Surrealism Themes

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Surrealism Themes

(Literary Movements for Students)

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Love
One of the favorite themes of the French surrealists was love, particularly the ability of love to overcome reason. One of the most striking examples of this is in a scene from Desnos’s prose work Deuil pour Deuil. Desnos places the narrator in a desert city of uninhabited ruins along a river. “Despite our anxiousness, no one, no one at all, came to us,” the narrator says. The “us” implies that somebody is with him, although later in the poem he admits that he “was always alone in reality.” The narrator blindly searches for love. “Strange sicknesses, curious customs, bell-tolling love, where have you led me? In these stones I find no trace of what I seek.” He cannot find the love for which he is looking and is trapped by the “curious customs” of love, which overcome his reason.

The narrator has mirage-like visions of caravans of beautiful women, whom he “waits for . . . tormented,” but they turn out to be “old dust covered women,” if they even exist at all. One suspects not, especially when he later sees “planes without pilots encircled with rounds of smoke.” The planes land and three women get out, but at the end of the scene the women are gone, and the narrator repeats a variation of the opening lines of the scene, implying that he is in fact imprisoned in this dream world, where love is driving him mad.

The Human Body
Surrealists were noted for their descriptions of the human body, particularly the female body. Although these depictions are sometimes done graphically in a sexual manner, at other times, the surrealists describe parts of the body that are completely innocent. A good example of the latter is Breton’s poem “My Wife with Her Wood-Fire Hair.” In the poem, Breton starts at his wife’s hair and slowly works his way down her body, through her “thoughts of heatsparks” and “eyebrows like the edge of a swallow’s nest,” to her “champagne shoulders” and “fingers of cut hay.” Each example is a vivid picture of a particular part of his wife’s anatomy, and with rare exception, each image is a unique creation that sets up a picture in the reader’s mind. One can envision his wife’s thoughts, for example, as literal “heatsparks” that flare with electricity around her brain.

Nature
The surrealists also incorporate nature-related images in their poetry. These generally take one of two forms: isolated images representing various aspects of nature, or larger images of nature’s elements. Both types can be seen in Eluard’s poem “You Rise Up.” An example of the first type appears halfway through the poem when the poet writes, “You sing night hymns on the strings of the rainbow.” A rainbow is a positive symbol of nature, which is consistent with the overall tone of the poem, in which Eluard sings the praises of women.

As for the second type of nature, Eluard includes three of the four elements—water, earth, and fire—elsewhere in the poem. He starts off with the two lines: “You rise up the water unfolds / You lie down the water opens.” The elemental image of water often implies life, and in this case, the poet is remarking about how women are part of the process of creating life and so are one with the lifegiving water, which closes and opens to accommodate the woman in the poem. This idea is reinforced in the rest of the poem first through the use of earth: “You are the earth taking root / And on which everything is built,” then through fire:

You sacrifice time
To the eternal youth of the exact flame
Which veils nature in reproducing it.

In the earth image, the woman takes root, providing a solid foundation from which to build humanity. In the fire image, the woman sacrifices the majority of her life to the bearing and raising of children, a cycle that repeats itself eternally. It should be noted, however, that even though this poem seems to make use of traditional contexts for images, in many cases, the word a surrealist uses does not always match its traditional meaning.