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Old 11-28-2011, 05:05 AM
Andrew Frisardi Andrew Frisardi is offline
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Default David Gascoyne's "Miserere"

Does anyone here know the British poet David Gascoyne? Gascoyne was a surrealist when he first published in the 1930s (and was a friend of the French surrealists), though he later moved on to a more representational style. His Short History of Surrealism (1935) was widely admired and remained in print for years, and his poetry was often anthologized a few decades or so ago—maybe it still is. (I wouldn't be surprised if he's in the Norton anthology of modern poetry, although I haven't checked.)

I've recently read and reread Gascoyne's multi-section poem "Miserere" (from Psalm 51), which I find very powerful. Gascoyne wrote in this apocalyptic vein in a few of his poems, I think convincingly. The poem was printed in New British Poets (New Directions, 1949), edited by Kenneth Rexroth.

I like the ambition and scope and the authenticity of the voice of this poem, and wonder what others make of it. Or I'm happy if others simply read it and get something out of it as I have.


Le désespoir a des ailes
L'amour a pour aile nacré
Le désespoir
Les sociétés peuvent changer.

—Pierre Jean Jouve


"It is finished." The last nail
Has consummated the inhuman pattern, and the veil
Is torn. God's wounds are numbered.
All is now withdrawn: void yawns
The rock-hewn tomb. There is no more
Regeneration in the stricken sun,
The hope of faith no more,
No height no depth no sign
And no more history.

This may it be: and worse.
And may we know Thy perfect darkness.
And may we into Hell descend with Thee.


Stark in the pasture on the skull-shaped hill,
In swollen aura of disaster shrunken and
Unsheltered by the ruin of the sky,
Intensely concentrated in themselves the banded
Saints abandoned kneel.

And under the unburdened tree
Great in their midst, the rigid folds
Of a blue cloak upholding as a text
Her grief-scrawled face for the ensuing world to read,
The Mother, whose dead Son's dear head
Weighs like a precious blood-incrusted stone
On her unfathomable breast:

Holds Him God has forsaken, Word made flesh
Made ransom, to the slow smoulder of her heart
Till the catharsis of the race shall be complete.

De Profundis

Out of these depths:

Where footsteps wander in the marsh of death and an
Intense infernal glare is on our faces facing down:

Out of these depths, what shamefaced cry
Half choked in the dry throat, as though a stone
Were our confounded tongue, can ever rise:
Because the mind has been struck blind
And may no more conceive
Thy Throne . . .

Because the depths
Are clear with only death's
Marsh-light, because the rock of grief
Is clearly too extreme for us to breach:
Deepen our depths,

And aid our unbelief.


Is man's destructive lust insatiable? There is
Grief in the blow that shatters the innocent face.
Pain blots out clearer sense. And pleasure suffers
The trial thrust of death in even the bride's embrace.

The black catastrophe that can lay waste our worlds
May be unconsciously desired. Fear masks our face;
And tears as warm and cruelly wrung as blood
Are tumbling even in the mouth of our grimace.

How can our hope ring true? Fatality of guilt
And complicated anguish confounds rime and place;
While from the tottering ancestral house an angry voice
Resounds in prophecy. Grant us extraordinary grace,

O spirit hidden in the dark in us and deep,
And bring to light the dream out of our sleep.


Slow are the years of light:
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxand more immense
Than the imagination. And the years return
Until the Unity is filled. And heavy are
The lengths of Time with the slow weight of tears.
Since Thou didst weep, on a remote hill-side
Beneath the olive-trees, fires of unnumbered stars
Have burnt the years away, until we see them now:
Since Thou didst weep, as many tears
Have flowed like hourglass sand.
Thy tears were all.
And when our secret face
Is blind because of the mysterious
Surging of tears wrung by our most profound
Presentiment of evil in man's fate, our cruellest wounds
Become Thy stigmata. They are Thy tears which fall.

Ex Nihilo

Here am I now cast down
Beneath the black glare of a netherworld's
Dead suns, dust in my mouth, among
Dun tiers no tears refresh: am cast
Down by a lofty hand,

Hand that I love! Lord Light,
How dark is thy arm's will and ironlike
Thy ruler's finger that has sent me here!
Far from Thy face I nothing understand,
But kiss the Hand that has consigned

Me to these latter years where I must learn
The revelation of despair, and find
Among the debris of all certainties
The hardest stone on which to found
Altar and shelter for Eternity.


