Mervyn Peake and Trees

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Peake was a lover of trees. Some of the most famous pictures of him, taken when he was living on the island of Sark between 1946 and 1949, show him in communion with them: suspended in a copse of saplings holding a book; standing in a trance-like state on moorland with a branch like an antler clutched to his head. Like Hope Mirrlees’s Dr Endymion Leer he seems to have thought of human beings as existing in an intimate but troubled relationship with trees, sometimes rooting themselves to the spot in a temporary state of arborification, sometimes utterly at odds with the seasonal transformation of the deciduous woodlands. His 1939 poem ‘Autumn’ (one of two he wrote with this title) charts his own metamorphosis into a male Daphne, seduced into an arboreal condition by the peculiar fusion of stillness and movement, chill air and blazing colours that marks the approach of winter:

O now the cave-cold breath through me
Blows dank from every forest tree,
And suddenly my soul floats free,
And lo! I am a crimson tree.

From the same year, perhaps, and written in the same season, ‘The Sap of Sorrow Mounts this Rootless Tree’ commemorates instead Peake’s sense of alienation from his rooted neighbours, as he feels the ‘sap of sorrow’ rising in his body at the moment when the sap of the autumn trees is sinking earthwards:

My fingers like cold twigs unfoliaged
Stretch impotent for blossom, and my breast
Aches under pallid bark to be assuaged
With fruit and flower and to burn at rest.

‘The Torch’ describes an abrupt nocturnal encounter with the ‘ghostly tracery’ of a gigantic tree by torchlight – an experience Peake embraced; while ‘May 1940’ ironically congratulates the woods on having escaped the painful condition of sentience at a time of global conflict:

Be proud, slow trees. Be glad you stones and birds,
And you brown Arun river and all things
That thrive in silence through these hours of maytime –
Be glad you are not fashioned in God’s image.

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All these poems date from the first years of the war, when the post-romantic yearning to mimic the trees’ slowness and calm indifference must have seemed both as intense and as absurdly impracticable as it had ever been in history. So when I was editing Peake’s Collected Poems for Carcanet – setting the poems as far as possible in chronological order and thus transforming them into an erratic verse commentary on his life and turbulent times – it seemed natural to assume that his poem ‘With People, so with Trees’ was written at about the same time. Maeve Gilmore’s fine anthology of her husband’s works, Peake’s Progress, assigned it to 1940, and I had no other evidence for its date; so I accepted her dating, despite the fact that Peake’s Progress often assigned inaccurate years to poems I could date with some certainty on the basis of other evidence. Here is the poem in full, as it was printed in Peake’s prize-winning collection The Glassblowers (1950):

WITH PEOPLE, SO WITH TREES

With people, so with trees: where there are groups
Of either, men or trees, some will remain
Aloof while others cluster where one stoops
To breathe some dusky secret. Some complain

And some gesticulate and some are blind;
Some toss their heads above green towns; some freeze
For lack of love in copses of mankind;
Some laugh; some mourn; with people, so with trees.

This week, however, I was re-reading Peake’s second novel, Gormenghast, which was written largely in his three years living with his family on Sark, and was published in the same year as The Glassblowers. Enchanted by the sequence of self-contained episodes like miniature stage plays that make up the novel’s early chapters, I found myself reading about young Titus’s day and night of truancy on Gormenghast Mountain, and came across this passage at the beginning of Chapter Sixteen:

Far below Titus, like a gathering of people, stood a dozen spinneys. Between them the rough land glittered here and there where threads of water reflected the sky.

Out of this confusion of glinting water, brambles and squat thorn bushes, the clumps of trees arose with a peculiar authority.

To Titus they seemed curiously alive, these copses. For each copse appeared singularly unlike any other one, though they were about equal in size and were exclusively a blend of ash and sycamore.

But it was plain to see that whereas the nearest of these groups to Titus was in an irritable state, not one of the trees having anything to do with his neighbour, their heads turned away from one another, their shoulders shrugged, yet not a hundred feet away another spinney was in a condition of suspended excitement, as with the heads of its trees bowed together above some green and susurrous secret. Only one of the trees had raised its head a little. It was tilted on one side as though loth to miss any of the fluttering conversation at its shoulder. Titus shifted his gaze and noticed a copse where, drawn back, and turned away a little on their hips, twelve trees looked sideways at one who stood aloof. Its back was to them. There could be no doubt that, with its gaze directed from them it despised the group behind it.

There were the trees that huddled together as though they were cold or in fear. There were trees that gesticulated. There were those that seemed to support one of their number who appeared wounded. There were the arrogant groups, and the mournful, with their heads bowed: the exultant copses and those where every tree appeared to be asleep.

The landscape was alive, but so was Titus. They were only trees, after all: branches, roots and leaves. This was his day; there was no time to waste.

It’s pretty clear that this passage is closely related to the poem. They share not only a central idea (the link between human beings and trees) but a common vocabulary: people, copses, aloof, groups, gesticulate, secret, heads [] above [] green. Such a density of shared words and thoughts makes it likely, I think, that they were written at about the same time. The world’s foremost Peake expert, Peter Winnington, tells me that Peake was working on this particular chapter of Gormenghast between February and October 1948; so it seems reasonable to date the poem to that period too. It’s always satisfying to be able to pin a poem to a particular moment in a writer’s development, so that it becomes a kind of melodic, moving postcard from the past, a portal onto the dreams and passions of a specific day, month or year.

