
was always going to be seen as just such another unwelcome, 'un-British'
import merely to be tolerated as an aberration, if not kicked back to those
European centres of sin, Paris, Berlin, Zurich or Vienna where such
'decadent' japes are the order of the day.
In his essay on 'The Visual Poetics of British Surrealism' (1996), Remy
probed this terrain and explains that the progress of the movement was
impeded by an already established counter-movement here defined as the
'Bloomsbury Spirit' and exemplified by the theories of Roger Fry and Clive
The main manifestations of 'Bloomsburyism' and its subsequent ramifications
in the work of Ben Nicholson and Duncan Grant among others, assert a 'visual
centrality' dependent upon clearly delineated conceptions of order,
structure, integration and unification. This quickly developed into a
doctrine of 'pure art' characterised by a militant 'exclusion of
representation' in the pursuit of a metaphysical almost 'spiritual' ideal of
hyper-abstraction, a kind of ethereal, visual music.
As recently as 1978, in an article 'Alchemy of the Word', for Harpers and
Queen, Angela Carter (who studied
the gender politics of French Surrealism at Bristol University), bluntly
stated 'the movement never travelled across the Channel, not even in the
Thirties...' The Dadas are more fashionable now, said Carter, and claimed
'Surrealist romanticism is at the opposite pole from classical modernism, but
then, the Surrealists would never have given Pound or Eliot house room on
strictly moral grounds. A Mussolini fan? A high Tory? They'd have moved
noisily, but with dignity, to another cafe'
In hindsight one can see that the cultural stranglehold of 'The Bloomsbury
Spirit' (in the visual arts), and Anglo-American Classical Modernism (in the
literary and poetic sphere), from the era after the First World War onwards,
was/is almost total. The Surrealists would always be Outsiders, relegated to
the margins Ð perhaps no bad thing, it might be said.
The Declaration of 1947 offered
an insightful diagnosis of the English anti-Surrealist 'paradox'. This
polemic condemned the 'underhand' desertions and attacks of previous years.
It is also scathing in its denunciation of Henry Moore, Herbert Read and
Humphrey Jennings for 'selling out' to the establishment (Jennings was
awarded the OBE), and also of David Gascoyne, whose 'mystifications leave him
prostrate dribbling at the mouth'. During 1937-1938 Gascoyne had drifted away
from Surrealism under the influence of Holderlin and French poet Pierre Jean
Aside from these immediate issues the Declaration identifies wider concerns. These included the need
to combat reactionary, jingoistic conformist attitudes and 'diehard
militarism', which may be typical of other (apparently) democratic European
societies. Scorning the notion that Surrealist revolt may be passed off as a
'sin of youth' the authors identified the 'decentralised structure of English
society' as a major problem and, further, an all-pervasive 'moral pressure'
from Protestant Christianity as the real enemy. 'An enemy which attacks Man from
the inside... an enemy which is itself infinitely divided and superficially
liberal.' Here, Remy's analysis of mainstream English abstractionists as
advancing a 'teleological' agenda, inherently reactionary and anti-Surreal in
its privileging of a moral-spiritual function to the work of art, is telling.
He sees a specifically English tendency at work here. A 'disembodied
functioning of the spirit', the legacy of Plato and Aristotle, an exclusive
formalism (even if at times expressionistic), an 'optical totalitarianism',
the 'subordination of the emotion', a puritan mode of 'aesthetic Quakerism'.
This arises from the innate tendency of the English (in particular) to regard
themselves as 'more radical than the radicals', a conviction that 'true'
radicalism is identified with a native tradition of religious non-conformity
and anti-establishment dissent dating back to the Civil War era and even
earlier. That this tendency is central to a dominant, indigenous cultural
formation hostile to Surrealism in its pure form is undeniable. It is still
the case, even in these wacky, Post-PoMo times, that 'innovative' poets are
obsessed by language in a completely useless manner, or flirt with fake
notions of 'radical' modernism, or are crippled by that contemporary form of
'ethical' neo-Puritanism known as 'political correctness', incorporating the
trappings of pacifism and anti-capitalism into what is, in effect, a
reactionary, conservative agenda.
