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Paul Éluard

Paul Éluard, born Eugène Émile Paul Grindel was a French poet who was one of the founders of the surrealist movement. Éluard was born in Saint-Denis, Seine-Saint-Denis, France, the son of Eugène Clément Grindel and wife Jeanne-Marie Cousin. His father was an accountant when Paul was born but soon opened a real estate agency. His mother was a seamstress. Around 1908, the family moved to Paris, rue Louis Blanc. Éluard attended the local school in Aulnay-sous-Bois before obtaining a scholarship to attend the Ecole Superieure de Colbert. At the of age 16, he contracted tuberculosis, interrupted his studies, and remained hospitalized until April 1914 in the Clavadel sanatorium near Davos.

There he met a young Russian girl of his age, Helena Diakonova, whom he nicknamed Gala. He confided in her of his dream of becoming a poet, of his admiration for “poets dead of hunger, sizzling dreams” and of his parents’ disapproval. She wrote to him that “you will become a great poet”. They became inseparable. She believed in him and gave him the confidence and encouragement and provided him with the sense of security he needed to write. She listened and was involved in the creation of his verses. She became his muse and the critic, always honest, and told him which images she preferred, which verses she disliked. He was then particularly inspired by Walt Whitman. In Clavadel, Éluard also met the Brazilian poet Manuel Bandeira. They became friends during their hospitalization in the sanatorium, and kept in touch by mail after returning to their respective countries.

In April 1914, Paul Eluard and Gala were both declared healthy again and sent home, to Paris and Moscow respectively. The separation was brutal. Europe was on the brink of war. Paul was mobilised. He passed his physical and was assigned to the auxiliary services because of his poor health. He suffered from migraine, bronchitis, cerebral anaemia and chronic appendicitis and spent most of 1915 under treatment in a military hospital not far from home. Paul’s mother came to visit him and he talked for hours about his beloved, opening his heart to her and slowly rallying her to his cause. Her initial hostility towards Gala slowly faded away, and she started calling her “the little Russian”. However, Paul’s father, who had also been mobilised, remained adamant that she could not come to Paris.

In Moscow, Gala listened to no one. Her love for Paul gave her an unshakable faith that they would be reunited again. She wrote to Paul’s mother to befriend her and finally convinced her stepfather to let her go to Paris to study French at the Sorbonne. She took a boat to Helsinki, then reached Stockholm before embarking for England. Once in London, she took a train to Southampton before taking a boat to rally Dieppe, and finally took a train to Paris.

In June 1917, Paul was sent to Hargnicourt to work in one of the military evacuation hospital, 10 kilometres from the front line. The ‘poet’ was given a chair, a desk and a pen to painfully write to the families of the dead and the wounded. He wrote more than 150 letters a day. At night he dug graves to bury the dead. For the first time since Clavadel, shaken by the horrors of the war, Paul started writing verses again. Gala wrote to him “I promise you our life will be glorious and magnificent”.

On 14 December 1917, Paul Eluard turned 21 and wrote to his mother “I can assure you, that your approval will be infinitely precious to me. However, for all our sakes, nothing will change my mind”. He married Gala on 20 February 1918. However, he announced to his parents and newlywed wife that when he went back to the front line he would voluntarily join the “real soldiers” in the trenches. Gala protested and threatened to go back to Russia to become a nurse on the Russian front. But nothing would do, and for the first time Paul resisted her. “Let me live a tougher life”, he wrote her, “less like a servant, less like a domestic”. Two days after getting married, Paul left for the front line.

There, living conditions were severe. Eluard wrote to his parents “Even the strongest are falling. We advanced 50 kilometres, three days without bread or wine.” His health suffered. On 20 March 1917 he was sent to a military hospital with incipient pleurisy.

On 10 May 1918 Gala gave birth to a baby girl who was eventually named Cecile.

In 1919, Eluard wrote to Gala: “War is coming to an end. We will now fight for happiness after having fought for Life”. Waiting to be sent home, he published “Duty and Anxiety” and “Little Poems for Peace”. Following the advice of his publisher, he sent the poems to various personalities of the literary world who took a stand against the war. Gala helped him to prepare and send the letters. In 1919, Jean Paulhan, an eminent academic and writer, responded to his letter expressing his admiration. He referred him to three young writers who had started a new journal called Literature. He encouraged Paul to go and meet them.

The three young poets Jean Paulhan recommended to Paul were André Breton, Phillipe Soupalt and Louis Aragon.

The meeting with Paul took place in March 1919. Paul was intimidated. He was shy and blushing. He was still a soldier and wearing his war uniform. It was the best omen for the three poets, who all showed great courage during the war. Paul brought with him his poems and read them to the ‘jury’. They were seduced by the young man and liked his work. They decided to publish one of his texts in the next edition of Literature.

Wounded and scared by the ar  the four poets found solace in their friendship and poetry. Against a society that wants to channel them into being good and useful citizens, they chose a life of bohemia. They refused the bourgeois middle-class aspirations of money, respectability and comfort and rejected its moral codes. They hated politicians and the military or anyone with ambitions of power. They rejected all constraints. Their ideal was freedom and they felt they had already paid the price for it. Revolted and passionate, they were looking for a new ideal, something as far detached as possible from the current political and philosophical programmes. They found solace in The Dadaist movement, which originated in Germany.

