The Surrealist Fantasy of Herbert Read, Part 2: The Green Child

Herbert Read, The Green Child, Grey Walls Press edition (1945)

Herbert Read’s novel The Green Child (1935) can be described as an exercise in political detachment, charting the journey of an emergent anarchist into revolutionary disengagement from political and religious systems of all kinds. This journey towards disengagement is embodied in the novel’s eccentric structure. Constructed as three novels in one, its narrative transports the reader from a kind of fantastic autobiography in the first part – many details of which derive from Read’s recollections of his childhood in rural Yorkshire, as given in his memoir The Innocent Eye (1933) – to a South American utopia in the second, to a surrealist underground dreamscape in the third. Each part, as has often been pointed out, closes in death: the apparent death by drowning that ends the first part, the faked assassination of President Olivero that ends the second, the death by petrifaction that ends the third. The novel also opens with a death. Its first sentence announces ‘The death of President Olivero’, and the rest of the narrative can therefore be read as an afterlife experience – an invocation of the experience of dying, the point at which a person’s life is said to flash in front of their eyes. Admittedly we’re told in the first paragraph that Olivero ‘arranged his own assassination’, but the phrase is ambiguous enough to suggest that he could either have faked his own death or committed what is in effect assisted suicide.

If, then, we can think of the book as an extended account of death and the process of dying, we can also read it as a critique of the various versions of the afterlife offered by world religions and philosophies. Instead of achieving spiritual enlightenment, its protagonist finally accomplishes the total abandonment of both body and spirit; a condition to which he progresses by way of an increasingly intense scrutiny of material things and a growing appreciation of simplicity in people, politics and aesthetics, cognate developments that help him recognize the basically geometric principles that underpin the structure of the universe. The materialist religion or philosophy he embraces in the end could be seen as articulating a political as well as a philosophical position: that only in freeing ourselves from the grand narratives of history, religion and authoritarian politics can we achieve a just society or personal contentment. The book also implies, however, that freeing ourselves in this way is an option unavailable to us – unless by some great good fortune we should find ourselves living among the Green Children, safely hidden in a sealed-off subterranean civilization which has in effect rejected narrative altogether.

All three parts of the novel seem designed to illustrate fantasy ‘in the abstract’ as described in English Prose Style. They are, for instance, emancipated from time in that they occur out of chronological order, shifting from one timeline in part one (beginning in 1861) to an earlier timeline in part two (beginning in 1830 or so) and back again to the first timeline in the third of its three unequal sections. This emancipation from time is further emphasized by the fact that the narrator admits at one point that he has falsified all the dates in it ‘for reasons which will be obvious when this narrative has been read’ (p. 21) – the chief of these being that the protagonist kills a man in the opening section. The three parts are emancipated, too, from place, in that they encompass much of the known world and beyond, drifting from England in the first part to Poland, Spain, Argentina and the invented republic of Roncador in the second, to a nameless underground country in the third. The narrative voice changes too, from third person to first person and back again to third. Like the chapter on fantasy, then, The Green Child is always unsettling our expectations, refusing to let us relax into a familiar genre or a consistent set of narrative conventions.

Still following the various aspects of fantasy as described in English Prose Style, the first and third parts of The Green Child are ‘arbitrary’ in the sense that impossible things happen in them: a stream runs backwards, a man turns to stone. The middle narrative is more conventional, as one might expect given that it describes a community rather than the adventures of an individual; but this section too is in some sense arbitrary in its imitation of the picaresque ramblings of adventure romance, full of disconnected incidents, improbable coincidences, unlikely achievements – not least of these being the easy establishment of a happy society within a few years, in defiance of the rest of human experience. Finally, all three parts of the book are ‘objective’ in that they are deeply concerned with practicalities of various kinds; above all, with working out in meticulous detail the logical implications of the miscellaneous impossibilities and unlikelihoods they contain (the reason why the stream is flowing backwards, the logistics of the utopia described, the supporting philosophy which justifies the man’s petrifaction). They are ‘objective’, too, in their resistance to a detailed account of the protagonist’s feelings; the book is about his actions and thoughts, not his emotions, even though the first and final parts describe his obsession with a woman. The book ends, indeed, with the total annihilation of emotion in the protagonist as he slowly turns to stone, ‘a consummation / Devoutly to be wished’ in Read’s fantastic universe. One gets the impression that the chief reason why turning to stone represents Read’s personal form of Nirvana is that it stands at the polar opposite of all spiritual systems; it can’t be aligned with any extant form of religion or philosophy, and so detaches the petrified protagonist once and for all from the encumbrances of nationalism, authoritarian internationalism and history that seemed to be embroiling most of humankind in the 1930s.

Sign showing the Green Children of Woolpit

The entire structure of the novel, with its repeated disruptions of continuity, could be said to spring from the presence in it of the Green Child who gives the book its title. In this it builds on the technique of the story Read identified as ‘the norm to which all types of Fantasy should conform’, the Green Children of Woolpit, whose narrative (as we’ve seen) grew or accrued organically and quasi-logically from the central event it documented, the discovery of the Green Children themselves. The ‘Green Child’ features in the first part of Read’s novel, while the second lays out some of the reasons why she had such a powerful impact on the protagonist when he first met her. The third part reveals the context that shaped her: the culture of the Green People whose influence takes the protagonist beyond his obsession with an isolated representative of their culture. The figure of the Green Child, I would suggest, embodies Read’s concept of fantasy: that is, ‘caprice, whim, fanciful invention’ in the form of a concrete, dispassionately imagined object, here a person, which has been emancipated through circumstance ‘from the order of time and space’. And this reading of her seems to me to be supported by the frequent references to fantasy and the fantastic that punctuate the first section of the text in which she features.

These references are present from the book’s first page. At the beginning the protagonist, an Englishman known by the Spanish name of Olivero, finds himself drawn back to the village of his birth after long absence by what he calls ‘sentimental nostalgia’, an emotion that represents the place to him as ‘withdrawn [by time] to a fantastic distance, bright and exquisite and miniature, like a landscape seen through the wrong end of a telescope’ (p. 9, my emphasis). His home town, in fact, has acquired the quality of a fantasy, emancipated from space and time by the operations of space (that is, geographical distance) and time (that is, the lapse of years), though not yet freed from the emotional resonances that make him yearn to go back there. Later he describes the half-remembered village as ‘bright in its crystal setting’ (p. 10), anticipating the emphasis on crystals among the Green People in the third part of the novel, and notes how his yearning for it skews his sense of what is real, distracting him from the lands he travels through on his journey back from Roncador to England. Indeed, Olivero longs to emancipate himself from time altogether: ‘To escape from the sense of time, to live in the eternity of what he was accustomed to call “the divine essence of things” – that was his only desire’ (p. 10). Yet a return to the place where his ‘personality had first been liberated’ threatens to restore to its location in space and time a scene that has been detached from them by his thirty years’ absence. Fortunately, however, his arrival in the village instead brings him face to face with the fantastic in concrete form, first in the shape of a river which runs in the opposite direction from the river he remembers from his youth – runs, in fact, uphill – and then in the shape of the Green Child he comes across as he seeks to trace the river to its source. These two fantastic elements are linked, and Olivero’s obsession with both – he is as determined logically to explain to himself the phenomenon of the upward-flowing river as the mystery of the Green Child’s origins – identifies him as a man who runs against the stream of human history, and whose return to the place that shaped him will never rid him of his revolutionary tendencies.

Felix Kelly, the village from The Green Child (1945)

The Green Child, it turns out, is pitted in this novel against the violence of power, technological, colonial and economic. The stream leads Olivero first to the mill where he grew up, which has since stopped functioning, then to a more modern, larger mill nearby, which he suspects of having some agency in changing the direction of the stream. Possessed of the mill is a man called Kneeshaw, a name Read used in a poem early in his career to describe a conscript who is maimed in the First World War – a cog, so to speak, in the violent machinery of the twentieth century. In The Green Child, too, Kneeshaw is associated with both violence and machinery. As a child, Kneeshaw was a pupil of Olivero in the village school, whose wanton destruction of a clockwork engine was the direct cause of Olivero’s abandonment of the teaching profession and departure from the village. As an adult, the object of Kneeshaw’s violent attentions is the Green Child, the mysterious girl with green skin who appeared with her brother in the village soon after Olivero’s departure. Kneeshaw later married her, with her guardian’s blessing, receiving with her from that guardian the money needed both to care for her and to modernize his mill. Kneeshaw’s lifelong devotion to the Green Child, then, is for him bound up with his lifelong devotion to the running of his modernized mill, and just as the mill is driven by the stream, so is Kneeshaw’s obsession with the Green Child driven by his desire to humanize her and hence to make her wholly his – to make her his machine, so to speak, as well as his possession. Given the Green Child’s greenness, which implies an association with nature, this linkage of her with machinery – nature’s opposite – might be expected to culminate in an outbreak of violence.

The green girl, meanwhile, cultivates an instinctive detachment from Kneeshaw, which is exactly opposed to his apparent desire to make her like himself. She refuses to sleep with him, eat meat, or do productive work in his household. She also refuses to stop wandering around the countryside – not wantonly, like the original Green Child of Woolpit, but arbitrarily, without any perceptible purpose, mostly sticking to the banks of the similarly wandering and arbitrary stream. She is cold where Kneeshaw is hot, objective where he is subjective (her distaste for him is not personal, since she is equally detached from all other living creatures) and random in her behaviour where his behaviour is strictly functional. She is emancipated from time, in that she both ages much more slowly than an ordinary person and retains the childlike title by which she was known from the moment she wandered into the village. This sets her against the strictly time-bound schedule by which Kneeshaw’s business operates. It is hardly surprising, then, if as the marriage wears on Kneeshaw’s response to her intransigent strangeness becomes increasingly aggressive. He tries to lock her in an attic until she conforms, thinking that he will be able to force her to observe the timekeeping he lives by (instead she nearly dies, like a plant deprived of light and water). When Olivero comes across him he is attempting to force a cup of hot lamb’s blood between the Green Child’s lips, convinced that this is the only way to give her strength enough to be of use to him. Kneeshaw’s instinctive association of the Green Child with the proverbially innocent and sacrificial lamb predicts the likely end result of what Read calls his ‘tormenting’ of her in the latter stages of their marriage (p. 33).

Felix Kelly, the Mill from The Green Child (1945), showing Olivero and Kneeshaw

Along with all their other differences, the couple are separated by their different levels of complexity. Divided as Kneeshaw is between the industrial machinery that makes him prosperous, the hot blood that gives him strength and his frustrated sexual desire for the strange woman he has married, along with a perverse veneration for her, he is a highly complex figure. Read describes him as the victim of ‘primitive instincts’, but insists that this is not the same as calling him simple; he compares Kneeshaw’s conflicting loyalties and desires to the ‘complicated taboos of savage races’, savagery here being as much aligned through Kneeshaw with the complexities of industrial engineering at the heart of the British Empire as it is with any of that Empire’s colonized territories. Kneeshaw represents, in fact, the machinery of imperialism, its dehumanizing effect on its human instruments, and the violence with which it imposes conformity with the customs and contradictions that sustain it. The Green Child, on the other hand, could be taken to stand for everything that must be suppressed to let the Empire flourish. Above all, she stands for simplicity, and as the book goes on its preference for what is simple over what is complex becomes increasingly apparent.

One aspect of the Green Child’s simplicity is her resistance to being tied down to any conventional narrative. Her physical coldness connects her with the upward-flowing river, and she prefers above all else to spend her time in its water, so that ‘without shame or hesitation [she] would throw off her frock and float like a mermaid, almost invisible, in the watery element’ (p. 31). This association with mermaids follows on from Read’s description of her fleeing from Kneeshaw’s embraces ‘as from a hot-breathed fawn’, which associates her with the unwilling nymphs of classical legend who prefer metamorphosis into trees or reeds to the aggressive attentions of male deities. Mermaids or sirens are traditionally promiscuous, while fleeing nymphs are chaste, so the two connections could be said to cancel each other out. Later Read describes her as walking like a ‘fairy’ (p. 43), and later still as possessing a ‘green naiad figure’ (p. 45) and a face as ‘radiant as an angel’s’ (p. 46), aligning her with multiple myths or legends in quick succession while confining her to none. In the same way, Read’s novel resists generic classification, as if infected by the Green Child’s elusiveness. The book could be read as an adventure story or romance with Olivero as its globetrotting hero; but the Green Child’s refusal to behave like a conventional heroine effectively cuts it off from this literary model. As a ‘child’, even in her thirties, she preexists any cultural associations, prejudices or implied conditioning, and we never witness her reaching maturity and so settling into a consistent role or character. She never speaks, although we are told she is capable of speech; she may understand what Olivero says to her but he can never be certain (‘she turned an unmoved and perhaps uncomprehending face towards him’, p. 43). In the third and final section of the novel the couple confirm their resistance to generic containment by losing interest in one another altogether, in defiance of romance convention. All the Green Child’s personal traits, in fact, link her with the whimsicality Read sees as integral to fantasy, and suggest that Olivero’s yearning for her – and Kneeshaw’s too – is a hankering after the qualities Read associates with the fantastic in his criticism.

She also seems to bring out the fantastic in the behaviour of her male admirers – even those who are most resistant to fantasy. When Olivero first sets eyes on her, helpless in the clutches of her powerful husband as he seeks to force hot blood between her teeth, he rushes to the rescue with the impetuousness of a romance hero, but his rescue soon becomes absurd. To reach her he must scramble through a half-open window, and he gets stuck half way, with ‘the upper half of his body outside the window, his legs waving wildly inside the room’ (p. 19). ‘This mishap,’ Read informs us, ‘which in any normal circumstances would have been merely comic, gave a still further fantastic turn to the scene of horror inside the room’ (p. 19, my emphasis). Later, Kneeshaw reveals himself, too, to have been affected by the fantastic when he relates to Olivero, despite his usual taciturnity, the story of his marriage. This unwonted eloquence comes to him because ‘tragedy’, as Read tells us, ‘drives us beyond natural behaviour, on to a level where imagination and phantasy rule’ (p. 25, my emphasis) – and fantasy, the product of the imaginative faculty, is described in English Prose Style as a mode of rhetoric or eloquent speech. Olivero, on the other hand, has been a devotee of fantasy since his youth. As a schoolmaster his favoured teaching technique was to dispense with formal learning and encourage his pupils to ‘become absorbed in […] fantasy’ (p. 23, my emphasis) – that is, in ‘caprice, whim, fanciful invention’ – through unsupervised play. This was his motivation in providing them with the clockwork train made by his father, just as Kneeshaw’s hostility to fantasy was expressed in his smashing of the toy engine. The two men’s attraction to the fantastic person of the Green Child stems, then, from opposite perspectives, one of which is determined to liberate fantasy from its entrapment in systems, the other committed to subjecting it to the systematic mode of operation it resists.

The clash between these two perspectives reaches its apex when Olivero leaves the mill, after freeing the Green Child from Kneeshaw’s clutches, and returns to his former occupation of studying the stream. Seeing a phenomenon he does not understand in the troubled water of the millpond – ‘a continual interweaving of irregular ribbons of water, gushing and spouting in every direction’, like an enactment of fantastic arbitrariness (p. 39) – he decides to deactivate the millwheel so as to study the phenomenon in an undisturbed state. Kneeshaw immediately notices that his mill has been reduced to an unproductive state and hurries to reconnect the wheel to its machinery. In the process he discovers that Olivero is still lurking on his property and attacks him in the hope of destroying him as he destroyed the toy engine thirty years before. Instead it’s Kneeshaw who is destroyed, drowned by Olivero with the help of his own reactivated millwheel (repurposed, in effect, as an inquisitorial instrument of torment) in a scene that recalls the linkage of technology and violence in the work of H G Wells: ‘The Lord of the Dynamos’, perhaps, in which a colonial subject electrocutes his overseer in an act of ritual sacrifice, or more fittingly ‘The Cone’, in which a jealous husband murders his wife’s lover by hurling him onto a red-hot piece of industrial machinery. The parallel with Wells’s ‘The Cone’ is reinforced by Kneeshaw’s stubborn refusal to die quickly; he resurfaces from the pond after his first dunking to stare with hatred at Olivero, his killer, just as the lover in Wells’s story continues to cling to the red-hot Cone like a bad conscience until his killer succeeds in knocking him off. Even the difference between the situations in the short story and the novel reinforces the link between them. Kneeshaw the industrialist is killed by his wife’s lover with the help of cold water, while Wells’s lover is killed by the industrialist husband using a rigid structure of hot steel. Symbolically, Kneeshaw’s killing completes the liberation of Olivero’s personality which began when the boy Kneeshaw smashed the toy engine, smashing along with it Olivero’s attempt to use the school system to liberate children’s imaginations from the rigid structures of conventional learning. The killing liberates, too, the Green Child from Kneeshaw’s efforts to make her conform; afterwards she is free to follow the stream again, this time in Olivero’s company. It is in fact the first in a series of liberating sacrifices that take place in each successive section of the novel, each designed to free one or more people from the constraints that bar them from the radical indulgence of ‘caprice, whim, fanciful invention’.

Frontispiece from Lost Endeavour, first edition

If the first part of The Green Child is modeled on Read’s favourite fairy tale, the second serves as a pastiche of the sort of colonialist adventure story he might have enjoyed in his adolescence. It recounts in the first person – as narrated to the Green Child after her liberation – Olivero’s adventures after abandoning his life as a village teacher. The trajectory he traces from teacher to adventurer recalls John Masefield’s adventure novel Lost Endeavour (1910), in which a schoolmaster called Little Theo becomes first a pirate, then the prophesied king of all the indigenous peoples of the Americas. According to the prophecy that identifies him as king, Theo is supposed to lead his subjects to freedom from European imperialism; but his project ends in failure, as the novel’s title indicates. Olivero’s accidental recruitment as a South American political leader is far more successful, ending not in political failure but triumph tempered by personal dissatisfaction; but like Little Theo’s adventures it involves the championing by an Englishman of the rights of indigenous people, and in this it sets itself in opposition to one of Read’s other literary influences, the South American romances of the Argentinian-American writer W. H. Hudson, most famously the author of Green Mansions (1904). Hudson’s novel involves the discovery of a girl with strangely-coloured skin, Rima, who is the last survivor of a mysterious civilization somewhere in the mountains of Venezuela. Rima speaks Spanish but can also communicate in bird-like whistles, leap through the branches of gigantic trees, and make friends with the birds and beasts of the rainforest, like a female Mowgli or Tarzan. She is eventually burned to death as a demon by the more aggressive indigenous people who live in the jungle she has made her home. Hudson had a deep affection for the descendants of Spanish colonists in Argentina, Venezuela and modern Uruguay, but expressed nothing but contempt for the indigenous people they displaced – with the sole exception of Rima’s imaginary people, who he represents as a race apart, like the lost relatives of She-who-must-be-obeyed in Rider Haggard’s She. Read’s Olivero, by contrast, embraces the cause of those same indigenous people, who endear themselves to him chiefly (it seems) because of their simplicity – their willingness, that is, to be content with simple pleasures, which makes them uniquely suitable for moulding into the citizens of an ideal state. Read’s decision to have his English protagonist first liberate these ‘simple’ people from dictatorship and then govern them for twenty-five years as a democratically-elected dictator is of course offensive in the extreme; but read as commentary on the political situation in 1930s Europe – like More’s original Utopia, which directly responds to the tyranny of the English monarch Henry VIII – its offensiveness can at least be contextualized, though hardly mitigated.

Where Read’s novel differs from the stories of colonial adventure he’d have read as a boy is in the steadfast refusal of the central character, Olivero, to associate himself with the country of his birth. This reluctance to subscribe to the discourse of nationalism manifests itself first in his friendship with the employer he works for in London after leaving his village, a Polish Jew called Mr Klein. Read describes Klein in terms that invoke the anti-Semitic stereotypes that were becoming increasingly prevalent in the 1930s: ‘There was something like a snake in his appearance – a squat reptile, a tortoise’ (p. 48). But if the snake comparison evokes both personal deviousness and the tendency of the Christian church to blame the Jews for everything from Adam’s Fall to Christ’s crucifixion, Klein quickly frees himself from those particular racist clichés. For one thing, he is not much good with money, and employs Olivero to manage his financial affairs. For another he is a generous and trusting employer, and sends Olivero off on the next stage of his adventures by handing him a large amount of gold to take to his mother and sisters in Poland, along with plenty of extra cash to take Olivero wherever he wants to go after that. Klein’s trust, in fact, enlists Olivero as an honorary member of his family – an adoptive son – reinforcing Olivero’s sense of sympathy with his employer’s ‘simple commercial mind’ (p. 50). At the same time, like many sons Olivero also finds himself at odds with his father’s values. He loathes the ‘dull unimaginative work’ he must do to earn his keep, and instead harbours hidden ‘fancies’ for ‘those countries and cities where the longest human experience had left the richest deposits of beauty and wisdom’ (p. 51). The word ‘deposits’ makes beauty and wisdom sound like subterranean veins of precious ore laid down over aeons, and links them not so much to specific societies as to long-term human habitation in the same spot, a process that results in a kind of crystalline abstraction of the qualities Olivero cherishes most. It’s in quest of this alternative treasure that he sets out on his travels, enacting the apparent arbitrariness of fantasy as he moves from place to place in search of ‘beauty and wisdom’.

The journey marks the young man’s final break from Englishness, and with it from the narrative that has shaped his life so far, emancipating him, in effect, from space and time. On arrival in Spain he finds himself arrested on suspicion of harbouring revolutionary sympathies, based on the books he has in his position – mostly written by thinkers who inspired or were inspired by the French revolution (Voltaire, Rousseau, Volney). Ironically his spell in prison brings him into contact with the very revolutionaries he is supposed to be aligned with; he learns fluent Spanish from them as well as practical politics, and is transformed in the process from Oliver to Olivero, from a local schoolmaster-turned-accountant to a fully-fledged internationalist, convinced that the simple principles of liberty, equality and fraternity deserve to form the basis of all societies, not just France. On release from prison Olivero finds himself en route to Buenos Ayres, where by a series of improbable coincidences he is mistaken by a revolutionary society for an expert in politics, whose experience will help topple the dictator of a small country, Roncador, and replace its corrupt regime with a just government. This Olivero duly does, in the process transforming Roncador into a version of the ideal republic imagined by Plato. By this stage in Read’s narrative Olivero is in effect another embodiment of fantasy, and the republic he establishes is a fantasy too, distinguished by its strict adherence to the principles laid down in English Prose Style.

