Benjamin Péret Essay - Critical Essays

Péret, Benjamin


Benjamin Péret 1899–-1959

French poet, short-story writer, and essayist.

Péret was an early poet of the French Surrealist movement, which began in the 1920s. Although he was a prominent, celebrated, and influential figure among the surrealists themselves, his reputation internationally and among general readers has been largely eclipsed by the writer André Breton, who wrote the Surrealist manifesto. Péret was greatly admired among surrealist writers for his faithful and consistent adherence to their literary ideals, particularly in the practice of “automatic writing,” of which Péret was perhaps the most successful poet. His poems, which remain consistent throughout four decades of publication, are especially noted for their playfulness and humor.

Biographical Information

Péret was born July 4, 1899, in Rézé, a village near Nantes, in western France. When he was two years old, his parents separated, after which he was reared by his mother. As a young man, he served in the military from 1917–19, during the first World War. After moving to Paris in 1920, he met Breton, then editor of the journal Littérature. Péret became a poet of the literary and artistic movement known as Dada, which was born of the disillusionment many of his generation felt as a result of their experiences during the War. His first poetry collection, Le passager du transatlantique, was published in 1921, and he continued to publish volumes of poetry throughout the next four decades. In 1922, following Breton's lead, he broke away from the Dadaist movement in a shift toward surrealism. He co-edited Breton's journal La révolution surréaliste from 1924 to 1925. Mary Ann Caws, who has written extensively on Péret and French surrealist poets, describes Péret's personality as eccentric, noting, “As a person, Péret made a vivid impression. Several details stand out in all accounts of him—that he wore flashy ties, had a raucous laugh and a totally uninhibited hatred of the clergy, spitting at them in the street. …” His lifelong commitment to political activism began when he joined the Communist Party in 1927. He married Brazilian singer Elsie Houston, with whom he lived in Brazil from 1929 to 1931. Their son, Geyser, was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1931. That year, Péret joined the Communist league, which resulted in his imprisonment and deportation from Brazil for his political activism. Returning to Paris that year, Péret continued his activism as a communist. From 1936 to 1938, he fought on the side of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. In 1940, during the second World War, he was required to serve once again in the French military. During the German occupation of France, Péret was arrested and imprisoned for his communist activities, and paid a ransom to the German authorities for his release. He then lived secretly in Paris for several months before moving to Marseilles, and then to Mexico, where he lived until 1948. In 1943, Péret's wife died, after which he married the painter Remedios Varo. Returning to Paris in 1948, he worked as a proofreader. Péret died in Paris, September 18, 1959.

Major Works

Péret's body of poetry is noted for its consistency, adhering to the principles of the Surrealist movement. Thus, Elizabeth R. Jackson observes, “One cannot exactly speak of development throughout the years” of Péret's literary output, but “only of gentle evolution.” In Le passager du transatlantique, Péret's first published volume of poetry, the poems are especially playful and good-humored. The poems of Immortelle maladie (1924) and Dormir, dormir dans les pierres (1926), drawing from the influence of psychological theory, make use of dreamlike imagery and are darker in tone. The poems of Le grand jeu (1928), his first major published collection, demonstrate, as Jackson comments, “a spirit of playfulness, a taste for the ridiculous and pinpricking humor prevail, more so than in his later works.” Of his next two poetry volumes, De derrière les fagots (1934) is generally playful in tone, while Je ne mange pas de ce pain-là (1936) expresses strong political views. Je sublime (1936), which Jackson describes as a “short but very sweet volume of love poems,” includes sixteen poems, all written to “Rosa.” Feu central (1947) is a compilation volume which includes the previously published Immortelle maladie, Dormir, dormir dans les pierres, Je sublime, and Un point c'est tout, as well as previously unpublished works under the volume title À tâtons. While in Mexico, Péret's interest in Latin-American folklore influenced his essays, La parole est à Péret (1943; translated as Magic: The Flesh and Blood of Poetry), Le déshonneur des poétes (1945; translated as the Dishonor of Poets), as well as Anthologie des mythes, légendes et contes populaires d'Amérique, an anthology of Latin-American mythology. His poetry collection Air mexicain (1952) also reflects this interest. A concept central to Péret's poetry is the “marvelous,” a term holding special meaning and significance for surrealist writers. Although Péret openly refused to provide a definition of his concept of the “marvelous,” J. H. Matthews explains his “theory of the marvelous” as one in which “the marvelous is a sign of social and moral anti-conformity, signaling unyielding resistance to accepted social modes of thought and feeling.” Matthews concludes, “Intuition opposed to rationalist thought, finding encouragement in a spirit of liberty that takes no account of the social, moral, and political customs of contemporary society is the prime element in the marvelous as we shall see it celebrated in Péret's writing.” Jackson observes that, “especially important for an understanding of [Péret's] poetry is the fact that, for him, the marvelous can be found anywhere.”