But the differences between the poem and the passage are as interesting as their similarities. The poem fuses the human and the arboreal so that the landscape constantly shifts between the urban and the sylvan, largely thanks to the pairing of terms in successive phrases: ‘people/trees’, ‘men/trees’, ‘green towns’, ‘copses of mankind’, ‘people/trees’. The passage from Gormenghast, by contrast, keeps a distance between the two life forms. The trees are carefully located in a mountain landscape populated by ‘brambles and squat thorn bushes’; they are of a specific height and a particular combination of species, ‘about equal in size and […] exclusively a blend of ash and sycamore’; and while they are clearly anthropomorphized they are never wholly fused with human beings as they are in the poem’s ‘copses of mankind’. Hence Titus’s ability to dismiss them at the end of the passage: for all their mimicry of action they are finally ‘only trees’ made up of ‘branches, roots and leaves’, not brains and active limbs, and his sense that there is an urgent need to move on (‘there was no time to waste’) confirms his radical (or deracinated) difference from them.

This divergence between tree and human is important in the novel’s context. At this point in the narrative, Titus is far away from home in an alien landscape, and the episode serves as one of several rites of passage in the book. I say ‘rites’ but am conscious of the irony, since each of these ‘rites’ places him further at odds with the castle’s stultifying dependence on ritual. Shortly after his encounter with the copses the boy undergoes a kind of second birth as he forces his way through a barrier of vegetation into a landscape that has never been touched by the castle’s shadow: ‘he fought the muscled branches, until the upper part of his body had forced a gap which he kept from re-closing with his aching shoulders’. On the other side of this gap he finds a ‘phantasmic gathering of ancient oaks’ somewhat like the tree Peake saw by torchlight, standing like ‘dappled gods’ on a ‘sea of golden moss’. For some reason this majestic arboreal landscape begins to frighten as well as fascinate him; and his fear and fascination intensify when he learns that the hidden oakwood has an inhabitant: a slender, barely human creature which ‘floated through the golden air like a feather, the slender arms along the sides of the gracile body, the head turned slightly away and inclined a little as though on a pillow of air’. The creature, which so closely resembles the many airborne, naked beings Peake sketched or paintpeake1ed throughout his life, turns out to be Titus’s foster sister; but she is also the first being he has met who lives ‘by other rules than those of Gormenghast’, and who ‘would no more think of bowing to the seventy-seventh Earl than would a bird, or the branch of a tree’. Half bird, half tree, she becomes for Titus an emblem of freedom from the stultifying rituals that bind his official life; and this association explains the simultaneous terror and joy he experiences in the woods where they first meet, embodying as they do the almost blasphemous concept of a world ungoverned by ancient ceremony.

But the passage with the copses does something else besides anticipate the imminent meeting between Titus and his feral sister. It encapsulates, too, the radical difference between the first Titus book, Titus Groan, and the second, Gormenghast. Titus Groan is a book about solitude, whose theme is the different solitary secret worlds inhabited by the denizens of the great ancestral castle of the House of Groan; worlds which are stealthily invaded by the young rebel Steerpike as he thrusts his way through the castle hierarchy in quest of power. Gormenghast, by contrast, is about communities and convergences: the professors of Gormenghast’s school, the ink-stained and hyperactive schoolboys who are their charges, the repressed but determined Irma Prunesquallor and her party, the gigantic Countess with her canopy of cats, who slowly metamorphoses into the monumental hub of the castle community. Titus Groan is about dust and stone; Gormenghast about the secretive flora and fauna that take root in the cracks and crannies of that vast edifice, defiantly proclaiming their kinship with the beasts and plants of the wilderness beyond. In addition, Titus Groan concerns the aristocracy and its servants, while Gormenghast opens with the discovery of a repressed middle class that suddenly manifests itself in the castle’s labyrinthine architecture. This middle class often moves in groups of two or more – a philosopher called ‘The Leader’ and his disciples, a doctor and his sister, a bevy of schoolteachers – yet they find it difficult to get along together; obscure rituals as implacable as the castle’s Book of Law prevent them from acting naturally in one another’s company. They are constrained by the strict hierarchy into which they were born, the rules that govern their professions and social function, the laws of good conduct, gender, age, and saving face. Yet get along together they do, by one means or another, and as the book unfolds the sense of a close-knit community in the castle grows until it has become something unified and organic, independent of though nurtured by the stones, which combines to hunt down the threat to its survival which Steerpike has become.

In the second Titus novel, the groups of the castle’s inhabitants are sometimes described in terms that closely resemble the passage about the copses. Consider this description of the professors, released from their pedagogic labours at the end of a summer’s day, liberated to take up attitudes of indolence without any concern for the strenuous if futile efforts to assert authority that dominate their hours in the classroom:

But for the most part, the professors stood in groups, or were seated on the lower steps of the stone flights, where they waited to take their turn at the ‘stile’. They were in no hurry. Here and there a savant could be seen lying stretched at full length along one of the steps or shelves of the stone stairs. Here and there a group would be squatting like aboriginals on their haunches, their gowns gathered about them. Some were in shadow, and very dark they looked – like bandits in a bad light; some were silhouetted against the hazy, golden swathes of the sun shafts; and some stood transfixed in the last rays as they streamed through the honeycombed roof.