Felix Kelly, Roncador Cathedral, from The Green Child (1945)

Like the Green Child in the first part of Read’s novel, Roncador is particularly notable for its simplicity and objectivity. Its inhabitants are ‘simple-minded’ (p. 98), unconcerned with anything beyond tending the land to the best of their abilities in the interest of keeping themselves and their families in a state of health and modest prosperity. The country they inhabit, too, is simple in the extreme. Roncador is situated on a plateau connected to the world by just one trade route, a river. It contains just one small city – also called Roncador – whose design is described as ‘simplicity itself’ (p. 72). The needs of this city and its citizens are few, and can therefore be supplied by a ‘simple economy’ (p. 105). With these ingredients Olivero succeeds in establishing a society governed in the simplest way, by himself alone, which he sees as a work of art on the basis that ‘A sense of order is the principle of government as well as of art’. In it, ‘Not only inanimate things – money, equipment, goods of every kind – but even human beings, are so much plastic material for creative design’; and if this sounds a trifle sinister it needs to be remembered that Olivero is elected as the new dictator of Roncador by democratic means, that his government regularly issues invitations to further elections (though nobody chooses to stand against him), and that he has no wish to improve his material situation, leading a life as simple as that of his subjects, and ‘aided by subordinates who had no ambitions of their own, and who were pleased to exercise obediently and with understanding the authority I delegated to them’ (p. 108). Roncador’s stability and breach from history emancipates it from time; its economic, cultural and geographical independence from its neighbours emancipates it from space; and its equal division of its time between rationally organized work and various kinds of play affirms its simultaneous commitment to both the ‘cold logic’ of Read’s fantasy and the arbitrariness it celebrates.

Three elements in Read’s Roncador narrative attest to its neat division between logic and ‘caprice, whim, fanciful invention’. The first of these elements is the personality of the Roncadorian soldier, General Santos, who helps Olivero accomplish his revolution. A saintly representative of his people (as his name and title suggest), General Santos is as committed to his family and the tending of his farm as he is to the military discipline by which he protects them and his country from outside threats. General Santos is descended from the Spanish colonists, but has married an indigenous woman, so that he balances the concerns and qualities of both cultures. His farm is both meticulously organized and filled with life and energy; the General and his wife have no less than nine human children, as well as a large extended family of hummingbirds, the creatures that enliven the landscape of Roncador throughout its length:

He opened the cages and they flew out with shrill little cries, fluttering round the General, who had furnished himself with quills filled with syrup, into which the hovering birds dipped their tongues. Others flew about his ears, hovered round his mouth, buzzed and fluttered about his head and hands. When tired of playing with them, he put the quills away; and then he gently waved his hands in the midst of them, at which signal they all returned to their respective cages. (p. 76)

The colourful and seemingly random spectacle of the hummingbirds ‘fluttering round the General’, as disciplined in their behaviour as they are chaotic in their movements, confirms the man’s equal dedication to the arts of playfulness and social order, whimsicality and logic; a dedication which ensures that after the revolution he immediately forswears all civic or military authority and retires to the confines of his farm for the rest of his days.

The second element is the assassination of the dictator. This is a necessary act of brutality, Olivero thinks, if a just republic is to be established; but its logical necessity must be tempered with an element of fantasy – ‘the fantasy of a natural event’, as he puts it (p. 80) – so as to render it impersonal, transforming it into an apparently random yet symbolically eloquent occasion like the killing of Aeschylus by a turtle dropped on his head from an eagle’s claws, which was interpreted by the Greeks as a manifestation of the will of the gods. Olivero accomplishes the killing with the help of another soldier, ‘an Indian named Iturbide’, named after the real-life revolutionary who became Emperor Agustín I of Mexico. Planned to take place during a church festival, the assassination combines great skill with apparent arbitrariness. Iturbide agrees to take part in the ‘simple and innocent’ game (as Olivero calls it, p. 80) known as the sortija, which involves riding at full speed towards a ring suspended in a wooden frame and trying to pierce it with the point of a lance. His task is to miss the ring and pierce the Dictator, a seemingly random mishap which must be immediately followed by the imposition of order, as Major Santos leads his most trusted troops to arrest the Dictator’s officials and impose the laws of the new republic. Once again logic and reason mix with the arbitrariness of play to create a situation where free play is made available to all citizens by means of meticulous organization.

The third element that embodies the republic’s blend of rationality with caprice is the suppression of a band of violent marauders led by a man called General Vargas, four years after the revolution. Olivero treats the expedition against Vargas as an experiment to see how ‘men of imagination’ cope when the need for action arises; he theorizes that such men could do well because of their ability ‘to act as if death were a fantasy’ (p. 112). The most striking aspect of the expedition is its use of the river in the attack on Vargas’s forces; a gesture which combines the seeming logic of poetic justice – since the river is the most important commercial highway in Roncador, and Vargas represents a threat to its legitimate traffic – with the free-flowing, apparently arbitrary movement of water, which in the first part of the novel was specifically linked to the Green Child. Olivero’s forces position themselves with their guns in a pair of boats of the kind used for transporting goods; they then allow them to drift in the current, their clumsy ‘log-like’ movements concealing their carefully calculated purpose, until the guns come within range of the marauders’ camp. The attack is of course destructive, resulting in loss of life on both sides; yet it is also artistic, in that it is executed on a night of unusual beauty, and ends exactly as Olivero intended: ‘The forest behind us began to stir with life; a choir of birds filled the air with liquid or piercing notes; monkeys began to chatter in the overhanging branches’ (p. 113). It is presumably no coincidence that Olivero later arranges for his own assassination and departure from Roncador to take place on a similar night, using the river as his path to freedom and a light canoe as his mode of transport.

Each of these three elements or episodes is marked by the resistance of its key actors to any cult of personality; and here as elsewhere Read offers us a model of objectivity, of resistance to nationalist rhetoric and unrestrained emotion. General Santos refuses to profit personally from the revolution; he is not the hero who brings it about (that honour is Iturbide’s), and he plays only a temporary role in the new republican government. Iturbide, too, is content to remain anonymous despite the heroic nature of his actions at the Festival; as soon as he has killed the Dictator he gets concealed from view by the General’s troops, and he never afterwards claims any credit for changing the course of his country’s history. The suppression of Vargas’s marauders is described by Olivero as a ‘brief and insignificant episode’, but results in Olivero’s becoming ‘for the citizens of Roncador the embodiment of their national glory’ (p. 117). But he quickly recedes again into relative obscurity, since his ‘public works […] had no such epic value’. The ‘stability and happiness of our state’, as Olivero puts it (p. 118), admits of no tension, no narrative development, no long-range spatial movement or complex plans; it is, in fact, wholly emancipated from the orders of time and space. The Roncadorians spend their days ‘peacefully going about their work in the estancias, or […] walking in the gardens, sitting in the shade of the fountains, everywhere mirthful and contented’ (p. 119). To stir such people to a renewed concern with narrative would be, he feels, to unleash unwarranted ‘conflict, […] anguish and agitation’ on them, since these are the ingredients narrative thrives on.

Olivero himself, however, is still psychologically committed to narrative, and so not as exempt from the orders of space and time as he might wish. He equates the timelessness of the republic with an irksome ‘flaccidity, a fatness of living, an ease and a torpor’ (p. 119), and yearns to go home to England, thus completing the circle of his own story. He also wishes to find out more about the Green Children who arrived in his village in the very year of his departure from it: ‘I longed to know,’ he admits, ‘how that mystery had been solved, what had become of them in the course of the years’ (p. 120). At this point he thinks of the children, it seems, in terms of that most linear of narratives, a detective novel – which, as Todorov points out, cannot be read out of order without destroying the tension that precedes the solution of the central mystery. Only his encounter with the Green Child herself, as narrated in the book’s first part, reveals to him the fact that there’s no ‘mystery’ about her; that she is what she is, a fantastic phenomenon without a solution.

Olivero himself acknowledges that his mind is responsible for his dissatisfaction with his stable republic. His ideas seek an outlet in action. They respond to ‘tension in circumstances’, and without the continual flow of new ideas brought about by tension he quickly succumbs to crushing boredom. The third part of Read’s fantasy involves a final attempt to escape from the tension of narrative, which in turn involves an escape from the mind itself. To do this Read exploits and reverses a number of narratives that were widely familiar in contemporary culture. The first is Plato’s narrative of the cave from The Republic, which seeks to account for the nature of reality; but where in Plato’s dialogue the inhabitants of the cave are victims of illusion, and reality (in the shape of the Ideals) exists elsewhere, Read’s cave – that is, the underground caverns from which the Green Children wandered – are themselves the Ideal. The second narrative he reverses is the discourse of Freudian psychoanalysis, which seeks to account for the nature of the mind. Another novel published in the same year as The Green Child, Joseph O’Neill’s SF classic Land Under England (1935), deals with caves in a more conventional manner. Here the horrors encountered by the protagonist on an underground journey represent a confrontation with the Freudian recesses of his own unconscious, where the id takes the form of deadly monsters, brainwashed soldiers and a maniacal father figure, all of them associated with the fascistic tendencies of British imperialism. Read’s subterranean realm, by contrast, is the location of logical materialism and egalitarian order. Its materialism stems from the fact that the inhabitants spend their lives surrounded by rock, and so take rock as their ideal, yearning for the day when their bodies will be hardened into rocklike solidity after death in a ritualistic reenactment of the crystallizing process that produces stalactites. Read’s subterranean utopia, in fact, involves escape from the torments of emotion, and in it fantasy, the capricious impulse to generate works of art, is only an occupation to beguile the time on the way to perpetual stasis. The transformation of humans into crystal that occurs at the end of this third section is an escape into the abstract, where the abstract represents the simple principles that underlie the vast complexity of the universe. It’s the crystallised corpses of the Green People themselves that turn out to be the ‘richest deposits of beauty and wisdom’ Olivero went in quest of on his worldwide travels.

First Edition of A Crystal Age

As well as the well-known narratives of Plato and Freud, the final section also represents Read’s final engagement with W H Hudson, whose influence was so pronounced in the first two sections. If the Green Child and Roncador are responses to Hudson’s South American romances, with the former a version of the wild girl Rima and the latter a fusion of Argentina in The Purple Land and Venezuela in Green Mansions, the third and final part is Read’s response to Hudson’s utopia, A Crystal Age (1887). A Crystal Age concentrates on the repeated misunderstandings that arise between a Victorian man called Smith, who is somehow hurled into the future by a landslide, and the dwellers in an idealized House where he finds shelter. The people of the House are totally dedicated to telling the truth, to the extent that it shines through them, so to speak, as if they were images in a living stained glass window. Indeed, the House itself is as full of exquisite stained glass as any building decorated by Morris and Company, its transparent surfaces providing a metaphor for its total integration with the ecosystem of which it is part. Its occupants, too, have a crystalline coolness about them. They are totally free from emotion; none experiences passion of any kind or takes a sexual partner, and indeed all are effectively sexless, like drones in a beehive, with the sole exception of the so-called Father and Mother of the House, who between them conceive all the House’s inhabitants. Inevitably, Hudson’s Victorian visitor falls in love with a girl of the future, Yoletta, whose ‘crystal nature’ cannot at first comprehend the meaning of his exclusive devotion to her, since erotic desire has long been forgotten by most of her people (p. 161). Although Yoletta slowly learns to return his devotion, the time traveller is so tormented by his unfulfilled yearning for her body that he eventually drinks a potion which he hopes will cure him of passion and make him a drone, like the other men in the community. Unfortunately he has misread the label on the bottle. The potion is in fact a poison, and he dies – ironically enough, soon after learning that the Mother of the House had intended him and Yoletta to take on the role of sexually-active Father and Mother after her death. This final and most tragic misunderstanding stresses the vast gap of time and culture that separates Hudson’s period from the Crystal Age of perfect harmony with beasts and people, and the evolutionary changes that will be necessary before a Victorian man could survive in such a state.

Olivero, however, is made from sterner stuff than Hudson’s visitor. Trained by his adventures to adapt himself to new conditions, he quickly and wholeheartedly embraces the customs of the Green People. His first entry into the caverns where they live contains all the ingredients of a conventional romance; as she sinks into the pool that leads to her ancestral caverns, the Green Child holds out her hand to him as if in gratitude and affection, and Olivero responds with ‘a cry of happiness, as if a secret joy had suddenly been revealed to him’ (p. 46). But the culture to which he finds himself admitted is even more crystalline than Hudson’s House, not least in its resistance to the organic palpitations of emotion. The walls of its caves are ‘of a crystalline formation’ (p. 126), and each is hung with rods or wind chimes made from crystal, the largest of which are stalactites carefully grown in workshops to give out harmonies in conjunction with the smaller rods suspended alongside them. For the inhabitants of the underground crystal halls, sex is a childish occupation, not taken any more seriously than swimming or other kinds of play, and they freely exchange partners in their youth, much to Olivero’s disgust: ‘He was angry and jealous when he saw [the Green Child, now known as] Siloën walking arm in arm with one of the youths, and hid his convulsed face when he saw her making love with others’ (p. 136). But he quickly becomes ashamed of these ‘terrestrial sentiments’, and soon moves on to higher levels in the Green People’s culture, whose relative importance is represented literally by their situation on higher and higher platforms in the cave system. First come the workshops where crystals are fashioned into music chimes or abstract sculptures; then the level where the older men stroll endlessly together indulging in philosophical conversation – largely about rocks and crystals; and finally the level of solitary contemplation, where he spends his time in the company of a pet beetle – chosen, presumably, for its appearance as a being half organic, half inorganic, a kind of living mineral. Later still Olivero retires to a solitary cave, where he spends his time in meditation on the shape of some unusual crystals until death takes him. By this stage in the book conventional narrative, as marked by plot development, interaction between characters and dialogue, has been left behind, and Olivero has espoused wholeheartedly the Green People’s key philosophical principle: ‘Everything solidifies; that is the law of the universe’ (p. 144). His own eventual solidification – achieved by immersing his corpse in a mineral-rich pool or ‘petrifying-trough’ – also marks his final union with the Green Child, who dies at the exact same moment that he does and is immersed in the trough by his side. Instead of a sexual union the pair are unified as sculpture. The final sentences of the novel celebrate the couple’s conversion into art, as

these two who had been separated in life grew together in death, and became part of the same crystal harmony. The tresses of Siloën’s hair, floating in the liquid in which they were immersed, spread like a tracery of stone across Olivero’s breast, twined inextricably in the coral intricacy of his beard (p. 153).

Felix Kelly, the Caverns from The Green Child (1945), showing Siloën and Olivero

The conclusion of Read’s novel, then, represents one logical consequence of his definition of fantasy. Objectivity can be best achieved by becoming an object; so too can emancipation from the orders of space and time. Arbitrariness is present in this final section thanks to certain aspects of Olivero’s growth towards the selflessness of the contemplative hermit. The artificial crystals he studies in his lonely cave, for example, incorporate subtle deviations from the shapes of natural crystals, each deviation having been located in it by a master craftsman, in the half-serious interest of discovering some new order outside the order of nature. ‘Such orders outside nature did not really exist’, according to Siloën’s people, ‘but it amused men to imagine that they did’ (p. 145). To this end the Green People’s artists love to test the ‘liberty’ or emancipation of the mind from nature’s order by exploring alternative orders through the art of ‘crystal formation’, enjoying ‘at one extreme the baroque fantasy of the cubic system, at the other extreme the classic simplicity of the hexagonal system’ (p. 138). The disinterested playfulness of this artistic activity, wholly unconnected to figurative design and hence to human history, wholly materialist in that we are told it is never theorized (Siloën’s people have no words for abstract concepts), places the final section of The Green Child as far beyond the nationalist and racist narratives of fascism as anything else being written in the 1930s.

The inhabitants of Read’s underground utopia live in the depths of the earth, for ever exempt from ‘terrestrial sentiments’ of the kind experienced by Kneeshaw in his courtship of the Green Child. The violent relationship between that unhappily married couple illustrates what happens when such simple people come in contact with the complications of the flesh. In that first section of Read’s novel the Green Child came across as supremely fleshly, without a hint of the mineral rigidity to which she finally aspires. Her body, for instance, responds with subtle changes of pigment to her every change of mood. Anger is marked by a ‘clouding of the translucent flesh’, joy by ‘an increased radiance of the flesh’, sorrow by ‘blanching’ (p. 35), while after a period of imprisonment ‘her flesh had turned from its green translucent colour to a waxen yellow, the colour of ripe golden plums’ (p. 34)). Her translucence is the only aspect of her that resembles crystal, and Kneeshaw’s first encounter with this translucence makes her sound like a soft-tissue version of the stained glass in A Crystal Age:

The Green Child was standing against the light of the kitchen window, peeling potatoes, and the light shone through her bare arms and fingers and her delicate neck, and her flesh was like flesh seen in a hand that shelters a candle against the air, or the radiance seen when we look at the sun through the fine web of shut eyelids. (p. 30).

Read’s representation of her here is designed to stress her vulnerability as well as her difference, and recalls Hudson’s description of the girl of the House, Yoletta, as possessed of a ‘crystal nature’. Everything the Green Child feels and thinks is visible, so that she barely needs to make use of ‘vocal or facial expression’ (p. 35). Yoletta, however, lived in her native environment, while Siloën is stranded among the machines and passions of aggressive strangers. As an expression of the predicament of a thinking person in what Eric Hobsbawm calls the ‘age of extremes’ there couldn’t be a much more potent metaphor. And as a solution to that predicament, the end of Read’s book is quietly tragic. It’s only by becoming something other than human that the problems of being human can be resolved. It’s only by forgoing the state of being organic that the ‘heartache and the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to’ can be stilled. It’s only in a surrealist fantasy that utopia can be achieved. That’s what Read’s book implies, and what he may have found horribly confirmed by the events of the Spanish Civil War, which broke out only two short years after his book was published.

First Edition of Titus Groan

I promised in my last post to discuss how Mervyn Peake might be read as in some sense a follower of Herbert Read. There isn’t space to do that properly here. For now, it’s enough to point out that Peake found escape from his wartime predicament by turning to a place outside the orders of space and time – that immemorial castle, Gormenghast – whose residents are slowly merging with the stones they live among, and whose dedication to ‘fanciful invention’ is much more pronounced than Olivero’s. Those residents are materialists, like the Green People. Their religion is bound up with the walls that enclose them, they resist emotion, and their lives are recounted in a narrative which is barely at times a narrative at all, but everywhere ‘encumbered with odd inconsequential but startlingly vivid and concrete details’. Among these residents is a young woman called Fuchsia, who is startlingly different from all the rest. She is passionate, devoted to the family and friends she loves, frustrated at her confinement in a house of rituals, besotted with storytelling, art and drama. She shows her emotions in every gesture, without recourse to words, which she finds difficult. And she is finally unable to reconcile these radical differences of hers with the largely indifferent, chilly and ritualistic building she inhabits, with its tendency to erupt in sudden violence, banishing rebels and revolutionaries from the shelter of its massive walls.

But Peake wrote that book in the Second World War, and needed much more space than Read to exorcise the radical strangeness of that context…

Mervyn Peake, sketch for the cover of Shapes and Sounds (1942)

Book List

Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914–1991 (London: Michael Joseph, 1994)

W. H. Hudson, A Crystal Age, Fourth Impression (London: Duckworth, 1919), Preface (from 1906)

W. H. Hudson, South American Romances (The Purple Lane, Green Mansions, El Ombú and Other Stories) (London: Duckworth, 1930)

John Masefield, Lost Endeavour (London etc.: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1910)

Joseph O’Neill, Land Under England (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1987)

Mervyn Peake, The Gormenghast Trilogy (London: Mandarin, 1992)

Herbert Read, English Prose Style, 7th Impression (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1942)

Herbert Read, The Green Child, introd. Graham Greene (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1969)

Herbert Read, The Green Child, illus. Felix Kelly (London: The Grey Walls Press, 1945)

The Surrealist Fantasy of Herbert Read, Part 1: Theorizing Fantasy

Herbert Read

Perhaps the most celebrated theoretical account of fantasy was given by J R R Tolkien many decades before the genre became an established presence on the shelves of bookshops. The first version of Tolkien’s essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ was delivered as the Andrew Lang Lecture at the University of Saint Andrews in 1938; it was later expanded and published in 1947, and published again with minor changes in 1964. A decade before Tolkien gave his lecture, however, another essay on fantasy was published by an academic with very different convictions and interests. Herbert Read was an art critic, literary commentator, socialist and thinker who (among many other things) provided a critical framework for the importation of surrealism from France to England in the early ’30s. Read’s essay on fantasy makes up one of the chapters in his book English Prose Style (1928), which was highly regarded by (among many others) Graham Greene – the editor who helped Mervyn Peake publish his first novel, Titus Groan, at the end of the Second World War. English Prose Style was reprinted many times; the edition I’ve read is the seventh impression, dated 1942, and has been changed quite a bit from the 1928 version. I’d like to suggest here that Herbert Read’s essay, together with Read’s only novel, The Green Child (1935) – which is based on a ‘fairy story’ that takes a central place in his chapter on fantasy – gives us a context in which to understand Mervyn Peake’s place in the development of the genre.

Ithell Colquhoun, Gouffres Amers (1937)

I shall suggest, too, that Read’s essay gestures towards a thread or current of fantasy that runs somewhat counter to Tolkien’s version: an experimental, materialist fantasy which has less to do with tradition, historical scholarship and religious faith than with finding a means of articulating the sheer strangeness of the twentieth century. This post represents a first attempt to sketch out what such a fantasy might have consisted of if writers had chosen to follow Read’s version of the genre rather than Tolkien’s. And it will end by considering whether it might be helpful to think of Peake as in some sense a follower of Read’s. I haven’t any evidence that he was one, or that he even knew Read’s work – though it seems very unlikely he did not. Peake did know the surrealist painter Leslie Hurry, after all, and in 1939 drew a sketch of the surrealist painter Ithell Colquhoun, who was admired by Walter de la Mare, another friend of Peake’s who wrote quasi-surrealist prose and whose verse was published alongside the poetry of Herbert Read, as well as the poetry of a third friend of Peake’s, Dylan Thomas – also connected with surrealism. Read’s novel The Green Child, meanwhile, was reprinted in 1945 by Grey Walls Press, which later published The Drawings of Mervyn Peake, and reprinted again in 1947 by Eyre and Spottiswood, the publishers of the Gormenghast sequence, with an introduction by Peake’s friend and editor Graham Greene. It is tempting, then, to see in Read’s essay on fantasy, and in The Green Child, forerunners of Peake’s Titus novels, at least on certain levels. And that’s how, by way of thought experiment, I propose to think of them here.

Roland Penrose, Night and Day (1937)

Read’s book on prose style is concerned less with what he calls the ‘interest’ of literature – its contents, that is – than the formal techniques by which it achieves its effects. It is divided into two parts: ‘composition’ and ‘rhetoric’. Composition is concerned with the ‘objective use of language’: the building blocks of prose, so to speak, including words, sentences, metaphors and paragraphs as well as its overall arrangement (‘disposition’, in the terms of early modern rhetorical theorists). Rhetoric is concerned with persuasive techniques, of which fantasy is one. The part of the book that deals with rhetoric begins with chapters on ‘exposition’, which might be glossed as explaining or expressing oneself in an apparently logical manner, and ‘narrative’, which describes rather than explains, and deals with either events or objects, making it ‘either active or passive in character’ (p. 104). Fantasy is assigned to the third chapter of the second part of English Prose Style, the part of the book that deals with rhetoric. For Read, it is a persuasive technique that has not yet been given much attention, and is more closely allied with exposition than with narrative. It is, in other words, a way of writing that gives the appearance of being logical and detached, not emotionally charged as narrative is. This is unexpected, to say the least, because of the definition of fantasy that opens the chapter, which suggests that it is very far from logical.

