André Breton 1896–1966
French poet, essayist, novelist, critic, and dramatist.
Breton was the founder and primary theoretician of Surrealism, an influential literary and artistic movement dedicated to examining the irrational, paranormal, and subconscious aspects of the human mind. Originated in the 1920s, surrealism sought to replace established moral and ethical concepts with a philosophy of irrationality that Breton described as "exalting the values of poetry, love, and liberty." Accordingly, his poems are experiments in prose, free verse, and automatic writing; they draw upon socialist politics, the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud, and such mystical phenomena as alchemy and astrology.
Breton was born in Tinchebray in the Normandy region of France. As a young boy he spent time in Lorient on the Brittany coast, the ocean, shore, and sky of which featured vividly in his poetic imagery. Prior to his literary career, he attended medical school at the University of Paris and became familiar with the ideas of such neurologists as Freud, Jean-Martin Charcot, and Pierre Janet. His psychiatric work in an army medical unit during World War I furthered his interest in the subconscious aspects of the human mind. Following the war, Breton became active in the Dadaist movement (a nihilistic philosophy of art and literature that proposed the cynical rejection of all established cultural values) and produced Mont de piété (Pawnshop), his first collection of poems. Breton soon became disenchanted with the limitations and destructiveness of Dadaism and sought to supplant it with Surrealism. His poetry collection Les Champs magnétiques (Magnetic Fields; coauthored with Philippe Soupault) has been called the first Surrealist text. Between the mid-1920s and World War II, Breton guided the rapid progress of the Surrealist movement, publishing manifestoes and editing Surrealist journals. Breton lived in self-imposed exile in North America during World War II and the German occupation of France. His memoirs (Entretiens, 1913-1952), published in 1952, give comprehensive coverage of his intellectual life, and explain his motives, his enthusiasms, and his often unstable relationships with friends and fellow artists. Breton returned to France at the end of World War II, where he lived until his death in Paris in 1966.
In his early Surrealist poetry, collected in Magnetic Fields, Clair de terre (Earthlight), and Poisson soluble (Soluble Fish), Breton experimented with Pierre Janet's concept of psychic automatism, using a stream-of-consciousness approach
known as automatic writing in which random, subconscious responses to self-induced dreams, hallucinations, and trances are transcribed into written form. Much of his poetry of the 1930s makes use of biological and botanical symbolism as well as contrasts between images of light, fire, and darkness. In the complex theatrical pieces collected in Le Revolver à cheveux blancs (The White-Haired Revolver) and in the ritualistic and erotic love poetry in L'Air de l'eau (Airwater), Breton evidenced a preference for bizarre metaphors and arcane language. The style of his poetic epics Fata Morgana and Ode à Charles Fourier (Ode to Charles Fourier) is considered more hermetic and less automatic than that of his early works and expresses in metaphoric and mythological terms Breton's self-exile during World War II. The prose poems in Constellations, written in 1940 and collected with drawings by Joan Miró, present images of the poet as craftsman, painter, and magician.
Breton's interest in automatic writing, his adherence to surrealism, and his dense and arcane imagery have polarized critical assessment of his poems. Early judgment was particularly divided. Louise Bogan, for example, a poet and contemporary of Breton's, considered his work childish and formulaic; John Berryman dismissed it as ephemeral. Others, such as Anna Balakian and Wallace Fowlie, have seen Breton as an accomplished poet whose instincts were both original and timeless. One consistent focus has been on the complexity of his vocabulary, and the consensus among literary critics today is that Breton's poems deserve close study for the richness of the language they employ and for the way that language lends itself to a variety of critical interpretations.
Mont de piété [Pawnshop] 1919
Les Champs magnétiques (with Philippe Soupault) 1920; also published as Magnetic Fields, 1985
Clair de terre 1923; also published as Earthlight, 1990
Poisson soluble [Soluble Fish] 1924
Ralentir travaux [Slow Down Construction; with Rene Char and Paul Eluard] 1930
L'Union libre 1931
Le Revolver à cheveux blancs [The White-haired Revolver] 1932
L'Air de l'eau [Airwater] 1934
Fata Morgana 1940
Young Cherry Trees Secured Against Hares: Jeunes cerisiers garantis contre les lièvres (bilingual edition) 1946
Ode à Charles Fourier 1947; also published as Ode to Charles Fourier, 1969
Le La [The Tone Setting] 1961
Signe ascendent, suivi de Fara Morgana, les Etats Généreux, Dex Epingles tremblantes, Xénophiles, Ode à Charles Fourier, Le La 1968
Selected Poems 1969
Poems of André Breton: A Bilingual Anthology 1982
Oeuvres Complètes 1988
Other Major Works
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SOURCE: A review of Young Cherry Trees Secured Against Hares, in The New Yorker, Vol. XXII, No. 39, November 9, 1946, pp. 121-23.
