[This is a poem I wrote for some Dutch friends, former neighbours in Glasgow who now live in Rhode Island. Our two families always celebrated the Dutch festival of Saint Nicholas together, and we still send each other poems every year. Saint Nicholas came from Turkey, though for some reason he always sails to the Netherlands via Spain. His day is 5 December, but his journey from Spain takes a week and you can follow its progress on Dutch TV.]
Saint Nicholas has far to go
Across the waves from Spain.
His little boat is powered by snow
And wind, and spray, and rain.
His little helpers, so they say,
Are blue, and green, and pink;
Saint Nicholas’s hair is grey;
His face is black as ink.
Saint Nicholas was once a girl,
But now his form is male.
He watched his silver beard unfurl
As slowly as a snail.
For centuries he watched it grow
And watered it with tears,
While sun, and rain, and wind, and snow
Marked out the passing years.
And now it flies behind him as
He skims across the waves
With piles of presents in his arms
For refugees and slaves.
And when he sees your waiting shoes
He’ll fill them full of dreams,
Where every shoe’s a bark canoe
And every street’s a stream.
And every stream runs dimpling down
Through hills, and heaths, and trees,
To join the green, red, yellow, brown,
There where the boats dash to and fro
With Nicholas and his friends:
Whales from the lands of ice and snow,
Birds from the ocean’s ends;
And as the waters rise and rise
And as the skies grow dark,
Studded with little blinking eyes,
The boats will form an ark.
The ark will forge through froth and foam,
The birds and whales will hum,
And nudge the vessel gently home
In some strange time to come.
And where it lands its wooden sides
Will root themselves and grow,
And strange new creatures leap or glide
Into the evening glow.
And as they peer about in fear
Dreading another storm,
Saint Nicholas will reappear
In some bizarre new form.
He’ll try to make them understand
They’ve nothing left to lose;
And then he’ll sink down in the sand
And give them back their shoes.
And some of them will put them on
As hats, or masks, or shells,
While others jump aboard and sail
Them off like caravels.
And others still will walk away
With shoes on both their feet,
And build a little town of clay
With trees on every street.
And every house will be an inn
For folk from overseas,
With food and drink and clothes within
For slaves and refugees.
And every night they’ll lay their shoes
Outside the door with care,
So folk with nothing left to lose
Will know they’re welcome there.
And every morning they’ll look out
Through panes of coloured glass
And hum this little song about
The new Saint Nicholas.
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’. 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.
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.
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.
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;
And nine hundred years
Once the blood was wine
And the flesh was broken
The men of the equal tread
Have come into their own
And the bayonets shine.
This is the year of our Lord;
And nine hundred years
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 – 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
Is always the long moment of decay.
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 –
My days with hazards of futurity.
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,
Swung from a thread.
Yet, while we stared
Blind at a shifting fulcrum,
While our loves
Loaded the bleedy scales
And when to laugh
Here with their burning flags
Of pride unfurled,
All women raised bright goblets to the world.
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.
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; 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
Into the crimson caption,
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,
The last loose tasselated fringe that flies
Into the dark of aeons from a dark
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…’
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.
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.
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’. 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.
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’. 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 yellow 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.
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. 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.
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. 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 intensely concerned with contemporary politics; and Hurry’s illustration to the latter indicates that Peake 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). 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.
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’. 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.
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:
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.
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’. ‘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.
 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.
 See Collected Poems, p. 1.
 Collected Poems, p. 65.
 Collected Poems, p. 52.
 Collected Poems, p. 43.
 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’.
 See Maeve Gilmore, A World Away: A Memoir of Mervyn Peake, in Mervyn Peake: Two Lives, introd. Sebastian Peake (London: Vintage, 1999), p. 26.
 Collected Poems, p. 48.
 Mervyn Peake, Writings and Drawings, ed. Maeve Gilmore and Shelagh Johnson (London: Academy Editions and New York: St Martin Press, 1974), p. 80.
 Writings and Drawings, p. 81.
 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.
 ‘Blake’, Collected Poems, p. 63.
 See Michael Remy, Surrealism in Britain (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999).
 See James Gifford, A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism, and the Radical Fantastic (Victoria, BC: ELS Editions, 2018), chapter 3, pp. 122-45.
 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.’
 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.
The reign of Mary Tudor (1553-8) has never been celebrated for its imaginative writing. Yet perversely enough it has always provided ample material for imaginative rewriting: reinventions of history which seek to construct some sort of orderly narrative out of the chaos of England’s erratic journey towards Protestantism in the turbulent middle years of the sixteenth century. After the accession of Elizabeth I her sister’s reign began to be characterized by Protestants as a period when the religious imagination of the English people temporarily ran amok, drawing them away from the dawning light of the gospel and back to the illusions and conjuring tricks of the Catholic church. And by the early seventeenth century the period was sometimes represented, thanks to the softening mist of nostalgia, as a time of relative innocence, when communities were united in their conviction (however misguided) that they shared the land with benevolent fairies as well as affectionate (sometimes over-affectionate) priests, monks and nuns.
The poet William Warner, for instance, included ‘A Tale of Robin Goodfellow’ in the 1606 edition of his ever-expanding epic Albions England (1606). In this little-known episode from the country’s history, a ‘bare-breeched Goblin’ laments the departure of superstition as the reformed religion took hold, robbing monks and nuns of their livelihood and depriving Robin himself of the dishes of milk and other titbits which had once been considered his due. The over-active imaginations of Marian Catholics, the goblin tells us, meant that for fairies and their infernal accomplices – the Pope and the Devil – it ‘Was then a merry world with us when Mary wore the Crown […] But all things have gone cross with us since here the Gospel shined’. Around the same time the poet-bishop Richard Corbett wrote a celebrated lament for the forgotten customs of the Marian ‘good folk’, such as leaving coins in the shoes of diligent housemaids as a reward for (sexual?) services rendered, stealing away the illegitimate children of priests to be raised elsewhere, or dancing at dawn to cover the tracks of early-rising lovers:
Witness those rings and roundelays
Of theirs, which yet remain,
Were footed in Queen Mary’s days
On many a grassy plain;
But since of late, Elizabeth,
And later, James came in,
They never danced on any heath
As when the time hath been.
For Corbett the departure of the fairies has left a glaring absence of convenient excuses for covering up a man or a woman’s erotic adventures, and an England dominated by eagle-eyed, judgmental Puritans is no happy substitute. Corbett is all for the imaginative rewriting of the history of sex between consenting adults, and the relaxed attitude to the sins of the body which such retouching of past misdemeanours would seem to imply.
Corbett’s poem is of course well known, especially to fans of Rudyard Kipling. Less well known is the fact that during Mary’s reign, too, the struggle between Catholics and Protestants was often represented by its chroniclers – both authorised and unofficial – as a heated struggle for the imaginations of English subjects. Like More and Tyndale in their controversy over the translation of the scriptures into English, each side accused the other of fabricating fictions in their efforts to gain control of people’s minds (indeed, the More/Tyndale controversy was reanimated by the publication in 1557 of William Rastell’s edition of Thomas More’s Workes). The Protestant martyrologist John Foxe encapsulates these accusations and counter-accusations in an anecdote he tells about ‘A false fearful imagination of fire’ at Oxford University, in which academics assembled to hear the recantation of a Protestant colleague in St Mary’s church are thrown into panic by a false alarm:
And as in a great fire (where fire is indeed), we see many times how one little spark giveth matter of a mighty flame, setting whole stacks and piles a burning: so here, upon a small occasion of one man’s word, kindled first a general cry, then a strong opinion running in every man’s head within the church, thinking the church to be on fire, where no fire was at all. Thus it pleased Almighty God to delude these deluders: that is, that these great Doctors and wise men of the schools, who think themselves so wise in God’s matters as though they could not err; should see, by their own senses and judgments, how blinded and infatuated they were, in these so small matters and sensible trifles.
The incident offers an elaborate comic allegory, scripted by God himself, of the ‘imaginations’ or delusions spun by Catholic apologists as they labour to ignite an ersatz pentecostal flame in the English church, whether by the force of their own ‘strong opinion’ or by burning Protestants. Imaginary fires like these illuminate the landscape of Marian England alongside real ones, drawing the bewildered populace (so the propagandists would have us think) first to one faith, then to another, and threatening to render the light of religious truth invisible forever.
