André Breton’s poetry forms a relatively small though important part of his total literary output, being dwarfed in quantity by his lengthy experiments in prose and his numerous polemical writings. His poetry, from the first published collection, Mont de piété (mount of piety), to his last major poetic work, Ode to Charles Fourier, shows a remarkable consistency of style. As a poet, Breton is best known for his remarkable imagery—which, at its best, expresses the powerful ability of the imagination to reconcile basic human drives and desires with the material conditions of reality and, at its worst, lapses into bizarre forms of irrationality which are incomprehensible to all but the poet himself.

In general terms, Breton’s poetic imagery is characterized by comparisons which yoke together extremely disparate objects, by the sudden, sometimes violent shifting of context as the poet moves from one image to the next, and by an extremely indirect method of expressing comparisons between objects. It is these three qualities, above all, which give his poetic imagery the appearance of being spontaneous rather than deliberate. As critics have shown, however, much to Breton’s credit as a poet, this initial impression is a misleading one.

Breton’s imagery is reinforced by other prominent aspects of his style, one of which might be called “devices of syntactic derangement.” These devices range from the use of simple...

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