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Desnos, Robert

Category: Poet


Robert Desnos (4 July 1900 – 8 June 1945), was a French surrealist poet who played a key role in the Surrealist movement of his day.  He has been described as “perhaps the most beloved and influential surrealist writer”.

Besides his numerous collections of poems, he published three novels, Deuil pour deuil (1924), La Liberté ou l’amour! (1927), and Le vin est tiré (1943); a play La Place De L'Etoile, (1928; revised 1944) and a film script, L'Etoile de mer (1928), which was directed by Man Ray that same year.

Desnos also broadcast on the radio.  His career in radio began in 1932 with a show dedicated to Fantomas.  He published many critical reviews on jazz and cinema; and wrote for many periodicals, including Littérature, La Révolution surréaliste, and Variétés.

Source of inspiration


Although Desnos had a somewhat traumatic life, the main method by which he wrote his poetry was to use relaxation techniques to put himself into hypnagogic or trance states.  A number of other poets and artists at the time used much the same techniques including Salvador Dali

While working as a literary columnist for Paris-Soir, Desnos was an active member of the Surrealist group and developed a particular talent for "automatic writing".

In 1919, he met the poet Benjamin Péret who introduced him to the Paris Dada group and André Breton, with whom he soon became friends. André Breton included two photographs of Desnos apparently ‘sleeping’ in his surrealist novel Nadja, but in fact in a trance state.


His second source of inspiration, however, was unrequited love.  In 1926, he composed The Night of Loveless Nights, a lyric poem describing his state. Desnos fell in love with Yvonne George, a singer whose obsessed fans made his love impossible. He wrote several poems for her, as well as the erotic surrealist novel La liberté ou l'amour! (1927). Critic Ray Keenoy describes La liberté ou l'amour! as "literary and lyrical in its outpourings of sexual delirium".

But the last real and great love of Desnos was Youki  - Lucie Badoud, called Youki [meaning snow] by the painter and her former lover Tsuguharu Foujita.  Youki was called the siren by Desnos, and this love was not unrequited - she left Foujita for Desnos.  Youki was born in 1903 in Paris and Desnos wrote several poems about her.

 One of his most famous poems is "Letter to Youki", written after his arrest, this letter is also to her.


Mon Amour,

Notre souffrance serait intolérable si nous ne pouvions la considérer comme une maladie passagère et sentimentale. Nos retrouvailles embelliront notre vie pour au moins trente ans. De mon côté, je prends une bonne gorgée de jeunesse, je reviendrai rempli d’amour et de forces ! Pendant le travail un anniversaire, mon anniversaire fut l’occasion d’une longue pensée pour toi. Cette lettre parviendra-t-elle à temps pour ton anniversaire? J’aurais voulu t’offrir 100 000 cigarettes blondes, douze robes des grands couturiers, l’appartement de la rue de Seine, une automobile, la petite maison de la forêt de Compiègne, celle de Belle-Isle et un petit bouquet à quatre sous. En mon absence achète toujours les fleurs, je te les rembourserai. Le reste, je te le promets pour plus tard.


Mais avant toute chose bois une bouteille de bon vin et pense à moi. J’espère que nos amis ne te laisseront pas seule ce jour. Je les remercie de leur dévouement et de leur courage. J’ai reçu il y a une huitaine de jours un paquet de J.-L. Barrault. Embrasse-le ainsi que Madeleine Renaud, ce paquet me prouve que ma lettre est arrivée. Je n’ai pas reçu de réponse, je l’attends chaque jour. Embrasse toute la famille, Lucienne, Tante Juliette, Georges. Si tu rencontres le frère de Passeur, adresse-lui toutes mes amitiés et demande- lui s’il ne connaît personne qui puisse te venir en aide. Que deviennent mes livres à l’impression? J’ai beaucoup d’idées de poèmes et de romans. Je regrette de n’avoir ni la liberté ni le temps de les écrire Tu peux cependant dire à Gallimard que dans les trois mois qui suivront mon retour, il recevra le manuscrit d’un roman d’amour d’un genre tout nouveau. Je termine cette lettre pour aujourd’hui.

Aujourd’hui 15 juillet, je reçois quatre lettres, de Barrault, de Julia, du Dr Benet et de Daniel. Remercie-les et excuse-moi de ne pas répondre. Je n’ai droit qu’à une lettre par mois. Toujours rien de ta main, mais ils me donnent des nouvelles de toi; ce sera pour la prochaine fois. J’espère que cette lettre est notre vie a venir. Mon amour, je t’embrasse aussi tendrement que l’honorabilité l’admet dans une lettre qui passera par la censure. Mille baisers. As-tu reçu le coffret que j’ai envoyé a l’hôtel de Compiègne?





Robert Desnos was born in Paris on 4 July 1900, the son of a licensed dealer in game and poultry at the Halles market. Desnos attended commercial college, and started work as a clerk. He also worked as an amanuensis for journalist Jean de Bonnefon. After that he worked as a literary columnist for the newspaper Paris-Soir.