But the workings of the imagination were also taken to be central to political struggles throughout the period. George Cavendish’s celebrated Life of Wolsey (c. 1553-8) documents Cardinal Wolsey’s efforts to discredit attempts by his enemies to sow suspicious ‘imaginations’ about him in the head of his master, Henry VIII. As his fall is engineered by noblemen close to the king, the Cardinal’s only hope of overcoming ‘the enemy that never sleepeth, but studieth and continually imagineth, both sleeping and waking, my utter destruction’ is to get close to the king himself, ‘that my truth should vanquish all their untruth and surmised accusations’. Cavendish’s Life itself constitutes a sustained effort to counteract what he calls the ‘untrue imaginations’ about the Cardinal set forth in ‘divers printed books’ which have been circulating since his death. William Roper’s Life of Thomas More (c. 1553-8) similarly records the systematic exclusion of the titular Lord Chancellor from the king’s presence, which lends credibility to the ‘slanderous surmises… imagined against’ him by his detractors in his absence. But unlike Wolsey, More collaborates with his enemies in engineering his own withdrawal from political action. The court is a glamorous world of fictions to which his skills as a performer initially grant him access, and his one hope of establishing himself as custodian of the truth is to mortify his imaginative faculties – or at least, to ‘dissemble’ them. In Mary’s reign, by contrast, religious dissidents who did not aspire to the martyr’s crown found that the safest place to practise their religion was as close as possible to the Queen’s person. Edward Underhill, known as the ‘hot gospeller’ for his combative Protestantism, tells us in his autobiography (written after 1561) that for members of the true religion ‘there was no such place to shift [hide] in, in this realm, as in London, notwithstanding their great spial and search; nor no better place to shift the Easter time [i.e. to avoid taking the Catholic mass] than in Queen Mary’s Court’. The closer you were to the body of a Tudor monarch, the less the imagination of the monarch could be turned against you by your enemies, and the less vulnerable you were to accusations of ‘imagining’ or plotting against the prince’s person.
Conversely, the further you were from the monarch’s body the more vulnerable you were to slander, suspicion and rumour. The focus of Mary’s fears was the provinces: from nearby Kent, where Wyatt’s rebellion of 1554 broke out inflamed by reports ‘maliciously imagined and blown abroad’ of an invasion by a Spanish army, to far-off Wales and Cornwall, which were expected to rise in support of the rebellion and which remained the focus of rumours of new rebellions throughout the remainder of Mary’s reign. John Proctor wrote his Historie of Wyates Rebellion (1554), he tells us, partly to discredit the ‘sundry tales thereof… far wide from truth’, and partly to vindicate his Kentish fellow-countrymen from the ‘notable infamy’ which the rebellion had brought them. The fear of insurrection in the provinces was by no means pure paranoia on the part of Mary and her supporters. The great historical verse miscellany The Mirror for Magistrates (1555-1610) – especially those parts of it known to have been composed during or shortly after Mary’s reign – suggests repeatedly that the further you live from London the more likely you are to succumb to dynastic fantasies, based for the most part on what Cavendish calls ‘dark and strange prophecies’ and the ‘imaginations and travailous business’ undertaken either to prevent their fulfilment or to bring it about. In the Mirror the fifteenth-century Welsh prince Owen Glendower bases his claim to the throne of England on the compositions of irresponsible Welsh prophet-bards, while the Cornish blacksmith who led the 1497 ‘An Gof’ rebellion – and whose insurrection prefigures both the Prayerbook Rebellion of Edward’s reign and the Wyatt Rebellion of Mary’s – similarly bases his claim to princely status on the vatic encouragements of ballad-mongers. William Baldwin, the first editor of the Mirror and its principal poet, is of course eager to insist that these examples demonstrate the difference between imagined pretensions to monarchic supremacy and real ones. But as claims to power multiply in the Mirror’s successive tragedies, the possibility of distinguishing between authentic pretensions and imagined ones, between the genuine dynasties traced by historians and the fantastic ones forged by heralds, grows ever more remote. The problem is summed up by Fulke Greville in his account of Sir Philip Sidney’s letter to Elizabeth I on the subject of her proposed marriage to the Catholic Duc d’Alençon in 1579. For Sidney, Mary’s marriage to Philip II of Spain offers the best of reasons for avoiding such another match between an English Queen and a Spanish monarch, working as it did solely in the interests of King Philip, who hoped by this means to ‘possess this diversly diseased estate with certain poetical titles of his own’. In Mary’s time, according to Greville, plots to seize power were evolved in the diseased imaginations or poetic fancies of ambitious men, generated by the faculty which also generates verses, monsters, insurrections, false genealogies and heresies of all kinds.
The poets of The Mirror for Magistrates would have agreed with Greville. In unfolding the tragedies of princes and great men, they lay heavy emphasis on the origins of these tragedies in the wayward imaginations of their protagonists: their dreams, hopes, fears, delusions. They also locate these origins at or beyond the margins of the Tudor demesnes, from Wales and Cornwall to Ireland, where the elder Mortimer meets his end, and Scotland, where James IV unlearns all the civility he acquired during his childhood residence in England, regressing rapidly to Celtic treachery and barbarism. From the margins imagined sedition spreads with unnerving rapidity to the centre, in the form of gossip, rumours, fake news, scaremongering. William Baldwin records the spread of superstition and violence from Ireland to central London in his late-Edwardian prose fiction Beware the Cat (c. 1553), just as John Proctor records the successive waves of rumour – that the Spaniards had invaded, that Wyatt had taken London – which almost secured the success of Wyatt’s rebellion. At the margins, too, that imaginary entity the nation could be appropriated with alarming ease by factions hostile to the government. When marching through Kent, Wyatt appealed for support from all true Englishmen; the band of ‘white-coats’ who joined his forces offered the statement that ‘we are all Englishmen’ as explanation for their decision; while the later insurrectionist Thomas Stafford, who seized Scarborough castle in 1557, called on the English to overthrow a ‘most unworthy queen’ who had ‘forfeited the crown; because she, being naturally born half Spanish and half English, sheweth herself a whole Spaniard in loving Spaniards and hating English, enriching Spaniards and robbing English’. During the Marian period the task of imagining the English nation achieves a political significance and urgency it had never possessed before, as a result both of the counter-Reformation and of Mary’s Spanish marriage: and a great many of the texts it generated take the concepts of England and Englishness as their themes.
As the historian Whitney Jones has pointed out, this is also a period when literature of all kinds is much preoccupied with social and economic reform, focused in particular around the concept of the Tudor Commonwealth. With the partial exception of Tottel’s poetic Miscellany (1557), every major ‘literary’ text of Mary’s reign addresses social and economic problems and their solutions, from Nicholas Udall’s Christmas play Respublica (1553) to John Heywood’s fabular epic The Spider and the Fly (1556), from William Baldwin’s satirical elegy The Funerals of King Edward VI (1553) to the conduct-book The Institution of a Gentleman (1555). In each case the imagination is taken to be the faculty responsible for social and economic abuse: the imagination which enables the vice Avarice and his cronies to adopt new, misleading names in Respublica, and so to beguile the Lady Commonwealth into allowing them to take control of her affairs: the imagination which seduces the aristocracy and gentry in The Institution of a Gentleman into idleness, lust and tyranny; the imagination which, in Baldwin’s poem, gives the aristocracy such inflated self-esteem that Death has difficulty in distinguishing King Edward’s palace from the palatial residences of his subjects as he seeks out the boy-king to punish him for the sins of his people. At one point in Heywood’s The Spider and the Fly a fly caught in a spider’s web changes places with the spider in order to understand his point of view as an aristocratic oppressor of the commons. They agree, as the prose argument puts it, ‘to change places (each for the time) to imagine and set forth other’s part the best they can […] Wherein the fly anon is so allured to pride and ambition in occupying (for the while) the spider’s stately place, that he at last with an oath affirmeth that spiders are owners of all windows’ – that is, that the aristocracy has a God-given right to the possession of all the land in a commonwealth. Power or stateliness is a mind-altering drug, inducing in its possessor the condition of imaginative ‘vainglory’ which Marian writers – like their Edwardian predecessors – take to be the presiding vice of the time.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, the epistolary prose fiction The Image of Idleness (1556) constitutes an extended examination of ‘vainglory’ as it is manifested in one of Mary’s humbler subjects, an elderly gentleman-soldier named Bawdin Bachelor who wants a wife but fails to persuade any woman to marry him. He combats the depression brought on by successive rejections by immersing himself in a fantasy world, designed to boost his flagging self-esteem in the face of adversity:
For doubtless this transitory life is entangled with so many kinds of misery, that unless a man will flatter himself with some kind of vain glory or, contrary to the lively eye of his reason, delight or rejoice in some one trifle or other, the calamity and unquietness thereof will so fret nature that none shall be able to live out half their natural course.
I take The Image of Idleness to be a satire on contemporary social and religious mores, identifying the centrality of fantasy, dissimulation and flattery – especially self-flattery – to Marian culture. The Marian government and the church it sponsors depend for their survival on cultivating the fertile imaginations of their subjects: and the anonymous author of this epistolary narrative subjects the workings of contemporary ideologies to the same witty analysis as Erasmus practised in The Praise of Folly, a book on which The Image of Idleness is partly modelled.
If I were to write a book on the literature of Mary Tudor’s reign, then, it would have the title Marian Imaginations. It would concern itself with the workings of the English imagination in and after the reign of Mary Tudor: from the imagination of the rebel, who spawns fear and paranoia in the provinces for his own ends, to that of the Queen herself, whose imaginary pregnancies bodied forth her desire to alter the course of English history; from the role of the imagination in the story of England as recorded in Cavendish’s Life of Wolsey, William Baldwin’s Mirror for Magistrates and Joh Proctor’s History of Wyatt’s Rebellion, to the imaginative rewriting of Mary’s reign by Elizabethan historians such as John Foxe. It would end by demonstrating the profound effect of these various Marian and post-Marian explorations of the imagination on the better-known products of the writerly imagination in the reign of Elizabeth I.