Marion Adnams, The Distraught Infanta (1944)

The opening paragraph separates fantasy from the mental quality of phantasy, which means the imagination – the faculty of ‘forming mental images of things not actually present’, as Tolkien calls it (p. 46), following the Oxford English Dictionary. Fantasy, by contrast, is ‘caprice, whim, fanciful invention’ – the process of making things up. It is not, however, a random or passing whim or caprice; it involves sustained invention, Read insists; and this, being the place in which he diverges from dictionary definitions, would seem to lie at the heart of his conception of fantasy. He thinks of the imagination or phantasy as being driven by ‘sensibility’ – emotion or affect – whereas fantasy is more closely akin to rational thought; it is ‘cold and logical’ in the way it develops its initial whims or caprices, whereas the imagination is ‘sensuous and instinctive’. In saying this, Read claims to be building on the famous distinction between imagination and fancy in Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria. This means that Coleridge’s book is mentioned both in Tolkien’s essay on Fairy Stories and in Read’s chapter – though Tolkien is more concerned with the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’, which he wishes to replace with a different concept, ‘secondary belief’, involving a more complete mental commitment to an invented world than Coleridge’s phrase implies. For Read, by contrast, Coleridge’s definition of fancy exactly describes what Read thinks of as fantasy.

The main difference between Read and Coleridge is that Read is far more interested in fancy than imagination, whereas imagination is the faculty Coleridge favours, as Read himself points out (pp. 150-1). Fancy, Coleridge says, is concerned with ‘fixities and definites’, which Read takes to mean it is in some sense ‘objective’, dealing not with ‘vague entities’ but with ‘things which are concrete, clearly perceptible, visibly defined’. For me this implies that works of fancy or fantasy are less concerned with the creepy feelings aroused by half-seen ghosts, gods or monsters than with unexpected objects: the tea set on the table of the Mad Hatter, Mr Tumnus’s umbrella and parcels, Bilbo’s Ring. What makes these objects fantastic or fanciful is that they are evoked, in Coleridge’s terms, through an act of memory – everyone remembers having seen a tea set, an umbrella, a plain gold ring – but memory ‘emancipated from the order of time and space’. Carroll’s tea set is fanciful because the Mad Hatter’s tea party is continuous, not governed by the conventional schedule, and because the tea never seems to run out. Mr Tumnus’s umbrella is a thing of fantasy because it’s being used to ward off the everlasting snow of Narnia and is owned by a classical faun, half man half goat. Bilbo’s Ring removes him from sight and therefore to some degree from space, extends his lifetime artificially, and shortens the distance between himself and Sauron’s terrible Eye. Fantasy, then, Read tells us, is unlike exposition or narrative in that it ‘deliberately avoids the logic and consistency of these types of rhetoric and creates a new and arbitrary order of events’ (p. 138). This statement seems directly to contradict his earlier statement that fantasy is ‘cold and logical’ (p. 137); but it’s worth noting that in his earlier account of exposition Read explains that he does not use the term ‘logical’ ‘in any precise scientific sense’ (p. 92). Instead he affirms that logical exposition is ‘the art of expressing oneself clearly, logic being implied in the structure of the sentences employed’ (p. 92, Read’s emphasis). The logic of fantasy, then, is ‘implied’ rather than actual, a function of grammar rather than of rigorous syllogisms. Meanwhile its emancipation from the order of time and space – in other words, from those particular ordering principles that underpin the world we live in – frees it from the values we have been conditioned to accept. And this emancipation is an act of will rather than the involuntary detachment from coherence that takes place in a dream or hallucination. Admittedly, the will too is conditioned or given direction, Read accepts, by ‘our mental and physical environment’ (p. 138). In other words, it’s not entirely under our control. Even apparently arbitrary sentences will be driven by what Coleridge calls the ‘law of association’, that is, by the way our culture and our individual experiences have conditioned us to position things in relation to one another. But the fact remains, Read insists, that sentences in a work of fantasy or fancy ‘do sometimes present [an] arbitrary appearance’, and that this apparent arbitrariness is brought about through the ‘conscious choice’ or will of the writer or speaker.

Ithell Colquhoun, Scylla (1939)

For Read, the emancipation of a narrative from the order of time and space is often achieved, ironically enough, through the operations of time and space. The only form of literature he sees as perfectly exemplifying fantasy or fancy is the fairy tale, a form of collective verbal property that has gradually lost its links with any particular time and place by being handed down from one generation to the next, and by being transferred from one location to another, changing as it goes as if in a game of Chinese whispers. The theme of each tale remains constant, he affirms, ‘but there is a gradual accretion of subsidiary details’, and a gradual loss of emotional investment – of sensibility, that is, or affect – so that the ballad or folk tale eventually becomes ‘a clear objective narrative’ which is ‘encumbered with odd inconsequential but startlingly vivid and concrete details’ (p. 139). The claim that fairy tales accrue concrete details as they get passed down seems to me a little odd; could one not just as easily argue that certain details get lost over time, and that this gradual loss of details is what makes any given tale seem arbitrary? Tolkien too claims that new ingredients are always being added to what he calls the ‘soup’ of story – the communal source of imaginative nourishment for succeeding generations – but he doesn’t suggest that the new ingredients add up to a steady accretion. The best-known fairy tales, after all, aren’t overburdened with details, as they surely would be if accretion were continually in process. The oddness of Read’s claim is compounded when he offers as an exemplary fairy tale a narrative that has little in common with the fairy tales of Andrew Lang, or Joseph Jacobs, or any of the major collectors who helped to naturalize the term in the English language. It’s the story of the two Green Children, and it provided Read with part of the plot of his only novel.

The story concerns two young children who were found in a specific, extant place – St Mary’s of the Wolf-pits in Suffolk, now known as Woolpit – near one of the pits that gave the place its name. The children had green skin, and were taken for questioning to a local dignitary, Sir Richard de Caine, who lived at nearby Wickes. The children did not speak English, so at the time of their discovery nothing much could be learned about them except from their actions. At first they would eat only beans, a detail described in Read’s account with great specificity: when the beans were placed before them the children ‘opened only the stalks instead of the pods, thinking the beans were in the hollow of them; but not finding them there, they began to weep anew’ (p. 139). The little boy died soon afterwards, but the girl lived on as one of the knight’s servants, gradually becoming used to ordinary food and losing her green appearance. She was ‘rather loose and wanton in her conduct’, the narrator tells us. Interrogated about her birthplace, the girl insisted that everyone there was green and that the sun did not shine there; instead the land existed in a state of perpetual twilight. While minding sheep, she said, she and the boy had wandered into a cavern filled with the ‘delightful sound of bells’, and got lost in an underground warren of caves and passages. Emerging at last into the open air, they found the sunlight so dazzling and warm that they lost their senses. They were woken by the noise of their approaching captors and tried to flee, but were caught before they could find the entrance to the cavern.

Dorothea Tanning, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943)

So the story ends, without a trace of the ‘eucatastrophe’ or uplifting ending (conventionally signalled by the formula ‘and they lived happily ever after’) which was for Tolkien one of the defining elements of the fairy tale tradition. The story has no perceptible moral purpose, and much of its narrative seems to build on the one seemingly impossible detail it contains: the fact that the children had green skin. Their diet of green vegetables ‘explains’ the greenness of their appearance, and this greenness in turn ‘explains’ the girl’s wanton behaviour (the colour green being often associated with sexual promiscuity in medieval and early modern culture; leeks, for instance, were emblematic of randy old people, because they had white heads and green tails). Greenness also suggests pastoralism, as represented in the children’s work as shepherds, and a plant-like link with the earth, which explains the children’s discovery in a pit and their connection with underground caves. The story, then, gives every impression of having a logical structure, even if the logic is founded on something that seems unreasonable or at least unprecedented: the existence of green children. It perfectly exemplifies, then, Read’s description of fantasy as coldly objective (think of the way the boy child dies without being mourned, even by his sister) and seemingly logical (though of course there is no real logic in any of the spurious ‘explanations’ I’ve just suggested). It is some way, though, from exemplifying a conventional fairy tale.

One reason for this is the fact that it does not seem to be wholly detached from the order of space. It’s carefully located in an actual parish in Suffolk, and has the name of a knight – perhaps a real one – attached to it, a man who lives in a neighbouring parish and whose identity could therefore be traced, in theory at least, with the help of old records. The possibility for such research promises to pin the story down in time as well as space. At the same time, there are unexpected gaps or absences in the narrative. The story gestures towards the presence in the world of the people known as fairies, without going so far as to name them. The green children could easily have been explicitly identified with those people if the narrator had wished; after all, fairies famously live under the hills of Ireland and Scotland, they are associated with the colour green, and their well-known predilection for strange food – such as green beans contained in the stalk of the plant instead of the pod – makes it dangerous for mortals to eat from their tables. The term ‘fairy’, however, is never used in Read’s version of the story, and this renders the experience of reading it much stranger than it would have been otherwise. The narrative, then, is both attached to a specific place and time and detached from a traditional folkloric tradition. And its structure is not quite story-like, either. To say that it has ‘no moral’ is to say that it doesn’t really have an ending; one of the children dies, the other becomes ordinary, and we never hear what became of her after her naturalization as a human being. In choosing this not very fairy-tale like story as an example of fairy tale, then, Read seems deliberately to be detaching it from any familiar frame of reference. It hovers between fiction and history, between common ingredients of folklore and a set of circumstances that are wholly unaccountable by any known frame of reference – circumstances rendered stranger still by arbitrary details, like the implied existence of unusual beans or the ‘delightful sound of bells’ in the cavern.

Lee Miller, Portrait of Space Near Siwa, Egypt (1937)

Read goes on to assert that ‘a story such as this is the norm to which all types of Fantasy should conform’, including fairy tales which are ‘literary inventions’ where the ‘will or intention of the writer has to take the part of the age long and impersonal forces of folk tradition’. His example of such a literary invention is Robert Southey’s story of the Three Bears, whose heroine is now a little girl called Goldilocks, though in the original version she was a nameless wicked old woman. The story doesn’t have much in common with the story of the Green Children, however; it involves intelligent bears who live in a house and eat porridge, it does not locate itself anywhere specific, and it has a conventional story structure, with the heavy stress on patterns of three (three bears, three bowls of porridge, three chairs, three beds, three trials for the wicked old woman) which is omnipresent in the oral tradition. What attracts Read to Southey’s tale is its lack of moral intention or indeed any identifiable purpose, which sets it in contrast to Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, which has a clear didactic purpose, or rather several. Read also admires its ‘objectivity’ or lack of sentimental bias – we’re not expected to sympathize too deeply with either the woman or the bears – and its arbitrariness: the central premise concerning bears that live in houses, eat porridge and own household furniture has been randomly plucked, as it were, from thin air. The instructive purpose of The Water Babies, by contrast, attaches it too securely to the culture of its author to make it a perfect fantasy, and the same is true, as far as Read is concerned, of Alice in Wonderland, which is not so much moralistic as cultured; ‘the intelligence active therein is too sophisticated, too “clever”’ (p. 144). Read doesn’t explain what he means by this, but he may be referring to the knowing parodies it contains of familiar poems – ‘How doth the little crocodile’, ‘You are old, father William’ (the latter based on a poem by Southey) – or to the conventional Victorian manners which are constantly being violated by the people Alice meets, or their use of sophistry or chop logic, a form of discourse that depends for its comic effect on a recognition of its playful violation of conventional reasoning processes. Alice is anchored to its time and place by its sophistication and allusiveness, just as Kingsley is anchored to his time and place by his didacticism, which puts him into direct dialogue with the educators, legislators and churchmen of his period.

What becomes clear about Read’s examples of fantasy in this chapter is that they are so diverse as not to have anything much in common at all, apart from the capriciousness with which they introduce manifest impossibilities into their narratives (although one example, a passage from James Joyce’s Ulysses, doesn’t even contain these). Utopias like W. H. Hudson’s The Crystal Age are for Read too satirical and moral in their aims – too specifically directed at targets in their own time, as Hudson himself acknowledged in his preface to a late edition of his first book – to be ‘pure’ fantasies. H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine is very nearly fantastic, but too enamoured of the conventional rationalizing discourse of science to be fully so (and Tolkien thinks the same thing; what stops it being fantasy for Tolkien is the presence in it of the pseudo-scientific device of the time machine itself). A text Read does identify as a perfect literary fairy tale – an extract from a story by the Russian writer Aleksei Mikhailovich Remizov, translated by the great fantasy novelist Hope Mirrlees and her partner Jane Harrison – is to my eyes decidedly sentimental, and hence hardly ‘objective’, which is one of the features of fantasy Read insisted on earlier. Its sentiment is extended to a fallen star, however, so perhaps he sees it as an exemplary fantasy because of its emancipation from familiar assumptions about the difference between people and objects: ‘The poor little star was dozing by the hare’s form, and the thaw of a little tear rolled down her star cheek and then froze again’ (p. 145). The Thousand and One Nights is the ideal fantasy epic, the text Read would most like to have seen emulated in English – though not in the manner of William Beckford’s Vathek, which for Read adheres too closely to the original to be easily distinguished from it, and was in any case written in French. Read’s list of examples ends with a passage from one of Philippe Soupault’s surrealist short stories, ‘The Death of Nick Carter’, which is ‘still too allusive’ to be a pure fantasy, too enmeshed in details that root it in a particular time and place. By the end of the list of fantasy passages – a list that was greatly extended between the first edition of English Prose Style and the one I’m citing – one could be forgiven for having lost all sense of there being a ‘norm to which all types of Fantasy should conform’, which Read tells us is exemplified in the story of the Green Children.

Dorothea Tanning, Children’s Games (1942)

It seems clear that this is entirely deliberate on Read’s part. Read’s conception of fantasy as having the appearance of arbitrariness and being emancipated from the orders of time and space would surely be undermined by a list of examples that were similar in subject or technique, or that fell into a consistent narrative form, involving for instance multiple repetition of the pattern of threes that structures Southey’s story of the three bears. His examples, whether of ‘perfect’ fantasy or of imperfect near-fantastic passages, are constantly flinging the unwary reader in new directions, which emphasizes the seeming arbitrariness of each new set of inventions. Their variety tends even to obscure the set of criteria by which he sets out to limit the fantastic; almost the only thing they have in common is their arbitrariness. Read himself admits that very few of the passages can be described as wholly emancipated from time and place, while it’s hard to see some of them as displaying anything like cold logic or objectivity. Fantasy emerges as a rhetorical strategy that refuses stability and conformity and embraces innovation as vigorously as it can without rendering itself incomprehensible.

There’s a gap, then, between the theory of fantasy Read advances in the first half of the chapter and his examples of it in the second. The gap is anticipated in the introduction to English Prose Style when Read makes a distinction between the titular terms prose and style ‘in the abstract’ and any examples one might offer of each (p. ix). ‘In the abstract’, Read tells us, means ‘a priori, without the prejudice of particular examples, and as a preliminary to a more minute analysis’. This makes ‘in the abstract’ sound like a reference to one of Plato’s Ideals, the original things or concepts of which everything in the world is merely an imperfect shadow or copy. Fantasy, too, as it is explained by Read with the help of Coleridge’s fancy, is given to us ‘in the abstract’ at the start of the chapter he dedicates to it; it’s an a priori ideal rather than a concept that can be arrived at by considering examples of it, which will only serve to ‘prejudice’ those who examine them. Where Tolkien’s fairy story is a kind of narrative that emerges out of the past, in other words, Read’s fantasy is a kind that may not yet exist; already-extant instances of it will invariably fall short; perfect examples of fantasy as Read conceives it are yet to come, and need to be traced from imperfect past examples into the literature of the future rather than from the present into the annals of history and the shadows of prehistory, as is the case with Tolkien’s fairy stories. Read was already beginning to be famous, at the time when he first wrote the introduction, for his facility in tracing future directions of art and literature in the work being produced at the time of writing; and in the 1930s he wrote some of the most celebrated essays on abstract art of what we now call the Modernist period. The examples he supplies of fantasy deliberately move through time from the deep past of the Thousand and One Nights to the fourteenth century, when the story of the Green Children was first recorded, to the recent experimental prose of Joyce, Remizov and Soupault (published in English in 1922, 1926 and 1927 respectively). For Read the most perfect examples of fantasy, as of modern art, came from overseas – the Thousand and One Nights is the standard to which he urges English-language writers to aspire – and the best English passages are provided only as evidence that such an achievement might be possible in his native language, not as rivals for the Persian or Arabic epic. His chapter, then, is a call to artistic action as much as an analysis; a work of rhetorical exhortation as much as of scholarship.

Lee Miller, Bathing Feature (1941)

The sense one gets, in fact, from Read’s discussion of fantasy is that he’s less concerned with establishing its properties and formal techniques than with the political possibilities it embodies. If rhetoric is about persuasion, fantasy for him is specifically about persuading the reader to imagine liberty, and hence must give the appearance or air of being liberated in terms of its form and content. The key to this concern with politics is his stress on the highly political term ‘emancipated’ in Coleridge’s definition of fancy. Emancipation from the order of time and place is hardly a lucid statement of stylistic technique, but it can certainly be read as a statement of a political position; or rather, not a position so much as a strategy. Read’s own politics, while remaining strongly attached to the Left, were changing constantly in terms of his affiliation with different movements. In his youth during the Great War, for instance, he was attracted to the anarchism of Kropotkin, but he later flirted with Marxist Communism, Trotskyism and Guild Socialism, and even spoke in 1934 of welcoming the notion of a ‘totalitarian state, whether in its Fascist or Communist form’ (though he was thinking of totalitarianism here as an ‘economic machine to facilitate the complex business of living in a community’). Read eventually returned to anarchism in response to the Spanish Civil War of 1937. Common to all these shifts of ground, however, was a refusal to be pinned down to a singular position, a formulaic narrative – and in particular the refusal to submit himself to authority, whether of an individual or a party (apart from his half-flippant comment about totalitarianism). Read was always in quest of the ideal society, the ideal way to live in a community as an enfranchised or liberated subject, and embraced anarchism in the end as a means of continuing that quest indefinitely instead of being bound to a party line by the dictates of some unaccountable central government. The same quest or impulse propels the narrative in his only novel, The Green Child, which can be read as the ultimate example of the ideas on fantasy expressed in the continually changing pages of English Prose Style.

The Green Child shall therefore be the subject of my next blog post.

Ithell Colquhoun, Gorgon (1946)

Book List

W. H. Hudson, A Crystal Age, Fourth Impression (London: Duckworth, 1919), Preface (from 1906)

Herbert Read, English Prose Style, 7th Impression (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1942)

Herbert Read, The Green Child, introd. Graham Greene (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1969)

Herbert Read, The Green Child, illus. Felix Kelly (London: The Grey Walls Press, 1945)

J R R Tolkien, ‘On Fairy-Stories’, Tree and Leaf (London: HarperCollins, 2001), pp. 3-81.

Mervyn Peake, ‘September 1939’

The beginning of this month marked the 80th anniversary of Britain’s declaration of war on Nazi Germany, which took place at 11 am on Sunday 3 September 1939. Eleven years ago I published for the first time, in my edition of Mervyn Peake’s Collected Poems, a poem called ‘September 1939’.[1] The poem is short and not particularly distinguished, but it’s attached to the story of a remarkable coincidence – one of several that took place while I was editing the collection. And the coincidence provides an insight into the artistic and political milieu inhabited by Peake in the 1930s. Here, then, is a post about September 1939, the month and the poem, along with a meditation on how a tiny seed of information can begin to effloresce into a full-grown theory about a writer-artist’s friendships, influences and political sympathies.

When I first came across the poem ‘September 1939’ it was in a battered old exercise book full of poems, many of which had never seen print, stowed in a battered old suitcase in the London flat of Peake’s eldest son, Sebastian. The suitcase, as I remember it, was crammed to bursting with manuscripts and typescripts, mostly drafts of Mervyn’s poems, plays and prose of all descriptions. When Sebastian laid it on the table in his living room and opened it up I felt like a pirate suddenly faced with a heap of treasure: tongue-tied, goggle-eyed, caught between the lust of a child confronted by the treasures of a toyshop, with birthday money clutched in its grubby fist, and the astonishment of an adult who has stopped hoping that the world holds surprises like this, yet finds himself in attendance at the fulfilment of a lifelong fantasy. I still feel something of that extraordinary sensation twelve or thirteen years after Sebastian shut the suitcase again and put it away.

I haven’t experienced anything quite like that before or since. Except once, when the internet worked a little magic for me.

Not long after finishing my edition of the Collected Poems and sending it off to Carcanet, at a loss for anything to do with my hands and mind after the white hot excitement of the editorial process, I found myself idly typing a few words from the poem ‘September 1939’ into the search engine of my computer.

I wasn’t really thinking as I did so. I have no idea what made me do it, in fact. The poem from which the words came had never been published before, so there could be no expectation at all of getting a hit. Except that I got one.

The line came up word for word as I had typed it.

Leslie Hurry, ‘September 1939’

I can’t now recall which line it was from the poem, but there it stood, the opening entry in the short list of results for my search terms. And when I clicked on the link I found that the whole poem had somehow been transcribed and put online. I may be remembering this wrong; it may have been only the first few lines of the poem that had been transcribed, while the rest could be read with some difficulty in a low-definition PDF on the webpage I had stumbled across. But the fact remains: there was the poem, and there was I, and once again the impossible had come to pass and the shape of the world had been subtly changed by an unexpected encounter.

Leslie Hurry, This Extraordinary Year, 1945

The webpage on which I found the poem belonged to an online auctioneer, and the creator of the page had ascribed the poem to a man called Leslie Hurry – quite reasonably, since Hurry had incorporated the poem into a painting of his which had recently been sold. A quick search for Hurry’s name revealed that he was a painter and illustrator of considerable promise in the 1930s who later moved into theatre design at the instigation of the director, dancer and actor Robert Helpmann – most famous now as the Childcatcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. At that time there were not many paintings of Hurry’s to be seen online – partly, it seems, because of a dispute over copyright; but in 2019, as I type these words, you can find a great many paintings, drawings and set designs by Hurry scattered across a range of different websites. One of his best-known paintings is ‘This Extraordinary Year, 1945’, which is on show in Tate Britain. It’s a picture that owes a lot to Blake, and that celebrates the end of World War Two and the election of a Labour Government. The painting I found with the poem in it was also concerned with a significant year, this time less auspicious: 1939. The two paintings, then, stand at the opening and closing moments of World War II, and the one I had just found online provided a kind of gateway or portal onto the dreadful time to come.

