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Robert Desnos (4 July 1900-8 June 1945), was a French surrealist poet who played a key role in the surrealistic movement of his day. His last name is pronounced "Deznoss."


Robert Desnos was a son of a café owner. He was born in Paris on 4 July 1900. Desnos attended commercial college, and started work as a clerk. 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 (Youth's Tribune) and in 1919 in the avant-garde review, Le Trait d’union (The 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 Selavy (based upon the name (pseudonym) of the popular French artist Marcel Duchamp).

In 1919, he met the poet Benjamin Péret who actually introduced him to the Paris Dada group and André Breton, with whom he soon became a friend. 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". He, together with writers such as Louis Aragon and Paul Éluard, would form the literary vanguard of surrealism. André Breton included two photographs of Desnos sleeping in his surrealist novel Nadja. 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, which caused a rift between him and Breton. Desnos continued work as a columnist.

In 1926 he composed The Night of Loveless Nights, a lyric poem dealing with solitude curiously written in classic quatrains, which makes it more like Baudelaire than Breton. 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 surrealist novel La liberté ou l'amour! (1927).

By 1929, Breton definitively condemned Desnos, who in turn joined Georges Bataille and Documents, as one of the authors to sign Un Cadavre (A cadaver) attacking "le boeuf Breton" (the ox Breton). He wrote articles on "Modern Imagery", "Avant-garde Cinema" (1929, issue 7), "Pygmalion and the Sphinx" (1930, issue 1), and Sergei Eisenstein, the Sovietmarker filmmaker, on his film titled The General Line (1930, issue 4).

His career in radio began in 1932 with a show dedicated to Fantomas. During that time, he became friends with Picasso, Hemingway, Artaud and John Dos Passos; published many critical reviews on jazz and cinema; and became increasingly involved in politics. He wrote for many periodicals, including Littérature, La Révolution surréaliste, and Variétés. 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 La' Etoile, (1928; revised 1944) and a film script, L' Etoile de mer (1928), which was directed by Man Ray that same year.

During World War II, Desnos was an active member of the French Résistance, often publishing under pseudonyms, and was arrested by the Gestapomarker on 22 February 1944. He was first deported to the Nazi German concentration camps of Auschwitzmarker in occupied Poland, then Buchenwaldmarker, Flossenburgmarker in Germany and finally to Terezínmarker (Theresienstadtmarker) in occupied Czechoslovakiamarker in 1945, where he died (in "Malá pevnost" which was an inner part of Terezín used only for political prisoners) from typhoid, only weeks (but still in May) after the camp's liberation. He wrote poems during his imprisonment which were accidentally destroyed following his death.

He was married to Youki Desnos, formerly Lucie Badoud, nicknamed "Youki" ("snow") by her lover Tsuguharu Foujita before she left him for Desnos. Desnos wrote several poems about her. One of his most famous poems is "Letter to Youki", written after his arrest.

He is buried at the Montparnasse cemeterymarker in Paris.

Desnos's poetry has been set to music by a number of composers, including Witold Lutosławski with Les Espaces du Sommeil (1975) and Chantefleurs et Chantefables (1991), Francis Poulenc (Dernier poème, 1956) and Henri Dutilleux with Le Temps l'Horloge (2007). Carolyn Forché has translated his poetry and names Desnos as a significant influence on her own work.

In 1974, at the urging of Robert Desnos' widow, Joan Miro published an “illustrated book” with 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 colors.

In 2006 the book was displayed in “Joan Miro, Illustrated Books” at the Vero Beach Museum of Art. One critic said it is “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." The critic continued, “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. The artist met and became friends with Desnos, perhaps the most beloved and influential surrealist writer, 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' bold criticism of the latter led to his imprisonment in Auschwitzmarker, 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. “

Works include

  • Deuil pour deuil (1924) /Grief for Grief/
  • La Liberté ou l’amour! (1927) /Liberty or Love/
  • Corps et biens (1930) /Body and Goods/
  • État de veille (1943) /Waking/
  • Le vin est tiré (1943) /The wine is drawn/
  • "Le dernier poème" (1945?) /The last poem
  • "The Poets Great days"
  • "Mobius strip"



  • Waldberg, Patrick. Surrealism. Thames and Hudson, 1965.
  • Durozi, Gerard. The History of the Surrealist Movement. University of Chicago Press, 2002.
  • Pollizzotti, Mark. Revolution of the Mind. Da Capo, 1997
  • Dada and Surrealist Film. Edited by Rudolf E. Kuenzli. MIT Press, 1996.
  • Modern French Theatre. Edied & translated by Michael Benedikt and George E. Wellwarth. E.P. Dutton, 1966
  • Desnos, Robert. Liberty or Love. Atlas Press, 1993


  1. Sitney, P Adams. Modernist montage : the obscurity of vision in cinema and literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990. 28.

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