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David Gascoyne : Poésie et environnement, par Roger Scott

29 septembre 2007

par David Gascoyne , Roger Scott

An Unpublished Essay by David Gascoyne
Introduced by Roger Scott

Towards the end of the nineteen thirties, David Gascoyne had confronted a world in ‘severe crisis’ lurching inevitably towards a catastrophic conflict, and he was acutely conscious of the ‘mental and spiritual war’ within himself (Collected Journals 1936-1942 (London : Skoob Books, 1991), pp.255, 252). The concept of the artist as prophet and spiritual leader developed by Nietzsche must have contributed in some measure through his reading to his awareness of the urgency of his mission as a poet : ‘Am I to become a sort of Prophet after these days in the Wilderness ?’ he asks himself in another journal entry. He and his mentor, Pierre Jean Jouve, pursued a burning spiritual quest : for both, their role as poets was to testify to the truth at a time of national danger. There is a marked sense of the apocalyptic in regard to the imagery, tone and content of several of Gascoyne’s poems (published in Poems 1937-42 (Editions Poetry London, 1943) and journal entries from 1938 onwards. Both poets balanced destructive and redemptive elements of Apocalypse in the Book of Revelation.

More than forty years later, at the beginning of the 1980s, Gascoyne again finds himself driven to bear witness, as in his poem ‘Prelude to a New Fin-de-Siècle’ :
But now as in the ‘Thirties I can once again
Feel passion and frustration and that sense
Of expectation, imminence and pressing need
To express something that just must be said.
Mature awareness knows that poetry
Today demands the essence and the minimum.
That only silence such as God’s could say the Whole.

(All quotations from poems are taken from Collected Poems 1988 (Oxford University Press, 1988). Here, as in the subsequent poems from this period (1980-84), he employs a declarative simplicity, powerful and intense, to make his position very clear :
The time has come. We’re on the very brink
Of what ? Can any prophet, true or false,
Make himself heard above the mad uproar
Of all the mingling and ambiguous,
Self-righteous or dismayed denunciations,
Warnings and dire predictions that assail us from
All ’informed sources’, media-debased and bent ?

He can only ‘grope’ for ‘unexpected similes’, his ‘dubious gift has gone’ :

If this is a poem, where are the images ?
What images suffice ? Corpses and carrion,
Ubiquitous bloodshed, bigger, more beastly bombs,
Stockpiled atomic warheads, stanchless wounds,
Ruins and rubble, manic messiahs and mobs.
But poets make beauty out of ghastliness...
You think l want to ? Think truth beautiful ?
’A terrible beauty is born...’ - It is indeed.

His poem, ‘Whales and Dolphins’, engages with the question of language : ‘Poets and thinkers are increasingly/concerned with the great problem language sets’. With typical honesty and forthrightness, he writes :
A poem should avoid abstraction and all forms
of private declaration of belief ; yet I must state
that I’m convinced by what is called the Fall of Man.
we’ve been turned out of Paradise ; we’ve made the world
into a shambles and a slaughter-house.

Gascoyne’s prose piece, ‘Departures’, offers what is effectively a mission statement :
If I choose to think of our time in terms of a metaphor such as
The World’s Midnight, and thus risk seeming to be inclined to
the speciously dramatic, that is my own affair. I would only sub-
mit that it has become increasingly difficult to ignore the blatant
contemporary reality of violence, aggressive hostility, terror, de-
humanization, polarization, explosive disruption and all the other
all too familiar phenomena presented to us daily as evidence of
what such words must inadequately be used to express. How
can any of us ever suppress some longing to depart from such
an overtly catastrophic ambience and from the nihilistic hegem-
onies of power, self-interest and autonomously proliferating tech-
nology – or avoid expressing, however indirectly, some symptom
of this longing in the poems we manage to produce ?

This was the context of production for his beautiful late poem, ‘Variations on a Phrase’, and for the unpublished essay, Poetry, Environment, Catastrophe (1987). The title deliberately plays on Pierre Jean Jouve’s famous quasi-prophetic 1933 ‘avant-propos’ to Sueur de sang, translated by Gascoyne as ‘The Unconscious, Spirituality, Catastrophe’ (Poetry London, Vol.1., no.4, 1941 ; Words Press, 1988).

In the light of the current debate on global warming and the urgent measures required internationally to counter the process, I am astonished by the prescience – and relevance - of this elegantly written, persuasively argued article which has lain dormant, silent, for almost twenty years.