[Bogan was an American lyric poet whose darkly romantic verse is characterized by her use of traditional structures, concise language, and vivid description. Bogan was also a distinguished critic known for her exacting standards and her penetrating analysis of many of the major poets of the twentieth century. In the following review, she accuses Breton's poetry of exhibiting the "student childishness" she finds typical of surrealism.]
It is extraordinary how vital and adult the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, who passed with the speed of a comet through the French literary world between his sixteenth and his nineteenth year (1870-73), now appears. Beside it, the poetry of the Surrealist André Breton, one of his successors, who was born in 1896 and has worked all his life as a literary experimenter, seems much more the work of an adolescent. This season [November 1946], we are able closely to compare the works of the young innovator and of this successor. View Editions has published a volume of André Breton's poetry, Young Cherry Trees Secured Against Hares, translated by Edouard Roditi (with drawings by Arshile Gorky and a cover designed by Marcel Duchamp), at the same time that New Directions has published a new translation, by Louise Varèse, of the prose poems...
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SOURCE: "Miró and Breton," in Yale French Studies, No. 31, 1964, pp. 52-9.
[Hubert is a poet and scholar. In the following excerpt, she analyzes Breton's surrealist technique in Constellations, a volume consisting of twenty-two prose poems that parallel paintings by the artist Joan Miró.]
Breton's Surrealist technique, unchanged since Poisson soluble, is very much in evidence in Constellations. An animated spectacle unfolds, several events happen simultaneously, and this multifarious animation provides the only unity. "Le Lever du soleil" suggests a solitary child's crossing of the threshold leading into a world of fantasy, legend, and heraldry. This movement coincides with the denouement of another more adult, fateful play. After this awakening, a further exploration of this newly discovered land is suggested by a series of unfolding movements, such as the sudden opening of poppies, the upward projection of an invisible ladder, the cries of chimneysweeps, mysterious skybound smoke rings. Then follow hoverings between light and dark, between labyrinths and evanescently defined roads. The world has the content and meaning of dreams and must be deciphered accordingly. To these evocations Breton attributes both intimacy and bewilderment, fatality and playfulness. He relates simultaneously old legends as well as everyday incidents.
The texts "Femme à la blonde...
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SOURCE: "Metaphor and Metamorphosis in André Breton's Poetics," in French Studies, Vol. XIX, No. 1, 1965, pp. 34-41.
[Balakian is an author and educator who has contributed many articles and reviews to language and literature journals. She has also published several book-length studies on Surrealism and Breton, including Breton: Magus of Surrealism (1971). In the excerpt below, Balakian explores Breton's poetical representation of the hermetic belief in metamorphosis and differentiates it from the theory of transcendentalism, two ideas that she feels are "too often and too carelessly… linked as part of a continuous chain in the history of poetics."]
One of the major tenets of hermetism is metamorphosis. The occult art of the alchemist consists of transforming one type of material into another, and by extension one form of existence into the next. When Rimbaud talked of the alchemy of 'le Verbe' he saw in the power of words an effective agent of transmutation. Previously Baudelaire had been attracted to the theory of correspondences. Too often and too carelessly the two concepts are linked as part of a continuous chain in the history of poetics. They are, rather, opposite faces of the poetic coin. Correspondences imply a dualistic concept of the universe. During our sojourn here on earth certain emblems of nature give intimations of another plane of existence, and as we saunter along the...
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SOURCE: "Breton's 'Rano Raraku,'" in The Explicator, Vol. 40, No. 4, Summer, 1982, pp. 50-2.
[Knowlton is an American critic, translator, and educator. In this essay he stresses the importance of reading the poems in Xénophiles within their original context—as part of a catalog published for an exhibit of Oceanic art objects, and related directly to the objects and myths they describe. Within this context the critic interprets "Rano Raraku" as a statement against war.]