The first poems by Desnos to appear in print were published in 1917 in La Tribune des Jeunes (Platform for Youth) and in 1919 in the avant-garde review, Le Trait d’union (HYPHEN), and also the same year in the Dadaist magazine Littérature. In 1922 he published his first book, a collection of surrealistic aphorisms, with the title Rrose Sélavy (based upon the name (pseudonym) of Marcel Duchamp.

He, together with writers such as Louis Aragon and Paul Éluard, would form the literary vanguard of surrealism.  But although he was praised by Breton in his 1924 Manifeste du Surréalisme for being the movement's "prophet", Desnos disagreed with Surrealism's involvement in communist politics.

During World War II, Desnos was an active member of the French Résistance network Réseau AGIR, under the direction of Michel Hollard, often publishing under pseudonyms. For Réseau Agir, Desnos provided information collected during his job at the journal Aujourd'hui and made false identity papers.

He was arrested by the Gestapo on 22 February 1944.  He was first deported to the Nazi German concentration camps of Auschwitz in occupied Poland, then Buchenwald, Flossenburg in Germany and finally to Terezín (Theresienstadt) in occupied Czechoslovakia in 1945.


Griffin, Susan [1996] - Can Imagination Save Us?

One day Desnos and others were taken away from their barracks. The prisoners rode on the back of a flatbed truck; they knew the truck was going to the gas chamber; no one spoke. Soon they arrived and the guards ordered them off the truck. When they began to move toward the gas chamber, suddenly Desnos jumped out of line and grabbed the hand of the woman in front of him. He was animated and he began to read her palm. The forecast was good: a long life, many grandchildren, abundant joy. A person nearby offered his palm to Desnos. Here, too, Desnos foresaw a long life filled with happiness and success. The other prisoners came to life, eagerly thrusting their palms toward Desnos and, in each case, he foresaw long and joyous lives.

The guards became visibly disoriented. Minutes before they were on a routine mission the outcome of which seemed inevitable, but now they became tentative in their movements. Desnos was so effective in creating a new reality that the guards were unable to go through with the executions. They ordered the prisoners back onto the truck and took them back to the barracks. Desnos never was executed. Through the power of imagination, he saved his own life and the lives of others.

Desnos died in "Malá pevnost", which was an inner part of Terezín used only for political prisoners, from typhoid, only weeks after the camp's liberation. He wrote poems during his imprisonment which were accidentally destroyed following his death.

There is a moving anecdote about Desnos's last days after liberation while being tended to by a young Czech medical student, Josef Stuna, who recognised him thanks to reading Breton's Nadja.

He is buried at the Montparnasse cemetery in Paris.

My love, I embrace you as tenderly as I possibly can admit in a letter that will go through censorship. A thousand kisses.



The illustrations

We have chosen to illustrate this page and some of the poems with lithographs by Joan Miro for a reason.  Please read on :

In 1974, at the urging of Robert Desnos' widow, Joan Miró published an "illustrated book" with text from Robert Desnos titled "Les pénalités de l'enfer ou les nouvelles Hébrides" (The Penalties of Hell or The New Hebrides), Maeght Editeur, Paris, 1974. It was a set of 25 lithographs, five in black, and the others in colours.

Joan Miró met and became friends with Desnos in 1925, and before long, they made plans to collaborate on a livre d'artist. Those plans were put on hold because of the Spanish civil war and World War II. Desnos' criticism of the latter led to his imprisonment in Auschwitz, and he died at age 45 shortly after his release in 1945. Nearly three decades later, at the suggestion of Desnos' widow, Miró set out to illustrate the poet's manuscript. It was his first work in prose, which was written in Morocco in 1922 but remained unpublished until this posthumous collaboration.

One critic said about it that it was "an especially powerful set, not only for the rich imagery but also for the story behind the book's creation. The lithographs are long, narrow verticals, and while they feature Miró's familiar shapes, there's an unusual emphasis on texture.   I was instantly attracted to these four prints, to an emotional lushness, that's in contrast with the cool surfaces of so much of Miró's work. Their poignancy is even greater, I think, when you read how they came to be”.


  • Deuil pour deuil (1924) /Mourning Mourning/
  • La Liberté ou l’amour! (1927) /Give Me Liberty or Give Me Love! vt Liberty or Love.
  • Rrose Sélavy (1923/1930)
  • Corps et biens (1930) /Body and Goods/
  • The Night of Loveless Nights (1930/31)
  • Youki 1930 Poésie (1930/32)
  • La Ménagerie de Tristan (1932)
  • Le Parterre d'Hyacinthe (1932)
  • La Grande Complainte de Fantômas (1933)
  • La Géométrie de Daniel (1939)
  • Fortunes (1942)
  • État de veille (1943) /On Watch/
  • Le vin est tiré (1943) /The wine is drawn/
  • Contrée (1944) /Against the Grain/
  • Le Bain Avec Andromède (1944) /Bathing with Andromeda/
  • Calixto (1944)
  • Chantefables (1945) /Storysongs/
  • Chantefleurs (1945) /Flowersongs/

Desnos also collaborated on a film - L'Étoile de mer (1928) /The Starfish  with Man Ray


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