Poetry : Environment : Catastrophe

One of the greatest and certainly one of the most modern British poets of the 19th century was a Jesuit, Father Gerard Manley Hopkins. Though his imagery seldom directly reflects urban industrialized society, he occasionally showed himself to be well aware of what we have since come to think of as questions central to concern about our environment. In 1977, his vocation prompted him to open one of his best-known sonnets [1] by stating :
The world is charged with the grandeur of God
though the 4th line ends by asking :
[…] Why do men then now not seek his rod ?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod ;
And all is seared with trade ; bleared, smeared with toil ;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell : the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

‘And for all this’, Hopkins continues, ‘nature is never spent/ There lives the dearest freshness deep down things’, an assertion with which many a poet of today would willingly agree at his most optimistic moments, even if unable to share the priest’s faith that ‘morning at the brown brink eastward springs –
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah ! bright wings.

Two years later, over a century ago, in his lament for the felling of Binsey Poplars, a row of trees gracing what was to him ‘a sweet especial rural scene’, Hopkins warned :

O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew –
Hack and rack the growing green !
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being so slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve :
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.

Commenting on this poem, Kathleen Raine has remarked how prophetic it now appears, with its lucid perception of man’s innate tendency to destructiveness. She added that for better or worse, it is the human kingdom that is at present dominant on the earth, threatening to cut the very roots of the Tree of Life.

In another of his poems, [2] Hopkins asked :
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wilderness ? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet ;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
At the time when these words were written, the term ‘ecology’ still had long to wait before emerging into its present universal common currency. Acid rain has by now become an incalculably more effective destroyer of trees than the axe or saw. DDT could eliminate all the weeds in the world. In the second half of this century, it has become increasingly impossible to remain unalarmed by the ever-proliferating threat caused by worldwide pollution by industry and the production and use of lethally toxic chemicals. The appearance about a quarter of a century ago of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring probably marked the beginning (at least in the English-speaking countries) of a general public awareness of the dangers to this planet inherent in what was once regarded as the progress of scientific conquest for the benefit of mankind.

It has by now become apparent that the factors ineluctably threatening the environment are inseparable from those which seem to be threatening humanity itself with extinction, all of which go to make up a global complex involving nuclear industry, nuclear armament, nuclear waste disposal, together with the competitive economics of fuel and mineral resources, rival distribution systems, overproduction, waste and starvation, genetic engineering and the spread of incurable disease : all factors that have arisen as part of the inexorable advance of twentieth century technology.

Not long before his death eleven years ago, the philosopher Martin Heidegger granted the review Der Spiegel an interview in which he declared that ‘in the last 30 years, it’s certainly become clearer that the planetary movement of modern technology is a force whose magnitude can hardly be overestimated’. He went on to make the crucial observation that the ‘essential thing about technology is that man does not control it by himself’.

When asked by his interviewer if he were not being over pessimistic with regard to technology, Heidegger replied that ‘in the present context pessimism and optimism are inadequate positions. But modern technology is no tool and it no longer has anything to do with tools’.

When Der Spiegel’s interviewer objected that ‘in the highly technological parts of the world, man is well off. We live well. In fact what’s missing ?’, Heidegger replied :
Everything works. That’s what’s uncanny, that it works, that it leads to
further functioning, and that technology continues to rip and uproot Man
from the earth. I don’t know whether you’re frightened. I am when I see
TV transmissions of the earth from the moon. We don’t need an atom bomb.
Man has already been uprooted from the earth. What’s left are purely techn-
ical relations. Where man lives today is no longer an earth. In Provence I
recently had a long talk with René Char, the poet and resistance fighter. Rock-
et installations are being built there. The land is being unimaginably desolated.
Now Char’s no sentimentalist, no admirer of the idyllic, but he said to me that
this continuing deracination is the end unless thinking and writing can, without
violence, regain power.
Perhaps the most momentous feature of this interview was the philosopher’s consequent statement :
Only a god can save us now. We can only through thinking and writing prepare
To be prepared for the manifestation of god, or for the absence of god as things
go downhill all the way.

During the course of the preceding millennia of human history, man became accustomed to living with the constant threat of natural catastrophes : floods, earthquakes, eruptions, epidemics, famine and starvation due to seasonal unmechanized crop failure. But in our century we have had to learn to face living with the consequences and ever-renewed menace of purely man-made catastrophes : two world Amageddons, innumerable ‘lesser’ wars, some still being waged at this moment, and sporadic massacres of unparalleled ferocity ; and more recently, such disasters to name but a few, Seveso, Bhopal and the accidental poisoning of the entire river Rhine ; and finally, of course, just over a year ago, Chernobyl. On the day of the first anniversary of this greatest of nuclear disasters, the Russian authorities announced plans for the construction of three new nuclear installations to replace Chernobyl with freshly planned, supposedly disaster-proof, plants – thus confirming Heidegger’s observations regarding the autonomous self-perpetuation of modern technology. It might well here be added that the environment of Chernobyl in the strictest, and most realistic sense of the word, extended to more than half of the European land mass.