The book will never, I think, be written – at least by me; but as a curious missing link in the history of the human imagination it would, I think, have been well worth writing. So I’m duly placing it here, in one of the obscurer libraries of the City of Lost Books. If you find it here, feel free to rewrite it for yourself…
Dancing at the bottom of my string,
My tangled string, a merry little thing,
Merry because my wooden features smile,
Smile open-mouthed, as if about to sing,
Sing with delight, although the weather’s vile,
Vile because rain has polished both my cheeks
From an unnaturally lurid red
To shining apples in my wooden head,
My head that wobbles through the rainy weeks,
Weeks that have doubtless some mysterious use,
Use which the passers-by, on growing tired
Of hearing, drenched, a lonely puppet’s squeaks,
Have made of them when softly they retired,
Retired beneath a layer of autumn ooze,
Autumn which sets about discolouring
The leaves and I, weighting my feet with lead,
My feet which turn towards the winter gales,
Gales which will set me dancing on my head
And billow out my pinafores like sails –
I ought to be a sight to see in spring.
Stretched out in my seat in row 7, absorbed in my book,
I detected a tentative touch on the crook of my arm.
An old woman was sitting beside me; her scent was of herbs
And the light cotton tunic she wore was a riot of colour, pinks, yellows and greens.
I looked up, and she smiled, and she pointed, not saying a word;
Pointed out of the circular window and into the clouds.
She had the seat by the window, I one by the aisle;
In between, an unoccupied seat, a hiatus of calm.
Outside, the clouds stretched to a level horizon, unblemished and white,
Save where, at the limits of vision, a glittering gem
Nestled softly among the wide acres of featureless wool,
The bright sunlight awaking a flame in each facet and curve.
I leaned closer, inhaling the scent of the herbs as I peered
Through the glass of the window and screwed up my eyes in the sun.
And distinctly I saw it: a palace of marble and gold,
With roofs of a crystalline substance and windows of jet,
A tiara of bristling steeples, white, yellow and pink,
And a hundred and seventy flags all alive in the wind.
All around it the acres of cloudage extended, unstirred
By the breeze that made banners and oriflammes buckle and snap.
On the tip of one steeple an angel was perched with a horn,
A horn made of silver which flashed as she raised it and blew –
Though of course in our sealed-off compartment we heard not a sound.
From one window a figure leaned out, and I guessed, though I couldn’t be sure,
That her dress was a riot of colour and scented with herbs.
Did she wave to us? Maybe; she seemed to be smiling, at least;
There was movement, and some kind of gesture, of that I’m convinced,
And a message that flashed through the space between palace and plane.
For a minute we watched it together, the woman and I,
That palace of marble and gold in the nebulous heights.
Then a curtain of cloud swept across, and the palace was gone,
And we looked at each other, half dazed, in the brightness of space,
And nodded, and turned to our doings – her window, my book –
While a bird seemed to open its wings in our heads, in our chests,
And cry out in amazement at wonders unbidden, untold:
The new things you perceive when you briefly forget to be old,
The new friendships you form on a flight through the regions of gold.
[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.]
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.
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.
Till 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.
Other 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.
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.
Read 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.
The 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.
Peake’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.
At 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
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.
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.
Venus and Adonis (1593) is Shakespeare’s cheeky and disturbing contribution to the fierce contemporary debate over the function of poetry. The poem was his first published non-dramatic work, an opportunity for the young author to drop clues about his poetic agenda. Fourteen years previously, The Shepheards Calender (1579) had trumpeted Spenser’s pretensions to becoming the official Elizabethan poet laureate, with its echoes of Virgil carefully annotated in E.K.’s obsequious gloss. Shakespeare, by contrast, offered his patron a poem which couldn’t be placed in any of the traditional generic categories, and which incorporated its own sardonic commentary. He chose a topic that allied him, not with Virgil, the celebrant of Roman nationalism, but with a poet who was banished from Rome, Ovid. And in doing so, he announced his intention to participate in some of the hottest poetic controversies of the 1590s.
Just as Ovid wove together the stories of the Metamorphoses into a complex web, so Shakespeare weaves together several metamorphic fables to construct his own imaginative labyrinth. The most obvious subsidiary fables he makes use of are the stories of Narcissus and Hermaphroditus.1 But another narrative can be detected more subtly woven into the fabric of the poem: the story of Orpheus.
In Ovid’s poem, it’s Orpheus who sings the tragedy of Venus and Adonis, before being torn apart by the Thracian women. But Shakespeare’s treatment of the story goes back to an earlier stage of Orpheus’s history, before his marriage to Eurydice. Shakespeare could have found an account of Orpheus’s early career in a number of places; but the place where the story cropped up most frequently was in contemporary defences of poetry. Apologists repeatedly used the Orpheus myth to argue that poets were responsible for the foundation of civilization itself. Perhaps the most elaborate account of the civilizing powers of poetry available to Shakespeare could be found in the third chapter of George Puttenham’s Arte of English Poesie (1589). Here Puttenham describes the state of anarchy that obtained ‘before any civil society was among men’, when humanity subsisted in a violent state of nature:
vagarant and di[s]persed like the wild beasts, lawlesse and naked, or verie ill clad, and of all good and necessarie provision for harbour or sustenance utterly unfurnished: so as they litle diffred for their maner of life, from the very brute beasts of the field.2
It was the poets who rescued mankind from this bestial state, drawing people together into the first communities with their intoxicating utterances, and supplying these communities with the first politicians, the first lawgivers, the first official historians. Both Orpheus and Amphion are allegories of the early poets’ powers of speech. Amphion, who brought stones to life to build the walls of Thebes, represents the poet’s gift of ‘mollifying … hard and stonie hearts by his sweete and eloquent perswasion’; while Orpheus, who tamed wild beasts with his singing, represents the poetic orator who ‘by his discreete and wholsome lessons uttered in harmonie … brought the rude and savage people to a more ciuill and orderly life’.3 For apologists like Puttenham, eager to show that poetry could be subjected to the discipline of rules like any other social activity, Orpheus as the first administrator provided eloquent testimony to the fundamentally ‘civill and orderly’ functioning of the poetic art – to its qualifications as a supplement to other kinds of state policing.
Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis inhabit a landscape that closely resembles the wilderness colonized by Puttenham’s Amphion and Orpheus. Coleridge, the poem’s most sympathetic commentator, said that Shakespeare wrote his text ‘as if he were of another planet’.4 But it might equally be said that Shakespeare’s narrator writes the poem as if he were peering through the web of Elizabethan culture at another age, an age immeasurably distant from the sixteenth century but intimately bound up with it. Venus and Adonis live at a time before history has been subjected to what Puttenham calls the rules of art, before the ‘rude and savage’ condition of humanity has been rendered ‘civill and orderly’. A favourite Elizabethan metaphor for history was that of a mirror, in which the contours of present-day events could be traced, often with disturbing implications, in events of the past. Shakespeare’s narrative dissolves the glass that separates the violent pre-Orphic state of nature from the ‘civill’ world of Elizabethan social custom. In doing so it exposes the rudeness and savagery that Elizabethan culture strove to conceal under layers of allegory and rich brocade.
From one point of view, Venus and Adonis are completely Elizabethan. Adonis wears an Elizabethan bonnet, and his horse sports the rich trappings suitable for the mount of a young Elizabethan aristocrat. More importantly, Shakespeare’s narrator is a detached and worldly Elizabethan spectator who likes to flaunt his familiarity with the social and economic conditions of London life. He knows the legal scene, offering his opinions on the fee Venus’s ‘heart’s attorney’ ought to charge for its eloquent pleading (335).5 He knows the points of a good horse by the book, quoting almost verbatim from a contemporary riding manual when he describes Adonis’s palfrey.6 He knows the drama scene, at one point describing Venus’s actions as a dumbshow to which her tears act as an ineffectual chorus (359-60).
Above all, he is a cynic. Like other spectators in Shakespeare’s work, the narrator of Venus and Adonis finds his greatest delight in spectacles that involve cruelty, frustration, and especially violence. He’s the kind of spectator who takes pleasure in blood-sports like bear-baiting and hunting, and who can produce sophisticated commentaries on the pain these activities cause their participants, as Jacques comments on the wounded stag in As You Like It; who would rush with Rosalind to watch a wrestler breaking the necks of his challengers, or enthuse with Puck over the murderous violence he has stirred up between the lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Venus and Adonis is the poetic equivalent of a blood sport, with the same indifference to the agony of its victims that Venus attributes to the hunters of the hare. The narrator is not interested in the feelings of his actors; he’s aroused only by the intellectual games he can play with those feelings, as when at the emotional climax of the poem, as Venus approaches the dead Adonis, he contemplates the effect of her eyes and tears ‘lending and borrowing’ from each other as if in an Elizabethan money-market (961). At times a note of overt sadism creeps into his text:
O what a sight it was, wistly to view
How she came stealing to the wayward boy!
