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.