This is a very fine book with a whole range of surrealist documents including manifestos, commentaries and beautiful artwork. It is the first book of its kind since Germain’s Surrealist Poetry in English published by Penguin, in 1978. And whereas Germain’s book contained work from the US, Remy’s book concentrates solely on surrealist writing produced in Britain. Remy also brings back into that canon, a range of surrealist poetry written by women; and, as such, he follows in the welcome footsteps of the Angels of Anarchy exhibition, staged last year at the Manchester Art Gallery. This exhibition, itself, reintroduced the art of not-only the more famous artists such as Frida Kahlo, Lee Miller and Dorothea Tanning, but a host of others who were also working in similar ways.
Remy’s On the Thirteenth Stroke of Midnight introduced this reader to women writers and artists such as Emmy Bridgewater and Ithell Colquhoun who married Toni del Renzio, for a while a leading force in British Surrealism. Emmy Bridgewater often paints pictures of rural, natural scenes which might act as correlatives of inner states , ‘Despair has taken time and cast a shoe/ And dark black rivers circle in the brine/ Round pebbles are to rattle rattle down.’ ‘Secrets’. There is here, a sense of what, David Lomas has called ‘a trend [in British Surrealism] away from urban modernity, a growing suspicion of more euphoric attitudes of the early modernist movement towards city and towards modernity, that’s reflected in this resurgence of natural imagery and a more melancholic tone.’
Later in this volume, Edith Rimmington also uses more nature imagery in the particularly fine ‘War Journey to the Country’, ‘From the hills of sleep to the plains of awake/ Passed still pale apathetic tree masses,/ Watching black chain-bound loads/ Oil bellies …/ Repressed girders/ Drawn unresisting, arteries hardened,/ Drifting like a smoke line,…/. What is technically interesting here is the absence of commas between adjectives which results in a squeezing of imagery in a costive chain, and the interestingly unabashed using of simile in ‘drifting like a smoke line’. This latter allows a more conventional yoking of word and image than Surrealism might ordinarily ‘allow’.
Ithell Colquhoun’s texts come from a long, deft prose ‘narrative’ which was eventually published in 1961. And the longer prose text – I hesitate to call them prose poems – is often a slightly hidden, feature of surrealism. In this book, we have Hugh Sykes Davies’s beautifully written Petron, surely a text that would repay republishing; as both de Chirico’s Hedemeros and Roy Fisher’s The Ship’s Orchestra have; two texts which have no place in either the Germain or Remy’s anthology. Many of these texts tend to feature a lone figure wandering amidst an emptied landscape or sea side, which might tend to support Lomas’ general point about the adoption of a ‘more melancholic tone’, and the movement’s avowed allegiance to the tradition of romanticism.
Remy gives us the one surviving text written by Sheila Legge who, according to Remy, ‘phantom-like, disappeared’. And much of the writing here is from writers producing most fluently in the late thirties and early forties whose names have been almost completely lost to literary history, such as Thomas Samuel Haile. But the purpose of this beautifully produced book is not simply archaeological. Remy and Carcanet reproduce the various manifestos produced by the leading figures in the movement. The movement itself was based around what Sykes Davies, himself, called, ‘the exploration of the unconscious’. Indeed, Jung championed the movement seeing it as bringing a ‘teleological’ equilibrium to ‘a one-sided, abnormal, dangerous state of consciousness’. Remy calls this ‘The principle of non-contradiction, words rule supreme, they have the power to escape from rational logic, and this is exactly what happens in the very image. … the responsibility for the meaning of the line is entirely ours’.
Such a shift of responsibility is not only a flight from ‘rationality’, though some suggest that Breton’s turn from Dadaism to surrealism was a move to greater rationality. But the movement’s concentration on the unconscious and automatism might well have led to losses such as that of Sheila Legge; perhaps to Ithell Colquhoun’s later research into the occult. Other figures were less lucky, and the story of David Gasgoyne’s descent into mental illness is well known. There are others in this book whose later achievements were far more mainstream: for example, Humphrey Jennings, George Melly, Roland Penrose and Desmond Morris. And Anthony Earnshaw’s ‘poems’ are collections of very funny epigrams that belong to that line of British surrealism which starts with Tristram Shandy and, via The Goon Show, points to Glenn Baxter.
At the same time, the final impression of this book is that it, too, champions a rather partial view of British surrealism. Remy clearly can’t stand Dylan Thomas at any price, lumping him in with T.S.Eliot and James Joyce as writing ‘in total contradiction with the nature and goal of the surrealist proposition and with its fundamental principles’. In Remy’s magisterial survey Surrealism in Britain (1999), he also rids surrealism with any contact with Thomas’ acolytes in the Apocalytism of Henry Treece, J.F. Hendry and others in the forties, with their vitiating ‘teleology’. Other important figures such as Philip O’Connor are also missing. Perhaps it is in the final nature of something that relentlessly champions the inchoate, that it, too, will become fissiparous and febrile in this necessary book.