There’s an incipient wildness about the professors at rest which makes them more like natives of the mountain landscape discovered by Titus than servants of the Groans. They squat ‘like aboriginals’, they look ‘dark’ in the shadows, they resemble brigands, they worship the sun. Their physical accomplishments are startling: one of them in the next paragraph is seen walking down the flight of steps on his hands. The chief professor, Bellgrove – who has just been made headmaster – looks like a lion, albeit a worn-out and ineffectual one, and sits among his colleagues in a similar attitude of relaxation, ‘his knees drawn up to his blue jaw, which they supported, star[ing] abstractedly at a group which stood out in silhouette against a swarm of golden motes’. These men are only fully themselves, it seems, when released from the daily ritual of the school. Certainly it’s only then that they are relaxedly a crowd, not an ill-assorted accumulation of misfits, as they are in the Masters’ Common Room. Their resemblance to the copses confirms the potential for some sort of liberation that lurks behind their gowns of office, and sometimes takes possession of those gowns as they rise like wings behind the professors when they break into a run.

The professor with the greatest potential for liberation, it seems, is Bellgrove; and he discovers this potential when he meets Titus after the boy’s night of truancy on Gormenghast Mountain. Titus is punished for his escapade with a week’s imprisonment in a building called the Lichen Fort; and it is here that he is visited by the free spirits of the castle: his rebellious elder sister, Lady Fuchsia; Dr Prunesquallor, with his manic laughter and equally manic imagination; and the Headmaster, who comes in his official capacity to see how his pupil is ‘getting along’. Face to face alone for the first time, Bellgrove and Titus come to a sudden understanding: neither needs to maintain the pretence of observing the conventions that normally govern relations between an elderly teacher and his pupil. Constrained at first by an ineradicable sense of his place (‘Words and gestures obey their own dictatorial, unimaginative laws; the ghastly ritual, that denies the spirit’), Bellgrove slowly comes to recognize that he and Titus occupy common ground, ‘a world apart, a secret place to which they alone had access’. By the end of the visit the two have settled down to play marbles together; and they are later joined in their game by Prunesquallor. The scene ends with the two adults transformed into jubilant animals, the ‘high trill’ of the Doctor’s laugh becoming ‘the cry of a hyena’, Bellgrove’s voice fulfilling the promise of his name by ‘belling forth’ like that of ‘an old and happy hound’. Titus has been the agent of this transformation; and one can’t help thinking he managed it by bringing back with him from the mountain some echo of the sublime indifference to ritual he found there in the shape of the bird-like, tree-like Thing.

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Peake wrote a lot more tree poems during his time on Sark: ‘If Trees Gushed Blood’; ‘What is That Noise in the Shaking Trees?’; ‘The Birch Saplings’, which compares a stand of saplings to ‘breastless girls’ and predicts that ‘their slenderness / Will wake no pity in the surging seasons […] No love in the totalitarian weather’. All three of these date to around 1946. But perhaps the most exuberant of his tree poems was probably written in the same year as ‘With People, so with Trees’:

CONCEIT

I heard a winter tree in song:
Its leaves were birds, a hundred strong;
When all at once it ceased to sing,
For every leaf had taken wing.

The joy and pain of the leaves’ winged liberation in this poem (the trees are denuded and silenced when the birds take flight) anticipates the joy and pain of Titus’s eventual escape from Gormenghast. The young earl’s flight involves the loss – along with the totalitarian law that has bound him since infancy – of everyone he loves: Bellgrove, Prunesquallor, Flay, Fuchsia. It also involves the loss of the prison where he once played games with his two adult visitors, where ‘the marbles crashed against one another, spun in their tracks, lodged shuddering in their squares, or skimmed the prison floor like shooting stars’. Gormenghast and the forests of Gormenghast Mountain are alive with such contradictions.

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6 Responses to Mervyn Peake and Trees

  1. Pingback: Of Interest (15 November, 2015) | Practically Marzipan

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    • Angelica says:

      Ugh. I have an ARC of this, but I was so nonplussed by Titus Alone that I’ve been hetniast to pick it up. I’ll give the first couple of chapters an audition skim at some point, but it may just end up going in my charity bag.

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    • Rosi says:

      I didn’t know what to make of Keda and her child. They didn’t do much for me either way. I think Peake was trnyig to show an alternative (perhaps an equally bad one) to the hidebound traditions of the castle, but those sections just seemed jarring to me. They didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment, but I wouldn’t have missed them if they’d been gone.

  4. Vishwaka says:

    Teresa, I think your hesitation is jstuified. This book has none of the magic of Titus Alone (and I struggled to see the plus points of that book!) I hope you give it a go at some point (if only to ensure I’m not missing something) but I wouldn’t get your hopes up.

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