O Master—fate and mystery
And message and long promised
Revelation! Murmur of the leaves
Of life's prolific tree in the dark haze
Of midsummer: and inspiration of the blood
In the ecstatic secret bed: and bare
Inscription on a prison wall, "For thou shalt persevere
In thine identity...": a momentary glimpsed
Escape into the golden dance of dust
Beyond the window. These are all.

Uncomprehending. But to understand
Is to endure, withstand the withering blight
Of winter night's long desperation, war,
Confusion, till at the dense core
Of this existence all the spirit's force
Becomes acceptance of blind eyes
To see no more. Then they may see at last;
And all they see their vision sanctifies.

Ecce Homo

Whose is this horrifying face,
This putrid flesh, discoloured, flayed,
Fed on by flies, scorched by the sun?
Whose are these hollow red-filmed eyes
And thorn-spiked head and spear-stuck side?
Behold the Man: He is Man's Son.

Forget the legend, tear the decent veil
That cowardice or interest devised
To make their mortal enemy a friend,
To hide the bitter truth all His wounds tell,
Lest the great scandal be no more disguised:
He is in agony till the world's end,

And we must never sleep during that time!
He is suspended on the cross-tree now
And we are onlookers at the crime,
Callous contemporaries of the slow
Torture of God. Here is the hill
Made ghastly by His spattered blood.

Whereon He hangs and suffers still:
See, the centurions wear riding-boots,
Black shirts and badges and peaked caps,
Greet one another with raised-arm salutes;
They have cold eyes, unsmiling lips;
Yet these His brothers know not what they do.

And on his either side hang dead
A labourer and a factory hand,
Or one is maybe a lynched Jew
And one a Negro or a Red,
Coolie or Ethiopian, Irishman,
Spaniard or German democrat.

Behind His lolling head the sky
Glares like a fiery cataract
Red with the murders of two thousand years
Committed in His name and by
Crusaders, Christian warriors
Defending faith and property.

Amid the plain beneath His transfixed hands,
Exuding darkness as indelible
As guilty stains, fanned by funereal
And lurid airs, besieged by drifting sands
And clefted landslides our about-to-be
Bombed and abandoned cities stand.

He who wept for Jerusalem
Now sees His prophecy extend
Across the greatest cities of the world,
A guilty panic reason cannot stem
Rising to raze them all as He foretold;
And He must watch this drama to the end.

Though often named, He is unknown
To the dark kingdoms at His feet
Where everything disparages His words,
And each man bears the common guilt alone
And goes blindfolded to his fate,
And fear and greed are sovereign lords.

The turning point of history
Must come. Yet the complacent and the proud
And who exploit and kill, may be denied
Christ of Revolution and of Poetry
The resurrection and the life
Wrought by your spirit's blood.

Involved in their own sophistry
The black priest and the upright man
Faced by subversive truth shall be struck dumb,
Christ of Revolution and of Poetry,
While the rejected and condemned become
Agents of the divine.

'Not from a monstrance silver- wrought
But from the tree of human pain
Redeem our sterile misery,
Christ of Revolution and of Poetry,
That man's long journey through the night
May not have been in vain.

Last edited by Andrew Frisardi; 04-09-2012 at 04:23 AM.
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Old 11-28-2011, 08:54 AM
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R. Nemo Hill R. Nemo Hill is offline
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I've printed this out to read while working in the Holiday Retail Silk Mines today, Andrew. I've always been curious about his work, but never read any of it. Thanks.

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Old 11-28-2011, 01:56 PM
Cally Conan-Davies Cally Conan-Davies is offline
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Neither have I, and I'm very glad to be introduced, Andrew. I had to stop half way through reading this to thank you, because I've read lines already that have made my throat lumpen. I'll be studying this for some time, I know it.

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Old 11-28-2011, 05:53 PM
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Steve Bucknell Steve Bucknell is offline
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Default "Grant us extraordinary grace"

Hi Andrew,

I first read David Gascoyne in the influential 1996 Picador anthology Conductors of Chaos edited by Iain Sinclair.”The work I value is that which seems most remote, alienated, fractured. I don’t claim to “understand” it but I like having it around.” Sinclair. In this anthology Sinclair “Invited a number of poets to nominate significant figures from previous generations; thus demonstrating that a Ouija board wasn’t required to establish contact with an intelligent and provocative body of poetry.” Gascoyne was invited and accepted an invitation from Jeremy Reed.