Leslie Hurry, ‘Self-Portrait 1944’

In fact, a gate or portal features in the painting. In the middle of what seems to be an ocean stand two white pillars side by side, which rise into blue plantlike growths gradually curving towards each other until they meet overhead to form a lintel. Each pillar has a door and two windows in it, giving it the appearance of a lighthouse or the turret of a medieval castle. Two long staircases approach each door, changing direction twice before they reach it. Between the pillars, through the gateway they form, you can see another ocean with a rock or island in it. There is something small and pale in front of the island-rock but I can’t make out what it is; it could be a boat, a whale, or another rock. The island-rock seems to have another tower on it – possibly two – but they are sketched in pen rather than fully painted.

Behind each of the two towers or pillars in the foreground there is what seems to be an upright, reddish rock, whose curve undergoes a very different metamorphosis from that of the pillars. The pillars grow upwards into cool blue plants or flowers. The rocks instead get extended below the gateway into a pair of clashing scimitar blades, which form another lintel under the doorway, this time painted red. The sea we are looking at through the doorway – or alternatively in a mirror, since the two lintels, above and below, could form the frame of a painting or looking glass – seems itself, as I said at the beginning, to be in the depths of another ocean, whose surface appears at the top of the painting, with the gateway underneath, as if immersed.

We’re looking into the depths, in other words, and the doorway or mirror we are looking through is threatening us. While the blue plants are thrusting upwards towards the lightest part of the sky, the blades are sweeping out towards the viewer. It looks as though they could cut us if we weren’t careful.

There is another island in the sea at the top of the painting, and in the lowering sky above the island Hurry has included what look like technical diagrams drawn in pen: a radio mast on the left, a flying machine above it whose wings recall the pages of an open book, a gun sight in the middle, a web of cables. The ocean at the top of the picture could represent the present, when such diagrams are widespread; or it could represent the consciousness. The portal, with its old-looking towers, could represent the past, or alternatively the subconscious, since it’s immersed in the depths. One thing is certain, though: the portal itself enacts two movements, one upwards towards new growth, the other downwards and outwards towards destruction. It’s a Janus-faced painting, even if the date it refers to is September rather than January. And the aggressive outward gesture of the blades suggests that theirs is the direction the world has chosen to take on this side of the picture – the side the viewer stands on.

As for the poem, as I’ve said, in the exercise book it was titled ‘September 1939’, and that’s the title I gave it in my edition. The painting, however, doesn’t give it a title at all. The lines are laid out differently, too, from the way they were in the exercise book:

This is the year of our Lord;
One thousand
And nine hundred years
And thirty-nine
Once the blood was wine
And the flesh was broken
Like bread.

The men of the equal tread
Have come into their own
And the bayonets shine.

This is the year of our Lord;
One thousand
And nine hundred years
And thirty-nine.

It might be better, I think, if there were a break between ‘thirty-nine’ and ‘Once the blood was wine’, which would make the poem into a mirror image like the mirror image implied by the painting, with two stanzas of four lines framing two stanzas of three lines just as the portal frames the painting’s interior sea. The word ‘Once’ in this version doesn’t quite make sense, at least to me; the exercise book has ‘Since’ in its place. I love, though, the way the poem (and the picture) draws the eye to the three central lines: ‘The men of the equal tread / Have come into their own / And the bayonets shine’. In the exercise book version this is slightly different: ‘And the men of the equal tread / Have come into their own / And their bayonets shine’; but the extra repetition of ‘the’ in Hurry’s version (‘the bayonets’) makes the soldiers more impersonal, conjuring up the familiar newsreels of the 1930s showing lines of Nazi soldiers marching in mechanical triumph through Berlin and Poland. And these three lines represent the mid-point in what seems an inexorable movement throughout history, from the moment of Christ’s birth (‘the year of our Lord’) to his death (‘Once […] the flesh was broken’) and on to the present, when the ‘men of the equal tread / Have come into their own’, with bayonets as sharp as Hurry’s scimitars. Having read it, one can also see something bladelike about the metal-blue plants into which the towers have grown, something sinister about the conjunction of defensive towers, radar, flying machine and gun sight at the top of the painting. Hurry’s picture may indicate two alternative directions, one leading to peace and one to war, but with the declaration of war in September 1939 both directions might be seen as always having pointed to the same destination. The breaking of Christ’s flesh and the spilling of his blood pointed the way to the breaking of flesh and the spilling of blood at the mid point of the twentieth century. This was the only possible fruit, one might imagine, that could be produced by that particular sacrificial tree.

Hurry may well have decided that Peake’s poem resembles a set of double doors, which fits into the frame provided by Hurry’s illustration. The repeated four lines at the beginning and end form a verbal counterpart to the painting’s doorframe, while the two sets of three lines form a door each – the door relating to Christ and the door relating to the rise of Nazism. But another way of looking at the poem is as the representation of a fulcrum, the point on which a bar or seesaw balances. The fulcrum lies in the space between the lines ‘Like bread’ and ‘The men of the equal tread’, with Christ’s sacrifice occurring on one side of it, the Nazis on the other; what the poem says is that the world of 1939 has tipped towards the Nazis. Peake’s mind was much preoccupied with fulcrums in the late 1930s. A number of poems from the exercise book – which I’ve dated to 1939 at latest, since it contains sketches of Peake’s mother on her deathbed in October of that year, and no pictures at all of Sebastian, who was born in January 1940[2] – a number of poems in it speak of a sense of precarious balance, or more accurately of having reached a tipping point, beyond which lies an unknown and troubling future.

Three of these poems are short enough to quote in full. The first is ‘Balance’:

In crazy balance at the edge of Time
Our spent days turn to cloud behind today –
And all tomorrow is a prophet’s dream –
This moment only rages endlessly
And prime
Is always the long moment of decay.[3]

This poem insists on the illusory nature of past and future, the turbulent present being the only moment that exists. Hurry’s painting could be read as a response to this sentiment too, with the clouds at the top representing either the ‘spent days’ of the past or the ‘prophet’s dream’ of the future, while the double door-posts – the two ambiguous towers divided between growth and destruction – symbolize the moment of ‘prime’, always engaged in the acts of furious self-destruction which make decay inevitable. A second poem speaks of Peake’s acute sense that it is his own life in particular that is in danger of ending just as it reaches the ‘prime’ of maturity:

O heart-beats – you are rattling dice –
My rattling dice
Proclaim the edge of precipice
At whose hid boulders stands a soundless sea –
These dice
Endanger me,
And spice
My days with hazards of futurity.[4]

The landscape of this poem clearly resembles the rocky, sea-bound islands of the painting, while the diagrammatic drawings in Hurry’s painted sky might be seen as summoning up the ‘hazards of futurity’ in the blueprints they offer for flying machines and gun sights which might so easily be appropriated for military uses. The third poem commemorates another ominous moment in the ticking time-bomb which was the approach to the Second World War. Exactly one year before ‘September 1939’ Peake wrote a poem to mark the September Crisis of 1938, when the appeasers of Europe granted the Nazis free access to the German-speaking region of Czechoslovakia:

Au Moulin Joyeux

September Crisis, 1938

Here with the bread
We tasted anguish; here
The wine was grief,
While dynasties
Swung from a thread.
Yet, while we stared
Blind at a shifting fulcrum,
While our loves
Loaded the bleedy scales
And when to laugh
Were mockery,
Here with their burning flags
Of pride unfurled,
All women raised bright goblets to the world.[5]

The poem opens with the image of bread and wine which recurs in ‘September 1938’. Here the eucharistic sacrifice doesn’t mark a long-past historic event but a process that has only just taken place, in a present which is no longer endlessly raging but rather grief-stricken at the betrayal that has just been perpetrated by the appeasers. The moment of crisis occurred, it seems, while the world was at a party, so that the party food – bread and wine – became suddenly and incongruously symbolic, the partygoers’ ‘loves’ – romantic or erotic – helped to weigh down the scales on the side that denotes war, while their laughter replicated the mockery of the onlookers at Christ’s crucifixion. But the poem ends in the present, not the past; a present in which the women at the party collectively raise a toast to the world which is about to be bathed in bloodshed, while their own ‘burning flags / Of pride’ fly in bright opposition to the military flags which have been raised as opposing standards by Europe’s armies. The women’s gesture of defiance insists on the unity of the world at the point when it is about to be divided; it insists, in fact, on the continuance of hope when all the men in the room are frozen into helplessness.

There is no equivalent of the defiant women in Hurry’s picture, but the unfurling blue vegetation at the top of the doorway could be seen as raising defiant flags of hope at the point when desolation threatens. Each poem I’ve just quoted, then, represents the world in the late 1930s as precariously poised on the brink of ‘precipice’, as ‘O Heart-beats’ puts it, caught at the point of plunging into the oceanic depths of a dark future. And Hurry’s islands, seas and rocky islands – held in a state of precarious calm before the stormy outbreak threatened by the gathering darkness overhead – show a remarkable consonance with Peake’s concerns in the late 1930s and the images he used repeatedly to express them . The rocky islands in particular speak to the recurring island imagery in Peake’s work, stimulated in part by his boyhood obsession with Treasure Island and reinforced by his lifelong fascination with the island of Sark, where he spent two years or so as a member of an artist’s colony in the early 30s, and to which he returned as often as he could in the years that followed.[6]

One more poem of 1939 points the way towards Peake’s future artistic direction, as represented by the Gormenghast novels. Peake’s wife, Maeve Gilmore, tells us that this poem too was written to mark the outbreak of war;[7] and its repetition of a word from the poem ‘Au Moulin Joyeux’ invites us to consider that word’s significance as an expression of what war meant to Peake.

We Are the Haunted People

We are the haunted people.
We, who guess blindly at the seed
That flowers
Into the crimson caption,
Hazarding
The birth of that inflamed
Portentous placard that will lose its flavour
Within an hour,
The while the dark deeds move that gave the words
A bastard birth
And hour by hour
Bursts a new gentian flower
Of bitter savour.
We have no power… no power…
We are the haunted people,
We…
The last loose tasselated fringe that flies
Into the dark of aeons from a dark
Dynastic gown.[8]

This poem represents the present not as a tipping-point but as an act of erasure, whereby the out-of-control if short-lived ‘gentian flower’ of propaganda – the ‘crimson caption’ and the ‘portentous placard’ – overwhelms the senses of the ‘haunted people’, leaving them unable to guess at the real ‘dark deeds’ that may underlie this sudden proliferation of false news. The adjective ‘haunted’ suggests the ‘haunted people’s’ attachment to the past, whose traces are being submerged beneath the militant outbreak of vegetation. A haunting implies the intrusion of the past on the present; but the past in question is a nebulous, fragmentary, frail affair – possessing the sort of evanescence or fragmentariness that is also evoked by the unfinished line ‘We have no power… no power…’

Mervyn Peake, ‘Steerpike’

It’s the last three lines of the poem, however, that point the way to Peake’s later project, Gormenghast. In this conclusion the ‘haunted people’ themselves become apparitions, loosely attached like the tasselated fringe of an ancient gown to a sombre, aeon-long history, which is rapidly disappearing into obscurity just as an ancient building might disappear under the weight of ivy, bindweed or Virginia creeper. Hurry’s twin white towers are undergoing a similar transformation, though in their case the stone is becoming vegetation instead of being overwhelmed by it. In both cases, something enduring and dynastic – the towers, after all, look like castle turrets – is being replaced by something temporary; and the colour of the turret-plants is the same bright blue as the most common varieties of ‘gentian flower’.  The idea of propaganda as a ‘bastard birth’ underlines the break with the past, since dynasties depend on continuity as enshrined in legitimate genealogies. Steerpike comes to mind: that interloper of uncertain origin who inveigles his way (through increasingly hazardous throws of the dice) into a position of power in the dark dynastic castle, assuming the gown of the Master of Ritual in the process, while dispensing his ideas in the form of what might be called ‘crimson captions’. The confrontation between past and present, figured as a collision between the dark, old and ritualistic and the callous, young, and functional, is exactly the clash worked out in the first two books of the Gormenghast sequence. Gormenghast, too, is described on several occasions – most notably in the flood that breaks out in the second novel of the sequence – as a stony island, its contours closely resembling the contours of Sark; so closely, indeed, that parts of the castle are even named after well-known features of the Channel Island. The doors and towers of Hurry’s painting, surrounded by sea and darkness, point the way towards Gormenghast with as much prescience as ‘We Are the Haunted People’, and both works of art – all the works of art I’ve discussed in detail here – identify the Gormenghast books as products of the war that broke out in September 1939, grotesque offshoots from that year’s bitter seed.

Peake saw drawing itself as a dynastic activity – even the drawings of rebels and iconoclasts, which define themselves as revolutionary by virtue of their opposition to established authorities and orthodox lines. He sketched out his conception of the dynasty or genealogy of drawing in the introduction to The Drawings of Mervyn Peake (1949):

We expect authority in a drawing. The authority which is doubly alive, firstly through its overtones and echoes which show it to be born rapidly or languorously along one of the deep streams that wind back through time to a cave in Spain. The authority, as it were, of a chorus of voices; or of a prince, who with a line of kings for lineage can make no gesture that does not recall some royal ancestor. The repercussions of the dead disturb the page: an aeon of ghosts float by with charcoal in their hands. For tradition is the line that joins together the giant crests of a mountain range – that links the great rebels, while in the morasses of the valleys in between, the countless apes stare backwards as they squat like tired armies in the shade. But we expect, also, the authority of the single, isolated voice. That the body of a work is common heritage in no way drowns out the individual note. To work with pen and paper is in itself a common denominator from the outset. But it is the individual twist that haunts us.[9]

The passage suggests we might read the ‘haunted people’ as artists, who are still conscious of the ‘dark of aeons’ which lies behind each mark they make on a page; a darkness that lends each mark resonance by waking comparisons with the ‘aeon’ of artistic ghosts who have made marks on paper before. In The Drawings of Mervyn Peake this very consciousness of their dynasty is what identifies certain artists as rebels, lifting themselves above the massed armies of ‘countless apes’ – the ‘men of the equal tread’, perhaps – to take command of the ‘giant crests’ of artistic and literary endeavour. And the quality that lifts them, Peake tells us, is a sense of balance:

Those threadbare terms ‘classic’, ‘romantic’, have little meaning when the finest examples of any master’s work are contemplated, for the first thing one finds is that they have that most magisterial of qualities, ‘equipoise’. They are compelling because they are not ‘classic’ and because they are not ‘romantic’. They are both and they are neither. They are balanced upon a razor’s edge between the passion and the intellect, between the compulsive and the architectonic. Out of this fusion there erupts that thing called ‘style’. […] The finest painters express themselves through their styles. It is as though they paint, draw, write, or compose with their own blood. Most artists work with other people’s blood. But sooner or later aesthetic theft shows its anaemic head.[10]

Mervyn Peake, ‘Reclining Figure by Hitler’

From these remarks we get a sense of what the outbreak of war might have meant to an artist of the kind Peake admired. If the world has been taken over by the ‘men of the equal tread’ – armies with a determination not to mimic the past but to erase it altogether – then the possibility of making art itself stands in danger of being lost, as history is shunted aside in favour of propagandistic placards and fatuous catchphrases. A balance has been upset, not just between the dynastic past and a troubled future but between passion and intellect, the compulsive and the architectonic. Given the mechanistic equality of the armies’ tread one must presume it’s the intellect that has won out over the passions; that the artist-apes who work with other people’s blood have taken the place of the ‘masters’ who work with their own. Peake’s understanding of the outbreak of war as a struggle over the artist’s soul is perhaps most vividly represented in the series of propagandistic drawings he produced in 1940 to demonstrate his potential as a war artist – or perhaps as a designer of ‘portentous placards’ on behalf of the allies against Hitler. The series poses as a catalogue for ‘An Exhibition by the Artist, Adolf Hitler’, and its title is ‘The New Order’.[11] Each picture in the catalogue has an academic title – awaking echoes of past pictures with similar titles – such as ‘Study of a Young Girl’, ‘Landscape with Figures’, ‘Dutch Interior’ and ‘Reclining Figure’; but each picture shows an atrocity perpetrated by Nazi forces in Europe: the young girl has been shot in the chest, the landscape is full of ruins and refugees, the Dutch Interior shows a young woman in the aftermath of a rape, and so on. The titles of the pictures, by invoking the art of peacetime, intensify the shock of the brutal images to which they have been attached. The visceral reactions viewers will have to these images make them romantic, in that they appeal to the emotions rather than the intellect; they clearly mimic the great series of etchings by Goya called ‘The Disasters of War’ (1810-1820). Classical thinking may underlie the orderly ranks of troops marching through Amsterdam and Paris in the year of this imaginary exhibition, but the extremes of horror their actions generate point up the radical detachment of classical from romantic values that has been engineered by Hitler’s New Order.

Puvis de Chavannes, ‘La Fantaisie’

Going back to Leslie Hurry’s painting of September 1939, it’s clear from everything I’ve said so far that the artist had an intimate awareness of Peake’s imaginative vision, and that the picture he produced is a carefully executed reflection of the emotions and thoughts that underlay the poem it illustrates. The painting, then, shines light on a friendship, one which lasted for most of Peake’s life as a writer-artist. At the time it was painted, both artists were based in London, though Hurry moved to Thaxted in Essex later that year. Both artists became involved in the theatre at a formative moment in their careers; Peake designed costumes for a 1932 production of The Insect Play by the Capek brothers, and went on to write his own plays in the 1950s, while Hurry designed his first theatre set two years after painting the picture, in 1942, and went on to become a celebrated designer for the stage. Both men had a passion for Blake; ‘The Wonderful Year’ invokes one of Blake’s most celebrated pictures, ‘Glad Day’ (now known as ‘Albion Rose’), while Peake wrote a poem about the engraver-poet around the same time he wrote ‘September 1939’.[12] And both artists have often been associated with the neo-romantic movement of the 1930s and 40s. The term ‘romantic’ is used of Hurry on the Tate’s website, while Peake refers to himself as a kind of romantic in a 1932 letter to his friend Gordon Smith: ‘I’ve decided to “be” a Romanticist in Painting, but am going to combine the guts of a Van Gogh with the design of a Puvis de Chavannes, and yet keep the suaveness of a Raphael running through stacks of corn that are yellower than yellower in the sunlight’ (pp. 47-8). Interestingly, Peake’s account of his brand of Romanticism is a fusion of Van Gogh’s passion, Puvis de Chavannes’s classical tendencies and the classically-inspired vibrancy of Raphael, one of the ‘royal ancestors’ of latter-day artist-princes. Balance between passion and intellect is clearly something he was aiming for even at this early stage of his artistic development.

Lee Miller, ‘Portrait of Leslie Hurry in a Teapot’

But if Leslie Hurry was inspired by Romanticism, he was also strongly influenced by surrealism, the movement that found its way from France to Britain in the early 1930s and spawned the International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936, in London.[13] Surrealism as a movement was notable for its refusal to be doctrinaire; its resistance to logical structures meant that giving a rationale for its activities was anathema to many of its practitioners, although the British art critic Herbert Read saw it as having affinities with revolutionary Romanticism. Read liked to call the movement ‘superrealism’ rather than surrealism, arguing that traditional realism was unable to take account of the vast proportion of human life which is devoted to dreams and unconscious impulses and that true realism must imitate dream images rather than the contours of the everyday. Surrealists sought to gain access to the unconscious by practising automatic drawing, and Hurry produced two books of automatic drawings in 1940-41 which earned him the title of ‘the ultra-surrealist’, despite his apparent non-involvement in the collective activities of the movement. The surrealist photographer Lee Miller made a portrait of him in 1943, his face reflected in a teapot alongside Miller herself and ‘an unknown man’. Surrealism was closely associated with the modernism of Miró and Picasso, the Apocalyptic Movement of the late 1930s and 1940s, and the neo-romanticism of Paul Nash and David Jones – the latter of whom Peake drew in 1939, possibly as one of a series of portraits of famous people for the London Mercury. The painting, then, forges a link between Peake and all these movements, and helps bring out the surrealist overtones of some of Peake’s images – most notably the one on the dustjacket of his first book of poems, Shapes and Sounds (1941), which represents a bizarre conch in the foreground, incorporating a human eye and ear, with a figure in the background walking off into an ‘architectonic’ space like a younger version of the Ancient Mariner in Peake’s illustrations for that poem.

Peake’s association with Hurry continued after the war in their joint connection with Grey Walls Press. A book of Hurry’s Paintings and Drawings was published by the Press in 1950, one year after the Grey Walls Press edition of The Drawings of Mervyn Peake. Grey Walls Press was closely associated with the anarchist poets Alex Comfort and Henry Treece, as James Gifford has pointed out, and Peake’s introduction to his Drawings, with its celebration of rebellious individualism, can easily be read as having a strongly anarchist slant.[14]

One of the things the friendship hints at, in fact, is that Peake may not have been as a-political as he’s often taken to be. Surrealism was closely allied with anarchism, as was neo-romanticism, and both anarchists and surrealists were actively involved in the struggles against fascism and Nazism in Spain and Germany. In his strangely hostile biography of Peake, My Eyes Mint Gold, Malcolm Yorke insists that Peake and his wife, Maeve Gilmore, paid little attention to contemporary political events in their travels through Europe in 1937, despite the fact that their journey took them through Hitler’s Germany and brought them to Paris at the time when Picasso’s Guernica was on display there.[15] The existence of Peake’s poems on the September Crisis of 1938 and the declaration of war in September 1939 shows that by that stage in his life, at least, he was concerned with contemporary politics; and Hurry’s illustration to the latter indicates that he was happy for a Leftist to provide the imagery to go with his decidedly political text. Hurry’s own political position is suggested by his celebration of the Labour victory in 1945, and by the fact that Paintings and Drawings by Leslie Hurry was published with an introduction by the Marxist poet Jack Lindsay. It may be that Peake was Hurry’s political fellow traveller, on some level at least, between 1939 and 1949.

And despite what Malcolm Yorke contends, Peake did pay attention to the Spanish Civil War in 1937. The bombing of Guernica took place on 26 April, when the German air force laid waste to a Basque town, with heavy loss of civilian life, at the behest of the nationalist general Francisco Franco.  In May of that year – a month or so after it was reported in Britain, most famously in The Times – Peake wrote the first of a number of poems about planes, its date being confirmed by the fact that he mentions Wales in the second line (he visited his mother’s homeland over the Whitsun period, which in 1937 fell on 15 and 16 May).[16] The plane he describes is pregnant with menace:

The Metal Bird

Job’s eagle skids the thin sky still,
Her shadow swarms the cold Welsh hill.
The hawk hangs like an unloos’d bomb
And fills the circular sky with doom.
To-day across the meadow
There runs another shadow
Cast by a grizzlier bird that swings
Her body like a scythe, nor beats her wings,
A bloodless bird, whose mother was a man;
A painted bird of steel – a skeleton
That sheers shrill-naked to the screaming bone,
And bears her sexless beauty to the town.
O hawk with naked eyes!
O bloody eagle circling the skies!
Our century has bred a newer beauty,
The metal bird from the cold factory.[17]

Once again the poem charts the displacement of the past – embodied in Jove’s bird, the eagle (which has got fused here with the suffering Job of the Old Testament) and the ‘hawk with naked eyes’ – by a manmade military machine, whose metallic precision and coldly efficient destructiveness marks it out as a product of logic, as against romantic passion. The fact that this bird is flying ‘to the town’, along with the references to skeletons and screaming bones, might have linked it at once to Guernica in the minds of the poem’s first readers. The poem was published in the London Mercury in January 1938; and almost two years later, in November 1939, Peake published in The Listener another version of the same conceit, this time cast as a sonnet, ‘Where Skidded Only in the Upper Air’.[18] In this version, the plane in question is certainly a bomber, ‘Whose metal womb is heavy with a cold / Foetus of bombs unborn, that, ere they rest / In death will revel in a birth of blood’. By 1939, however, when children were being evacuated from all the urban centres of Britain, the significance of these explosive foetuses would probably have struck much closer to home than Guernica.

