David Jones, In Parenthesis (1937): ‘a kind of space between’

Mervyn Peake, David Jones (1939)

I’ve been reading David Jones’s In Parenthesis lately, a book often referred to as a poem (though it’s largely in prose) written by a brilliant artist who illustrated Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner in 1929. I’m reading it as part of a project on Mervyn Peake, because Peake drew Jones’s portrait in January 1939, two years after In Parenthesis was published. I presume the portrait was commissioned by The London Mercury in response to the impact the book was having in literary circles. Prominent writers had praised Jones’s epic prose poem in fulsome terms, including W H Auden (whose portrait Peake also drew in the late 30s), Graham Greene (who selected Titus Groan for publication by Eyre and Spottiswoode), and Herbert Read, the theorist of surrealism and a veteran of the Great War like Jones himself, whose work Peake must have known well as a professional artist and teacher. I can hardly imagine, then, that Peake did not read Jones’s Anglo-Welsh prose epic. He was fascinated by poetry, by book illustration – he too illustrated The Ancient Mariner in 1943 – and by Welshness, thanks to his Welsh mother and his friendship with Dylan Thomas; and like everyone else in 1939, he lived in the shadow of war. He was later in the habit of reading books he illustrated with close attention; I don’t know if this practice extended to the books of men and women whose portraits he drew, but this seems likely. Of course it’s not fair to look at Jones’s work merely through the lens of my interest in Peake, but it seems to me that In Parenthesis has much to tell us about how the Great War helped shape the emergence of fantasy as an artistic mode or practice between the wars. Jones forms, then, part of the picture that includes Tolkien’s emerging The Lord of the Rings, Peake’s development as a fantasy writer as well as an artist, and a number of important fantasy texts I’ll be looking at in future blog posts. Reading In Parenthesis in relation to fantasy, then, may be worthwhile, and that’s what I want to try briefly here.

As I said, the book is often described as a poem, despite the fact that it’s written in prose. This may partly be because of T S Eliot’s championing of it, and because of Jones’s regular references to Eliot and other poets in his preface and throughout the text; but it’s mainly an acknowledgement of Jones’s scrupulous attention to the verbal medium he uses – its rhythms, its sounds, its punctuation, its layout on the page. It tells the story of eight months in the Great War, from December 1915 to July 1916 – a journey from the training of new recruits in the British army to their first major engagement, the attack on Mametz Wood in which Jones was injured. This chronology takes us from Christmastide to High Summer, from relative innocence to hard-won experience, from the largely familiar to the deeply strange, from the nature-oriented past to the mechanized future. It’s told in a kind of verbal collage made up of dialogue in English and Welsh, technical military language including numerous acronyms, painterly descriptive passages, quotations from literature and snatches of song. The dialogue brings together numerous dialects used by different classes in various localities – most often in London and Wales. The narrative is divided into seven parts, each of which has its own pace, rhythm and stylistic techniques, which have been selected to match the subject matter: training and travel, marching, arriving at the front by night, contemplating no-man’s land, the routine of army life, the eve of battle, the battle itself. By the end of the book a transformation has taken place – multiple transformations, in fact, which are too complex to summarize briefly, but which echo the fantastic metamorphoses and ungainly fusions that took place in fiction, art and poetry after the war.

David Jones, Frontispiece to In Parenthesis

The text’s point of view is mainly that of a private called John Ball. Ball is named for the leader of the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, who also appears in one of William Morris’s first socialist fictions, The Dream of John Ball (1888), where he embodies the brand of neo-medieval socialism Morris sought to articulate and promote. There is a link here to fantasy as well as politics, since Morris famously wrote a series of neo-medieval romances in the 1890s which strongly influenced Tolkien. Morris’s romances were widely read in the trenches, especially The Well at the World’s End (1896), with its deft mimicry of the prose of Thomas Malory and its vision of a largely egalitarian, meticulously reinvented Middle Ages. Jones had another reason, though, for admiring Morris. The Victorian designer-poet’s theories about the dignity of craftsmanship as embodied in medieval craftsmen’s guilds, and the importance of substituting these for the alienated labour of industrialism, strongly influenced Jones’s mentor the sculptor and designer Eric Gill, founder of the Catholic Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic, to which Jones belonged. It’s no surprise, then, if the point of view in the book is more collective than specific. The personal pronouns throughout the book are always changing their referent, so that ‘he’, for instance, can refer at different times to Private Ball, the German enemy, the sun (p. 59), or one of Ball’s comrades or superiors, while ‘she’ can mean a specific woman, or the moon (p. 27), or a ship’s figurehead (p. 51), or Ball’s rifle, or the spiritual embodiment of the wood where the final battle takes place. ‘They’ can be members of other units, distinguished from yours by the supposed cushiness of their living standards (p. 47); or else you and your comrades as you discover the alienness of your bodies after a poor night’s sleep (p. 63). The second person, ‘you’, meanwhile, gets used everywhere, drawing the reader into the narrative by weirdly investing her or him with the status of honorary veteran of a war they didn’t experience.