To note the fighting conflict of her hue,
How white and red each other did destroy! (343-6, my emphasis)
To this jaded narrator, who confesses that conventional love language bores him (841-6), the only interesting relationship is a mutually destructive one. He may be sophisticated in the ways of court and city, but he is hardly ‘civill’.
And his readers are implicated in his cynicism. When Venus tells Adonis he need not be ashamed to kiss her because nobody can see them (121-6), we, the invisible spectators, become voyeurs, sharing the narrator’s jokes as we ogle the couple. The narrator keeps reminding us of our complicity, with cries of ‘Look’ and ‘Lo’; and if at first this voyeurism seems no more than a harmless game, it soon becomes less comfortable, more openly an act of aggression committed on the actors.
Shakespeare’s text can be broadly divided into two halves. In the first half, Venus tries with increasing desperation to entice Adonis into sex. The language she uses is a giddyingly inventive display of familiar Petrarchan tropes. She bombards him with oxymorons involving hot ice, showers him with floral metaphors, launches into an extended variation on the old carpe diem theme, cracks the familiar puns about harts and deer, and interpolates a parodic passage where she inscribes herself as a Petrarchan mistress, the Laura of an inverted sonnet-sequence composed by Laura herself (139-50). Venus seems to have imaginative control over her own body, putting it through whatever changes she pleases, making it heavy enough to need trees to support it, then giving the violets she lies on the strength of trees (152). For all its desperation, the first half is energetic and hopeful, emphasising Adonis’s youth, Venus’s constantly self-renewing flesh, and the sexual pride of the courting horses, who inject new life into Venus’s own courtship just as she’s running out of ideas.
But at the centre of the poem comes a change of mood. Adonis announces that he intends to hunt the boar tomorrow. Venus collapses with the boy on top of her, and there follows what ought to be the sexual climax of Venus’s wooing. But all Venus gets from the encounter is frustration: ‘all is imaginary she doth prove’, the narrator tells us (597), and compares her frustration to that of the birds who tried to peck at Zeuxis’s temptingly painted grapes and found them to have no substance (601-4). After this the poem is wrapped in gathering gloom, a kind of post-coital lassitude rendered the gloomier because there has been no coitus. In the second half of the poem Venus speaks of fear, the fear of the boar and the terror of the hunted hare. Death, which has been a shadowy presence throughout the first half, becomes the tyrant of the second. Instead of urging Adonis to beget, Venus warns him that he will be murdering his own posterity if he fails to make love (757-60). The youthfulness which had been described in such vital terms in the first half, able to ‘drive infection from the dangerous year’ (508), suddenly finds itself subjected to more infections than it can hope to cure:
As burning fevers, agues pale and faint,
Life-poisoning pestilence and frenzies wood,
The marrow-eating sickness whose attaint
Disorder breeds by heating of the blood (739-42).
If, as scholars have argued, the poem was written while the London theatres were closed because of plague, Shakespeare could hardly have given contemporary readers a more shocking reminder of the powerlessness of poetic discourse.
At the same time Venus loses control over her body. As she hurries through the woods after the sound of Adonis’s horn, her body is subjected to the intrusive gropings of bushes: ‘Some catch her by the neck, some kiss her face, / Some twine about her thigh to make her stay’ (872-3). The elaborate mythical structure she wove in the first half of the poem is abruptly unwoven. The second half is full of metaphors of unweaving; terrifying expansions of the oxymorons beloved of the Petrarchans. The hare ‘turns, and returns’ in the ‘labyrinth’ of its flight (704, 684). Later, Venus re-enacts the flight of the hare as she searches for Adonis (‘She treads the path that she untreads again’ ). Later still, in her efforts to persuade herself that Adonis is alive and well, she tells herself story after story, each one less convincing than the last: ‘Now she unweaves the web that she hath wrought’ (991). By this stage, the mysterious power of poetic eloquence and imagination as it was celebrated by the Elizabethan apologists has been laughed out of court. The process of telling stories has become no more than a trick to procrastinate the inevitable confirmation of misery, a meaningless incantation to keep off the encroaching dark.
In Venus and Adonis Shakespeare weaves and unweaves the poetic fantasies of his contemporaries. The best known English treatment of the Adonis myth before Shakespeare’s was the episode of the garden of Adonis in the Faerie Queene, the first three books of which were published in 1590. Expanding on a false etymology of Adonis’s name, Spenser depicts the garden as a pagan Eden, a ‘joyous Paradise’ constructed on the pattern of a female body, whose inexhaustible fertility nurtures flowers, throngs of babies and an unmutilated Adonis.7 In the first half of Shakespeare’s poem Venus struggles to create just such a poetic Eden out of the substance of Adonis’s body and her own. She tells him that he is the ‘field’s chief flower’ (8), and urges him to join her on a bank of flowers, an enchanted circle from which serpents and other vermin are banned. She then proceeds to transform her own flesh into a metaphorical Paradise. Her cheeks become gardens (65), she assures him that ‘My beauty as the spring doth yearly grow’ (141), and offers herself to him as a protective enclosure where he can shelter from the savage environment: ‘I’ll be a park, and thou shalt be my deer:/ Feed where thou wilt, on mountain or in dale’ (231-2). But, as the central stanzas of the poem warn us, ‘all is imaginary she doth prove’. The landscape of the poem only ever becomes Edenic in the rhetoric of Venus. As the poem moves on, her rhetoric loses its persuasiveness, and a very different landscape emerges, a landscape which has more in common with Puttenham’s pre-Orphic wilderness than with Spenser’s idyll. Always present alongside Venus’s imaginary Eden, always encroaching on its borders, is a savage environment where the sun scorches exposed flesh, and where forests seethe with wild beasts. As this wilderness emerges, its climate gets less Edenic. In the first half, Venus compares Adonis’s breath to ‘heavenly moisture’, a dew like the one God used to water the plants before he invented rain (62-6).8 But the alternating weather conditions generated by the lovers’ bodies grow steadily less moderate, passing from rain to parching heat and back again to rain in a bewildering flurry of changes. In the second half of the poem these changes become wholly violent, hurrying through the ‘wild waves’ of the night (819) towards the tempest signalled by the ‘red morn’ of Adonis’s open mouth (453-6). The storm breaks during Venus’s search for the boy (‘Like a stormy day, now wind, now rain, / Sighs dry her tears, wind makes them wet again’ [965-6]), and her discovery of his body unleashes a climactic earthquake: ‘As when the wind imprison’d in the ground, / Struggling for passage, earth’s foundation shakes’ (1046-7). Where Puttenham’s Amphion brought stones to life with his poetry and used them to found a city, by the end of Shakespeare’s poem the earth itself has been shaken to the foundation. And Venus’s final prophecy bequeaths the same turbulent climate to future societies, whose sexual alliances will ‘bud, and be blasted in a breathing while’ (1141).
In the same way, the text reverses Orpheus’s transformation of ‘brute beasts’ into civilised human beings. Shakespeare’s works are full of animals, but not even King Lear has such a high proportion of beasts to humans as Venus and Adonis. The animals range from horse and hare to lions, tigers, bears and boars; and these beasts repeatedly swap characteristics with people. Adonis becomes a deer, a ‘dive-dapper’, a snarling wolf, while Venus changes into a vulture, a pregnant doe, a snail, a boar, a falcon, until the dividing line between humans and ‘beasts of the field’ becomes as imprecise as it was in Puttenham’s state of nature. Even as she promises to protect the boy from serpents, Venus transforms herself into the most terrifyingly voracious eagle the Elizabethans had ever read about, who ‘Tires with her beak on feathers, flesh and bone’ (56). This eagle either has not yet assumed its emblematic function as a royal bird, or else must act as emblem for a very violent and barbaric sort of royalty. Ascham, Gosson and others warned that erotic poetry subjected its readers to a Circean metamorphosis from humanity to bestiality. Shakespeare’s poem makes explicit what Ascham and Gosson imply: that the human body trembles on the borderline between beast and rational being.
At the same time, the closer one looks into the text, the more disruptively it seems to parody the posturings of contemporary apologists. Even the Latin motto Shakespeare prefixes to the poem is ironized by the narrative that follows it. In Marlowe’s translation the lines read:
Let base-conceited wits admire vile things:
Fair Phoebus lead me to the Muse’s springs.9
Outside their context in Ovid’s Amores these lines sound like an arrogant repudiation of ‘inferior’ art (although in Ovid’s elegy they form part of a witty demolition of poetic hierarchies). But in Shakespeare’s poem Phoebus is only one of the aggressive inhabitants of the pre-Orphic wilderness. The first we see of him, he is blushing violently and breaking away from a weeping woman:
Even as the sun with purple-colour’d face
Had ta’en his last leave of the weeping morn. (1-2).
This sounds suspiciously like the aftermath of a rape, the same kind of sexual violence that leads the boar to gore Adonis at the end of the poem, or which generates Venus’s mutation into the eagle. When Apollo reappears a few stanzas later he’s as randy as ever, this time lusting after Venus, and prepared, without any of the misgivings that afflicted Phoebus in the Metamorphoses, to let Adonis guide his chariot like a second Phaethon, while he takes his pleasure for the second time that day (177-80). In this poem the classical patron of the poetic art is an irresponsible lecher.