El Greco, ‘Landscape of Fire’

Between these two versions of the same poem, however, Peake made his most direct poetic reference to the bombing of Guernica. This occurs in another sonnet, this one dedicated to the greatest Spanish painter of the sixteenth century:

El Greco

They spire titanic bodies into heaven,
Tall Saints enswathed in a tempestuous flare
Of twisting draperies that coil through air,
Of dye incredible, from rapture woven,
And heads set steeply skywards, brittle-carven
Against the coiling clouds in regions rare;
Their beauty, ice-like, shrills – and everywhere
A metal music sounds, cold spirit shriven.
So drives the acid nail of coloured pain
Into our vulnerable wood, earth-rooted,
And sends the red sap racing through the trees
Where slugged it lay, now spun with visions looted
From whining skies and cold Gethsemanes
Of hollow light, and all the wounds of Spain.[19]

Here again, as in all the poems we’ve been looking at in this post, the past finds itself utterly transformed by the present; not displaced or lost in darkness, this time, but given a terrible new significance that could never have been anticipated by a sixteenth-century painter, no matter how visionary. In the introduction to The Drawings of Mervyn Peake the artist writes about how one’s perception of a well-known picture can be utterly transformed by increasing familiarity with the artistic tradition it springs from. ‘A particular man,’ he tells us, ‘can see only his own reflection’ as he studies any given painting or drawing; but ‘When he enriches his knowledge of pictures – in other words, when he becomes to that extent a slightly different man – he will see a slightly different picture, and so on, until the canvas or the drawing bears no relation to the work he stared at five years earlier. […] And so,’ he concludes, ‘before all work that is authoritative and vital there must be an inner adjustment: a willingness to change, in other words – to grow’.[20] ‘El Greco’, by contrast, traces a different kind of transformation. In this poem, a familiar painting on a religious subject – ‘Tall saints […] from rapture woven’ – is suddenly overlaid with a modern significance. The curling clouds to which they lift their enraptured hands suddenly get filled with a strange new noise; they shrill, like the implied bomb in ‘The Metal Bird’ that ‘sheers shrill-naked to the screaming bone’. This new ‘metal music’ shifts the scene to twentieth-century Guernica. The viewer feels a stab of ‘coloured pain’ at the association, as if a nail of sympathy has been driven home by the shared nationality of the painter and the bomb victims in the devastated town. The association wakens the sluggish viewer’s response to El Greco’s image into urgent new life. Instead of a religious theme the painting is ‘now spun with visions looted / From whining skies and cold Gethsemanes / Of hollow light, and all the wounds of Spain’. From being historical it has been made urgently topical, and from this moment on the painter’s works can never be looked at in the same light again.

Leslie Hurry’s painting ‘September 1939’ brings a moment of history to life. Plugged into the complex circuitry of Mervyn Peake’s artistic and literary context, it illuminates associations and links that had largely lain in darkness before its discovery: links with the political Left, with the British surrealists, with the major historical markers in the approach to the Second World War – Guernica, the September Crisis, the declaration of war, the evacuation of London. It points up the obsession with equilibrium and its loss that dominates Peake’s thoughts about art and human identity. And it provides a gate or doorway to new, more passionately topical readings of the Gormenghast sequence than the ones we’ve practised before. Read as a continuation, for instance, of his close encounters with surrealists as well as neo-romantics, with anarchists and experimentalists as well as with pillars of the British establishment, Gormenghast Castle starts to look less eccentrically isolated, more organically bound up with other artistic and political responses to the global conflicts of the twentieth century. I look forward to exploring these associations in greater detail.

Notes

[1] All references to Peake’s poems in this post are taken from my edition of his Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008). ‘September 1939’ is on p. 47.

[2] See Collected Poems, p. 1.

[3] Collected Poems, p. 65.

[4] Collected Poems, p. 52.

[5] Collected Poems, p. 43.

[6] For Peake’s fascination with islands see G. Peter Winnington, The Voice of the Heart: The Working of Mervyn Peake’s Imagination (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006), chapter 3, ‘Islands’.

[7] See Maeve Gilmore, A World Away: A Memoir of Mervyn Peake, in Mervyn Peake: Two Lives, introd. Sebastian Peake (London: Vintage, 1999), p. 26.

[8] Collected Poems, p. 48.

[9] Mervyn Peake, Writings and Drawings, ed. Maeve Gilmore and Shelagh Johnson (London: Academy Editions and New York: St Martin Press, 1974), p. 80.

[10] Writings and Drawings, p. 81.

[11] Several of these pictures are reproduced in Mervyn Peake: The Man and His Art, compiled by Sebastian Peake and Alison Eldred, ed. G. Peter Winnington (London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen, 2006), pp. 66-69.

[12] ‘Blake’, Collected Poems, p. 63.

[13] See Michael Remy, Surrealism in Britain (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999).

[14] See James Gifford, A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism, and the Radical Fantastic (Victoria, BC: ELS Editions, 2018), chapter 3, pp. 122-45.

[15] Malcolm Yorke, Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold (London: John Murray, 2000), p. 80: ‘Somehow they managed to ignore all the very unromantic preparations for war which were going on all around them in Europe.’

[16] For Peake’s visit to Wales see G Peter Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies: The Illustrated Biography(London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen, 2009), p. 112.

[17] Collected Poems, p. 31.

[18] Collected Poems, p. 50.

[19] Collected Poems, p. 41

[20] Writings and Drawings, p. 81.

Top Ten Fantasy Titles

[Last semester my colleague Matt Sangster challenged me to list my top ten fantasy titles (or, to be precise, my top ten works of fantasy literature written in the English language in the twentieth century). I’ve tried this exercise before, and the list has radically changed each time I’ve compiled it in my head. Call this a snapshot, then, of my preferences at the time of asking (October 2016). If he’d asked me the same question this month the list would have been quite different…]

Hope Mirrlees, Lud-in-the-Mist (1926)

The oddest of fairy tales, in which the bourgeois citizens of a prosperous town express their fear of sex, death, the working classes, unruly women and disobedient children, by banishing all talk of such things from polite society. They also banish a hallucinogenic drug called Fairy Fruit. Forbidden things (which also include the priesthood and the aristocracy) are confined to a place they call ‘Fairyland’, beyond the country’s borders. Inevitably the borders can’t be policed, and all efforts at containing illegal people and objects fail. Gorgeous descriptions, extravagant names, and a murder mystery complete the picture. A snapshot of English life in the immediate aftermath of the First World War.

 

Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman (c. 1940, published 1966)

Written in a language like no other, this bizarre trip into the tormented interior of 1930s Ireland – which is a miniature working model of 1930s Europe – is so packed with invention, so chock-full of gags, so musical in its rhythms and so disturbing in its vision of the way the world ticks that there’s no describing it. The nameless narrator finds himself caught up in the clockwork mechanisms of the universe. Although from one point of view his experiences are hell, they are punctuated by moments of such heartbreaking beauty and hilarity that the book is like a piece of shot silk, as dark or light as your mood at the time of reading. Boxes within boxes have never seemed so explosively complicated. Bicycles have never seemed so erotic.

 

Mervyn Peake, Gormenghast (1950)

An architectural fantasy, whose chief character is a labyrinthine castle governed by rituals whose origins and purpose have been lost in the dusty corridors of time. At first the castle’s denizens are as isolated from each other as the castle is from the outside world. Gradually they come together in the face of the threat posed by Steerpike, an ambitious former kitchen boy who seeks to transform the building into a totalitarian state, or a playground, or a madhouse, depending on his mood. A matchless commentary on the various forms of dictatorship, internal and external, that dominated the middle years of the twentieth century.

 

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (1954-5)

I love this for the subtlety of the transition from the world of the hobbits – the comfortable Shire – to the world of the ancient epic heroes; for the effortless interplay between telling details (mushrooms, pocket handkerchiefs, Longbottom Leaf, stewed rabbit) and the sweep of a grand narrative; for the sense of increasing danger it generates from the first chapter; for Tolkien’s obvious delight in bringing the remote past into vibrant life. The book perfectly captures the precariousness of the mid-twentieth century, in which war and imperialist expansionism threatened to obliterate the past altogether.

 

Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)

A perfectly constructed story, about a boy whose abusive and lonely childhood gives him a problem with women that almost turns him into a monster. The world he lives in, made up of islands, encourages an isolationism in its inhabitants that only adds to his loneliness. The dragons here are the best in fiction, with the possible exception of Tolkien’s Smaug. Le Guin’s delight in the sea that both separates and links her islands is as palpable as her fascination with the social and political causes of psychological damage, and the strange roads that lead to healing.

 

Doris Lessing, The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974)

Lessing called this an experiment in autobiography, and it’s the perfect example of how fantasy can force us to rethink the terms by which we understand the world we live in. A city is undergoing radical changes, a breakdown in the social order which the protagonist observes uneasily through the window of her ground floor apartment. The causes of the breakdown are unclear, but it’s implied that they have their roots in the breakdown of relationships between men, women and children in the domestic environment, which the protagonist also sees played out in a kind of looking-glass world on the other side of her living room wall. The style has a magnificent awkwardness that admirably conveys the difficulty of making sense of things, and the inadequacy of conventional forms of expression as a means of doing so. The ending is as ambiguous as it is exhilarating.

 

Gene Wolfe, The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories (1980)

The best collection of fantastic stories of the twentieth century. Though many of these are science fiction rather than fantasy, Wolfe’s refusal to authorize any single version of the strange events he presents us with invests the whole collection with a magical atmosphere, as if we are witnessing successive acts in a ghost circus. You’ll have to read these stories again and again in an effort to work out what happens in them, and each reading will give you a different answer. Just like living through the 60s and 70s, those decades of change when the stories were written.

 

John Crowley, Little, Big (1981)

Another architectural fantasy, set in a house whose many facades make it seem like several houses occupying the same space. Over three or four generations, an American family struggles to come to terms with its close relationship with a supernatural community of half-seen beings – perhaps the fairies – who have made their homes in the house’s environs. The fairies become a metaphor for the many forms of estrangement and misunderstanding that afflict the small community called the family, as well as the larger communities of the city, the nation and the world. Re-reading it now I think of it as the ultimate threnody for the political and social possibilities of the 60s and 70s. The prose sings.

 

Diana Wynne Jones, Fire and Hemlock (1984)

A children’s book for grown ups. A neglected young girl makes friends with a man who seems in thrall to the mysterious head of an extensive and powerful family. The girl and the man tell each other stories and the stories come true in unexpected ways. Based on two old Scottish ballads, ‘Tam Lin’ and ‘Thomas the Rhymer’, this novel is remarkable for the way it traces the changing relationship between girl and man until both are adults and equals. It is also an extended commentary on the complex relationship between the life of the imagination and ‘real life’ – whatever that is – and how the former changes as we change, adapting itself to our needs at different stages of our development. And it has much to say about our false assumptions concerning the natures of adulthood and childishness.

 

China Miéville, Perdido Street Station (2000)

A disgraced scientist sets himself up as the champion of justice and the saviour of a city. In fact he is the one who put the city in danger by releasing the Slake Moths, monstrous yet strangely attractive insects that feed on the dreams and memories of men and women, leaving them helpless, barely sentient. A brilliant meditation on the problem of mounting an effective resistance to global capitalism in an age when everything you eat, wear, study, think and dream is in some sense an integral part of the capitalist machine. Full of astounding composite creatures (cactus-people, insect-people, machine-people) whose awkward hybridity confirms the fact that we are all of us bizarre from other people’s perspectives, and that we are all of us to some extent implicated in other people’s atrocities (which means we are also honour bound to work against them).

 

Mervyn Peake and the Poetics of Piracy

[This is the text of a keynote I gave recently at a terrific conference in Edinburgh, ‘Deeper than Swords: Fear and Loathing in Fantasy and Folklore’. It’s also a rough sketch, I hope, for something larger. Warm thanks to Anahit Behrooz and Harriet MacMillan for inviting me to give it!]

I’d like here to consider the work of Mervyn Peake as an extended exercise in what I’m calling the ‘poetics of piracy’. Peake had a lifelong obsession with pirates, born in part from his boyhood obsession with Robert Louis Stevenson: he is said to have known Treasure Island by heart, and his illustrated edition of that text, published in 1949, confirmed its continuing centrality to his imaginative life and artistic practice. The first book he wrote and published was a pirate story, Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1939). One of his earliest surviving experiments in prose fiction, the unfinished Mr Slaughterboard (c. 1933-6), links piracy to the work of the artist in disturbing ways. His early verse is filled with the vocabulary of piracy, and pirates continue to emblazon and trouble his visual and verbal art throughout his career. It seems to me that thinking about what piracy meant to Peake can help us map out his peculiar relationship to what has come to be known as fantasy literature; to pin down its elusiveness, much as the map in Stevenson’s novel pins down the whereabouts of Captain Flint’s buried treasure – though it’s worth remembering that in the novel the chart obtained by Jim Hawkins proves an untrustworthy guide to the current location of the treasure in question. But then, that’s the point of the poetics of piracy; it’s all about the elusive, the illegal, the unsettling and the endlessly alluring, as seen in relation to the seemingly fixed and inviolable rules that govern the authoritative discourses of society, religion and science. I don’t promise, then, that I’ll be able to offer a conclusive account of Peake as a writer of fantasy; but his fascination with buccaneering literature and folklore can certainly explain why he so exasperatingly refuses to locate himself at the epicentre of any genre, which is itself, I think, a crucial quality of good fantasy fiction.

Peake’s most celebrated works of fiction, the Titus novels, have always had a vexed relationship to the fantastic. Nothing explicitly impossible takes place in them; they contain no magic; and indeed one of Peake’s few uses of the term ‘fantasy’ in the texts – when Titus encounters a wild girl known as the Thing – seems firmly to differentiate the physical environs of the titanic castle of Gormenghast from the immaterial fabrications of the human mind:

He was propelled forward by his imagination having been stirred to its depths by the sight of her. He had not seen her face. He had not heard her speak. But that which over the years had become a fantasy, a fantasy of dreaming trees and moss, of golden acorns and a sprig in flight, was fantasy no longer. It was here. It was now. He was running through heat and darkness towards it; to the verity of it all. (673)

 For Peake, then, the imagination is stimulated by what exists, by the rich evidence of the senses which forms the basis of the visual artist’s training, as he or she scrutinizes live or inanimate models with the aim of populating the mind with the precise proportions, textures, contours and colours of the real. At the same time the Thing, as represented to Titus’s imagination from his first sighting of her at the age of seven, has come to represent a range of qualities with associations to the pirate stories Titus loves as much as Peake does. A thief, a rebel and an outcast, the Thing’s opposition to the monumental authority of the boy’s ancestral home is embodied in the free-ranging agility of her frame, its seeming ability to defy the laws of gravity as well as of the books of ritual that restrict the daily movements of the castle’s denizens. Rooted or earthed in the real, despite her airiness, she represents the liberty to spin dazzling new structures from the materials afforded by empirical observation. And she is also deeply disturbing to him, as pirates are, even to lovers of pirate stories. In both these associations – with liberty and with inward disturbance – she has affinities with the faculty of fantasy which has been placed at the heart of a peculiarly modern literary genre.

Fantasy has always been a disreputable object. Its ancient Greek roots meant ‘making visible’, an exposure of that which has been hidden, perhaps for good reason; while in later Greek the word associated itself with the concept of having visions, as well as with the less alarming process of showing, demonstrating, pointing out. When used to refer to the imaginative faculty, the source of its disreputability comes to the fore. For early modern English speakers the Imagination or Fantasy was the part of your brain that received the evidence of the senses; but it was also capable of representing to your mind the images of things not actually present, which would seem to ally it with the faculty of Memory. The difference was that Memory was an orderly faculty full of shelves and files labeled in alphabetical and chronological order, grouped under headings and carefully connected with one another through a range of logical associations. The business of organizing mental images was that of the Understanding, which interposed itself between the unruly space of the Fantasy or Imagination and the storehouse of the Memory. Understanding, then, was a kind of sorting office staffed by efficient functionaries; while there was a wildness about the Fantasy before the Understanding got hold of it, an innate tendency to disconnect the mental image from all association with its original contexts, or to link images together which had never been conjoined in reality: tacking a fish’s tail or a horse’s body onto a human torso; assembling elaborate fusions of elements from different life forms to create griffins, dragons, and chimeras of all kinds. Memory was associated with maturity, with a settled awareness of one’s intellectual, social and moral responsibilities. Fantasy was associated with the playful, sometimes destructive or self-destructive exuberance of youth.

Some thinkers, like the Elizabethan poetic theorist George Puttenham, have always warned against inventing fictions altogether, since this could permanently distort one’s judgement of what is real. He split the fantasy into two kinds: the good sort, which conveyed things to the understanding ‘right as they be indeed’, and the bad sort that filled the analytical parts of the mind with false impressions. Poets, he said, should confine themselves to drawing on authentic memories or accurate representations of extant things when composing their verses; they should be historians. Writing about what never happened or could happen distorts not only the past but the efficient functioning of the present. Lawcourts could have their findings compromised by made-up testimony. Religions could become corrupted, as Plato said had happened in ancient Greece when poets allowed themselves to reimagine the gods. Governments could find their policies determined by non-existent threats or possibilities. For Puttenham as for Plato, irresponsible poetic fictions can proliferate like viruses, spawning insurrections, illusions and errors as they spread.

For the modern poet Jeffrey Robinson, Puttenham’s distinction between responsible and irresponsible fantasy – between the practice of poetic and intellectual realism and what we now call ‘making things up’ – endured in a subtly different form into the age of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and the revolutionary movements that arose from it. Robinson identifies the famous distinction between the Imagination and the Fancy in Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (1817) as a struggle to distinguish between the orderly functioning of the imaginative faculty as, in effect, a tool of authority, imposing its unified vision on everything it comes in contact with, and its deployment as an instrument of exploration or discovery, a light skiff or launch capable of skimming from image to image, from one idea to the next, irrespective of the accepted relations between the various objects of its attention. The Fancy, which is etymologically linked with Fantasy, is for Robinson the precursor of twentieth-century modernist poetic experiment; but his list of its qualities could also serve as a description of how the genre of Fantasy Literature has often been perceived in modern times:

A faculty that acknowledges ‘the referent’ through the playful, unpredictable, erotically engaged, unregulated mind of the subject, without a ruling regard for the socially acceptable […] The Fancy […] begins to emerge as whimsical, playful, trivial, physical, sexual, and popular, more than enough reasons for the poetry of the Fancy to trouble the cultural police. […] Indeed, its triviality and whimsicality is precisely what keeps it from remaining a polite ornament of the literary aristocracy. […] Poetry of the Fancy isn’t about ‘work’ or ‘usefulness’ but about play. As do children, poems of the Fancy play seriously.

The qualities of ‘fancy’ as Robinson describes them here have survived from the early modern period to the present day in attitudes to the word fantasy, which is now a term of opprobrium in ordinary discourse, no longer dignified by association with a necessary mental function but used to denounce the childish failure to take proper account of the material conditions that govern our economic, social, political or even physical circumstances. Fantasy is irresponsible, fleeting, flippant, self-indulgent, infantile, wayward. As a result it’s also dangerous, especially when used as a guide in our daily actions. Too much fantasy can make you go blind.

The poetics of piracy are not the same as Robinson’s poetics of fancy, and they aren’t necessarily connected to the fantasy genre as we now understand it, since the folklore of piracy springs from what are deemed to be real people and real social practices, rooted in history. The origins of modern pirate folklore lie in an early eighteenth-century book, Captain Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1725), which recounts the purportedly factual adventures of a number of buccaneers whose names have passed into common currency: Bartholomew Roberts (better known as ‘the Dread’); Blackbeard; Calico Jack; William Kidd; and Israel Hands, who lent his name to the man shot dead by Jim Hawkins on the rigging of the Hispaniola. I don’t know if Peake was familiar with Johnson’s book, but all three of the principal texts he drew on for his boyhood dreams of piracy certainly were. Treasure Island is the first and foremost. The second, mentioned in Peake’s short story ‘I Bought a Palm Tree’ (1948), is that classic account of survival, piracy, and the healing powers of missionary work, R M Ballantyne’s The Coral Island; while the third is J M Barrie’s Peter and Wendy. To look at Peake’s work through the prism of these three novels is to recognize the dominant role played by buccaneers not just in his plots and images but in his aesthetic philosophy, not just in his early years but throughout his life. His poetry, prose and pictures owe an incalculable debt to the figure of the sea-wolf as imagined by Ballantyne, Stevenson and Barrie, and a full understanding of the development of his most celebrated creation, Gormenghast Castle, can only be achieved by asking oneself why the notion of piracy should have proved so endlessly suggestive to this quintessential mid-twentieth-century artist.

What, then, do the pirates of legend and literature bring with them? First of all, they’re associated with boyhood and youth, as Peake knew very well. Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor was a pirate book for children, and he drew dozens of pirate pictures for his sons in the Sunday Books – exercise books in which he sketched for them on Sundays – to such an extent that Michael Moorcock’s recent novelization of that document was more or less forced to take pirates as its subject. Like children, pirates have no sense of responsibility, breaking laws freely, abandoning families, friends and partners whenever they feel like it, killing each other on the slightest of pretexts without a qualm (children do this in play). Their resistance to convention is given physical expression by their mobility: pirate ships sail the seas at the whim of the crew, not in obedience to instructions from outside authorities as is the case with most seagoing vessels. At the same time there are severe constraints on a pirate’s freedom, the chief of these being the ship itself, which confines its crew within a narrow circuit more effectively than any building or institution. Pirates are also often subject to tyranny. The imposition of the captain’s will by force, widely practised on other vessels, takes its most extreme form in the spontaneous and inventive acts of cruelty practised by certain legendary leaders among the buccaneers – though there’s also a folkloric tradition of more or less democratic practices under the sign of the Jolly Roger. Rituals govern them: the necessary rituals associated with the everyday running of the ship, supplemented by additional oaths, codes, rules or agreements enforced with threats of appalling violence. Pirate ships are often represented as all-male communities, and this too imposes constraints: certain forms of behaviour are associated with masculinity in any given culture or period, and the lack of any alternative gender perspective can mean that notions of ‘manhood’ govern the pirate’s thoughts, desires and actions. Same-sex desire is perhaps more widespread under these conditions than in mixed-sex communities, and though this has traditionally tended to be eschewed in children’s fiction, it’s worth noting how central it is to Peake’s own children’s book, Captain Slaughterboard, which is one of the few narratives of the period to place what is clearly a homoerotic romance at its centre. Other piratical concerns are economic (they indulge in plunder – a word Peake uses repeatedly in his verse to describe the process of absorbing the physical wonders of the world through the eye – and conceal their treasure, which clearly works against the principles of capitalism); geographic and artistic (treasure maps are as inseparable from pirate culture as their icon, the Jolly Roger); and dramatic (pirates like to dress up and make theatrical speeches, and everyone else likes to dress up as pirates). To sum up: breaking national, international, moral and sartorial laws is what pirates do – sometimes by imposing laws of their own – and they do it as flamboyantly as possible. That, at least, is the folklore, and it’s from folklore as conveyed through literature that piracy derives its energy.

