Paul Éluard

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Other Literary Forms

Paul Éluard wrote many critical essays explaining the theories of the Surrealist movement, in which he played so large a part, and delineating his personal aesthetic theories as well. These critical works include the various Surrealist manifestos (many coauthored with André Breton), Avenir de la poésie (1937), Poésie involuntaire et poésie intentionelle (1942), À Pablo Picasso (1944), Picasso à Antibes (1948), Jacques Villon ou l’art glorieux (1948), La Poésie du passé (1951), Anthologie des écrits sur l’art (1952), and Les Sentiers et routes de la poésie (1952). Since the Surrealists were little interested in the limitations of genre, much of Éluard’s poetic work falls into the category of the prose poem. His complete works are published in Œuvres complètes (1968). Some of his letters are published in Lettres à Joe Bousquet (1973).


Paul Éluard was, with André Breton and Louis Aragon, a cofounder of Surrealism, one of the principal artistic movements of the twentieth century. Earlier, he had also been instrumental in the Dada movement. As one of the primary theoreticians of Surrealism, Éluard helped to outline its aesthetic concepts in a number of manifestos and illustrated its techniques in his huge output of poetry. He published more than seventy volumes of poetry in his lifetime, many of which reveal his ability to set aside Surrealist theories in favor of poetic effect. As a result, many critics have called him the most original of the Surrealist poets and the truest poet of the group. His love poetry in particular is singled out for praise. Eluard’s Capital of Pain, La Rose publique, and Les Yeux fertiles are widely regarded as among the finest products of Surrealism in French poetry.


Paul Éluard was born Eugène Grindel on December 14, 1895, in Saint-Denis, a suburb of Paris. His background was strictly working-class—his father was a bookkeeper and his mother (from whom he took the name Éluard) a seamstress—and most of his early years were spent in the vicinity of factories in Saint-Denis and Aulnay-sous-Bois. Éluard was a good student at the École Communale, but later, when the Grindels moved to Paris and the boy was enrolled at the École Supérieure Colbert, his scholastic performance declined. His education was cut short by illness, and he was placed in a sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland, when he was sixteen. He returned to Paris two years later and almost immediately entered the army; his experiences in the trenches of World War I crystallized his growing awareness of the suffering of humanity. Suffering from gangrene of the bronchi as a result of poison gas, Éluard spent more time in a sanatorium, reading much poetry, especially the works of Arthur Rimbaud, Lautréamont, and Charles Vildrac. He also read Percy Bysshe Shelley, Novalis, and Heraclitus of Ephesus, and he developed a special feeling for Walt Whitman, whose Leaves of Grass (1855) he read many times.

In 1917, Éluard published his first book of poetry, Le Devoir et l’inquiétude. The following year, his Poèmes pour la paix was published, and he met Jean Paulhan, “impresario of poets,” who advanced his career. He also met André Breton, Louis Aragon, Tristan Tzara, Philippe Soupault, and Giorgio de Chirico—the writers and artists who would eventually become, with Éluard, the leading figures of the Surrealist movement. Surrealism, however, was preceded by Dada; Éluard, Breton, Aragon, Francis Picabia, Soupault, Marguerite Buffet, and others, according to Tzara, all took part in the public “debut” of Dada in January, 1920, at a matinee organized by Littérature, a Dadaist review. The spectacle caused an enormous uproar, and a week later, Éluard joined Breton, Soupault, and others in a public debate at the Université Populaire. Éluard began to publish a review called Proverbe, to which all the Dadaists contributed. Wrote Tzara, “It was chiefly a matter of contradicting logic and language.”

As Dada moved toward the more rigorous Surrealism, Éluard’s name appeared on various manifestos. His poetry changed as a result of his allegiance to Dada and Surrealism; under the influence of the Surrealists’ enthusiasm for “automatic writing,” his language became freer. He also developed friendships with some of the most influential artists of the time, including Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, and Joan Miró.

In 1917, Éluard married Gala (Elena Dimitievna Diakanova), whom he had met in Switzerland in 1912, and though they had a daughter, Cécile, in 1918, the marriage disintegrated when Gala turned her affections toward Dalí. Brokenhearted, Éluard disappeared without explanation in March, 1924. Rumors circulated that he had died. In fact, he had sailed on the first available ship out of Marseilles, beginning a mysterious seven-month voyage around the world. He was seen in Rome, Vienna, Prague, London, and Spain, and he visited such distant locales as Australia, New Zealand, the Antilles, Panama, Malaysia, Java, Sumatra, Ceylon, Indochina, and India.

On his return, Éluard once again enthusiastically threw himself into the Surrealist movement, becoming editor and director of the movement’s reviews, La Révolution surréaliste and La Surréalisme au service de la révolution. Following Surrealist theories, he experimented in his poetry with verbal techniques, the free expression of the mind, and the relation between dream and reality. These inquiries led to L’Immaculée Conception (1930), which he wrote with André Breton. That same year, he made a final break with Gala, having met Maria Benz (affectionately called Nusch), who was the subject of numerous works by Picasso. The publication of Capital of Pain had established Éluard as an important poet, and with La Rose publique and Les Yeux fertiles he became the leading poet of Surrealism.

Éluard’s world trip and his memories of proletarian life and of the war had made him sensitive to the political trends of the 1930’s. These feelings came to the fore at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. The fascist armies in Spain seemed to Éluard the forerunners of a total destruction of the modern concept of freedom. In response, his poetry became more politically oriented. He wrote in L’Évidence poétique (1936) that “the time has come when poets have a right and a duty to maintain that they are profoundly involved in the lives of other men, in communal life.” He became exasperated with the detachment of his Surrealist colleagues and separated from the group.

In 1939, Éluard once again found himself in the French army, and after the disastrous defeat, he courageously worked for the Resistance in Paris and Lozère, helping to found the weekly newspaper Lettres françaises. He was constantly in danger of arrest, and he and Nusch, whom he had married in 1934, where forced to move every month to avoid the Gestapo. He joined the outlawed Communist Party in 1942 (he had been affiliated with it for nearly fifteen years). He used the pseudonyms Jean du Hault and Maurice Hervent, and the maquis circulated his poems...

(The entire section is 3037 words.)