Éluard, Paul (1895–1952)

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ÉLUARD, PAUL (1895–1952)


French poet.

Paul Éluard was born Eugène Émile Paul Grindel on 14 October 1895 in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis. His mother was a seamstress who rose to become a manager of a dressmaking shop; his father, Clément Grindel, was an accountant who in about 1900 started a real estate business that became successful and prosperous.

É luard received a scholarship to the elite Primaire Supérieure Colbert in Paris, but in 1912 he fell ill with tuberculosis. With his mother he traveled to England for a cure and then to a Swiss sanitarium. There he fell in love with a young Russian woman, Helene Deluvina Diakonova—to whom he gave the nickname "Gala." A voracious reader, he began writing poetry and in 1913 published Premiers poèmes (First poems). At the beginning of the First World War, the young Éluard was recruited by the army and later assigned to an evacuation hospital as a nurse. He self-published, in an edition of seventeen copies, ten poems with the meaningful title Le devoir (Duty) and signed "Paul Éluard," employing the maiden name of his maternal grandmother. He spent most of the war in the hospital, whether as patient or nurse. In 1917 he married Gala and the same year published Le devoir et l'inquiétude (Duty and disquietude), followed a year later by Poèmes pour la paix (Poems for peace). These texts won the attention of the French editor and publisher Jean Paulhan (1884–1968), who introduced Éluard to the men who were soon to found the surrealist movement.


Éluard participated in the first public demonstrations of the Paris dadaists and became involved with the magazine ironically called Littérature, founded by André Breton (1896–1966), Philippe Soupault (1897–1990), and Louis Aragon (1897–1982). At about the same time, he published Les animaux et leurs hommes, les hommes et leurs animaux (Animals and their men, men and their animals) and in 1921 started a short-lived Dada publication, Proverbe. As Dada gave way to surrealism, Éluard took part in the surrealists' earliest demonstrations. Taking as their slogan the imperative to "change life," which was coined by the French poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1891), the surrealists engaged in a rebellion against the values that had led to the enormous massacres of the First World War. Meanwhile, Éluard continued to work with his father on construction projects in the Parisian suburbs—and to him is owed a street named Rue Jacques Vaché, after one of the early surrealist heroes.

The arrival in Paris of the German painter and sculptor Max Ernst (1891–1976), his friend but also Gala's lover, complicated Éluard's life with conflicting feelings of amity and jealousy. In 1924 the poet went off on a "fugue" that fed rumors about his mysterious disappearance while he traveled around the world. About the time he returned, Breton published the first of his two major surrealist manifestos. Éluard was immediately and in all ways committed to the group. He took part in Une vague de rêves (A wave of dreams), the first surrealist collective text, collaborated with Benjamin Péret (1899–1959) on 152 proverbes mis au goût du jour (1925; 152 tasteful proverbs for today), and with André Breton and René Char (1907–1988) on Ralentir travaux (Slow down—construction ahead), and again with Breton on L'immaculée conception (1930; The immaculate conception).


In 1926, with his surrealist friends, Éluard joined the French Communist Party (PCF). The next several years saw publication of his major works, including Au défaut du silence (1925; For want of silence), Capitale de la douleur (1926; Capital of pain), L'amour de la poésie (1929; The love of poetry). In 1929 he met Maria Benz, also called Nusch, who would become his companion and muse for the next seventeen years; they married in 1934. Éluard published more poetry—Facile (1935; Easy), a hymn to love and newfound happiness, and Les yeux fertiles (1936; Fertile eyes).

Relations between surrealists and communists became stormy, especially around divergent views concerning a nascent organization of avant-garde writers. The party preferred conventional cultural values and opposed the artistic nihilism associated with surrealism, and the Soviet predilection for "proletarian art" did not help matters. On 15 August 1930 the surrealist group repudiated two of its members, Louis Aragon and Georges Sadoul, because they had attended the Second International Congress of Revolutionary Writers, and the surrealists were at odds with the theses coming out of that congress. While Aragon distanced himself from Breton, Éluard remained his ally and took his side during the "Aragon affair" even while attending the antiwar Amsterdam-Pleyel Congress and participating in the anticolonialist exhibition organized by the Communist Party, entitled "The Truth about the Colonies." Expelled from the party in 1933, Éluard appeared on the behalf of the surrealists at the antifascist International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture held in Paris in June 1935.

While in Spain in 1936 for a series of conferences on Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), Éluard saw that country erupt into civil war. Now he committed his poetry to the service of politics, published "Novembre 1936" in the French Communist newspaper L'humanité, and renewed ties with the PCF, which fully supported the Spanish republicans. Éluard also wrote "Victoire de Guernica" (Victory of Guernica), which together with Picasso's famous painting was on display in 1939 at the Spanish Pavilion at the New York World's Fair. In spite of this work with the Communists, Éluard helped Breton organize the International Exhibition of Surrealism in Paris, which opened in January 1938, and he also collaborated on the Dictionnaire abrégé du surréalisme (1938; Brief dictionary of surrealism). He also published L'évidence poétique (1937; Poetic evidence), Les mains libres (1937; Free hands), Cours naturel (1938; Natural course), and Médieuses (1939).

In 1942 Éluard rejoined the French Communist Party and during the German occupation became an important player in framing party policy concerning artists. He belonged to the Comité Nationale des Écrivains and, among other works, published Poésie et vérité (1942; Poetry and truth). This collection includes the famous poem, "Liberté," which circulated throughout the occupied region of France.

On my school notebook
On my school desk and on the trees
On sand on snow
I write your name (translated from the French)

During the war Éluard published a number of collections of poetry that carried similar messages of hope: L'honneur des poètes (1943; The honor of poets), Le livre ouvert (1940; Open book I), Sur les pentes inférieures (1941; On the lower slopes), Le livre ouvert II (1942; Open book II), Les sept poèmes d'amour en guerre (1943; Seven poems of love in wartime), Le lit la table (1944; The bed the table), and Les armes de la douleur (1944; Weapons of pain).

After Liberation and with the end of the war, Éluard was renowned and widely respected. In September 1946, however, Nusch died suddenly. The poet's suffering exploded in Le temps déborde (1947; Time overflows). However, he kept to his commitments and became a prominent spokesperson for the World Congress of Intellectuals for Peace in Wrocław, Poland, in 1948 and in Mexico in 1949, where he met Dominique (née Odette Lemort), who became his last wife in 1951.

Éluard's death on 18 November 1952 occasioned a grand funeral, and he was laid to rest in the famous Parisian cemetery, Père Lachaise, beside other celebrated French Communists.

See alsoAragon, Louis; Breton, André; Communism; Dada; Ernst, Max; Spanish Civil War; Surrealism.


Primary Sources

É luard, Paul. Uninterrupted Poetry: Selected Writings. Translated by Lloyd Alexander. New York, 1975.

——. Oeuvres complètes. 2 vols. Preface and chronology by Lucien Scheler; text edited and annotated by Marcelle Dumas and Lucien Scheler . Paris, 1990–1991.

Secondary Sources

Nugent, Robert. Paul Éluard. New York, 1974.

Vanoyeke, Violaine. Paul Éluard: Le poète de la liberté: Biographie. Paris, 1995.

Paul Aron