In the literary folklore there’s another association with pirates that hasn’t been much discussed, which is their complicated relationship with the middle classes. It’s Stevenson, I think, who’s responsible for this link. The young hero of Treasure Island, Jim Hawkins, is the son of an innkeeper – the kind of job in the service industry that a retired pirate might well choose for himself, as in effect Long John Silver has done when Jim first meets him; but when mutiny breaks out he decides to throw in his lot with the ‘gentry’ rather than the sea dogs. Jim’s allies in the book are the local landowner, Squire Trelawney, a physician called Doctor Livesey, and Captain Smollett, and his adventures see him make the transition from servant (he is employed before the cruise alongside the squire’s gamekeeper, and serves as cabin boy on board the squire’s ship) to junior partner in the economic enterprise of seeking the titular treasure. At the same time Jim is strongly drawn to the charismatic ship’s cook, Silver, who has an astonishing ability to make himself equally attractive to the working men of the crew and to their masters, and who switches sides between them at a moment’s notice when it suits his interests. Silver, in fact, represents another aspect of pirates: their ability to merge with other communities, springing spontaneously out of the disciplined ranks of a legitimate crew and melting away into anonymity as soon as they disembark at the end of a voyage. Whatever his class origins, Silver’s easy relations with all classes, his predatory focus on economic self-interest, his insouciant pleasure in legal and economic risk-taking, his constant reinvention of himself as innkeeper, cook, friend, conspirator, captain, rebel, trusty servant and eventually fugitive, all stand to endear him to the guilty bourgeoisie who secretly share many of his values and even some of his techniques. The ease with which Jim might find himself on Silver’s side can be measured by the speed of Ralph’s capture and impression as a pirate in The Coral Island; but where Ralph never feels at home aboard the pirate ship – at least until he acquires it for himself – one can imagine Jim feeling thoroughly at home with Silver once committed to his cause.

Piracy, in fact, can represent the middle classes’ flirtation with working class culture; and this is confirmed by the personality of that most middle-class of pirates, Captain Hook, who is haunted by his failures during his schooldays at Eton, and who shares his persona in crucial ways with Peter Pan: both feel the lack of a mother, both enjoy a little swordplay, and both tyrannize over their social inferiors, giving vent to their moods whenever they feel like it and indulging in occasional bouts of disloyalty or outright betrayal. Both, too, thrive on having enemies, to the extent that Peter’s bereavement of Hook at the end of the novel compounds the sense of desolation generated by his effectual marooning on his island by Wendy and the Lost Boys. Hook and Peter represent the middle-class view of piracy – a temporary game in a contained alien space which arouses forbidden lusts (for blood, dictatorship, extreme risk-taking, imaginative self-indulgence) only to suppress them as the book draws to a close, allowing its young reader to return, perhaps a little embittered, to his or her preordained role in polite society.

Mervyn Peake’s attachment to piracy is everywhere apparent in his poems. Pirates and the poetics of piracy as I’ve sketched it out enable him to articulate his fierce resistance to the economic and social pressures that threaten to curtail his practices as an artist, and to acknowledge the link he sees between the destructive energy of violence and the creative stimulus he derives from the natural world. The earliest verses in the Collected Poems figure the dawn as a potentially piratical act of murder: ‘The’invisible scimitar of Morn, / Again had passionately torn / And slashed the Sky’s pale neck’, which culminates unexpectedly in a birth: ‘And in that welter of living fire / Be-jewelled and robed to his heart’s desire / Was born – young Day’. This three-way link between blood, fire and new life continued to resonate in Peake’s mind into the 1940s, finding its most startling expression in the encounter between a decidedly piratical sailor and a newborn baby in the fires of the Blitz in his 1947 ballad, ‘The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb’. An equally troubling association between beauty and violence emerges from Peake’s frequent references to the artist’s absorption of information through his senses as a process of piratical looting. In ‘If I Could See, Not Surfaces’ (1937), for instance, he speaks of his desire to ‘plunder splendor / At the womb’, and of how this activity promises to feminize him so that he can ‘give bold birth / To long / Rivers of song’ (so birth comes into the equation here too). These are neither of them specifically buccaneering references, but there are plenty of those, from the description of the artist Mané Katz’s Paris studio as ‘a pirate’s glutted locker’ (1937) to the account of unemployed young men in ‘The Cocky Walkers’ (c. 1937) as skidding ‘Their careless privateer’ down the ‘seas’ of London streets ‘Agog for a gold island / Or a war / With penny pirates on a silver sand’. In 1942, when Peake suffered a nervous breakdown in the army, he pictured himself and his fellow patients at Southport Hospital as sickly sea-dogs, ‘The swashbucklers / Who have to be in bed by half past nine […] The unconvincing pirates of the ward’. And if in his last known poems pirates aren’t mentioned by name, the imagery of the sea and its devastations lingers on, as in ‘Great Hulk down the Astonished Waters Drifting’ (c. 1958), which records what could well be the aftermath of a life of piracy:

Where is her captain and the golden shore
Where danced the golden sailors? Where’s the sea
That sang of water when the heart was free
And mermaids sang where mermaids swim no more?

In all these verses, creativity and the artist’s receptiveness to beauty have an intimate connection to wandering, illicit adventures, flamboyant masculinity, playfulness, mutiny, pain and bloodshed – a potent and disturbing fusion that testifies to Peake’s sense that there is no officially sanctioned place for his kind of art (imaginative, grotesque, inflected by the influences of romanticism and popular culture) in the mid-twentieth century, any more than there is a place for psychiatric patients in the military machine.

For Peake as for Barrie and Stevenson, piracy is both at odds with and strangely attuned to the values of the middle classes. His most elaborate working-out of his buccaneering aesthetics was the eccentric prose narrative Mr Slaughterboard, whose titular pirate captain sails the oceans with a cargo of books lovingly preserved in a seaborne library, where he spends his days discussing literature with his manservant Smear, ‘An eyeless deformed creature dressed as if about to catch a train to London Bridge’. The narrative culminates in a massacre, Mr Slaughterboard having been assailed by an attack of creativity (‘the Captain was becoming aesthetic. Always dangerous’) which makes him command his crew to swim repeatedly under his vessel in a series of ever more demanding competitions until they are all wiped out. The captain claims to have a conscience, but it’s the kind that favours his leather-covered volumes of Dickens above human lives, that celebrates the aesthetic at the expense of his crewmembers, and that privileges the accumulation of an ever-increasing and diverse plunder of beauty – literary and visual – over everything else. Self-centred, murderous and godless, Mr Slaughterboard nonetheless shares the tastes of the bourgeoisie for all the components of conspicuous consumption – high culture, good clothes, congenial company and attractive surroundings – with a bourgeois disregard for the material processes by which they fall into his hands.

If the link between beauty and death lay at the heart of Peake’s aesthetics, then the outbreak of war must have come as a shock for him – not least because what it represented for him was a drastic extension of aesthetic ‘plunder’ for his inward piratical treasure chest or locker. As war swept over Europe he wrote two fine sonnets which responded with simultaneous horror and exhilaration to the beauty of warplanes: ‘The Metal Bird’ (c. 1937) and ‘Where Skidded Only in the Upper Air’ (c. 1939). During the Spanish Civil War he wrote a sonnet on the Spanish mannerist painter El Greco (1938), which reads his strangely elongated and brightly-coloured saints as premonitory visions of the bombing of Guernica: ‘Their beauty, ice-like, shrills – and everywhere / A metal music sounds, cold spirit shriven’. When World War 2 broke out Peake responded with a series of drawings in the style of Goya, showing works purportedly painted by ‘the Artist Adolf Hitler’ using the fields and towns of Europe as his canvas, in which standard studio subjects – ‘Family Group’, ‘Reclining Figure’, ‘Study of a Young Girl’ – are reconceived as images of atrocity, modeled on the real atrocities Hitler had sanctioned in his quest for power. Peake’s poetics of piracy had found a rival in the irresponsible, lawless, plunder-loving artist figure from Austria, who reproduced in actuality, using human material, the aesthetics of piracy as practised by Mr Slaughterboard. The collision between one version of piracy and another – between the buccaneering spirit of the lonely heart and the cold privateering of a would-be pirate dictator – provides the plot of the first two Titus books, Titus Groan (1946) and Gormenghast (1950). The books delineate an epic struggle over Peake’s imaginative territory, embodied in a monstrous post-medieval castle which doubles as a middle class household, its seemingly interminable rooms occupied by doctors, teachers, poets, and lonely children who might have been modeled on the inmates of British boarding schools. And it’s suffused from beginning to end with the poetics of piracy, shared freely between the youthful upstart Steerpike and the rest of the castle’s denizens, as if Peake is concerned to find a way to rescue his beloved buccaneering from its enforced association with the aesthetics of Nazism.

As G Peter Winnington has shown us, Gormenghast is an island full of natural wonders, prowled by bizarre creatures (all its denizens get linked to beasts at one point) and subject to violent natural forces, some of them as awe-inspiring as the tidal wave in The Coral Island (a calamitous snowfall, a period of scorching heat, a flood). As the novels proceed it becomes a territory ripe for exploring, inhabited by various tribes, each with its own exotic customs and cultural practices: the teachers of Gormenghast school, for instance, who can be seen ‘squatting like aboriginals upon their haunches’, or lurking in the shadows ‘like bandits in a bad light’. Despite being made of stone, it also resembles a ship by virtue of its creaking timbers, its cargo of unexpected treasures, the piratical manners of its crew. Like a ship the place is full of hammocks, from Rottcodd’s in the Hall of the Bright Carvings to the hammock Steerpike slings under the table at the Dark Breakfast, or the hammocks occupied by Bellgrove and Irma when the flood waters rise in the second volume. Even authority there has a piratical aura. The Master of Ceremonies, Barquentine, is named after a ship – the kind Captain Cook used when he sailed to Australia – and stumps around on a wooden leg like an elderly Silver, cursing and threatening violence wherever he goes. Lady Gertrude is a giant pirate with a booming voice, who has a horde of affectionate birds instead of a parrot, a bevy of white ship’s cats and an utter disregard for any authority besides her duty to what is effectively her ship – the castle itself. She is constantly being compared to a vessel, and her language is a pirate’s, as when she swears to track down the killer of her husband at the end of Titus Groan: ‘Let them rear their ugly hands, and by the Doom, we’ll crack ’em chine-ways’ (p. 347). Her daughter Fuchsia, meanwhile, is sometimes one of the natives of the territory colonized by the sea-wolves, sometimes the sea-wolves’ young accomplice, a female Jim Hawkins. She enters her private attic like a pearl diver entering the sea, ‘his world of wavering light’, and moves through it with the confidence of a Cherokee or a Sioux, knowing every inch of it ‘as an Indian knows his green and secret trail’. One of the items she keeps in the attic is a pirate portrait of ‘the twenty-second Earl of Groan’, who has ‘pure white hair and a face the colour of smoke as a result of immoderate tattooing’ (p. 57). Once ensconced in her lair beneath the rafters, she reads a nonsense poem about a seaborne cake who is pursued by an amorous and deadly piratical knife; and the poem proves prophetic, since it’s there that she encounters Steerpike, who presents himself (after reading her books and guessing at her tastes) as a bold adventurer, a rebel and a dangerous would-be lover – a kind of landlocked pirate.

The servant classes of Gormenghast, too, have piratical aspects. The grotesque physical appearances of Flay and Swelter recall the bizarre bodies and outlandish manners of Mr Slaughterboard’s crew, and its inspiration, Captain Hook’s crew in Peter and Wendy (‘Bill Jukes, every inch of him tattooed […] Gentleman Starkey, once an usher in a public school and still dainty in his ways of killing […] Noodler, whose hands were fixed on backwards’). The climactic battle between Flay and Swelter in the Hall of Spiders evokes the random duels to the death between grappling pirates in Treasure Island. They turn the Hall into a feverish nocturnal tropical island, full of ‘lianas’ of trailing thread, oppressive heat and reflections from water:

As pirates in the hot brine-shallows wading, make, face to face, their comber-hindered lunges, sun-blind, fly-agonied, and browned with pearls, so here the timbers leaned, moonlight misled and the rank webs impeded.

In this context Swelter comes into his own, moving ‘more and more like something from the deeps where the grey twine-weed coils the sidling sea-cow’. He also acquires a distinct resemblance to Long John Silver, who had, if you remember, ‘a face as big as a ham ’; so too, as Swelter stalks Flay we learn that he has a ‘great ham of a face’, which seems at odds with its earlier representation as a place of opening and closing cavities of fat. At the climax of the battle Swelter moves yet further into pirate territory. His freshly-slain corpse becomes a vessel, with Flay’s sword sticking out of it ‘like a mast of steel’ (p. 318). Flay’s own piratical apotheosis has to wait till he becomes marooned, transforming himself into a ragged and hairy Ben Gunn whose cave contains not treasure but – in the end – the Thing – for it’s in Flay’s cave that Titus finally catches hold of her, acquiring in the process the sort of imaginative ‘plunder’ Peake recorded in his poems.

The central form piracy takes in the Titus books is its embodiment in two boys: the upstart Steerpike and Titus himself. Both are rebels who dream of taking charge of their own destiny; both rove freely across the landscape of the castle; both detest the oppressive weight of authority, and both trigger acts of treason and rebellion again and again throughout the two novels. Steerpike, at the beginning, is the one who discovers the castle’s potential as a setting for romance, scaling its precipitous walls like a young adventurer scaling cliffs, unveiling its hidden wonders such as the terrace open to the sky, and spinning exotic yarns to Fuchsia like the old sea-cook Silver in his galley (and of course Steerpike begins the book in the galley or kitchen too). But Steerpike is also a thief, who steals other people’s romances – notably Fuchsia’s – and uses them to further his own ends, thereby destroying their imaginative landscapes as he destroys Lord Sepulchrave’s library. In the second book he seeks to supplant young Titus as the protagonist – and it’s striking how he seems if anything to get younger in that book, as if to make this possible: playing games such as walking on his hands for no good reason, tormenting the Twins like a bullying schoolboy, cutting off Barquentine’s hair in clumps with a pair of scissors as he walks behind him, acquiring a catapult which he uses to deadly effect. The analogy to Peter Pan grows increasingly obvious. As he approaches Barquentine’s bedroom, planning to murder him, his shadow gains an independent life of its own in one of Peake’s most astonishing virtuoso passages (the shadow grows and shrinks until it becomes a ‘thick and stunted thing – a malformation, intangible, terrible, that led the way towards those rooms where its immediate journey could, for a while, be ended’, p. 567). Later Steerpike learns the pipe, Peter Pan’s instrument; and before the end of the book he has started to crow like a cock, Peter’s trademark cry of triumph: first over the corpses of the Twins he murdered – then, fatally, as Titus plunges towards him through the ivy in the final showdown between the two young men.

Meanwhile, he retains both the adaptability of Long John Silver – able to speak to any denizen of the castle in his or her own language whenever he chooses – and his casual murderousness. When Steerpike kills Flay, he does it in much the same way as Silver kills the young sailor, Tom, who refuses to join his mutiny. In Treasure Island Jim watches in horror as John ‘whipped the crutch out of his armpit, and sent that uncouth missile hurtling through the air. It struck poor Tom, point foremost, and with stunning violence, right between the shoulders in the middle of his back’; and Silver follows the missile ‘agile as a monkey’ and ‘twice buried his knife up to the hilt in that defenceless body’ (p. 97). In the same way Steerpike flings a knife at Flay, watched by the horrified Titus, and ‘while the blade […] still quivered in his heart […] following the path of the flung knife, as though he were tied behind it, sped over their shoulders and was in the upper room before they could recover’. Once a fugitive after the killing, Steerpike seems to come into his own; he finds his Satanic solitude in the deserted places of the castle utterly congenial, and embraces it so completely that he generates a Silver- or Pan-like aura around himself even as the manhunt closes in, convincing his pursuers that he could ‘hide in a rudder’, as the Countess puts it.

Titus too is a rebel, an explorer of the castle, a congenital loner, and a player of games (though his game is marbles, not theatrical posturing). His imagination, much more than Steerpike’s, is possessed by pirates. As he muses in a sun-drenched classroom, one of his marbles spawns another astonishing flight of fancy – sunny and colourful, in marked contrast to the passage about Steerpike’s shadow:

Wading towards him, dilating as they neared until they pressed out and broke the frame of fancy, was a posse of pirates. They were as tall as towers, their great brows beetling over their sunken eyes, like shelves of overhanging rocks. In their mouths were hoops of red gold, and in their mouths scythe-edged cutlasses a-drip. […] And still they came on, until there was only room enough for the smouldering head of the central buccaneer, a great salt-water lord, every inch of whose face was scabbed and scarred like a boy’s knee, whose teeth were carved into the shapes of skulls, whose throat was circled by the tattooing of a scaled snake.

Following the pirates’ example, Titus breaks out of the ‘frame of fancy’ – making his daydreams real by playing hooky on Gormenghast Mountain, seeking out the castaway Flay in his cave, evading the rituals that are meant to define his days, and finally tracking down his rival Steerpike in a feverish daze, as if infected by the marshes of Treasure Island, to engage him in single combat. In the process of pursuing his piratical dreams, Titus sees the castle fulfil its potential as the stronghold of liberating romance, as against the authoritarian prison of the policed imagination – or the grim playground of a dictator, which is what Steerpike seeks to make it. At the beginning of the second novel, Peake points out how the castle holds all the ingredients of an adventure story, a boy’s own thriller: ‘Here all about him the raw material burned: the properties and settings of romance. Romance that is passionate; obscure and sexless: that is dangerous and arrogant’. By the end of the book the potentialities of that material, which lay dormant at the beginning, have been activated by the twin energies of Titus and Steerpike. As the floodwaters rise around it, making of it a fitting stage for the conclusive fight between them, Gormenghast becomes a true island, not just the copy of one; the morose Bright Carvers become pirates or Indians, skimming about the castle’s perimeters in the canoes they have carved; the Professors take to the water, steering their dilapidated boats through corridors in fulfillment of their own daydreams of liberation from their sun-drenched classrooms; Bellgrove and Irma take to their hammocks and find new contentment in their marriage; and the Countess becomes the pirate captain she was always meant to be, issuing orders for the summary execution of the traitor she has vowed to gut.

The interesting part about all this is that Titus, too, is a traitor, who proclaims his hatred for the castle’s ritual to his mother at the very moment when he brings her news about the whereabouts of the traitor Steerpike. If Steerpike was Fuchsia’s would-be seducer, Titus is the Thing’s, and both the women they covet end up dead. If Steerpike is a bundle of contradictions – cold and calculating yet whimsical, murderous yet capable of astonishing empathy, treacherous yet ready to master every detail of the pointless rituals he despises – Titus is full of contradictions too, in his love and hate for Gormenghast, his pride at and disgust with his inheritance as the Earl of Groan. This ‘terrible antithesis within him – the tearing in two directions of his heart and head’ – is made up of a ‘growing and feverish longing’, an ‘ineradicable, irrational pride’ in himself and his lineage, and ‘the love, as deep as the hate, which he felt, unwittingly, for the least of the stones of his loveless home’. The antithesis brings him so close to his enemy Steerpike that before long the other young man has stolen his boat – the light canoe or skiff he associates in his mind with the Thing – and paddled off in it as if to take his place at the centre of the narrative. Antitheses are the stuff of the poetics of piracy, as I hope I have shown. In placing them at the centre of his narrative, Peake made an enduring statement about the state of things – especially, perhaps, about the state of England in and after the Second World War – which he could have articulated in no other way.

Mervyn Peake at Southport

[I’ve been busy marking this month, which hasn’t given me much time for blogging. Here, then, is an essay I wrote for Peter Winnington’s journal Peake Studies; the full version with notes can be found in Vol. 12 No. 1 (October 2010), 3-24. There will be more on Peake in January.]

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Sapper Peake

Mervyn Peake lived his life surrounded by eerie foreshadowings and replicas of Gormenghast castle.  His biographer Peter Winnington describes the hospital compound where he spent his early childhood in Tientsin as ‘a world surrounded by a wall with China on the other side; as in Gormenghast, the emphasis is on enclosure’.   Not many miles from the compound was Beijing, and the Forbidden City where the Boy-Emperor lived in seclusion as Peake grew up nearby; and the city inspired the setting of the BBC Gormenghast series along with a ‘Tibetan-style monastery in Ladakh’.   In the 1930s Peake joined an artist’s colony on the tiny Channel Island of Sark, whose geography has often been compared to that of his imaginary castle;  and in the 1940s he moved back to the island with his family.  When he succumbed to Parkinson’s disease in the late 1950s, he was treated in the Holloway Sanatorium, Virginia Water: a spectacular palatial building decorated with astonishing grotesques, hailed by Pevsner as one of the crowning achievements of late Victorian architecture.  As with all great literary creations, once it was summoned up Gormenghast castle proceeded to generate doubles of itself through time and space, and Peake himself inhabited more than a few of these topographical echoes of the imaginary fastness.

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Southport Promenade Hospital today

One of the Gormenghasts he occupied, however, has remained more obscure than the rest.  This is the neo-Gothic building where he lived for one summer in the middle of the Second World War: the Convalescent and Sea-Bathing Hospital (later known as the Promenade Hospital) at Southport, Lancashire.  An imposing red brick Victorian structure at the seaside resort a few miles up the coast from Liverpool, the infirmary was administered after the outbreak of war as an emergency hospital, with beds for 600 patients, whose presence transformed it into a bustling miniature city with high-ceilinged nightingale wards and an enormous dining room.  To this place Peake came as a patient in the spring of 1942, after suffering a breakdown while on military service at a camp near Clitheroe, Lancashire.   The windows at the front of the building looked out on the promenade, which ran alongside a large artificial lake where you could go boating in peacetime.  Beyond the lake lay the vast expanse of the Southport sands.  Spanning the lake and stretching out across the sands was the Southport pier, one of the longest in the British Isles.  In the other direction, behind the hospital, you could stroll along Lord Street: a magnificent tree-lined shopping avenue once frequented by the future Emperor Napoleon III, who is said to have been inspired by it to fill the centre of Paris with spacious boulevards.    At any other time Peake might have liked Southport; but its brightness came to him at a time of emotional and intellectual crisis, and the works of art he produced there are as anguished as they are beautiful.