Critical Reception

During his lifetime, and among his literary peers, Péret was at the center of the Surrealist movement. Outside of his literary circle, however, he has been largely overshadowed by his close friend Breton, whose name is most often associated with the Surrealist movement in literature. Péret was greatly admired among his peers for his faithfulness to the ideals of Surrealism, especially as demonstrated in his adherence to the practice of “automatic writing.” Automatic writing, the process of recording spontaneous images with little or no corrections, unhampered by stylistic concern, allows a reader to more fully enter the world of the poet. Writing in 1940, Breton praised Péret's use of language, commenting, “Words and what they designate, freed once and for all from domestication, never before enjoyed such liberty.” Péret also is noted for the humor and playfulness of his poetry, as Breton commented, “Humour gushes here as from a geyser.” Two of Péret's theoretical essays, “La Parole est a Péret,” and “Le Déshonneur des Poètes,” were, according to Franklin Rosemont, immensely important to the Surrealist movement. Rosemont explains, “These texts testify with burning clarity to Péret's relentless devotion to the cause of breaking the social, cultural, and psychological fetters which reduce the imagination to misery and degradation.” Jackson, echoing the assessment of many critics, asserts that Péret is “a Surrealist's Surrealist,” describing his status as “one of the lesser-known but one of the finest stars in the surrealist constellation,” for “his work radiates that emotional and linguistic freedom, that fairy-tale realm of possibilities which epitomized the great ideal of the surrealist quest.” Matthews notes that, while “unknown to the general public, in France or anywhere else, Benjamin Péret made a contribution to Surrealism that, within the Surrealist movement, is acknowledged to be irreplaceable.” Matthews asserts that Péret put into practice the ideals of Surrealism “with a dedication that made him the envy of his contemporaries in Surrealism and the object of admiration among younger participants in the Surrealist venture.” Mary Ann Caws concurs that Péret remained “faithful to the Surrealist movement until his death,” and “has often been considered the most remarkable poet of that movement, its ideal spokesman of spontaneity.” Caws explains, Péret “casually displays the effortless, perfect language of abundance and explosion” so valued in both the Dadaist and the surrealist movements. She asserts, “He is responsible for the most colorful surrealist poetry we have, at times brilliantly non-sensical and at others genuinely touching.” Nonetheless, writing in 1985, Jackson notes that Péret, “as yet has not received his due share of serious attention from critics and is relatively unknown to the general public.”

Principal Works

Le passager du transatlantique 1921

Immortelle maladie 1924

Dormir, dormir dans les pierres 1926

Le grand jeu 1928

De derriére les fagots 1934

A Bunch of Carrots [Remove Your Hat ] (second edition) 1936

Je ne mange pas de ce pain-là 1936

Je sublime 1936

Dernier malheur, derniere chance 1946

Feu central 1947

Air mexicain 1952

Péret's Score/Vingt poèmes de Benjamin Péret 1965

A Marvelous World (translated by Elizabeth R. Jackson) 1985

La parole est à Péret (essay) 1943

Le déshonneur des poètes (essay) 1945

Anthologie de l'amour sublime [editor] (poetry and prose) 1956

Le Gigot, sa vie et son oeuvre (short stories) 1957

Histoire naturelle (prose) 1958

Anthologie des mythes, légendes et contes populaires d'Amérique [editor] (folklore) 1960

Oeuvres complètes, five volumes (poetry, short stories, and essays) 1969–89


Mary Ann Caws (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: “Péret;—Plausible Surrealist,” in Yale French Studies, No. 31, 1964, pp. 105–11.

[In the following essay, Caws assesses Péret's poetry in terms of his consistent adherence to the theories of Surrealism, focusing on elements of repetition, humor, and playfulness.]

André Pieyre de Mandiargues thinks it improbable that Péret will be widely read, while at the same time he maintains: “No one else can now or in the future presume to represent fully and purely Surrealist poetry” (Nouvelle Revue Française, Feb. 1959, p. 552). Péret is the most faithful poet of Surrealism because he is never untrue to its theory; he is the only one constantly at...

(The entire section is 2871 words.)

Mary Ann Caws (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: “Péret's ‘Amour sublime’—Just Another ‘Amour fou’?” in French Review, Vol. 40, 1966, pp. 204–12.

[In the following essay, Caws compares the surrealist principals of Péret and his works to that of the more prominent André Breton, by whom Péret's reputation has always been overshadowed.]