The other gods are equally savage. The god of war spends his time in violent conquest, before being reduced to slavery in his turn by Venus (97-102). The moon goddess, who had so often stood in for Queen Elizabeth, proves as unstable as any of the others; in her jealousy of Adonis she bribes the destinies to make beauty ‘subject to the tyranny / Of mad mischances and much misery’ (737-8). No more gods are mentioned. There is no overruling authority, no Jove or Nature to make up for the demotion of the lesser gods; and Shakespeare’s ‘tyranny / Of mad mischances’ has none of the compensatory ‘eternity in mutability’ Spenser placed at the heart of the garden of Adonis.10 In place of the dignified Olympian structure implied by the poem’s Latin motto, the mocking narrator presides over a text that disintegrates into an unruly brawl. And his interpolations keep drawing unnerving parallels between this brawl and conditions in his own culture; a culture that constructed an elaborate mythology of its own stability, which Shakespeare’s alternative mythology systematically demolishes.
Shakespeare’s poem has no context. Few characters apart from Venus and Adonis themselves are given names. The genealogy of the protagonists is never mentioned, and the land they find themselves in is nameless, in marked contrast to Spenser’s Faerie land, or Lodge’s Isis, or Marlowe’s Sestos.11 The struggles in the text take place in a topographical and historical vacuum, outside the orderly records of Elizabethan classicists and chroniclers. Venus and Adonis are dislocated, in fact, from all the verbal conventions that give a semblance of structure to Elizabethan affairs. Even their conversations are incoherent, not so much acts of communication as a kind of verbal autoeroticism, ornate variations on guttural moans. They never really talk to one another. The only form of speech Venus is really interested in is her own minute register of the changes that take place in Adonis’s body, as it responds to arousal, to embarrassment, to violence; and the narrator with his rhapsodies over Venus’s body shares her limited interests. Venus hardly listens to Adonis; she shuts him up with kisses (48) or with wordplay (‘Speak, fair, but speak fair words, or else be mute’ ). When he does manage to get a word in edgeways, she first waxes eloquent about the sound of his voice, then faints dead away as he opens his mouth to speak again. In the second half of the poem the language of Venus loses all pretence of conveying meaning, as she quibbles with echoes which respond like ‘shrill-tongu’d tapsters’ (849), or stops to talk with one of Adonis’s dogs which ‘replies with howling’ (918).
Running through this dissonant wilderness is a series of ‘speaking pictures’, the verbal evocations of the visual which Horace and Sidney identified as the poet’s chief source of persuasive power. Shakespeare’s recalcitrant speaking pictures rebel against the functions they performed in contemporary theory. At the centre of his narrative he sets a picture whose power is solely that of stressing its own uselessness: the trompe l’oeil painting of grapes, that at once arouses and frustrates the appetites of birds. Earlier in the poem, Venus accuses Adonis of being another such useless artefact, a ‘lifeless picture, cold and senseless stone, / Well-painted idol, image dull and dead’ (211-2). These two empty works of art mockingly enact the repressive uses poetry was put to in Elizabethan apologetics. The policing of sexual desire was one of these functions; Sidney’s exemplary speaking picture was a verbal portrait of Lucretia killing herself.12 Yet at the same time Sidney himself maintained that the advantage ‘speaking pictures’ had over other forms of discourse was that they stimulated emotions in their readers: whether appetite, like the painting of the grapes, or battle-lust, like the old song of Percy and Douglas in Sidney’s Apology, or sexual desire, like Venus’s statuesque Adonis. For the moralists, poetry was designed to regiment and frustrate the feelings it played on: to arouse emotion only to crush emotion.
In contrast to these useless and frustrating speaking pictures, Shakespeare intersperses his text with very different verbal paintings. The extended descriptions of Adonis’s horse (259-324), the boar (615-72) and the hare (673-708) all refuse to perform the functions the apologists would have demanded of them. The description of the horse comes just at the point when Venus’s eloquence has failed her: ‘Now which way shall she turn? what shall she say?’ (253). At this moment of creative crisis Adonis’s horse snaps its reins and so lends a new energy to Venus’s poetic improvisations. The narrator invites us to compare the animal to an equestrian painting, an idealized re-presentation that possesses all the points an artist would choose ‘when a painter would surpass the life / In limning out a well-proportion’d steed’ (289-90). But this is no conventional Renaissance painting, gracefully instructive; it is the picture of something out of control, a beast that defies its master, crushes its bit, and gallops off in mad pursuit of a mare. Unlike Sidney’s speaking pictures, it forms no part of any pedagogic or political agenda: and the ‘moral’ Venus derives from it stresses the horse’s exuberant resistance to the constraints of morality.13
The same is true of the boar. Commentators have repeatedly tried to read the boar as an allegory, whether of winter, of war, or of homosexual desire, but it resists moral or generic classifications. Venus recreates the boar verbally in order to scare Adonis from hunting it; but she succeeds only in scaring herself, with
The picture of an angry chafing boar,
Under whose sharp fangs on his back doth lie
An image like thyself, all stain’d with gore (662-4).
This vatic prediction is vouchsafed her, not by the Muses appealed to in the poem’s motto, but by fear and ‘dissentious jealousy’ (657), a form of imagination that cannot be trusted, since it ‘sometime true news, sometime false doth bring’ (658). And like Venus’s other speaking pictures, it has no effect on its audience whatever.
In fact, the deeper we plunge into the second half the more undisciplined and ineffectual Venus’s imagination becomes. Her inventiveness comes more and more to resemble the hapless cunning she ascribes to the hare, which designs a random ‘labyrinth’ in a vain attempt to elude its enemies. What Venus says of the hare is equally true of herself: ‘Danger deviseth shifts, wit waits on fear’ (690). The creative intelligence that Venus shares with the hare, the wit that ‘waits on fear’, has little in common with the semi-divine ‘erected wit’ that governs Sidney’s aristocratic poet.14 It is the wit of the poor, generating the same fantasies that inhabit the streets and taverns of Elizabethan London, as the similes in the text increasingly remind us. After Adonis has left her, Venus begins a conversation with Echo. The poet who converses with Echo was a favourite device used by courtly poets like Sidney; but Venus’s Echo is no courtier but a barman, who is well used to soothing the imaginative humours of ‘fantastic wits’ (850). Later, Venus’s fearful imaginings about Adonis’s fate are nothing nobler than a child’s nightmares – she describes them as ‘causeless fantasy, / And childish error’ (897-8). The predictions she makes when she sees Adonis’s hounds resemble the superstitious predictions made by ‘the world’s poor people’ when they see a comet (925-6). Venus started the poem as a strong-armed poet-queen rather like Puttenham’s Queen Elizabeth; but by mid-way through the second half she has lost all her mythical and cultural potency and become as helpless as the poorest of her subjects.
She herself stresses her own helplessness when she imaginatively evokes the ruler of this wilderness, as she approaches Adonis’s body. Where Spenser’s April eclogue concluded with a hymn to Eliza, the queen of the shepherds, safely inscribing the Shepheards Calender as a royalist tract, the highest authority in Shakespeare’s poem is a vague and menacing shadow, a force that has no identity at all: Death. Venus describes it twice over as she hurries towards Adonis’s corpse. At first, when she has convinced herself that the boy is dead, Death is a ‘Hard-favour’d tyrant’ who drinks the tears of his victims (931). Later, thinking Adonis might still be alive, she abruptly changes her tune; in an outburst of renewed hope and gratitude she ‘clepes him king of graves, and grave for kings, / Imperious supreme of all mortal things’ (995-6). Venus’s two contradictory versions of Death mimic the sycophantic carollings of court poets, whose celebrations of the sovereign waxed more lyrical as their hopes of preferment grew stronger. But like his treatments of the traditional royal emblems, the eagle, the sun, and Cynthia, Shakespeare’s treatment of the myth of monarchy itself has been drained of all glamour, all civility, reduced instead to the savagery of arbitrary power: a power that cannot create, only destroy.
In fact, Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis enacts a process which is the precise obverse of the civilizing influence ascribed to poetry in Puttenham’s myth of Orpheus. If Venus and the narrator are Shakespeare’s poets, their words and actions expose the barbarity that lurks beneath the elegant surface of Elizabethan court culture. And the poem’s commentator recognizes this fact. As Venus composes her seductive poetry, Adonis acts as her surly critic, a disgruntled version of Spenser’s E.K., who fails miserably to respond to the force of poetic discourse. He tells her that her fictions are hackneyed and unprofitable (‘this idle theme, this bootless chat’ ). He informs her, as Ascham or Gosson might have done, that her eroticism is unwholesome for adolescents (524-8)); tries to cut short her endless story-telling (716); and finally launches into an extended attack on her ideological stance, made up of phrases that might have been culled from the works of the ‘poet-haters’. Her discourse is the song of a mermaid or siren, which incites its hearers to lust rather than rational love; her poetry is made up of ‘forged lies’ (804) and offensive to chaste ears. However redundant Adonis’s distinction between lust and love may be, it incorporates one insight which the poem bears out: that Venus’s poetry represents just one more effort to gain power, and that her wit fails to hide the fact that she serves a ‘hot tyrant’ who is potentially as destructive as Death (797). From the beginning of the poem, Venus was at her most savage when she came closest to getting what she wanted:
Her face doth reek and smoke, her blood doth boil,
And careless lust stirs up a desperate courage,
Planting oblivion, beating reason back,
Forgetting shame’s pure blush and honour’s wrack (555-8).