The most important feature of the book, however – at least from the point of view of understanding its relationship to fantasy – is its title. For Jones, the Great War took place as it were between brackets, separated by imaginary punctuation marks from every other experience he or anyone else involved had undergone. ‘This writing’, he tells us in the Preface,

is called “In Parenthesis” because I have written it in a kind of space between – I don’t know between quite what – but as you turn aside to do something; and because for us amateur soldiers […] the war itself was a parenthesis – how glad we thought we were to step outside its brackets at the end of ’18 – and also because our curious type of existence here is altogether in parenthesis. (p. xv)

The final part of this paragraph seems to extend the wartime experience to the whole of human life (‘our curious type of existence here’); but the text itself marks out the difference of wartime existence from other kinds in a number of ways. The process of reading it is much like entering an invented world of the kind Tolkien started to construct in the trenches; the language, in particular, is distinctive, punctuated by technical military terms which make it necessary for Jones to provide the ignorant reader with detailed notes, and the strangeness of war is constantly being associated with the impossible events and mythic resonances that have come to characterize the genre or mode now known as fantasy. And in the bracketed ‘space between’ that is the war, or the part of the war Jones chose as his subject, many more bracketed spaces occur: turnings aside, as the Preface puts it, ‘to do something’ distinctly different from the monotonous routines of army life. Each of these parentheses has its particular atmosphere and organization, so that it resembles what John Clute has called a ‘polder’ in fantasy fiction: a place where the rules are either subtly or radically different from the ones that govern the world in which the overall narrative takes place.

David Jones, The Mariners, from The Ancient Mariner

Jones prepares us in the Preface for the fantastic nature of what occurs between his book’s pages. ‘I think the day by day in the Waste Land,’ he writes, ‘the sudden violences and the long stillnesses, the sharp contours and unformed voids of that mysterious existence, profoundly affected the imaginations of those who suffered it’ (p. x). He adds, with wonderful unexpectedness: ‘It was a place of enchantment’. Before heading over to France, he tells us, ‘The air was full of rumour, fantastic and credible’ (p. 14), so that the impossible is already starting to be accepted by soldiers as the binding condition of their future lives. Rumour here is the preliminary ritual that sets aside the charm or spell or invocation from ordinary transactions, like the resounding hand-claps that alert the Japanese gods to the prayers of the faithful. Later, as the soldiers disembark from their trucks not far from the front, they receive ‘in their nostrils an awareness and at all their sense-centres a perceiving of strange new things’ (p. 18): a sentence that makes wonderfully concrete the bodily process of encountering and absorbing strangeness. The landscape they find themselves in is a matter of wonder – sometimes, Private Ball discovers, because of its very ordinariness, its stubborn persistence in being at once quotidian and the theatre of unprecedented atrocities.[1] One of the things that make it strange is the shifting light- and sound-patterns caused by natural or man-made weather, which is always rendering the everyday transcendent. Ball ‘marveled’, we learn early on, ‘at these foreign clouds’ (p. 20); and later he witnesses a sunrise like a revelation, the emergence of something divine from behind the cloud-cover: ‘Behind them, beyond the brumous piling the last stars paled and twinkled fitfully, then faded altogether; this beautiful one, his cloud garments dyed, ruddy-flecked, fleecy stoled; the bright healer, climbing certainly the exact degrees to his meridian’ (p. 62). In the bizarre nocturnal of Part 3, lit by flares and gunfire – where the language of the narrative shifts abruptly towards radical modernistic fusions of disparate idea and sound and image, in its efforts to invoke the state of being half-asleep while striving to stay alert and watchful while on sentry duty – the transition to fantasy is made explicit: ‘his mess-mates sleeping like long-barrow sleepers, their dark arms at reach. Spell-sleepers, thrown about anyhow under the night. And this one’s bright brow turned against your boot leather, tranquil as a fer sidhe sleeper, under fairy tumuli, fair as Mac Og sleeping’ (p. 51). The soldiers here resemble the legendary sleepers under mounds – King Arthur and his knights, the Seven Sleepers and the rest – in that they are both fully armed and unconscious, buried alive, so to speak, in roughly-executed trenches, precariously suspended between life and death, their very capacity to sleep under such circumstances a miracle, sure proof of enchantment. At the end of the book, the dead remain for ever in this fairy state, having been invested as ‘secret princes under the trees’ by the mysterious Queen of the Woods, who chooses ‘twelve gentle-men’ from among them to ‘reign with her for a thousand years’ (p. 185). The implication is that the strangeness of the ‘Waste Land’ of war has in some sense persisted beyond its temporal boundaries, enacting the ‘ever after’ of conventional fairy stories through the continuing presence of the twelve chosen sleepers in the mind of the man who saw them, thanks to the alchemy of memory. His memories of the dead, however, are framed in the language of fantastic narratives: dream reportage, folk tales, neo-medieval romances, bedtime stories. Fantasy is what makes it possible to recall them without self-damage, and what lends their casual slaughter point and purpose, giving their abruptly terminated narratives shape. The fantastic references throughout In Parenthesis alert the reader to the fact that the narrative is not a memoir, but a means of making memory bearable, in the sense of being transferrable to new, better contexts where the horror of war can be transmuted into art.