Que c'est beau le monde
La Grèce n'a jamais existé
Ils ne passeront pas
Mon cheval trouve son picotin dans le cratère
Des hommes-oiseaux des nageurs courbes
Volètent autour de ma tête car
C'est moi aussi
Qui suis là
Aux trois quarts enlisé
Plaisantant des ethnologues
Dans l'amicale nuit du Sud
Ils ne passeront pas
La plaine est immense
Ceux qui s'avancent sont ridicules
Les hautes images sont tombées
How beautiful is the world
Greece never existed
They will not pass
My horse finds its feed in the crater
Bird-men curved swimmers
Fly around my head for
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SOURCE: "Savage and Civilized," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4230, April 27, 1984, p. 450.
[Cardinal is an English educator who specializes in French studies, surrealism, symbolism, and psychopathological creation. In the following excerpt, he assesses Breton's poetry as a brilliant exploration of the power of language.]
Towards the end of his life, André Breton published a tiny book as his poetic testament. Le La consists simply of four enigmatic sentences which popped into Breton's mind while he was on the verge of sleep. Such samples of preconscious language are presented as touchstones of the poetic, inasmuch as they spring unmediated from the source and stimulate the incantatory process of surrealist automatism. These four brief phrases from the 1950s are the direct descendants of that celebrated dream-phrase of 1919 which first made Breton think about doing automatic writing: "Il y a un homme coupé en deux par la fenêtre".
What can now be seen as Breton's lifelong commitment to the principle of automatism or subliminal inspiration has been the locus of a series of misunderstandings and unjustified accusations. To refute some of the charges, it should simply be said: no, Breton didn't only write in an automatic manner; no, he didn't place unintelligibility above meaningfulness; no, he didn't sabotage beauty to protect a rigid ideological principle....
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SOURCE: "Semiosis and Intertextuality in Breton's 'Femme et Oiseau,'" in The Romanic Review, Vol. LXXVI, No. 4, November, 1985, pp. 415-28.
[In the essay below, Bohn relates "Femme et Oiseau" to its corresponding Miró painting in order to demonstrate that the poems in Constellations are not descriptive but rather they represent Breton's subjective reaction to Miró's paintings.]
In 1958 André Breton wrote twenty-two prose poems inspired by a series of gouaches that Joan Miró had created nearly twenty years earlier. Collected the following year in Constellations, each poem was juxtaposed with the appropriate painting in a mathematical progression based on skill and chance, intention and accident. If, as Anna Balakian states, "Breton's Constellations is a cosmic venture in which man joins nature through his manipulation of language" ["From Poisson Soluble to Constellations: Breton's Trajectory for Surrealism," Twentieth Century Literature, 21, February, 1975], the same may be said of Miró's paintings in which birds, women, and stars offer a privileged view of the universe. This is particularly true of "Femme et oiseau"—the eighth poem in the series—whose title unites two of the artist's favorite motifs. Throughout the volume verbal language complements visual language in an elaborate pas de deux. That Breton's intention is not simply to evoke Miró's...
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SOURCE: An introduction to Dada/Surrealism, No. 17, 1988, pp. 1-11.
[This excerpt was taken from Balakian's introduction to an issue of Dada/Surrealism that was devoted entirely to Breton. Balakian offers an overview of Breton's major poems and his best-known poetic techniques.]
Viewed in its totality, the work of André Breton falls into three categories: the theoretical and philosophical essays, his narrative prose, and his poetry. The last two facets of his writing substantiate his modernism, which the first category announces. In a somewhat gothically constructed eighteenth-century prose, the theoretical texts belie automatism; they are sometimes a rebuttal to hypothetical abuses, personal and impersonal, creating a one-sided debate, expressing personal passion, critical, existential, and political, in a tone eloquent and didactic. Unlike Mallarmé's theoretical prose, which consists primarily of an a posteriori ars poetica composed after his major poems were written, Breton's are a priori for the most part and as such very deceptive, because they do not totally predict the direction his own creative powers were to take in their subsequent development….
[I] consider the poetry the most important part of the Breton corpus, although Breton was very modest about his poetic writings. He did not even mention them in a form he filled out for Biography News Services:...
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SOURCE: "The Communicating Labyrinth: Breton's 'La Maison d'Yves' as a Micm-Manifeste," in Dada/Surrealism, No. 17, 1988, pp. 111-20.