Where Orpheus tamed the bestial hearts of wild men, Venus urges a return to bestial action; where Puttenham’s early poets planted the artificial memory of history, Venus plants ‘oblivion’.
Venus is no Orpheus; but then, neither is the frigid Adonis. Standing over his corpse, Venus finds herself quite incapable of giving an accurate account of his death; far less of his life, which is much less verifiable. Like distorted glasses, her tears make his wounds look twice as bad as they are; she therefore seeks to console herself by mythologizing his biography. As she narrates her own version of his history she transforms him into a voiceless Orpheus, taming wild animals wherever he went. ‘To see his face the lion walked along / Behind some hedge, because he would not fear him’, she croons (1093-4), and we might be inclined to believe her, if we didn’t remember her terror when she found he was hunting ‘the blunt boar, rough bear, or lion proud’ (884). In Shakespeare’s text, myth is no allegory of actual events but a falsification of history, a consoling lie designed to conceal the ‘black Chaos’ that underlies the veneer of historical order.
The implications of this go far beyond a critique of Elizabethan poetic theory. After all, Queen Elizabeth herself was to a great extent a construct of poetic mythmaking. It’s always tempting when confronted with a powerful queen in Elizabethan poetry to transform her into one of the many aspects of Elizabeth. The problem with Shakespeare’s Venus is that she seems to present the queen and sexual politics at court in such a darkly satirical light. Yet the more one looks at the poetry of the 1590s, with its blossoming of satire in verse and prose, the less unlikely such a reading looks. Two years before Shakespeare published his poem, the patriotic Spenser produced his most satirical collection of verse, the Complaints (1591). One of the poems in the collection, The Teares of the Muses, recounts a reversal of the civilizing process very like the descent into savagery enacted in Venus and Adonis. One after another the Muses complain that their verses have lost their potency and that the social structure is collapsing as a result. The one hope they have of reversing the process of degeneration is a queen called Pandora. Of course, officially speaking, the name Pandora as applied to Elizabeth could only invoke its most complimentary etymological derivation. But Spenser’s View of the Present State of Ireland shows that he knew the myth of Epimetheus very well, and was fully aware that Pandora did not bring civilization to early mankind, but ‘black Chaos’ (he doesn’t mention hope).15 Might he be insinuating that Elizabeth/Pandora is the cause of, as well as the potential solution to, the collapse of Elizabethan court culture?
By the 1590s, the rich poetic mythology that had been woven into Elizabethan culture, and which had looked so alluring at the time Spenser wrote the Shepheards Calender, seems to have begun to fray and fall apart. Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis wittily charts that disintegration. And it ends with an echo of the myth that had been most closely identified with the reign of Elizabeth: that of Astraea. The English queen was said to be the reincarnation of Astraea, dedicated to restoring the Golden Age on Earth.16 But Shakespeare’s poem ends like the beginning of Juvenal’s sixth satire, with a disappointed and bitter goddess – no longer the goddess of justice, nor even effectively the goddess of love – retiring in disgust from a wilderness in which she no longer has a place.
1 For Shakespeare’s use of the fable of Hermaphroditus, see the Arden Edition of The Poems, ed. F.T. Prince (London: Methuen, 1960), Introduction and Appendix I. All references to Venus and Adonis are taken from this edition. For allusions to the fable of Narcissus, see Prince, p. 12, l. 157-62, and pp. 47-8, l. 829-52.
2The Arte of English Poesie (London: Richard Field, 1589) fols. 3-4.
3 Puttenham, fol. 4.
4The Literary Remains of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Henry Nelson Coleridge (London: William Pickering, 1836), vol 2, p. 59.
5 ‘Her pleading hath deserv’d a better fee’. l. 609.
6 See Prince, p. 19, l. 295-8, fn.
7The Faerie Queene, ed. A.C. Hamilton (New York and London: Longman, 1977), III vi 29-50; ‘joyous Paradize’, III vi 29.
8Genesis, 2, 6.
9The Complete Poems and Translations, ed. Stephen Orgel (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971), p. 135, l. 35-6.
10 Spenser’s Adonis is said to be ‘eterne in mutabilitie’. III vi 47.
11 A bank of the river Isis is the setting for Lodge’s Glaucus and Scilla (1589); Sestos is the setting for Marlowe’s Hero and Leander (1598). Both poems can be found in Elizabethan Minor Epics, ed. Elizabeth Story Donno (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963).
12 See An Apology for Poetry, ed. Geoffrey Shepherd (London: Nelson, 1965), p. 102, l. 21-37.
13 ‘The sea hath bounds, but deep desire hath none;
Therefore no marvel though thy horse be gone.’ l. 389-90.
14 See Shepherd, p. 101, l. 14-24.
15 See A View of the Present State of Ireland, ed. W. L. Renwick (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), p. 2.
16 For an account of Elizabeth as Astraea and of Juvenal’s treatment of Astraea in his sixth satire, see Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters (Sussex: Harvester, 1983), Chapter 6.
[This post doesn’t focus on fantasy – though it gets there in the end. I’m putting it up in honour of Burns Night, 25 January; and in response to this recent piece in The Times, which may have slightly over-sensationalised what I’ve been saying about the relationship between Burns and Shakespeare. It’s more or less the paper I gave at the Two Bards Conference on 16 January, which brought the two national poets together in an atmosphere of friendly revelry and rivalry. We had a fantastic day, thanks to all concerned: especially Gerry Carruthers, David Hopes, and whoever was responsible for making it snow while we were standing on Brig o’ Doon.]
As everyone knows, Burns was a passionate lover – of the stage. When a new Theatre was built in Dumfries in the 1790s he gave its actor manager, George Sutherland, his full support, and commissioned his friend Alexander Nasmyth (the man who painted his portrait) to design some scenery. He also wrote prologues for play productions at Dumfries both before and after the theatre was built, and these contain a number of clues to his theatrical tastes. One of them, written for a New Year’s Eve performance in 1789-90, offers the young men and women in the audience sage advice in the person of Father Time, in unmistakable tribute to The Winter’s Tale. Another, written for Mrs Sutherland’s Benefit night in March 1790, gives us a tantalizing vision of a potential canon of Scottish plays to rival Shakespeare’s. ‘Why is outlandish stuff sae meikle courted?’ the prologue asks; there’s ample material for comedy, at least, in Scotland, since ‘A knave and fool are plants of every soil’. But Burns waxes especially eloquent on the theatrical possibilities of topics from Scottish history:
Is there no daring Bard will rise and tell
How glorious Wallace stood, how hapless fell?
Where are the Muses fled that could produce
A drama worthy o’ the name o’ Bruce? […]
O, for a Shakespeare, or an Otway scene
To paint the lovely, hapless Scottish Queen!
For a moment, there, the alluring possibility of a dramatic works of Robert Burns raises its head. Wallace, we know, was a subject he loved, and Mary Queen of Scots could hardly fail to appeal, dying as she did at the hands of a ‘rival woman […] As able – and as cruel – as the Devil’. But it’s hard to think of Burns as a tragic playwright; and another of his prologues, written for the comic actress Louisa Fontenelle (pictured right), dismisses tragic subjects out of hand. The poem depicts Fontenelle approaching a famous poet with a request for a prologue, only to be told that he will only write on serious subjects, and is afraid she will not be able to cope with them:
‘Ma’am, let me tell you,’ quoth my man of rhymes,
‘I know your bent – these are no laughing times:
Can you – but, Miss, I own I have my fears –
Dissolve in pause, and sentimental tears?’
Fontenelle at once rejects his services and ends the prologue by enjoining the audience to follow her example in preferring comedy to tears, sentimental or otherwise: ‘be merry, I advise; / And as we’re merry, may we still be wise!’. Merriment is Burns’s as well as Fontenelle’s forte, and if he’d turned his talents to the theatre it seems likely he would have excelled in comic rather than historical or tragic subjects.
But Shakespeare has shown us that history doesn’t need to be divorced from the comic, any more than tragedy does. The closing words of Fontenelle’s prologue invoke the comedy of Shakespeare’s that’s most closely associated with history, The Merry Wives of Windsor, which teaches that ‘Wives may be merry, and yet honest too’ (IV.ii). The star of the Merry Wives is, of course, Sir John Falstaff, Prince Hal’s unruly companion in the two parts of Henry IV; and Burns had written a prologue for an Edinburgh production of the comedy in 1787. The Merry Wives therefore has the distinction of being the only known Shakespeare play to have been performed in Burns’s lifetime with Burns’s verses attached to it. And it’s my contention that the play continued to resonate in the poet’s mind long after that Edinburgh performance. I’d like to suggest, in fact, that a memory of the Merry Wives lies behind Burns’s favourite poem, Tam o’ Shanter (1790), and helps to lend that poem some of its distinctively theatrical qualities.