However successful or unsuccessful the reader of this collection may feel any
given poem or text to be, Remy is surely justified when he demands that
readers suspend their usual, humanistic, and aesthetic criteria of 'literary'
quality in evaluations of On The Thirteenth Stroke of Midnight.
Are these texts successful calls to revolt against all forms of conservatism?
Does a Surrealist poem help demystify 'deep-rooted beliefs in conformist
Does the negation of traditional criteria simply function as a tactic to put
the contents of this anthology beyond criticism all together?
Only the reader can decide Ð or maybe not.
The later history of Surrealism, as outlined by Remy, is limited to the
vestigial activities of major figures included in this collection. In effect,
the formal chronology concludes with the Melmoth Group of 1979, which
disbanded in 1981. In his introductory survey Remy does make reference to the
magazine Manticore/Surrealist Communication (1997-2006) published by the Leeds Surrealist Group
founded with international links in 1994. He refers to various modalities of
'occultation' that maintains a Surrealist presence in the UK at a
subterranean cultural level, sharing a new spirit of gamesmanship infused
with a quasi-Situationist psycho-geography.
However, he fails to account a wider resurgence of interest that surfaced in
the mid-Sixties and early seventies. One might note a Surrealist influence
(via Artaud) on experimental theatre, for example the work of Lindsay Kemp
and Peter Brook. Also a general diffusion of Surrealism into the wider ethos
of popular culture; into the 'underground' scene and the spheres of
advertising and fashion viewed through the lens of Pop Art. Although a purist
approach may regard such tendencies as symptomatic of a general dilution and
commodification not to be welcomed, it may, on the other hand, seem that the
Surrealist spirit did indeed have the last laugh. Gleefully cocking a snook
at the strictures of aesthetic Quakerism, giving Mrs Grundy a run for her
money, at least for a short while Ð before the Sixties spirit of 'anarcho-libertarianism'
(Raymond Durgnat's phrase) quickly ebbed away in the Thatcher era.
The Turin exhibition, The Disquieting Muses (1967-1968), organised by Luigi Carluccio, was
covered by English mainstream art magazines such as Studio International and Art & Artists; there was considerable interest in the work of Max
Ernst, the subject of a large illustrated book by John Russell published in
1968. That same year the BBC Third Programme broadcast a feature length
tribute to Andre Breton, A Link Between The Worlds (20 March 1968), compiled by Barbara Bray and
produced by Douglas Cleverdon (1903-1987). This programme included recorded
contributions from David Gascoyne, Jacques B Brunius (both of whom are
represented in the present volume), Philippe Soupault, S W Hayter and Eugene
Ionesco among others, as well as a bizarre radiophonic-dramatic piece by
Fernando Arrabal. Also in 1968 Methuen published the Ubu Plays of Alfred Jarry, jointly translated by Cyril
Connolly and Simon Watson Taylor, while Jonathan Cape published The
Selected Works of Alfred Jarry
(edited and translated by Simon Watson Taylor with Roger Shattuck) in 1969.
In 1971, Taylor's translation of Aragon's Paris Peasant also appeared from the same mainstream publisher.
Wider interest in Surrealism in Britain in the Sixties was further stimulated
by independent literary operators such as Calder & Boyars, publisher of
Simon Watson Taylor's translation of Antonin Artaud's The Cenci in 1968, the same year they launched an edition of
Artaud's complete writings translated by Victor Corti. Simon Watson Taylor
thus emerged as a significant 'player' in the later promotion of Surrealism
in Britain, away from the echelons of the literati, albeit on a parallel
highway leading in the direction of 'pataphysics and the Theatre of the
Calder's 'French Surrealism' series included works by Breton (Nadja and Arcane 17), Picasso (Desire Caught by The Tail), Aragon (The Libertine), Arp (Collected French Writings) and Tristan Tzara's Seven Dada Manifestos and in the eighties the Selected Poems of Paul Eluard. The Calder imprint remained for
many years a catalytic force, publishing related authors like Burroughs,
Beckett (veteran translator of Surrealist poets), Borges, Raymond Roussel,
Fernando Arrabal and Roger Vitrac. The diffusion of these texts in English
translation (often for the first time) contributed to a climate in which
Surrealism extended its appeal well beyond the sphere of literary and
artistic cliques. That Calder regarded his publishing activities as
conflicting with endemic anti-Surreal tendencies is evident from his
criticism of British, indifference to art history, hostility to both
intellectual analysis and to any 'investigation of the creative process'. As
explained in his 'Introduction' to A William Burroughs Reader (1982) he lays the blame squarely on British
'insularity' and the 'pioneer Puritanism of the American psyche', a stance
basically the same as that of the Declaration of 1947 Ð and of Michel Remy in his 1996 essay.
