The Poem

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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 depends on what he called “automatism” to lend the poem its apprehension of the subconscious. Not to be confused with automatic writing, automatism places greater demands on the artist’s state of mind, according to Breton. To avoid the clichés, repetition, and general dullness of automatic writing, the poet must in a disciplined manner make uninhibited responses to phenomena and develop free associations. While “Free Union” might seem to have been written automatically and without artistic discipline, it does possess structure. Each image depends on “My wife” to trigger a comparison, even if many of the images seem to have little relationship to a real wife. It could be said that a Surrealist poet makes a self-conscious effort to appear unconscious.

Dreams are also important to the Surrealistic literary technique. Breton noted that Sigmund Freud’s theory of dreams and the unconscious heavily influenced his thinking. Not only does Breton draw from his own dreams, but he also imparts to his writing a dreamlike quality, with its discordant nature, abrupt juxtapositions, and incoherent responses. “Free Union” could be taken as a retelling of the poet’s dream about an imaginary, surreal woman who emerges from the subconscious and becomes a fleeting creature endowed with qualities most peculiar, then fades away once the poet awakens and faces reality. Finally, visual aspects play a prominent role in surrealistic technique. In fact, Surrealism probably enjoyed its greatest success in painting and film. Approaching a poem such as “Free Union” from a visual standpoint—as a kind of word version of an abstract painting or the disordered frames of a film—makes it more accessible.

While Surrealism as a means of artistic expression has faded with the years, Breton’s one-time revolutionary theory greatly influenced twentieth century art. Thus “Free Union” is an important poem. First, it stands as a prime example of pure Surrealism. Second, it introduces techniques that are echoed and refined throughout much of twentieth century poetry.

Forms and Devices

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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...

(This entire section contains 481 words.)

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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, birds, and fish. Yet the inconsistency is heightened by a line such as “with eyes of water to drink in prison.”

The poet may have intended that the poem sound automatic, as though he had focused on the words, “My wife,” then through free association listed everything about her that entered his thinking. Thus in the opening three lines he can move from “woodfire hair” to “lightning thoughts” to “hourglass waist,” the latter description being something of a cliché both in French and English, but Surrealism tolerated the cliché for effect. Through this uninhibited—seemingly automatic—expression of responses, the poet at one moment conjures up a lovely image such as “fingers of new-mown hay,” then a few lines later says “My wife with the spindle legs.” The imagery of automatism has been called “palimpsestic”; that is, it has a rubbed and erased quality, as though something else had been written before and new material was then added to the fragments left over before a complete erasure was made.

Because dreams play so important a role in Surrealistic art, the poem also carries qualities of that subconscious state when unlikely associations become the norm. Someone appearing in a dream may well possess “Hips of chandelier and arrow feathers” or may move “like clockwork and despair.” Like a dream, this poem—no matter how disconnected the images may seem—succeeds as an expression of the unconscious.