If Burns loved the stage, he could also be described as a dramatic poet. His lyrics often resemble miniature plays, as any singer can tell you: in part because they so often involve direct address to a specific listener, or invoke specific actions (think of ‘Ae fond kiss’ or the joining of hands in Auld Lang Syne), or paint vividly realized characters – from Holy Willy to Burns himself. For my money, though, there are two of his works that show us most clearly what we lost when he died without writing anything but prologues for the stage. The first is his cantata, ‘Love and Liberty’ or ‘The Jolly Beggars’ (c. 1785); and the second is Tam o’ Shanter. The cantata has often been compared to John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, though there’s no hard evidence Burns knew it. It’s hard to believe he didn’t, however, since Gay’s work was probably the most successful play of the eighteenth century, and the one most calculated to appeal to Burns, both in subject matter and form. And as it happens, Louisa Fontenelle was famous for playing two roles in The Beggar’s Opera: Lucy, which she performed in Edinburgh in 1793, the year when Burns wrote his prologue for her; and Macheath himself in London a few years earlier, in a performance described by the Theatre Journal as ‘offensive to decency’.
‘Love and Liberty’, too, could be described as offensive to decency, with its serial lovers and sometimes explicit lyrics; but it seems to me that it has as much in common with Shakespeare as with Gay. Burns’s little company of homeless drinkers and singers meets in a tavern like the Boar’s Head in Shakespeare’s Cheapside, on a night that recalls the chill of winter invoked in one of Shakespeare’s most popular lyrics (compare ‘When lyart leaves bestrow the yird’ to ‘When icicles hang by the wall’, Love’s Labour’s Lost V.ii). The female innkeeper Poosie-Nansie takes on the role of the hostess of the Boar’s Head, Mistress Quickly, in Henry IV, and the company freely bandies about the ‘terms of chivalry and honour’, as Carol McGuirk has pointed out, despite their obvious contempt for law and sexual fidelity – very much like Falstaff’s gang of self-styled ‘minions of the moon’ (1 Henry IV, Act 1 scene 2). A maimed soldier celebrates the ‘gallant game’ of war and swears to ‘clatter on my stumps’ to serve his country in time of need. His mistress describes him as a ‘hero’, the latest and best in a succession of fighting men she has loved and let go; while her pickpocket friend sings of living ‘like lords and ladies gay’ with her dead lover, the ‘gallant, braw John Highlandman’ who was hanged for breaking the ‘Lalland laws’ despite his unimpeachable adherence to those of his clan. John’s widow is comforted by a pygmy fiddler, who praises her ‘heaven o’ charms’ and promises her a pastoral life of picking over old bones and sunning themselves on dry stane dykes. But his wooing is cut short by a swaggering tinker, who threatens to ‘speet him like a pliver’ with his ‘roosty rapier’ if he doesn’t give her up. The fiddler comforts himself for the loss of the widow by raking ‘fore and aft’ the lover of a penniless poet, a ‘bard of no regard’ who nevertheless sings of his willingness to give women ‘my dearest bluid, to do them guid’ whenever the inclination takes him. The cantata closes with the verses Burns liked best in the sequence, a praise of the vagabond life with a utopian chorus that dismisses the establishment as a bunch of money-grabbing self-servers:
A fig for those by law protected,
Liberty’s a glorious feast!
Courts for cowards were erected,
Churches built to please the priest.
‘Love and Liberty’, then, resembles an old-fashioned coronet or garland of verses in which the last line of one poem forms the first of the next. The resemblance is not so much in form as in content, one lover giving place to another in successive songs, just as one gives way to another in the singers’ makeshift beds. Undaunted by this culture of unfaithfulness, the singers praise promiscuity as equivalent to political liberty, and drink as a bottomless source of artistic inspiration. In doing so they recall the quasi-utopian evocation of Merry England in Justice Shallow’s orchard (Henry IV Part 2), where Falstaff regales his friends with promises of riches and influence when his friend Prince Hal succeeds to the throne. In the Land of Plenty that follows Hal’s coronation, he tells them, thieves will no longer be hanged and cowards no longer questioned when they praise their own valour; justice will be in the hands of the lawbreakers, and loyalty to one’s criminal friends will be rewarded, not punished as it was in John Highlandman. The notion of a company of drinkers, thieves and promiscuous lovers as an alternative court is evoked by the presence in Burns’s company of stock characters from chivalric romance: soldiers, musicians, poets, amorous couples. Falstaff too holds mock court, donning a crown in Henry IV Part 1 as he acts the part of Prince Hal’s father (Act 2 scene 4), and Burns’s company seems to echo Falstaff’s. I’ve already mentioned the Poosie-Nansie/Mistress Quickly connection. The tinker – who is also a deserter – recalls the swaggerer Ancient Pistol, while the maimed soldier tells us he displays his wounds, presumably for money, exactly as Pistol plans to do in Henry V. The hanged Highlandman evokes the hanging of Hal’s old friends Bardolph and Nym for pillage in the same play, while the various unfaithful lovers might make us think of Falstaff’s unkept promises of marriage to Mistress Quickly. The sentimental reminiscences of the pickpocket and the poet mimic Justice Shallow’s false recollections of his own youthful gallantry in Henry IV Part 2. Even the final chorus, which questions whether the ruling classes have any reason to think themselves more virtuous than Poosie-Nansie’s clients, reminds us that Falstaff’s plots to gain power and influence in Prince Hal’s England have a bloodier counterpart in the martial plots of the nobility during the civil wars of the fifteenth century. The presence of Hotspur, that hot-headed northern rebel, can be detected behind the fiery attitudes of the soldiers, tinkers and poets of Burns’s sequence, and one wonders whether Hotspur’s alliance with one of Shakespeare’s few Scottish characters besides Macbeth – ‘yon sprightly Scot of Scots, Douglas’ (Henry IV Part One, Act 2 Scene 4) – was one of the things that drew Burns’s attention to the Henry IV plays – especially given the local interest in the Douglas family in Dumfries and Galloway.
Burns’s song sequence ‘Love and Liberty’, then, pays homage to Shakespeare’s Henriad, the Second Tetralogy. That the poet was interested in these plays is confirmed by his poem ‘A Dream’ (1786), written one year later, in which he compares the pleasure-loving Prince of Wales to Prince Hal, who idled away his youth with ‘funny, queer Sir John’. And four years later he produced his own version of Sir John in Tam o’Shanter, whose adventures at Alloway Kirk bear no little resemblance to Falstaff’s only supernatural adventure, the Herne the Hunter episode in The Merry Wives.
The Merry Wives of Windsor is the only one of Shakespeare’s comedies to be set in England, and in a locality as specific as Burns’s Alloway. It features Falstaff and a number of his cronies from the history plays: Mistress Quickly, Pistol, Bardolph, Nym, Justice Shallow, Master Slender – and tells of Falstaff’s attempted seduction of two married women, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, in the hope of financial gain. The women, who have no interest in the fat knight, subject him to successive humiliations before he’s finally discouraged; and it’s the last of these humiliations that’s called to mind by Tam o’ Shanter.
I’ve described the Herne the Hunter episode as supernatural, but from the first we hear of it the tale’s supernatural dimension is clearly a sham. The incident is based on an ‘old tale’ told in Windsor Forest about the spirit or ghost of a hunter who haunts Herne’s oak in winter time, at midnight, wearing ‘great ragged horns’ like those of a stag; but only superstitious old folk tell this story ‘for a truth’, and intelligent people of the next generation don’t believe it (Act 4 Scene 4). Tam o’Shanter’s story, too, is full of food for scepticism. The product of long nights of hard drinking and a culture of extravagant tale-telling, the poem invites its readers to consider whether Tam’s encounter with the devil and a coven of witches might be a hallucination, engendered in Tam’s mind by a combination of booze, the dire warnings of his wife against late-night boozing, frustrated lust, and the dreadful fates of other legendary boozers. Burns’s poem pits what it calls ‘truth’ –that is, the tendency of topers to forget the ‘lang Scots miles’ that lie between the pub and their houses – against the ‘queerest stories’ of Tam’s friend Souter Johnnie, the ‘sage advices’ of Tam’s ‘sulky sullen dame’ against Tam’s own superstitious fear, as he sets off on the journey home, of the bogles, ‘ghaists and houlets’ who may lie in wait for him along the way. But unlike Shakespeare’s play, Tam o’Shanter finally vindicates the supernatural events it relates as another kind of ‘truth’ with a bit of hard evidence; evidence that identifies Burns’s poem, unlike Shakespeare’s play, as a work of Gothic, heroic and erotic fantasy, which frees itself in the end from the influence of its sources.