Writing SoldierTill now, most of what we have known about Peake’s time at Southport has come from his letters, the most informative of which was addressed to his old school friend Gordon Smith shortly before he left.  In this letter he lists some of the symptoms that landed him in a sickbed: ‘sleeplessness at night and tired all day (ironically) – irritable as a bereaved rattle-snake and apt to weep on breaking a bootlace’.   He found himself unable to work on the various illustrations he had been commissioned to produce because he was so ‘jittery’ – a word that might imply (Peter Winnington suggests) that his hands were shaking as they would do again in the 1950s, in the early stages of the Parkinson’s disease that ultimately killed him.   In a letter to Sir Kenneth Clark, Peake attributes these symptoms to the ‘perpetual frustration and […] wastefulness’ of army life: ‘two years of trivial routine’ during which he was perversely refused all opportunity to deploy his talents in the service of the war effort, condemned instead to fritter away his time at a succession of tasks and training exercises for which he had no aptitude.   ‘I am sick, sick, sick of it,’ he told Smith, ‘the perpetual littleness of the life – the monotonous conversation of what I suppose are my comrades who are with me polishing buttons and blancoing the webbing in our fight against world tyranny […] I just want to cry when I think of the stupidity of the whole bloody, ghastly, sordid business’.   Isolation, boredom, a sense of wasted time, combined with the ‘bloody, ghastly, sordid business’ of war to plunge him into a state of acute emotional vulnerability which left him unable to sustain the farce of pretending to participate in what were for him the senseless rituals of the army – a mood comparable to that of Titus Groan as he rebels against the meaningless rituals of Gormenghast castle.

This mood was intensified when Peake’s second son Fabian was born in April 1942 and he was refused permission to visit his family in Sussex.  Peake promptly went absent without leave and headed South; but when he arrived home his wife Maeve found him strangely distant and distracted, a condition he describes from within, as it were, in several powerful poems of the period (‘O, This Estrangement’; ‘Absent From You’, etc.).  Returning to Clitheroe, he accepted the routine punishment dished out to him by his regiment – he never said what it was – and continued his descent into depression.  The breaking point came at the end of May, when he found himself struck down with an attack of involuntary insubordination: ‘I bent down to do up my boot-lace, when I suddenly realized that I could never obey another order again, not ever in my whole life.’   He reported to the Medical Officer, and was admitted to Southport Hospital on 27 May, suffering from what he called a ‘nervous collapse’.

At the Southport hospital, patients were dressed in a distinctive uniform that caused Peake extreme embarrassment when he wore it in public: ‘shapeless “suits” of peacock blue with crimson rag ties’, unfurnished with pockets, which made their wearers ‘very noticeable in this artificial town with its sea on the horizon’.   The pyjama-like garments drew the unwelcome attention of the local women, who would look ‘very lovingly’ at Peake until they learned that he wasn’t wounded at Dunkirk.  He mentions the clothes in several letters, and wrote a poem about them too, as we shall see.  No doubt they contributed to his sense of being confined in an asylum, which was exacerbated by the behaviour of the other patients, who went about ‘gesticulating or grinning suddenly at nothing’, as Peake did not (at least, he didn’t think so).   One of the pictures he sent to Maeve showed him ‘with his fellow sick-men queuing up for their meals, in long nightshirts, huge army boots, and cropped hair’.   After collecting their meals on trays they would take them back to their wards, to eat in bed after taking off the boots.  It was the oddness of their physical appearance, as much as their eccentric actions, that marked out these men as distinct from the nattily uniformed ‘healthy-men’ of the British Army.

gormenghasttext_6805Other aspects of hospital life proved more congenial.  Peake was prescribed as treatment for his condition the task of getting on with his half-completed novel, Titus Groan; and some of the finest chapters in that book bear the inscription ‘Occupational therapy, Southport Neurosis Centre’ (a name for Southport Hospital which he seems to have invented).  He learned to play a pipe – ‘It’s the most thrilly thing in the world’, he told Smith  – and made two for himself, one in A and one in D, from which he could produce simple tunes such as ‘Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring’.   Evidently the carving of the pipes gave him as much pleasure as playing them.  ‘I want to make one of black walnut,’ he declared, ‘brace-and-biting it right through (one inch diameter) and then cutting away, rasping, etc., until I have a perfect tube, very slender’.   At other times he drew pictures of strange animals, cut them out and sent them home in letters to his sons.   Meanwhile he was taking an interest in poetry, spurred on perhaps by the good sales of his first collection, Shapes and Sounds, the year before.  He recommended to Smith a new anthology, Poetry in Wartime, singling out the Welsh poet Vernon Watkins – a friend of his friend Dylan Thomas – for special praise.  One of the manuscript pages of Titus Groan carries the injunction ‘Get Trahern’ [sic], signalling his intention to familiarize himself with the seventeenth-century poet and mystic Thomas Traherne.  He gave a copy of the Selected Poems of Louis MacNeice to a woman called Dora Street (was she a nurse at the hospital?).   And he was also writing poems himself.  Until recently none of the verses he wrote at Southport have been identifiable; but now a number have come to light, and they offer an intriguing insight into his existence on the Lancashire coast during his enforced four-month stay.

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Long John Silver by Peake

One of these poems is a fragment which brings us right into the ward where the ‘sick-men’ ate their meals side by side in bed.  Maeve tells us that Peake’s next-door neighbour in the ward was another sufferer from breakdown, a spiritualist who received regular visits from his dead mother.  Because of the army timetable, the man’s mother had been unable to find him while he was on military service; but since his hospitalization ‘they had been able to re-establish their old routine, and she came to see her son every evening at six o’clock promptly’.   The anecdote conjures up a vision of solidarity among patients who had been subjected to the intolerable pressure of conforming to the inflexible schedule of military life; Maeve reports it as if the mother’s visits were a secret shared by the bedridden neighbours in defiance of the hospital officials, and in broader defiance of the notion of sanity imposed on them by a manifestly insane environment.  This sense of conspiracy is consolidated in the fragment of verse I mentioned, which has never before been published.

WE ARE THE LIFELESS GYPSIES

We are the lifeless gypsies.  The swashbucklers
Who have to be in bed by half past nine
These summer nights – we are the grievance crew
Of love and filth, of plot and secret sign,

The unconvincing pirates of the ward
Where nurses whisper of their own intended
In cubicles when the ward lights are out

These verses repeatedly juxtapose tremendous vigour with passivity, building up to a crescendo of specifically sexual frustration in which patients and nurses find themselves confined in an artificially sexless environment, their proximity to one another strictly regulated to prevent any fraternization beyond the ‘plot and secret sign’ exchanged between patients.  The sick are represented as displaced persons in the disciplined hospital environment: gypsies and swashbuckling pirates, both groups associated with energetic wandering and often romanticized acts of courageous lawlessness, but here hobbled by adjectives that drain them of their traditional vitality: lifeless, unconvincing.  The pirates’ potential for swashbuckling has been buckled, as it were, to a strict routine (they ‘have to be in bed by half past nine’) which pays no attention to their maturity or the changing seasons (in north-western ‘summer nights’ the light remains strong till late, accentuating the earliness of the swashbucklers’ bed-time).  The sexual frustration of the patients, whose ‘grievance’ at their confinement manifests itself in outbreaks of ‘love and filth’ – abortive romance and furtive fantasy – leads them to listen intently to the conversation of the nurses after lights-out, as the women discuss their own love-lives in the seeming privacy of ‘cubicles’.  There is something satisfying in the way this poetic fragment peters out, just as the whispers inevitably drift into the silence of sleep.  There can be no satisfaction or closure for the hospital’s segregated inhabitants, and the form of the fragment as we have it mimics their inconclusive existence.

The fragment is written in the five-stress line, iambic pentameter, which could be described as Peake’s default metre in his ‘serious’ poems (as opposed to his nonsense).    In the letter he wrote to Gordon Smith from Southport he shows himself uncomfortably aware of the extent to which this metre dominates the music of his verse.  ‘My chief problem,’ he tells Smith,

is one of Form, and I find myself to be expressing things overmuch in the five-beat line, irrespective of the core of the notion.  Not really quite as bad as that, but a lack of being able to leap instinctively into the only form that the mood must be externalised by.  I want my poems to create this form in a growth way, out of the very nature of the thought, unfolding as they continue from line to line, from idea to idea, and then to close in gradually (or swiftly) like the petal of a flower at night…

Another poem to emerge from his Southport period is both a striking example of Peake’s weddedness to the ‘five-stress line’ and the extent to which he could make it seem to have grown quite naturally from the ‘very nature of the thought’ it embodies.  Published for the first time in the Collected Poems,  the poem has since been found on the reverse of the manuscript leaf that contains ‘We Are the Lifeless Gypsies’, confirming them as products of the same period of invalidity:

BLUE AS THE INDIGO AND FABULOUS STORM

Blue as the indigo and fabulous storm
Of a picture book long lost where islands burst
Out of the page, exploding palm on palm,
Are we, whom the authorities have dressed.
For we are bluer than the fabulous waters
That lap the inner skull-walls of a boy
So that his head is filled with brimming summer’s
Dazzling rollers which make dull the day
Surrounding him, like an un-focused twilight,
Such waters as uplift a rippling acre
Of naked jelly through the sunfire drifting
With at its centre a vermilion ember
Across whose fire the transparent eyelids rove
O fiercer than the azure lights that flare
At the lit core of fantasy.  We move –
See how the sick kingfishers take the air! –
In brilliance past the Southport pier
Yet we are shapeless in our azure suits
Which hang in monstrous folds.  Around our throats
The twisted snakes of fire burn all day long,
And tenderness recoils from our preposterous boots.

Jim and HandsRead in the context of Peake’s institutionalized summer at Southport the poem becomes a dazzling evocation of the sense of alienation imposed both by the condition of being a patient and by the state of being a visionary artist: a Blake or a John Clare with a distinctive perception of the world which he struggles to convey through word and image.  This sense of alienation is present in many of Peake’s poems, but is here exacerbated by the ‘monstrous folds’ of the vivid blue uniform that makes the hospital inmates stand out even from the blueness of sea and sky on a northern summer day.  Their costumes transform the patients into grotesque parodies of a vision that was of intense and lifelong interest to Peake: the ‘fabulous waters / That lap the inner skull-walls’ of a young boy, an imaginative ocean which dims the brightness of the actual summer day to a mere ‘un-focused twilight’, and which for Peake were specifically associated with the favourite book of his childhood, Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

As the poem proceeds, its focus shifts repeatedly from the outward appearance of the patients in their blue suits and fiery neckties to the boy’s interior landscape, whose brilliance is both challenged and alluded to by the ‘brilliance’ of the ‘sick kingfishers’ the patients have become.  The fantastic energy of the boy’s vision of a piratical picture book, where palm trees resemble explosions and ‘brimming summer’s / Dazzling rollers’ reduce the daylight of the room in which he is reading to ‘an un-focused twilight’, is more than matched by the monstrous vitality of the patients’ costumes, which are ‘bluer than the fabulous waters’ imagined by the child reader.  At the same time, the boy’s imaginative world and the patients’ real one seem to merge as the fabulous waters are described in greater detail, becoming the account of a vision which invalids and children share:

Such waters as uplift a rippling acre
Of naked jelly through the sunfire drifting
With at its centre a vermilion ember
Across whose fire the transparent eyelids rove
O fiercer than the azure lights that flare
At the lit core of fantasy.

At first hard to visualize, after rereading it becomes clear that these lines evoke with astonishing precision a breaker lifting its ‘rippling acre of naked jelly’ in front of a summer sun, so that the sun is seen through the advancing wave.  Wonderfully, it is not made clear whether we’re to think of the ‘transparent eyelids’ as a metaphorical description of the wave or as a reference to the actual eyelids of the spectator/poet, closed against the dazzling brilliance of the vision he has been granted.  In the same way, it is not clear whether ‘O fiercer than the azure lights that flare / At the lit core of fantasy’ refers to the fierceness of the sunlight seen through water, or whether it refers back to the blueness of the patients’ uniforms, which were ‘bluer than the fabulous waters’ of the boy’s imagination, and perhaps fiercer than them too.  The confusion is a productive one, because it mimics the bedazzlement brought on by the vision of the wave against the sun.  Spectator, wave, sun, and the imagined vision that the wave and the sun represent, become fused in a single scene where the explosive inward landscape of the child reading a picture book and the incongruous brightness of the patients at the sea front are equally at home, and equally alien to the ‘un-focused twilight’ of the ‘dull… day’ that surrounds them.  Implicitly, child and patients share common access to the ‘lit core of fantasy’, and a common desire to turn away from the everyday world to face the searing brightness of the inward picture.  The quasi-visionary nature of the experience described here may help to explain Peake’s interest, while he was at Southport, in getting hold of the work of the visionary poet Thomas Traherne.

0472The link forged between hospital patients and a young boy in this poem brilliantly denotes the infantilization of the institutionalized – one of several kinds of infantilization to which Peake was subjected before ever he came to Southport.  His first self-illustrated book had been a child’s picture story full of metaphorically exploding palms, Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor; but when he tried to interest Chatto and Windus, the printers of his poetry collection Shapes and Sounds, in publishing illustrations to his poems, they rejected the idea as too radical: illustrations were too closely associated with publications for the young to be admissible in a serious publication  – and besides, there was a shortage of paper (though this didn’t prevent Eyre and Spottiswood from publishing his illustrated collection of nonsense verses, Rhymes Without Reason, in 1944).  With the exception of the jacket drawing, the illustrations he sent to Chatto’s disappeared, only for two of them to resurface decades later disconnected from the poems they were meant to embellish.   The same infantilizing view of his talents was shown by the army in wartime, who set him to painting signs for toilets as if this were the most suitable outlet for his artistic energies.   It’s hardly surprising, then, if the patients in ‘Blue as the Indigo and Fabulous Storm’ end up as the kind of half-terrifying clowns Peake loved to draw throughout his life, whose shapeless suits hang in ‘monstrous folds’ and whose throats are encircled by actual monsters, the ‘twisted snakes of fire’ which externalize their inner torments.  Even the outsized boots which in clowns are comic have been transformed in this context to the kind of preposterous spectacle from which ‘tenderness recoils’, rendering their wearers bereft of emotional or sexual succour.  These clowns, like the murderously clownish pirate Captain Slaughterboard in the opinion of some contemporary critics, are both the stuff of infantile fantasy and at the same time wholly unsuitable for consumption by the young.

clown-oil-paint-on-canvas-by-mervyn-peake-1950s1Peake’s use of iambic pentameter in the poem is masterful, as is his subtle use of rhyme or half-rhyme throughout.  It’s easy not to notice the rhyme scheme when you first read it (although the division of the text into stanzas in the recently-discovered MS accentuates the rhyme);  and the repeated use of enjambment renders the five-stress line as fluid as its subject, the oceanic mental riot that the grotesque hospital uniforms both signal and seek to contain.  This fluidity makes it easy for Peake to break the ABAB rhyme scheme whenever he feels like it, or to add an extra foot to the last line – an entirely appropriate gesture given that it refers to the outsized boots described by Maeve as an integral part of the ‘sick-men’ of Southport’s uniform.  Here, then, despite his self-doubts, Peake has shown himself ‘able to leap instinctively into the only form that the mood must be externalised by’ – even if that form happens to be the five-stress line he deploys so frequently.

Two more poems from his time at Southport make equally skilful use of iambic pentameter; and although each is only a sketch that survives in a single manuscript, scribbled in a hand that is sometimes hard to decipher, each shows a similar mastery of its chosen metre, and throws similar light on his mood at this troubled moment in his creative development.  The first, scrawled on the marbled cover of an exercise book, describes a woman seated by a window, irresistibly conjuring up the many images of Maeve her husband sketched throughout their marriage (although it is always unwise to make assumptions about the identity of the women in Peake’s poems).  Because it is written in the second person, it reads like an act of mesmerism, whereby Peake seeks to affect Maeve’s actions across the war-torn miles that separate them:

CURL UP IN THE GREAT WINDOW SEAT

Curl up in the great window seat, your heels
Beneath you in the cushions while you watch
The summer rain fall with unnatural darkness
Beyond the pane.  Move your dim arm and touch

The glass that shields you from the violence
Of the primeval gods.  Then turn your eyes
To the book upon your knees, and make pretence
To read, but do not see it.  Then heave such sighs

As the melancholy drifts of water heave
As they draw back their salt drifts from a cove
Of clashing shingle – then, my darling, leave,
And suddenly, the room, and weep, my love.

Water and isolation dominate this poem, as they did ‘Blue as the Indigo and Fabulous Storm’; and once again a visual impairment is described – though in this case connected with premature darkness rather than excessive light.  The first stanza sketches a comfortable homely scene with impressive economy.  The detail of the woman’s ‘heels / Beneath you in the cushions’ implies a tender familiarity with her habits (going barefoot indoors, sitting in certain favourite spots and attitudes), while the ‘unnatural darkness’ of the rain beyond the window pane only accentuates the cosiness of her situation.  But her touching of the glass, beyond which the ‘violence / Of the primeval gods’ is being visited upon the elements, abruptly changes the poem’s tone.  Soft summer rain is suddenly transformed to a tempest from which the watcher needs to be ‘shielded’.  The domestic calm is shattered.  We never learn exactly what makes the woman unable to read while pretending to do so – while trying to keep up the appearance, at least, of the cosiness of the first stanza; but by the third stanza the chill and damp of the weather outside has definitely penetrated the room she occupies, as her sighs become those of the cold ‘salt drifts’ of some retreating tide, which are powerful enough to make the shingle clash as the waves heave backwards from a cove they once filled.

0106At the end of the poem, the salt drifts have begun to vent themselves in the salt tears the woman weeps when she leaves the room.  Meanwhile the brokenness of the last two lines, achieved by commas and awkward syntax, is accentuated by the tender phrases that occur in them: ‘my darling’, ‘my love’, each confirming our suspicions as to the cause of the woman’s sudden melancholy (she is in some way separated from someone close to her).  There’s a violence about the last two lines, too, that is accentuated by these terms of affection.  If the poem is indeed a conjuration or a set of instructions, what kind of ‘love’ on the part of the writer would be prepared to call down such suffering on his absent ‘darling’?  Coldness, an inability to touch or be touched, seems here to be as much a product of the alienated state of mind of the writer as it is of the long enforced separation of Maeve and Mervyn brought about by his hospitalization.  Gothic creepiness replaces cosiness at the close, and we might well be reminded of the fact that Peake was writing some of the most powerful evocations of isolation in the Titus novels – the section he calls the ‘reveries’, in which guests at the baby earl’s birthday breakfast each find themselves locked away in their own thoughts, unable to communicate their hopes and fears to the people sitting next to them – at about the time when he wrote this poem.

The other poem in iambic pentameter he wrote at Southport has a very similar topic and mood.  Until now it has been known only in typescript, but I found a manuscript copy of the poem, in Peake’s hand, while looking through the Peake Archives at Sotheby’s, and the manuscript is written on the same paper, in the same ink, and with the same handwriting as the sole surviving manuscript of ‘Blue as the Indigo and Fabulous Storm’ (which was also in the Archives, and had likewise not been available to me when I edited the Collected Poems).  Given the immense variations in Peake’s handwriting at different times of his life  (by turns confident, aggressive, shaky, sprawling, minuscule, painterly, and insectile), and in the paper and ink he used throughout his career, this makes it likely that the two were written in the same period; and although the grounds of the Southport Emergency Hospital do not seem to correspond with the landscape described in the poem, the state of mind Peake here articulates closely resembles his description to Gordon Smith of his state of mind at Southport: exhausted, irritable, emotionally hypersensitive, and unable to engage with any consistency with his various creative projects (even his work on Titus Groan stalled while he was at Southport, after completion of the ‘Reveries’ section).

Here is the poem, transcribed for the first time from manuscript, and thus differing slightly from the version in Collected Poems:

FOR GOD’S SAKE DRAW THE BLIND

For God’s sake draw the blind and shut away
The beauty that is crowding through the window:
A score of rain drenched elms and four drenched pastures,
All apple green against the leaden sky[.]
I do not want it – I am out of tune
With all this loveliness.  To hell with it.
Draw the thick blinds, put on the light – I will
Not watch the green leaves fluttering in the dark,
I will not watch it.  I am far too tired
For the responsibility for miracles[,]
O vulnerable when nature comes to me
And lifts the corner of her common veil.

The last two lines are particularly hard to read, which explains some of the differences between this transcription and that of the anonymous typist whose typescript I used for the version in the Collected Poems.  It seems clear, however, that the poem is not complete – although once again its fragmentary status renders it curiously eloquent, enacting the lassitude it describes, the refusal to continue to ‘take responsibility for miracles’.  And the subject of the poem seems clear enough too.  On a rainy day, the extraordinary beauty of a pastoral scene outside the window – the kind of scene Peake had been writing fine poems about only months or weeks before (consider ‘Leave Train’, ‘With People, So with Trees’, ‘An April Radiance of White Light Dances’) – suddenly becomes oppressive, carrying with it the burden of ‘responsibility’; presumably the artist’s responsibility to capture scenes like these in verbal or visual form.  That Peake is referring to a loss of artistic energy and confidence is suggested by another poem on the same subject, ‘Conscious that Greatness Has Its Tinder Here’,  which describes his loss of the ‘power’ to access the inner resources that might make him great as an artist or a writer, and perhaps specifically as a poet, since he tells us the power might manifest itself as the ‘high flame of an oracle’, a prophecy that traditionally takes the form of verse.   In this poem, his hope that the power of oracular speech has not been lost for ever is twice called ‘the hope of miracle’, a phrase recalled by the Southport poem’s reference to ‘responsibility for miracles’.  But in the Southport poem the plural noun distances the speaker from the processes he is describing.  The creative ‘miracle’ of ‘Conscious that Greatness Has Its Tinder Here’ takes place inside the writer; it is the sudden outbreak of ‘inner fire’ into artistic form.  The ‘miracles’ of ‘For God’s Sake Draw the Blind’ take place outside not just the writer but the room he sits in, in a rain-washed space where ‘nature’ is attempting to seduce him into participating in her ‘loveliness’ – into being in tune with it, as if he were a well-made pipe – at a point when he finds himself too weak to respond to her advances.  The tone of sexual alienation accords well both with the tone of ‘We Are the Lifeless Gypsies’, and recalls Peake’s account of his awkward encounters with the respectable women of Southport in his letter to Gordon Smith.