Fifty-two years ago this summer at the Palais de la Mutualité in Paris, I listened day after day for a week to the debates of the International Congress of Intellectuals for the Defence of Culture against Fascism : speeches by Barbusse, Malraux, Aragon, Ilya Ehrenburg, Anna Seghers, Ernst Toller, Theodore Dreiser, et j’en passe… What was to be done ? What should a writer try most to convey to his readers ? Concern about the steadily rising tide of political barbarism in the West was anxious and intense. To advocate harnessing literature to the cause of propaganda was a serious temptation, though one resisted by most serious artists. Today we ask with similar anxiety the questions arising from concern for the safeguard of the environment. I need only repeat here the words used by Nikos Kiriazis at the 8th Congress of the Organisation Mondiale des Poètes in Corfu two years ago : ‘What can we do ? What we have ever been doing. To write and to speak’. Addressing himself then to the question of Poetry and the Environment, the Greek poet also stated : ‘The problem that concerns everybody must concern us poets even more. Poets are guardians of beauty and truth. We have to defend this beauty and truth. Today this means we must fight for the environment’.

The threatening possibility of physical annihilation by a final and even more literal holocaust than the last is quite as real as was the fear of the abolition of liberal civilization by totalitarianism in 1935. Grateful though we may be for the existence of such organizations as the European Green Movement, the Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, I should not wish to appear simply to be advocating support and diffusion of their principles. Above all I would plead, first for greater awareness of how crucial are the issues we are hear to discuss and a determination to awaken readers to such an awareness as best one may,. Secondly for a determination not to succumb to perhaps the most immediate peril of all : that of becoming petrified by the drastic extremity of the situation confronting us. The French word méduser is especially suitable to express what I mean here. Today’s planetary iron age, as Edgar Morin has defined it, presents us with an aspect as horrifying as that of the Medusa, that can not only benumb but dumbfound us. What is now needed more than ever before is not simply that provision of recreation and consolation which has ever been an important function of creative writing : it is the naming of the essential, the use of words capable of arousing fuller consciousness not only of our peril but also of our profoundest resources.

I must hasten to conclude by using one further quotation. Long ago I translated and published in an English review [3] the essay written by Pierre Jean Jouve to preface his collection of poems Sueur de Sang, dated (astonishingly as it now seems) 1933. It is entitled L’Inconscient, spiritualité et catastrophe, and ends as follows :
At this very hour, civilization is faced with the possibility of the direst of
catastrophes ; a catastrophe all the more menacing in that its first and last
cause lies within man’s own inner depths, mysterious in their action and
governed by an independent logic ; moreover, man is now as never before
aware of the pulse of Death within him. The psycho-neurosis of the world
has reached so advanced a stage that we can but fear the possibility of an
act of suicide. Human society is reminded of the condition in which it
found itself in the time of St. John, or round about the year 1000 ; it awaits
the end, hoping it will come soon. It should hardly be necessary to prove
that the creator of living values (the poet) must be against catastrophe ; the
use the poet makes of the death-instinct is so entirely the contrary of that
which catastrophe would make of it ; and in a sense, poetry is the very life
of the great Eros, surviving death through death…

Be that as it may, we find ourselves today heavy laden with the accumulated
weight of instruments of Destruction ; the noisome iniquities of its nations
make of Europe ‘the great harlot…seated upon a scarlet coloured beast, full
of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns…’ ‘Alas, alas,
that great city, that was clothed in fine linen, and purple, and scarlet, and
decked with gold, and precious stones, and pearls ! For in one hour so great
riches is brought to nought’. We sense distinctly that it is a question not so
much of imminent revolution as of sheer destruction, cultivation of a culpable
object for our hatred, and regression.

Revolution, like the religious act, has need of love. Poetry is an inward veh-
icle of this love. We who are poets, therefore, must labour to bring forth, out
of such base or precious substances as are derived from man’s humble, beaut-
iful erotic force, the bloody sweat of sublimation.

Meanwhile, we must persevere in awaiting the inspiring Pentecostal word, that when it is heard will surely have come from within, where are located not only the vast domain we call the Unconscious, but also, we have been told, the kingdom of heaven. [4]

Edited by Roger Scott,
Northumbria University

© The Estate of David Gascoyne 2006


[1God’s Grandeur.


[3Poetry (London), Vol.1, no.4 (1941), pp.112-114.

[4According to a note in Gascoyne’s hand on the typescript, this essay was written for Resurgence. However, I contacted the magazine some years ago, and there is no record of publication there - or elsewhere.

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