[Below, Zuern reads Breton's poem "La Maison d'Yves" as a surrealist manifesto.]
André Breton's "La Maison d'Yves," in which Breton pays tribute to Yves Tanguy, presents itself as an inviting venue for the exploration of the surrealist aesthetic both in literature and the visual arts. The poem's interest lies not only in its testimony to Breton's enthusiastic support of the work of fellow avant-garde artists, but a careful reading reveals that in "La Maison d'Yves" Breton's tribute to Tanguy develops into an expression of the fundamental principles of surrealist aesthetics. The structure of the "Maison" shows itself to be essentially labyrinthine. The form of the labyrinth has close affinities to the images Breton himself uses to describe the surrealist orientation to the world, in particular the "tissu capillaire" which lies between the realms of the unconscious and external reality. The labyrinth has been observed as an organizational principle in a wide range of surrealist productions in the visual arts. An examination of the grammar in "La Maison d'Yves" reveals that the poem, in spite of its title, is as much concerned with a process as with a static structure; the process it describes is precisely the activity of the surrealist artist. The association of...
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SOURCE: "Graphemic Gymnastics in Surrealist Literature," in The Romanic Review, Vol. 81, No. 2, March, 1990, pp. 211-23.
[In the following excerpt, Metzidakis analyzes Breton's extraordinary use of language in Poisson soluble.]
Although the term "surrealist" has come to be applied to many different kinds of writing—from the bizarre to the fantastic—the term itself was first defined and used extensively by the founder and eventual "pope" of the Surrealist movement, André Breton. For him the word referred specifically to the type of texts that he and his cohorts were producing automatically, beginning in the period that directly followed World War I. While similar to contemporary dadaist works in their apparent semantic incoherence, early surrealist texts constituted a literature that was nevertheless intended to serve a specific societal purpose, unlike the more anarchic, nihilistic dadaist works. Specifically, automatic texts were from the start of the Surrealist movement meant to help both readers and writers become more attuned to the common archetypal source of all thought, even though they had no preconceived plot or design to them. It was hoped that the artistic tapping of this source would eventually lead to a more harmonious, if not happier, society for all.
By engaging in automatic writing, the Surrealists wanted to exploit language in a positive way. They believed...
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SOURCE: "The Leading Surreal Light," in The Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 18, 1993, p. 5.
[Merrill is an American poet and critic. In the following review, Merrill presents an overview of Breton's poetic achievement.]
How many Surrealists does it take to screw in a light bulb? The answer—a fish—is at once inoffensive and to the point: Andre Breton and his friends wanted to reinvent man's relationship to life itself, and what better place to begin than with a simple mechanical operation? Illumination was their theme, humor their favorite means and the only problem with this joke, they might have said, is that it is not offensive. After all, these were the French poets and artists who greeted the advent of World War II with the publication of an anthology of black humor. "There's nothing more serious than a joke" goes the old saying, and the Surrealists turned that insight into the most revolutionary artistic program of the 20th Century. It is a commonplace to describe the events of our time as surreal; what is remarkable is that the considerable literary achievement of Andre Breton, the symbol of Surrealism, is so little known in this country. The recent publication of his Conversations: The Autobiography of Surrealism and a selection of his early poems, Earthlight, both in excellent translations, may win him the audience he deserves.
Breton was born in 1896 in...
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Sheringham, Michael. Andre Breton: A Bibliography. London: Grant & Cutler Ltd., 1972, 122 p.
Primary and secondary bibliography.
Adamowicz, Elza and Sheringham, Michael. Andre Breton: A Bibliography (1972-1989). London: Grant & Cutler Ltd., 1992, 147 p.
Supplement to bibliography listed above.
Balakian, Anna. André Breton: Magus of Surrealism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971, 289 p.
Literary biography of Breton's life as it influenced his writing and the Surrealist movement which he founded. Includes a selected bibliography.
Aspley, Keith. "André Breton's Poems for Denise." French Studies XLI, No. 1 (January 1987): 52-61.
Suggests that the "Denise" poems, written in the early 1920s, may have been censored by Breton.
Balakian, Anna. "André Breton's Les Etats Généraux: Revolution and Poetry." The French Review 62, No. 6 (6 May 1989): 1008-16.
Interprets Breton's poem as an epic on the theme of revolution.
Balakian, Anna, and...
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