In November 1921, Paul Eluard and his wife visited Max Ernst at his home in Cologne. Paul had an immediate and an absolute sympathy for Max. Underneath the charm, Max, like Paul, was a man deeply revolted, in total rupture with society. Unlike Paul, however, he remained indifferent to propagating this revolt which he considered to be an intimate ‘elegance’.

Paul and Gala moved to a house just outside Paris and were joined by Max Ernst, who entered France illegally, using Eluard’s passport. Jean Paulhan once more helped Paul by providing Max Ernst with fake identity papers. Paul, Max and Gala entered into a menage a trois in 1922. Paul was torn between his love for Gala and his friendship for Max. He refused to challenge Gala, and spent his nights in clubs: the Zelli, the Cyrano, the Parrot, and Mitchell. Gala’s well-being was still what mattered to him above all and he tried to forget his anxiety by drinking.

Eluard, depressed, wrote “Dying of not Dying”. On 24 March 1924, Eluard disappeared. No one knew where he was. The night before he had had a worrisome meeting with Louis Aragon during which he confessed that he wanted to put an end to a present that tortured him. For his friends, Paul was gone forever. But Paul wrote to Gala and four months later she bought a ticket to go and find him and bring him back, locating him in Saigon.

Eluard supported the Maroccan revolution, as early as 1925, and in January 1927 he joined the communist party together with Louis Aragon, Breton, Benjamin Péret and Pierre Unik. All explained their decision in a collective document entitled “Au grand jour”. It was during these years that Eluard published two of his main works: “Capitale de la Douleur” (1926) and “L’Amour la Poesie” (1929).

In 1928 he had another bout of tuberculosis and went back to the Clavadel sanatorium with Gala. It was their last winter together. Gala met Salvador Dalí soon after and remained with him for the rest of her life.

In 1934, Éluard married Nusch (Maria Benz), a music-hall artist, whom he had met through his friends Man Ray and Pablo Picasso.

The period from 1931 to 1935 were among his happiest years. He was excluded from the Communist Party. He traveled through Europe as an ambassador of the Surrealist movement. In 1936, in Spain, he learned of the Francoist revolution, against which he protested violently. The following year, the bombing of Guernica inspired him the poem “Victory of Guernica”. During these two terrible years for Spain, Eluard and Picasso were inseparable. The poet told the painter “you hold the flame between your fingers and paint like a fire”

Mobilized in September 1939, he moved to Paris with Nusch after the Armistice (22 June 1940). In January 1942, he sent her to the home of some of his friends, Christian and Yvonne Zervos, near Vézelay—near the maquis. Eluard ask to rejoin the Communist Party, which was illegal in occupied France. Thousands of copies of the twenty-one stanzas of his poem “Liberty”, first published in the Choix revue, were parachuted from English aircraft over occupied France. During the war he also wrote “Les sept poèmes d’amour en guerre” (1944) and “En avril 1944: Paris respirait encore!” (1945, illustrated by Jean Hugo).

In 1943, together with Pierre Seghers and Jean Lescure, he assembled the texts of several poets of the Resistance in a controversial book called The Honor of Poets. Faced with oppression, the poets eulogised in it hope and freedom. In November 1943, Eluard found refuge in the mental asylum of Saint-Alban, headed by doctor Lucien Bonnafé, in which many resistants and Jews were hiding. At Libération, Eluard and Aragon were hailed as the great poets of the Resistance.

On 28 November 1946, during a stay in Switzerland, he learned of Nusch’s sudden passing. Distraught, he became extremely depressed. Two friends, Alain and Jacqueline Trutat (for whom he wrote “Corps Memorable”), gave him back the will to live.

His grief at the premature death of his wife Nusch in 1946 inspired the work “Le temps déborde” in 1947 as well as “De l’horizon à l’horizon de tous”, which traced the path that led Éluard from suffering to hope.

The principles of peace, self-government, and liberty became his new passion. He was a member of the Congress of Intellectuals for Peace in Wrocław in April 1948, which persuaded Pablo Picasso to also join. The following year, in April, he was a delegate to the Council for World Peace, at the conference held at the Salle Pleyel in Paris. In June, he spent a few days with Greek partisans entrenched on the Gramos hills to fight against Greek government soldiers. He then went to Budapest to attend the commemorative celebrations of the centenary of the death of the poet Sándor Petőfi. There he met Pablo Neruda. In September he was in Mexico for a new peace conference. There he met Dominique Lemort, with whom he returned to France. They married in 1951. The same year Éluard published The Phoenix, a collection of poems dedicated to his reborn happiness.

He later eulogised Joseph Stalin in his political writings. Milan Kundera recalled that he was shocked to hear of Éluard’s public approval of the hanging of Éluard’s friend, the Prague writer Zavis Kalandra in 1950.

Paul Éluard died from a heart attack on 18 November 1952 at his home, 52 avenue de Gravelle in Charenton-le-Pont. His funeral was held in the Père-Lachaise cemetery, and organized by the Communist Party, the French government having refused to organise a national funeral for political reasons. A crowd of thousands spontaneously gathered in the streets of Paris to accompany Eluard’s casket to the cemetery. That day Robert Sabatier wrote: “the whole world was mourning”.


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