Like the incident in Alloway kirk, the Herne the Hunter episode in The Merry Wives springs out of a culture of tale-telling and fear of the supernatural; and in it, as in Tam o’Shanter, tales and superstition are woven in with the tensions and conflicts of married life. If the party pooper in Tam’s world is his wife Kate, in the Merry Wives it’s the jealous husband Master Ford, who’s convinced his wife is having an affair with that ‘gross fat man’ Sir John Falstaff. Ford’s jealousy turns him into a kind of devil, as he himself confesses: ‘Amaimon sounds well,’ he says when he first succumbs to it; ‘Lucifer, well; Barbason, well; yet they are devils’ additions, the names of fiends. But Cuckold! Wittol! Cuckold! The devil himself hath not such a name’ (Act 2 Scene 2). And his acquisition of a cuckold’s horns links him not only to the devils he lists here but to the would-be adulterer, Sir John. He calls the fat knight an ‘Epicurean rascal’, that is, a sub-standard stag not worth the hunting; and he assumes he must be in league with the ‘devil’ to have frustrated all Ford’s attempts to catch him red handed. The jealous husband grows more superstitious, in fact, as his suspicions grow. His first search for Falstaff in his house is prompted by a dream, he tells his wife (‘I have dreamed tonight’, Act 3 Scene 3); and when he encounters the fat knight disguised as ‘the fat woman of Brentford’, he assumes at once that the woman is a witch as well as a bawd or madam. ‘She works by charms, by spells’, he insists, to ply her double trade, and he beats her soundly to exorcise her ‘daub’ry’ or magic (Act 4 Scene 2). In Shakespeare’s play, imagining adultery spawns other imaginings, immersing the jealous man in a maelstrom of groundless fear and loathing.
So the final plot laid by the merry wives, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, against Sir John Falstaff involves plunging him into the supernatural element to which his own adulterous plots have subjected Master Ford. By convincing Falstaff to dress up as Herne the Hunter – his antlers giving substance to his association with stags and devils – the wives turn him into an image of what he would have made Ford has his plots to cuckold him succeeded; and by having the neighbourhood boys and girls dress up as fairies and the priest as a ‘Welsh devil’ (Act 5 Scene 3) they ensure that the whole community is involved in the magical performance that exposes his adulterous designs. The whole set-up, in fact, looks very like Tam’s encounter with the magic population of Alloway. It takes place at midnight; it’s presided over by an evil spirit; it involves music and dancing (‘twenty glow-worms shall our lantern be / To guide our measure round about the tree’, Act 5 Scene 5); it has a hunting theme (hunting horns accompany Falstaff’s humiliation, just as Tam becomes the quarry when the witches give chase); and in theory it involves the chastening of a notorious wrong-doer (Falstaff or Tam). More strikingly still, the leading lady in each case has the same name. Mistress Page’s daughter Nan plays the fairy queen in The Merry Wives, while the best of the dancers in Alloway kirk is Nannie, the ‘Cutty-sark’ who drives Tam to shout out and reveal his presence. Much play is made of this leading woman’s clothes in both texts – Nan must be dressed in white or green so that she can be identified, despite her fairy disguise, by one or other of her suitors, while Nannie is famously dressed in the scanty clothes made for her in childhood by her grandmother, which makes her stand out from the other dancers. And both Nan and Nannie have outgrown the control of their elders; Nan in that she elopes with a man of her own choosing instead of the suitors chosen for her by her respective parents; Nannie by virtue of her presence at the midnight coven.
The plot links between poem and play, then, are self-evident; but it’s the ambiguous ‘moral’ of each text that most strikingly links them. Tam o’Shanter poses as a kind of parable, enjoining men like Tam to heed their wives’ advice, and to think hard before over-indulging in drink or the contemplation of cutty sarks. But the narrator is clearly in sympathy with his boozy protagonist, ready to shed his own ‘breeks’ like a shot for ‘ae blink’ of a ‘winsome wench’ like Nannie. The epic similes Burns attaches to Tam’s exploits elevate the man from local soak to classical hero. And a similar double standard governs Shakespeare’s comedy. Falstaff’s persecution by fairies is conceived by the merry wives as punishment for his treading of ‘sacred paths […] in shape so profane’ (Act 5 Scene 5) – in other words, for his lechery and greed. At the same time the assault on Falstaff serves as cover for a second plot, whereby a disreputable courtier named Fenton takes advantage of the general confusion to elope with his girlfriend, Nan. The young couple fool Nan’s parents, Master and Mistress Page, by getting married without their consent, and the parents are forced accept the marriage with good grace, conscious that their own tricks have exposed them to this trickery, their punishment of Falstaff’s desires opened up a space for the desires of the next generation. Falstaff closes the action by pointing out with satisfaction that he has not been the only quarry pursued by hunters on this night of wonders: ‘When night-dogs run,’ he concludes, ‘all sorts of deer are chased’. Horns have been distributed all round – and horns, of course, are associated with hunting as well as with cuckoldry. In this play, as in Burns’s poem, moral probity does not mean restraining desire or forgoing liberty. And it’s for this reason, I suspect, that Burns found himself drawn to it.
But there was another reason, perhaps, why Burns might have been attracted to The Merry Wives. I said earlier that the supernatural elements in the final scene were ‘clearly a sham’; but I’m not sure they come across that way on stage. In old editions, the performers who play the fairies are named as characters we’ve encountered in the course of the comedy: old friends such as the parson Sir Hugh Evans, the braggart soldier Pistol, the schoolboy William Ford, and Mistress Quickly, the hostess of the Boar’s Head who can’t manage long words. Mistress Quickly is often identified as playing the role of the Queen of the Fairies in place of Nan, who is busy eloping with Master Fenton. But who could actually imagine Mistress Quickly managing that role without mangling it as thoroughly as the craftsmen mangle their roles in the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, which occurs at exactly the same point in that earlier fairy play of Shakespeare’s, A Midsummer Night’s Dream? But she doesn’t. Instead, she speaks unstumblingly some highly complex verses with the genuine fairy flavour, commanding her fairy minions to bless Windsor castle and ‘scour’ its ceremonial accoutrements ‘With juice of balm and every precious flower’. The speech would have reminded the play’s first audiences of the moment in that earlier fairy play when Oberon and Titania pronounce a blessing over the sleeping forms of Theseus, Hippolyta and the young lovers, in a speech that ritualistically erases the bitterness of the squabbles and confusions that preceded it. Like this speech, the song Mistress Quickly sings as the Fairy Queen could be taken as a riposte to the Elizabethan anti-theatrical lobby, who chastised the London players as inciters of lust and other kinds of sensual excess. This particular player, who takes the double role of a female spirit and the landlady of a pub, sings only of chastity (‘Foe on sinful fantasy! / Fie on lust and luxury!) – though she cannot prevent the young lovers from pursuing their fantasies, any more than Titania and Oberon could.
I said earlier, too, that ‘Tam o’Shanter’s story […] is full of food for skepticism’, since it occurs in an atmosphere of excessive drink and superstition. But the veracity of the poem is never questioned by its narrator, who seems to be besotted by Tam and his vision. And at the end of this mock epic, at the very point when the ‘moral’ is pointed up, we are reminded of the one extant piece of material proof that Tam’s experiences really took place. ‘Ilk man and mother’s son, take heed’, the narrator cries,
Whene’er to drink you are inclin’d,
Or cutty sarks run in your mind,
Think, ye may buy the joys o’er dear,
Remember Tam o’Shanter’s mare.
The reference is of course to the stump of poor Meg’s grey tail, which was seized by the vindictive Nannie as she galloped across the bridge and pulled off with such force that the horse was left with ‘scarce a stump’. The narrator turns the tailless horse into an eerie warning against self-indulgence; but her taillessness is also something else: a sure sign (within the world of the poem) that Tam’s vision was true, a vindication of the facts of his heroic escape, scot free, from a voyeuristic brush with the devil and his voluptuous accomplices. If we are to remember Tam o’Shanter’s mare it need not be as a deterrent from similar feats but an incitement to them: if Tam could take his pleasure as he did and get away with it so lightly, why not me? Shakespeare’s unexpectedly convincing fairies in The Merry Wives say something more didactic; but their celebration of chastity can also be read, like Tam o’Shanter, as a vindication of the world of sensual delight and imaginative exuberance – in this case, the world of the theatre. And the transformation of the drunken doyens of the Boar’s Head in Cheapside into a fairy ballet de corps could well have sparked off Burns’s poetic act of defiance against the puritanism of his own very different time and place.
 For the ‘terms of chivalry and honour’ see Carol McGuirk (ed.), Robert Burns: Selected Poems (London: Penguin Books, 1993), p. 221. On this page, too McGuirk says Burns had probably never read The Beggar’s Opera, but his friendship with Fontenelle makes it likely he was familiar with it one way or another.
 The most famous example of this form is Donne’s devotional sonnet sequence ‘La Corona’.
 For more on A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a response to the Elizabethan anti-theatrical prejudice, see my essay ‘Dreams, Freedom of Speech, and the Demonic Affiliations of Robin Goodfellow’, Journal of the Northern Renaissance, Issue 1.1 (March 2009), pp. 129-44. It can be found here.