Later, in the 1970s, some perceptions of Surrealism changed, mutating into
what one might call a 'post-Surrealist' phase under the influence of feminism
and popular genres such as Science Fiction. It was a time when the
counter-culture had already, in the previous decade, recognised the
'psychedelic' implications of Ernstian decalcomania-induced landscapes and
the contemporary relevance of ideas such as Mad Love with its undertone of
anarchic 'permissiveness'. A typical example might be Angela Carter's
'reality war' novel The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffmann (1972) which certainly contains exemplary passages
of post-Surreal delirium, 'ferocious images of desire' and 'phantasmagoric
redefinition'. Ambivalent, Carter explicitly acknowledged her own Surrealist
connection, citing the Bretonian principles of Convulsive Beauty, and The
Marvellous while observing, in a review of Ballard's Empire of the Sun, that it was at the time of Michael Moorcock's
editorship of New Worlds (1964)
that 'science fiction... joined hands with Surrealism'. Ballard himself had
published an article on Surrealist Art in New Worlds (July 1966), under the title The Coming of the
Unconscious where he stated: 'the
images of Surrealism are the iconography of inner space.' But that is another
Crisply produced in the current Carcanet house style with its distinctive,
full colour, eye-catching Bridgwater cover image On The Thirteenth Stroke
of Midnight: Surrealist Poetry in Britain is a long overdue and well-researched resource. The back and white graphic
illustrations are effectively distributed throughout the text. The Glossary,
General Index and Index of Poem Titles and First Lines make the volume an
effective and usable reference tool for anyone interested in the poetry of
Surrealism, and especially of the Thirties and Forties of the last century.
'We stand against the small tide of those who want to make everyone unhappy
with conflicting theory and thought' says Captain Beatty to Montag in Ray
Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451
(1953). The insular anti-Surreal ethos of 'British' establishment culture may
exemplify Beatty's 'stand' to perfection; yet cultural life is never as
comfortable as either conformists or radicals of left, right and centre
assume it to be. If, as disciples of 'pure art' would like us to believe, art
and poetry are uplifting, expressions of a civilising spirit above and beyond
reality, no art so defined can encompass Surreality as an ontological
principle. Similarly, no moral order can ever survive the negation of
teleological purpose identified by Professor Michel Remy as the prime element
of a subversive Surrealist revolution, a revolution that is, in truth, a
demand for an unacceptable freedom. And finally, we should recall the words
of Samuel Haile: 'Surrealism as we see it today is only a beginning... it does
not expect to remain stationary'.
It is easy to see why it has taken until 2013 to publish a collection such as
this Ð in England, of all places.
© A.C. Evans 2014
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
, Harper Voyager, 2008.
John Calder (ed.), A William Burroughs Reader, Picador, 1982.
Angela Carter, Expletives Deleted: Selected Writings, Vintage, 1993.
Edward B Germain (ed.), English And American Surrealist Poetry, Penguin, 1979.
Levy, Silvano (ed.), Surrealism: Surrealist Visuality, Keele University Press, 1997.
George Melly, Don't Tell Sybil
, augmented edition, Atlas Press, 2013.
Remy, Michel, Surrealism in Britain, Ashgate/Lund Humphries, 1999.