(Poetry Criticism)

Paul Eluard 1895-1952

(Pseudonym of Eugène Grindel; also wrote under the pseudonyms Jean du Hault and Maurice Hervent) French poet and essayist.

Paul Eluard was a major poet of the surrealist movement in literature. Along with André Breton, Louis Aragon, and Benjamin Peret, Eluard was a developer of this literary movement, during the early 1920s. Derived from dadaism, which expresses nihilism and a sense of meaninglessness, surrealism focusses on the expression of internal and unconscious states of mind. Eluard successfully employed the surrealist technique of “automatic writing,” in which the author writes in a steady flow of uncensored words which, although not logical on the surface, were meant to express inner states of mind. He collaborated in works of automatic writing with Breton and in works combining poetry and collage with the painter Max Ernst. In the late 1930s, Eluard broke with the surrealist movement, due to his increased commitment to the communist party. He became an important political poet, helping to inspire and raise the morale of members of the French Resistance movement, during World War II. Eluard is also known for his powerful love poetry.

Biographical Information

Eluard was born Eugène Grindel in Paris, France, December 14, 1895. At sixteen, Eluard developed a serious illness and went to a sanatorium in Switzerland for cure. While there, he had plenty of time to read poetry and other literature. Upon his return to France, Eluard joined the army, eventually fighting in the trenches during World War I. He was injured in combat when, as a result of inhaling poisonous gas, he contracted gangrene of the bronchi. In 1917, Eluard married Elena Dmitievna Diakanova (whom he called “Gala”), a Russian woman he met while at the sanatorium, and who was the inspiration for much of his love poetry. After the war, Eluard published his first two volumes of poetry, based on his experiences with human suffering, Le devoir et l'inquiétude (1917) and Poèmes pour la paix (1918). In Paris, Eluard became associated with the poets of the dadaist movement, including André Breton, Louis Aragon, Philippe Soupault, and Tristan Tzara. Dadaism first developed before the war, but took on new meaning in the post-war period as an aesthetic movement based on the nihilistic rejection of society's standards and a disgust with rationalism. Eluard participated in a dadaist performance event in which he and another man rang loud bells while the poet Tristan Tzara read aloud from a newspaper. In the early 1920s, Eluard, with Breton, Peret, and Aragon, formulated the surrealist movement as a response to their own dadaism. Surrealism, based partly on the theories of Sigmund Freud, was a literary and artistic movement which aimed to express internal psychological states of mind, as opposed to rational thought. Eluard began utilizing automatic writing to create poetry, a technique designed to evoke in the reader a sense of the workings of the unconscious, as in a dream-state. Eluard combined the aesthetic of surrealism with the romantic elements of the love poem in verse which expressed both human suffering and the emotional heights experienced through love. In 1929, Eluard's wife left him for the surrealist painter Salvador Dali. In 1934 Eluard married Maria Benz. Eluard's political affiliation with the communist party eventually lead to his break with surrealism in 1938. During the German occupation of France in World War II, Eluard became involved with the French Resistance movement, writing poetry which helped to inspire those in sympathy with the resistance. Eluard’s second wife died in 1949. His third wife was Dominique Lemor, whom he met while on a trip to Mexico. Eluard continued to write and publish poetry until his death from a stroke in 1952.

Major Works

Eluard's first volumes of poetry, Le devoir et l'inquiétude (1917) and Poèmes pour la paix (1918) were inspired by his witness to the pain and suffering caused by World War I. His major volumes of surrealist poetry include La rose publique (1934) and Les yeux fertiles (1936). Many of Eluard's love poems are included in the volumes Capitale de la douleur (1926; Capital of Pain) and Poésie ininterrompue (1946). Eluard collaborated on two successful surrealist volumes. Les malheurs des immortels (1930) pairs prose poems by Eluard with collages by surrealist painter Ernst. L'immaculée conception (1930; Immaculate Conception), a collaboration with Breton, utilizes automatic writing in an exploration of mentally ill states of mind. Eluard's poetry written during World War II expresses strong political sentiments, in such volumes as Poésie et vérité (1942; Poetry and Truth) and Au rendezvous allemande (1944). In the post-war years, Eluard produced works of popular lyric poetry, such as Le phénix (1952).

Critical Reception

Eluard is celebrated as a foremost poet of the surrealist movement, who skillfully employed surrealist techniques, such as automatic writing, in his verse and prose poetry. His volumes Capitale de la douleur, La rose publique, and Les yeux fertiles are considered to be masterpieces of surrealist poetry. Yet critics also note the tension between Eluard's sensibilities, which tend toward the lyric, romantic, and humanist, and the strict doctrine of the surrealist aesthetic. Thus, even at the height of his production of surrealist poetry, Eluard's verse maintained lyrical and romantic qualities at odds with surrealism. On the other hand, even after his break with surrealism in 1938, and throughout the remainder of his life, Eluard's poetry retained strong elements of surrealist style. Eluard's love poetry, such as the volume, Capitale de delour, stands on its own as some of the most powerful love poetry ever written. His political poetry, written in response to World War II, is acknowledged as important to the morale of the French resistance, but has been criticized as inferior in style. This political poetry abandons much of the surrealist aesthetic, without reaching the heights of lyrical beauty achieved in his other works. However, the political poetry is respected as an expression of Eluard's strong belief in humanism and the power of love to heal human suffering. In his poetry of the post-World War II period, Eluard is recognized for his popular lyrical poems which held a broad appeal to readers.