The reputation of Benjamin Péret (1899–1959) has always been overshadowed by that of Breton. Less well-known than the leader of surrealism, Péret was just as devoted to surrealist principles and poetry to the end of his life. His works have, until recently, been so hard to procure that an Association d'Amis de Benjamin Péret was formed just for the...

(The entire section is 3911 words.)

Mary Ann Caws (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: “Péret and the Surrealist Word,” in Romance Notes, Vol. XI, No. 2, Winter, 1969, pp. 233–37.

[In the following essay, Caws examines Péret's “attitude toward the language of surrealism,” as suggested by his poetry.]

… je demande la parole

Du bout des lèvres

La Parole est à Péret1—faithful to the surrealist movement until his death, Benjamin Péret has often been considered the most remarkable of surrealist poets. He is known for his unrelenting defense of human liberty against its clerical and capitalist “oppressors,” his constant testimonies to an “amour sublime,” and...

(The entire section is 1544 words.)

Herbert S. Gershman (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: The Surrealist Revolution in France, University of Michigan Press, 1969, pp. 43–7.

[In the following excerpt, Gershman argues that Péret stands out among the early surrealists in his attempts to fuse the Surrealist principal of “automatic writing” with elements of the Gothic novel.]

Only Péret, of the early surrealists, […] attempted a synthesis of the technique of automatism, carefully controlled so as to give the desired end result, with the content of the Gothic novel: a combination of deliberate sensory and logical confusion with a matching subject. All this in an impeccable syntax.1

—Die, deaf horn!
—Die, eel soap!...

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Mary Ann Caws (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: The Inner Theatre of French Poetry: Cendrars, Tzara, Péret, Artaud, Bonnefoy, Princeton University Press, 1972, pp. 75–105.

[In the following excerpt, Caws discusses Péret's poetry as it embodies Surrealist ideals, such as his use of a “language of abundance and explosion.” Caws also examines the ways in which his works stand out among surrealists, such as the uniquely “epic gesture” of some of his poetry.]


Faithful to the surrealist movement until his death, Péret has often been considered the most remarkable poet of that movement, its ideal spokesman of spontaneity. He is known for his...

(The entire section is 7206 words.)

Julia F. Costich (essay date Spring 1974)

SOURCE: “The Poem in a World of Change: Péret's ‘Quatre à Quatre,”’ in Romance Notes, Vol. 15, No. 3, Spring, 1974, pp. 410–15.

[In the following essay, Costich discusses the concept of change as a “constant condition” in Péret's poetry, focusing on the poem “Quatre à quatre.”]

The Surrealist poem refers to the world of objects and events as well as to itself as a linguistic and poetic entity. By exposing the interaction between “le fonctionnement réel de la pensée”1 and the world of things, the text participates in a mode of perception which defines the phenomena revealed. In Benjamin Péret's work, this reality is one of...

(The entire section is 2225 words.)

J. H. Matthews (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: “Benjamin Péret: Marvelous Conjunction,” in About French Poetry, edited by Mary Ann Caws, Wayne State University Press, 1974, pp. 126–38.

[In the following essay, Matthews examines the use of the grammatical structure of the conjunction in Péret's poetry in terms of how these parts of speech “paradoxically serve the disjunctive principle” of Surrealism.]

Throughout his life, Benjamin Péret was concerned with establishing a basis for poetic communication commensurate with the situation of the contemporary poet. He saw the poet as legitimately occupying a position at the forefront of cultural development, yet guaranteed neither praise nor reward for...

(The entire section is 4690 words.)

Elizabeth R. Jackson (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: A Marvelous World: Poems by Benjamin Péret, Louisiana State University Press, 1985, pp. xiii–xvii, 93–97.

[In the following introduction and conclusion to her collection of translated poetry by Péret, Jackson discusses Péret's use of the Surrealist principle of the “marvelous” in his poetry. She goes on to point out the consistency of style and quality throughout his work, offering a brief assessment of his major publications.]

“Birds fly, fish swim, and men invent,” says Benjamin Péret. His poetic world is literally a marvelous invention, so much so that, on entering it, one must first expect the unexpected and then be prepared to enjoy the...

(The entire section is 4074 words.)

Further Reading


Caws, Mary Ann, editor. About French Poetry: From Dada To “Tel Quel”. Wayne State University Press, 1974.

A collection of essays on French poetry of the twentieth century. Includes essays on Péret and Breton, as well as discussion of “automatic writing.”

Chénieux-Gendron, Jacqueline. “Surrealists in Exile: Another Kind of Resistance.” Poetics Today Vol. 17, No. 3, Fall, 1996, 437–451.

Discussion of surrealist writers who lived and wrote in exile, in terms of the relationship between their poetry and their politics. Includes discussion of Péret.

Ginway, M. Elizabeth....

(The entire section is 300 words.)