Jeremy Reed wrote, in his introduction: “Gascoyne personifies the youthful genius who risks everything and burns out early. His incandescent, powerful, visionary poetry, which looked back to the tradition of Holderlin, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Lautremont, and forward to the violently juxtaposed images of the French surrealists, was largely written in his twenties.” You can’t help feeling that Reed does Gascoyne a disservice, implying again and again in this short introduction that it was “the poetry that Gascoyne wrote in the 1930’s” that was valuable. “He is a marvellous antidote to the pedestrianism of so much post-Larkin writing.” The selection of Gascoyne’s work focuses on the Surrealist-influenced early work: the wonderful “And the Seventh Dream Is the Dream of Isis” and “SalvadorDali” (who Gascoyne knew.) “The face of the precipice is black with lovers;/The sun above them is a bag of nails...”

I think that this focus on Gascoyne as an important conduit of European modernism and Surrealist influence has buried his interesting, and brave post-war development as a poet with strong personal, political and spiritual themes.

“In 1937 he first made contact with the poet-philosopher Benjamin Fondane and discovered Pierre Jean Jouve. It was a significant turning point. He entered into analysis for several months with Jouve’s psychiatrist wife, Blanche Reverchon. Gascoyne’s Hölderlin’s Madness (1938), with four original poems interpolated in the "free adaptations" of the German poet, was his response to Jouve’s Poèmes de la folie de Hölderlin. In Gascoyne’s third collection, Poems 1937-42 (1943, with eight striking reproductions in colour by Graham Sutherland), he found his mature voice and emerged as a religious poet”. Times Obituary 2001.

“Cyril Connolly claimed that the poems "take us in their chill, calm, sensitive language as near the edge of the precipice as a human being is able to go and still turn back"” Times Obituary 2001.

A work like “Miserere” echoes back to a poet like Clare and forward to Geoffrey Hill and R.S.Thomas.In Ecce Homo he provides the unknown Christ to go with Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.

Gascoyne struggled with depression into the post-war years. After his father’s death he endured periods in hospital. I wonder whether the treatments included ECT, common at the time, which may have further compounded his problems with writers block.

It was in Whitecroft Hospital on the Isle of Wight that Gascoyne met his wife, Judy Lewis, in a remarkable coincidence. Judy explained: “ One of my favourite poems was called September Sun. I read it one afternoon and one of the patients came up to me afterwards and said 'I wrote that', I put my hand on his shoulder and said 'Of course you did, dear'. Then of course when I got to know him I realised he had.” Wikipedia.

September Sun: 1947.

Magnificent strong sun! in these last days
So prodigally generous of pristine light
That’s wasted only by men’s sight who will not see
And by self-darkened spirits from whose night
Can rise no longer orison or praise:

Let us consume in fire unfed like yours
And may the quickened gold within me come
To mintage in due season, and not be
Transmuted to no better end than dumb
And self-sufficient usury. These days and years

May bring the sudden call to harvesting,
When if the fields Man labours only yield
Glitter and husks, then with an angrier sun may He
Who first with His gold seed the sightless field
Of Chaos planted, all our trash to cinders bring.

His marriage in 1975 to Judy Lewis brought about a renaissance: he began writing poetry again and new editions of his earlier work brought him back to public attention. Before he died, he was appointed Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et Lettres by the French government.

“ His anguish at the fate of the world's "Bombed and abandoned cities" ('Ecce Homo') remained undimmed. In his late poem, 'Prelude to a New Fin-de-Siècle', this takes the form of a litany of the century's wars. In the face of atrocity Gascoyne wonders aloud what poetry can do: "- If this is a poem, where are the images?/- What images suffice?". Gascoyne's imagination was always stalked by despair but his strength in not yielding to it gives his poems their iron-like durability. He believed in "The faithful fire of vision" ('The Sacred Hearth') even though it abandoned him for long periods of his life.” Poetry Archive.

I have a copy of his 1965 Collected Poems OUP , edited and introduced by Robin Skelton. Thanks to this thread I am now reading it beyond the early, astonishing, surrealist poems.

Having read more about Gascoyne I am struck by the fascinating story of his life, his early fame, his embrace of European modernism and his “excommunication” by Andre Breton as his poetry changed and developed. A good biography is needed.