‘For God’s Sake Draw the Blind’ resembles ‘Curl Up in the Great Window Seat’ in that both take place at windows, beyond whose panes events are taking place which trigger a strong emotional reaction in those who are watching them: the seated woman, the hospital patient.  Peake’s most well-know window poem, ‘Each Day We Live Is a Glass Room’,  describes the whole of human existence as framed by glass, implying that ‘we’ share a sense of separation both from our fellow human beings and from the ideal landscape we would like to inhabit, a place of ‘green pastures’ where ‘the birds and buds are breaking / Into fabulous song and hue /By the still waters’.  In the version of this poem published in Collected Poems, the phrase ‘green pastures’ echoes Psalm 23 (‘He maketh me to lie down by green pastures’), and the biblical echo is confirmed by a later reference to the occupant of those pastures, ‘the Lord’.  An unpublished earlier version of the poem, however, does not possess these religious connotations; and the isolation it describes is a personal one, not collectively experienced by ‘we’ or ‘us’ but encountered on a daily basis by a single first-person speaker:

EACH DAY I LIVE IS A GLASS ROOM

Each day I live is a glass room
Unless I break it with the thrusting
Of my senses and pass through
The splintered walls to great landscapes
Where the birds and buds are bursting
Into Song and into Shape and Hue
Vivid and lasting.

Each day is a glass room until
I break it – but there’s many a day
I have no power to smash the walls
Of cloudy glass, and make my way
Into my own, into that vibrant country

Lesley Hurry’s illustration for ‘September 1939’

The landscape here is not the psalm-inspired pastureland of the published version but a grander, wilder expanse which Peake dubs ‘my own […] vibrant country’.  This sounds very like the private inward space described as a person’s ‘world’ in the celebrated chapter of Titus Groan entitled ‘The Attic’.  Here Peake speaks of the love ‘that equals in its power the love of man for woman and reaches inwards as deeply.  It is the love of a man or of a woman for their world.  For the world of their centre where their lives burn genuinely and with a free flame’.   In Fuchsia’s case, her world is a suite of rooms in a hidden attic of Gormenghast castle; the one place where she can allow her imagination free rein, where it can burn with the brightness of the sea-refracted sun in ‘Blue as the Indigo and Fabulous Storm’.  Fuchsia can access her suite of attic rooms with enviable ease.  In ‘Each Day I live’, by contrast, ‘my own country’ may be visited only sporadically and with considerable effort, when the strenuous ‘thrusting / Of my senses’ smashes the glass cell to which the speaker is confined.  Interestingly, though, both Fuchsia’s ‘world’ and the poet’s share a common concern with the fusion of shape and sound, word and image.  Fuchsia’s attic contains a ‘big coloured book of verses and pictures’, two of which (‘The Frivolous Cake’ and ‘Simple, Seldom and Sad’) we are privileged to read, the first through Fuchsia’s, the second through Steerpike’s eyes.   In ‘Each Day I Live’, the birds and buds of ‘my own country’ are always bursting ‘Into Song and into Shape and Hue / Vivid and lasting’; a fusion of sound, shape and colour which gets lost in the published version, where the green pastures contain birds of ‘fabulous song and hue’ whose shapes are never mentioned.  The combination of shape, sound and colour here recalls the title of Peake’s first collection of poems, Shapes and Sounds, and seems to suggest that poetry’s unique ability to combine shape with sound, on the page and in the writer’s and reader’s brain, makes it for Peake the imaginative space that most completely defines him – the ultimate expression of his ‘world’.   Presumably this poetic space would be even more defining of Peake if it were accompanied by illustrations, as Shapes and Sounds was meant to be – and as several poems by Peake were when they first appeared.  His friend Lesley Hurry illustrated three of his poems in the 1930s, including ‘September 1939’, which Hurry framed in a surreal watercolour landscape, thus enclosing it in its own glass room.

ForS+S1941
Illustration for ‘The Craters’

It would seem, then, that the ‘nervous collapse’  that took Peake to Southport was particularly disturbing, like the war in which it occurred, because of the violence it did to his inner landscape – a violence given external expression in the damage that was also being done to the urban landscapes Peake knew so well (the link between outward and inward damage is well expressed in his poem ‘The Craters’).  Fuchsia’s attic world is a place of tranquillity, where she can act out plays, tell herself stories, and read her illustrated poems without interference or regulation; and when Steerpike bursts violently into it from outside – reading her ‘book of verses and pictures’ to gain access to her mind – its magic is lost for ever.  Peake’s own country in ‘Each Day I Live’ is an energetic but peaceful place where only buds and birds are bursting, not bodies or bombs.  The visionary seascape he evokes in ‘Blue as the Indigo and Fabulous Storm’ is far more tempestuous, with palms exploding and islands bursting from the waves instead of buds; but then it has been afflicted by the psychological condition of the patients it describes, whose privacy has been violated first by war and military service, then by parading them along the seafront in abominable suits.  The landscape beyond the glass in ‘Curl Up in the Great Window Seat’ is more tempestuous still, ravaged by the ‘violence / Of the primeval gods’ like the embodiment of the woman reader’s inner turmoil.  And though the four pastures in ‘For God’s Sake Draw the Blind’ are tranquil enough, the speaker cannot respond to their tranquillity, traumatized or nerve-wracked as he is into acute vulnerability – a word derived from the Latin vulnus, wound, returning the poem to the theatre of war from which it seems at first to be secluded.  The Southport poems show Peake exiled from the ‘vibrant country’ of himself, having been brutally pressed into performing absurd and inappropriate services for his nation.  The cloudy glass that surrounded him at Southport Hospital, separating him from his home and the people around him as well as from his creativity, must sometimes have seemed unbreakable during his prolonged confinement.

One more unpublished poem, though, shows how he fought to acclimatize himself to the physical and psychological landscape he inhabited in 1942.  Unlike the other Southport poems, it is not in iambic pentameter, but wends through various metres and rhyme-schemes, perhaps in an attempt to ‘create form in a growth way’, as Peake put it to Gordon Smith: that is, to discover a form of verse that grew organically, as it were, out of its subject, and out of the time and place of its composition.  Such a form would have a better chance than the five-stress line, he thought, of flowering and producing fruit; in other words, of spawning future works of art, especially poetry.  Certainly no other poem of his Southport period – not even ‘Blue as the Indigo and Fabulous Storm’ – more obviously grows out of the specific location it was written in.  Those who have visited the beach at Southport will remember the great expanse of sands which is bared there at low tide, where even from the end of the pier it is possible to lose sight of the sea altogether, or see it only as a narrow strip of brightness on the horizon.  Southport is a place of immense vistas – as is the coastal part of Lancashire where it’s located, whose wide flat fields look like a green extension of the beaches that lie beyond them.  The ‘distant tide’, the ‘far, portentous sea’ in this poem, of which one remains acutely conscious despite its farness, is something that clearly springs from the land and seascapes of western Lancashire.

Here it is:

GATES OPEN AND LOVE’S VISTAS SPREAD

Gates open and love’s vistas spread
To the mournful barely heard
Tides that lap the bay of death
Where the wanderer through pastures
Wades and makes an end of breath
And the bodies thousand gestures
Many many years away.
But between the great gateway
Which has opened suddenly
And the far, portentous sea
Like a grey curtain filling up
The space where all the sky should be –
Spreads the dazzling woof and warp
Of the days and of the hours
And of the months and of the years
The rainbow and the diamond showers
And the tears
Of our love which are the river
That makes green the fields of lovers
When they wander through the world[.]
For what are tears but proof that we
Are alive to everything
That we hear and that we see
In each other’s entity
Where the purple heart takes wing[?]

Unlike the other poems of the Southport period, these verses enact not confinement but liberation.  Where the others are full of shut windows, this begins with an opening, rather like the generous opening of gates which Milton links with Heaven in Paradise Lost – or the gates of God’s house in Psalm 24.  The landscape revealed by this opening (we never find out in the poem which gates are being opened – perhaps they stand for the experience or recollection of falling in love) is a representation of the lover’s life, reaching through ‘many many years’ to the far-distant ‘Tides that lap the bay of death’.  These tides provoke thoughts of suicide, since at the end of his or her life’s journey the wanderer through love’s vistas wades into them voluntarily, as if eager to put a stop to the act of breathing.  They resemble a ‘grey curtain’ (covering another window?); but the panorama spread out in front of them is a dazzling confusion of shifting shapes and colours, reminiscent of the dazzling confusion of ‘Blue as the Indigo and Fabulous Storm’.

But the reason for the confusion is here quite different.  It arises from the tears that blur the speaker’s eyes; tears that have little in common with the tears that occur in ‘Curl Up in the Great Window Seat’.  There they seem to flow from the ‘salt drifts’ of the woman reader’s melancholy.  She leaves the room suddenly to shed them in private, and there is nothing in them capable of mitigating the gloomy condition either of the woman’s mind or of the storm-surrounded room she has just left.  In ‘Gates Open and Love’s Vistas Spread’, by contrast, the tears utterly transform the landscape that is seen through them, giving it the ‘dazzling warp and woof’ of an exotic fabric, watering it with ‘rainbow and… diamond showers’, and greening its fields with irrigating rivers.  In Southport Hospital, tears were proof of disordered nerves: the symptoms of Peake’s breakdown as he described them to Gordon Smith included being ‘apt to weep on breaking a bootlace’.  In the poem’s transmuted Southport, tears are instead a proof of life; proof that those who shed them possess the most acute form of hearing and vision, the sensory acuteness of the lover, which is capable of breaking through the isolation of the individual and experiencing the whole of another person’s being (‘entity’ recalls the word ‘entirety’ or wholeness as well as being – health, then, instead of sickness).  So acute is the lover’s sight, in fact, that it can see the motions of the loved one’s ’purple heart’ as if it were the flight of a brightly coloured bird across wide-open spaces.   The poem closes with a phrase, ‘takes wing’, which is the direct obverse of the entrapment articulated in the other Southport verses.  Clearly, then, Peake had at times recourse to stratagems – born perhaps of his love for Maeve – capable of freeing him mentally from the confines of Southport Hospital.  And we may count ourselves lucky to have been granted a glimpse of one, at least, of these liberating moments.

 

 

The Erotics of Gormenghast

0156If Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan is about solitude, his second novel, Gormenghast, is about communities. But Gormenghast also contains sexual desire, as Titus Groan to a great extent does not. In it, all the would-be rebels against the tyranny of the castle’s ritual are driven by a yearning for physical consummation that was largely absent from the first Titus novel. Eroticism suffuses the air of the sprawling edifice like pollen in springtime. The Professors of Gormenghast School, some of whom haven’t seen a woman for forty years, find themselves galvanized all at once into various postures of grotesque seductiveness by the invitation to Irma Prunesquallor’s party. The party itself represents Irma’s rebellion against the rigid emotional and physical stasis she has cultivated for decades, embodied in the rock-hard bun at the back of her neck. It is her moment of radiance, when she first becomes aware of the ‘riot of her veins […] the wild thorn-throbs’ of burgeoning passion. Even the desiccated Barquentine, on the eve of his murder, remembers suddenly that he was once married, to a woman who expressed her misery with him by making paper boats, which she ‘sailed across the harbour of her lap or left stranded about the floor or on the rope matting of her bed […] a navy of grief and madness’ (570). He remembers, too, that she bore him a son, a boy whose ‘birthmark took up most of the face’ like a foreshadowing of the parti-coloured skin of Steerpike’s face after his burning. Barquentine has forgotten them because of a different lust, his quasi-erotic desire for the castle ritual over which he presides: ‘He loved it with a love as hot as his hate’ (568). But they are present in the book, whereas in Titus Groan we never learned how and with whom Sourdust fathered Barquentine, and the grapplings of Lady Gertrude and Lord Sepulchrave as they struggled to engender offspring are described as a duty and an embarrassment, to be given over as soon as the proper end has been accomplished.

Desire in Titus Groan was concentrated in Swelter, whose unctuous wooing of his kitchen boys was transmuted into a lust for Flay’s death, played out in a ballet of little cakelets; and in young Fuchsia, who found herself drawn to Steerpike by his peerless mimickry of the stuff of her dreams – action, romance and anarchic comedy as well as passion. In Gormenghast, it is everywhere, as if the castle itself has been aroused. Desire in the book has two poles, between which the globe of passion rotates from season to season. The first is the passion for the stones, most eloquently articulated by Barquentine, Lady Groan, and Flay the exile, as he lovingly maps the maze of the castle’s corridors in quest of its hidden enemies and their victims. The second pole of desire is the passion for the human body, which must find some kind of outlet among the stones’ unyielding matrix if the dynasty of the Groans is to continue. It’s appropriate, then, that the ritual of the castle sometimes offers a space for erotic display. The most explicit example of this is the poem recited at an annual ceremony by the castle Poet to Lady Gertrude and the assembled pupils and professors of the school. The poem is spoken aloud, in the words of the ceremony, because ‘poetry is the ritual of the heart, the voice of faith, the core of Gormenghast, the moon when it is red, the trumpet of the Groans’ (501). Verse here gets linked with love of the stones and Barquentine’s passion for ritual, but the Poet’s text itself is concerned with sex and plants, linking itself to the sinuous creepers that insinuate their tendrils into the castle’s mortar, the hairy embrace of the ivy where Steerpike hides at the end of the book, the thorns and weeds that promiscuously thrive in forgotten courtyards. In none of the editions of the novel is the poem given, but it exists in the manuscript now housed in the British Library: a surreal carpe diem celebration of the irrepressible desires of men, women and vegetation through the seasons:

So is it always when the hairfaced hedgerow
Whores with the sucking legions and the hips
Of autumn prick and parry at the bluebud […]
See! the red timepiece on a damsel’s cage
Ticks to the doomsday crack.[1]

In these lines the passion of the body is bound up with time – an entity the walls of Gormenghast barely acknowledge, or record only in layers of velvety dust, in rot and detritus, the opposite of the throbbings of the body; or in the pages of the book of ritual, which prescribe a duty to every hour and minute of the revolving year. It’s time that precipitates Irma into throwing her party, conscious that middle age is encroaching and that the soirée may represent her final chance to secure a partner. It’s time – forty years of cloistered bachelorhood – that reduces the unfortunate Professor Throd to a state of tumescent rigidity at the sight of Irma. And it’s time that links Titus’s fascination with the Thing to his nascent sexuality, transforming her from a fleeting spirit of the forest to a meticulously-observed, ungainly fusion of frog, bird and weasel, an astonishing blend of ugliness and beauty, rendered attractive by its contradictions as he watches her in the shelter of Flay’s cave.

Titus is absent from the ritual at which the Poet recites his verses because he has been drawn to the fertile chaos of the genuine vegetation that clothes Gormenghast mountain. Here he glimpses the Thing for the first time, the only girl of his age to appear in the book. In this first encounter she becomes for him the emblem of the freedom he craves: his foster sister, conceived out of wedlock; his social inferior, exempt from the cages of language thanks to her isolation, but capable of expressing her defiance of the castle with astounding eloquence; forbidden to him as a companion – sexual or otherwise – by every tenet in the castle’s laws. Above all, she is free from time as it is marked in the castle: the calendar of sterile gestures that succeed each other from year to year; the clock that ticks towards Titus’s exclusion from the company of boys his own age when he takes up his immemorial duties as the seventy-seventh earl. Before this happens, she once again interrupts an annual ritual – the ceremony of the Bright Carvings – by snatching away one of the wooden sculptures that has been designated for the fire. Titus follows her with his eyes as she skims away over the castle wall, then follows her with his body through the secret underground tunnel that leads to the mountain and Flay’s cave. Here he is again confronted by her defiance of time. Her interest in the sculpture lasts only minutes – she kicks it away as soon as she realizes she has made it her own. Her diminutive size suggests she has developed less than Titus over the years since he first saw her. And her premature death-by-lightning, dancing her defiance of him in a rainstorm, identifies her as the polar opposite of the immemorial stones of Titus’s heritage. Her death also internalizes her for him as the emblem of freedom, since it both liberates her from being possessed and limited by Titus (who is after all a representative of the castle, like it or not), and liberates him to pursue the promise she offers of self-sufficiency outside the castle’s perimeters. It makes her timeless, no longer the object of the cycles of his lust but a constant source of inspiration for escape from what was presented to him as his destiny.

The Thing is no mere sexual object; she’s been a rebel since birth. From the first she was defined by her community as the offspring of an illicit union, and as she grows older she expresses her disdain for this definition by stealing their most precious sculptures from under their noses. Her illegitimate status connects her to a poem Peake wrote about the sexual effects of war, when fear and opportunity combine to engender lust, resulting in more births out of wedlock than any comparable period of peacetime:

Sired under hedgerows, O
Myriad infants whom
War has engendered.
Sired in the midnight
Alley, O
Children of the world’s
Blackout, you
Are the theme of this,
A dedicated list
Of words my flowing heart cannot desist.[2]

Such unsanctioned babies, begotten in the crucible of crisis, represent a challenge to heredity as unsettling to the authorities as the presence of an armed enemy. Titus’s attraction to a bastard girl is yet more treacherous, representing as it does the urgency of his wish to sever his connection to the seat of the Groans and thus to end the line. He never consummates this attraction, even in the crisis of the thunderstorm that unleashes a flood on his ancestral home; but the Thing’s death by lightning soon after their encounter in the cave signals for him in any case the end of the line, an ending of life as casual and passionate as the coupling between Keda and her lover that first sparked her into existence. If illicit sex poses a threat to the establishment, which seeks to retain control over its subjects’ bodies, casual death is a rebellion yet more absolute, wresting the body wholly out of the world where such control is practised.

OW, RequiescatThe women in Peake’s novels succumb to casual death with unnerving frequency. Keda, the Thing and Fuchsia achieve exemption from the ritual of wedlock by being destroyed – the first voluntarily, the second by chance, the third by a mixture of chance and her own volition. There’s a huge problem, of course, with representing women as prone to premature death, and a greater problem with transforming the death by fire of one of them – the Thing – into an emblem of a boy’s transition into manhood, or his lust for liberty, or anything else. But the Thing is not just any of these things; she’s not so easy to pin down. For the Bright Carvers she is ‘a raven, a snake, [a] witch’ (579); for Titus she ‘might have been a faun or a tigress or a moth or a fish or a hawk or a marten’; she is a ‘frog, a snake, or a gazelle’ (683); she is ‘effrontery’, ‘disparity’ and ‘difference’ (677-8); above all she is ‘originality’ (682), meaning that she is sui generis, springing self-formed from the wilderness where her mother bore her and unbeholden to anyone else, least of all an earl. Her death by lightning confirms her quickness, her untouchability, her power. And if her end marks the earl’s maturity, it’s because it forces him to recognize he could never have had her, hereditary heir though he may be of a thousand acres of crumbling stone.

Steerpike-06This is a recognition Steerpike never really achieves: the knowledge that he’s not the centre, that he cannot have whatever he plans for, that there’s no such thing, in the end, as absolute mastery. If Gormenghast is a book full of sexual desire for the other, Steerpike is narcissistically self-obsessed – although he can play the part of a lover with consummate ease. As Titus matures with the changing seasons, Steerpike stays the same. Or rather he regresses, shocked out of the total control over mind and body which marked him out in Titus Groan by the disastrous miscalculation that almost kills him when he murders Barquentine. Barquentine’s dying embrace of Steerpike – an embrace of fire – grotesquely enacts the old man’s passion for the stones as he struggles to destroy the traitor who would take possession of them. But it can also be read as a peculiar act of love for the young man he has trained as his successor: after all, we have been told that Barquentine’s love for the castle was as fierce as his hate. The flaming embrace transforms the former kitchen boy into the image of the old man’s piebald son, and confers on Steerpike – albeit at Steerpike’s own behest – the onerous duty of performing the rituals which the son never assumed. And for a while after his recovery – a long while – Steerpike performs those rituals with meticulous precision, as if he has finally fallen under the spell of the unchanging stones.

Unnerved by his failure to kill the old man cleanly, Steerpike loses some of his composure, his supreme self-confidence. Unable to sustain his performance as Fuchsia’s would-be lover he lashes out at her and loses her trust. He needlessly returns to the scene of a past crime, visiting the corpses of the twin sisters he starved to death solely in order to dance and play on their ribs as if on a xylophone. He crows in triumph over their skeletons like Peter Pan, whose pipe-playing and propensity for random acts of violence he also shares. His playfulness gets him noticed and he becomes a fugitive, half pirate, half explorer, turning the corridors of the castle into the labyrinthian tracks of some desert island (that’s one of Peake’s adjectives: ‘labyrinthian’). The tools of his rebellion – penknife and catapult – are a schoolboy’s tools, and his lusts are also a schoolboy’s, dominated by the egotistic desire to take risks, to ‘strut and posture’ (742), to expose himself, to make lewd signs:

His lust was to stand naked upon the moonlit stage, with his arms stretched high, and his fingers spread, and with the warm fresh blood that soaked them sliding down his wrists, spiraling his arms and steaming in the cold air – to suddenly drop his hands like talons to his breast and tear it open to expose a heart like a black vegetable – and then, upon the crest of self-exposure, and the sweet glory of wickedness, to create some gesture of supreme defiance, lewd and rare; and then with the towers of Gormenghast about him, cheat the castle of its jealous right and die of his own evil in the moonbeams. (742)

CratersHe expresses this complicated lust in a second Peter Pan-like ‘blast of arrogance’ at the end of the novel, the ‘high-pitched, overweening cry of a fighting cock’ (743). And it’s this new miscalculation that kills him. If he had stabbed instead of crowing, Titus would have died; and that’s what would have happened if the encounter had taken place a little earlier in the novel. But by this stage in the narrative Steerpike has exchanged places, so to speak, with the young earl. The boy has matured as Steerpike has retreated into adolescence.

Titus’s maturity expresses itself in a desire for intimacy rather than self-display, for freedom rather than power, for someone else’s body rather than his own. His desire for disparity, for difference is what enables him to break free from Gormenghast, whereas Steerpike has remained narcissistically wedded to dreams about himself, his personal strength and energy, his accomplishments as an actor, his acerbic wit. Such dreams would have taken him nowhere, even if he had lived. Titus’s, on the other hand, take him out into the cold communities of Titus Alone.

Rosemary Jackson speaks of fantasy as the literature of desire. Gormenghast confirms her diagnosis of the genre, while drawing our attention to the pain and frustration of desire in an age of warfare, of habitual repression, of petty ceremony. Yet desire flourishes in the novel, in spite of or thanks to its repression, and finds unexpected outlets in the interstices of a severe and immobile social architecture. Eventually it is unleashed in the torrential rainstorm that kills the Thing, and the resulting flood releases the castle from the threat of Steerpike and Titus from the bounds of the castle at the same time. Peake understands that sexual freedom is as painful and dangerous as it’s ecstatic, and underlines that perception by having Titus weep as he rides ‘out of his world’. In doing so, Titus joins the ranks of the confused adolescents of the 1950s, who had no more idea than Peake’s young earl – or anyone else – of the world they were riding into.

[1] Mervyn Peake, Complete Nonsense, ed. R. W. Maslen and G. Peter Winnington (Manchester: Carcanet, 2011), p. 156.

[2] Mervyn Peake, Collected Poems, ed. R. W. Maslen (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), p. 202.

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.

mervynpeakeuptree

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.