The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In order to appreciate André Breton’s “Free Union,” a basic understanding of Surrealism (or surréalisme) is helpful. This artistic movement, which Breton more or less founded, constituted a rebellion against the realism and naturalism dominating literature and the other arts during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In a literal sense, the word means beyond or above realism. Surrealist art, whatever the form—literature, painting, film, sculpture—does not intend to recreate the phenomena of the outward world but focuses instead on the inward state and reports how people respond to the world around them.

A poem such as “Free Union” may seem at first reading a disconnected and unrelated series of illogical images; however, when approached as an exploration of the subconscious and its mental activity, the poem takes on meaning. Granted, readers must suspend their conventional idea of meaning and be willing to accept the fantastic and often incongruous imagery. Such is the stuff of the individual’s subconscious, which “Free Union” explores.

The reader of “Free Union” should also keep in mind the major Surrealistic techniques developed and propagated by Breton. For one thing, he relies on juxtapositions, placing dissimilar ideas and phenomena side by side to form unlikely and often absurd combinations. From the poem’s beginning to its end, any set of images illustrates this practice. Breton also...

(The entire section is 553 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

For the Surrealist writer, imagistic language itself is poetry, and in that “Free Union” abounds and excels. Even in translation—probably the cruelest thing to do to poetry—the richness, variation, and extravagance of the language emerge fully. The poem does not rely on the conventions of poetry, such as rhyme, meter, or stanzas; nor is there any punctuation to separate ideas.

“My wife” serves as the poem’s connecting device. At first glance, it appears that Breton is following the tradition of Renaissance poets who celebrated feminine beauty by comparing the various parts of a woman—an actual person or an imaginary one, it did not matter—to the stars and moon, to flowers and the sun, to precious jewels, and so on. As the poem unfolds, however, it soon becomes apparent that it presents no ordinary celebration of a woman’s physical charm. In traditional poetry, for a simile or metaphor to work it must show some logical connection with that which is being described. “Free Union” defies that rule, for its imagery goes far beyond any natural relationships. For example, the “belly” of “My wife” is said to be “like the unfolding fan of the days,” then “like a giant claw.” On the other hand, the image employed to describe her eyelashes is quite striking and is more appropriate than most of the others: “with eyelashes like the strokes of childish writing.” Most of the imagery is drawn from nature and from animals,...

(The entire section is 481 words.)