Last edited by Steve Bucknell; 11-29-2011 at 04:04 AM.
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Old 11-28-2011, 06:14 PM
Cally Conan-Davies Cally Conan-Davies is offline
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Wow, Steve - that's great. I think I'm in love. With his language. The iron in it. What a discovery this day has brought!

Still taking in Miserere, and now I'm dying in "an angrier sun"...

I've just enquired of our bookshelves, and Gascoyne isn't in the house, so I'll have to find a Collected.
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Old 11-28-2011, 07:49 PM
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Andrew Mandelbaum Andrew Mandelbaum is offline
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I have here a 1994 Selected Works of his that has a very interesting introductory notes section where he briefly unpacks some of work and reasoning. (Published by Enitharmon Press)

Here is my favorite piece of his (thus far) :


The severed artery
The sand-obliterated face
Amazed eyes high above catastrophe
Distributed -- Is this the man's remains
Who walked the lap of lands, and sang?

Explosions of every dimension
Directions run away
Towards the sun
The bitter sunset, or
Who knows, where all things rise and fall,
Revolve, and meet themselves again?

This is the man of matted hair
And music, whom a wanderer
Had scented a long way off, by reason of
The salt blood in his heart
The black sun in his blood
The gestures of his skeleton, simplicity
Of white bones worn away
Like rock by milk of love.

Dissolve and meet themselves again
All things; the sandy artery
The severed head
Limbs strewn across the rocks
Like broken boats:
So shall their widespread body rise
And march, and marching sing.

The end faintly recalls a crazy corpse poem by some scribbler I read somewhere recently.

Last edited by Andrew Mandelbaum; 11-29-2011 at 07:12 AM.
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Old 11-29-2011, 03:37 AM
Andrew Frisardi Andrew Frisardi is offline
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Fabulous stuff, Steve and Andrew, and I’m glad you’re interested Nemo and Cally! I agree with that statement in Steve’s post, that it’s a mistake to write off Gascoyne’s post-surrealist work, which is the work that made him famous. All his work was for salvaging the imagination in a world that doesn’t want it. This is from his Short Survey of Surrealism:

Confined from early childhood in a world that almost everything he ever hears or reads will tell him is the one and only real world and that, as almost no-one, on the contrary, will point out to him, is a prison, man—l’homme moyen sensuel—bound hand and foot—not only by those economic chains of whose existence he is becoming ever more and more aware, but also by chains of second-hand and second-rate ideas, the preconceptions and prejudices that help to bind together the system known (ironically, as some think) by the name of ‘civilization’, is for ever barred except in sleep from that, other plane of existence where stones fall upwards and the sun shines by night, if it chooses, and where even the trees talk freely with the statues that have come down for ever from their pedestals—a world to which entrance has generally been supposed, up till now, to be the sole privilege of poets and other madmen.
I copied this from Kathleen Raine’s essay on him (which is how I first found his work), “David Gascoyne and the Prophetic Role,” in her book of essays Defending Ancient Springs. She was a main champion of Gascoyne’s work, and a close friend.

Gascoyne was a visionary in a time that generally doesn’t believe in visionaries. But he was low key not doctrinaire or bent on proselytizing his views. These are quotes from a review I wrote of his Selected Prose:

“Anything like ‘the bardic tradition’ is apt at present [1987] to be regarded with misapprehension as representing an outdated mode of idealism. . . . To the nihilist the concept of timeless value is of course meaningless, and it is our affliction to live in an age of unconscious nihilists.” But Gascoyne expresses in another prose piece: “The last thing I want is to appear to be making the arrogant suggestion that poets should be writing in any other way than that which spontaneously occurs to them. If I choose to think of our time in terms of a metaphor such as the World’s Midnight . . . that is my own affair.”

Last edited by Andrew Frisardi; 11-29-2011 at 04:28 AM. Reason: correction
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Old 11-29-2011, 03:50 AM
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Susan d.S. Susan d.S. is offline
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Thanks for sharing this, Andrew. I see a biography by Robert Fraser is forthcoming from OUP:
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Old 11-29-2011, 04:01 AM
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Steve Bucknell Steve Bucknell is offline
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Default Thought-fox

Great news, thanks Susan ! I'm really keen to read this now. Fraser describes himself as "an academic fox" and looks like a lively writer:
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Old 11-29-2011, 04:30 AM
Andrew Frisardi Andrew Frisardi is offline
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Yes, that's excellent news for bringing him more to people's attention again. I'm not generally a big reader of biographies but I might make an exception in this case.
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