Paul Éluard

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: As one of the founders of the Surrealist movement, Éluard led the way in finding new poetic means of investigating human nature. He was actively interested in the spheres of literature in general and poetry in particular. Éluard’s major contribution to the development of French poetry is his entire poetic work, a blend of avant-garde with classical tradition.

Early Life

Eugène Grindel, who later, under the pen name of Paul Éluard, became one of France’s leading lyric poets, was born in the northern Parisian suburb of Saint-Denis, on December 14, 1895. Eugène’s father Clément-Eugène Grindel, of peasant origin, was an accountant; his mother, Jeanne-Marie Coussin, was a dressmaker. In the early 1900’s, however, realizing that an accountant’s life was financially unrewarding, Grindel senior tried his luck in real estate. Using some of his savings, he bought an empty lot, and, after dividing the land into small parcels, sold it for an unexpected profit.

In 1908, encouraged by their financial success, the Grindel family moved to Paris. There young Eugène went to the elementary school on rue Clignancourt, not too far from the parental house. The oppressive monotony of life in that urban-industrial environment was interrupted only during the joyful vacation trips to the countryside, either to the village of Seine-et-Oise, where an aunt had a small farmhouse, or to the family’s own vacation cottage in Aulnay-sous-Bois, near Paris. At the age of thirteen, the young Grindel was awarded a scholarship to continue his education at the well-known Parisian lycée École Colbert. In 1912, however, he became ill and was forced to interrupt his studies. He left Paris for Clavadel, a Swiss sanatorium near Davos, well known for its advanced treatment of tuberculosis. The years spent at the sanatorium in the Swiss Alps strongly influenced Grindel’s future. Immobilized on the hospital bed, the adolescent began to develop his taste for meditation and solitude. The serene and tranquil Swiss mountains, with their majestic presence, were conducive to the emotional experiences that ultimately influenced Grindel’s future poetic work. The long days in the hospital were brightened by the luminous presence of a young patient, Helene Dimitievna Diakanova, or “Gala.” She was a young Russian student who also was undergoing medical treatment for a pulmonary illness at the Clavadel Sanatorium. Grindel was only seventeen years old when he met Gala and fell in love.

Life’s Work

Love is the central theme of Éluard’s lyric poetry. The aliveness of nature in the village of his childhood, as well as the experiences of his love for Gala, reverberate throughout his first poetic writings. Simply and unpretentiously entitled Premiers poèmes (first poems), this collection of love poems, published in 1913, was followed in 1914 by a book of poems in prose entitled Dialogues des inutiles (dialogues of the useless). Both volumes were published at the author’s own expense and signed with his patronymic: Paul-Eugène Grindel.

In 1914, on the outbreak of World War I, Gala left Switzerland for Russia. In the spring of the same year, young Grindel left the Swiss sanatorium and returned to Paris. In October, 1914, Grindel sought to join the army. His request to be enlisted in the infantry was, however, denied because of his chronic rhinopharyngitis. Instead he was assigned to the army’s auxiliary services. In the summer of 1916, he was still in the army, this time working as a military nurse in a field hospital in the Somme region. At his insistence, however, the army reversed its previous decision, and, on October 30, 1916, he was reclassed as suitable for combat duty and sent to join the Ninety-fifth Regiment of Infantry. On February 21, 1917, he married Gala, and a year later their only child, a daughter named Cécile-Simonne-Antonile, was born.

The first poetic work signed with the pen name of Paul Éluard was a small collection of poems entitled Le Devoir et l’inquiétude, written by the author in 1916 during his term of duty as a military nurse and published in 1917. The publication in July, 1918, of his new volume of poems, entitled Poèmes pour la paix, attracted the attention of Jean Paulhan, an influential literary critic, who, impressed with Éluard’s poetic sensibility, published a favorable review. Later, Paulhan became one of Éluard’s closest friends and active supporters.

In May, 1919, Éluard was demobilized. After his return to Paris, at Paulhan’s recommendation he joined André Breton, Louis Aragon, and Philippe Soupault and began to take an active part in the newly formed Surrealist movement. Soon Éluard became a constant contributor to the Surrealist literary journal Littérature, published by Breton. Éluard, at an early stage of his poetic development, was an ardent supporter of the literary experiments advocated by the Surrealists. In his short-lived surrealist newsletter Proverbe, published on February 1, 1920, he advanced Breton’s theory on the power of imagination over all previous forms of formal literary expression.

Éluard’s volume of poems entitled Les Nécessités de la vie et les conséquences des rêves (1921; the necessities of life and the consequences of dreams) reflects a strong Freudian influence as well as the poet’s acceptance of Breton’s theory of automatic writing, formulated one year later in Breton’s famous Manifeste du surréalisme, published in 1924. Numerous poems written by Éluard in the mid-1920’s conjure hallucinatory visions with arresting imagery. Volumes of poems such as Répétitions (1922; repetitions), with illustrations by Éluard’s friend Max Ernst, Mourir de ne pas mourir (dying of not dying), published in 1924, and Capitale de la douleur (1926; Capital of Pain, 1973) were bursting with Surrealist thoughts and imagery. These collections of verses, followed by Les Dessous d’une vie: Ou, La Pyramide humaine (the reversals of life: or, the human pyramid), a volume of prose published in 1926, brought Éluard the supreme recognition as the poet of French Surrealism.

On March 24, 1924, Éluard unexpectedly left Paris and embarked on a world cruise. The poet’s hasty departure was prompted on the one hand by a growing displeasure with his father’s real estate deals, equated by Éluard with greed and antisocial behavior, and on the other by his growing opposition to the creative rigors imposed by Breton and some of his associates. The trip, perceived by Éluard...

(The entire section is 2739 words.)