David Jones, page from the manuscript of In Parenthesis

As I’ve already implied, the resemblance of the parenthetical ‘space between’ of war to the secondary world of high fantasy is partly achieved by the cultural difference of army life in wartime from the lives of ordinary citizens, whatever their trade. This cultural difference imposes a clear distinction between readers of the book who were there at the front with Jones and those who were not. The distinction is emphasized, as I suggested, by the necessity for notes. Old soldiers will not need them, at least not the notes explaining army terminology. In the same way, Welshmen won’t need the translations from Welsh, nor Londoners the interpretations of cockney rhyming slang – at least, they won’t need these if they belong to the working classes, or have lived and fought alongside them, as Jones did. This bracketing-off of the veterans, in particular the set of veterans Jones fought with – as well as of the different kinds and phases of veteranship (Jones informs us that some of the terms he uses in the book belong to specific phases in the War, falling into and out of use as the conflict wore on) – may be what’s being referred to in the final sentence: ‘the man who does not know this has not understood anything’ (p. 187). Non-combatants or even combatants who never saw the Somme cannot hope to share the weird knowledge Jones has to impart, and the strangeness of Jones’s patchwork style is designed to emphasize the impossibility of a stranger’s ever achieving comprehension.

David Jones, sleeping soldier (1915)

At the same time, Private Ball himself is quickly initiated into the alien culture of the front after first encountering it as an outsider. Arriving at the trenches he discovers a distinctive ‘folk-life’ embedded there, ‘a people, a culture already developed, already venerable and rooted’, and it’s only with time that he gets initiated as a full member of this order or community: ‘And you too are assimilated, you too are of this people – there will be an indelible characterization – you’ll tip-toe when they name the place’ (p. 49). The sentence emphasizes the exclusiveness of membership of this war-torn people, but its use of the second person also ensures that Ball’s own initiation is shared by the reader. This is not, then, an elitist text, despite its moments of obscurity and its use of unfamiliar cultural references – such as the early medieval Brittonic poem Y Gododdin, quotations from which open each of the seven sections, alongside the much better-known text Morte Darthur by the fifteenth-century soldier Sir Thomas Malory, which crops up everywhere. Jones laments, for instance, the fact that convention forbids him from using swearwords in the text, about which he says in the Preface: ‘The very repetition of them made them seem liturgical, certainly deprived them of malice, and occasionally when skillfully disposed, and used according to established but flexible tradition, gave a kind of significance, and even at moments a dignity, to our speech’ (p. xii). The demotic is elevated to liturgy by the stresses and strains of war, rendering socially ostracized discourse as precious as the language of the training ground, the law court or the parlour.

David Jones, Periscope

The democratic aspect of conflict is intensified by Jones’s acute awareness that every soldier at the front, whatever his background, is unique and therefore valuable in light of the particular cultural referents he contains, as it were in brackets, within his body. No one soldier is more unique and hence significant than anyone else, as the slippery pronouns demonstrate, and this radical egalitarianism cannot help but impose itself on Jones’s readers – re-acculturating us as we read until by the end we are forced to inhabit an egalitarian space, no matter what space we came from at the beginning. The rich specificity of each individual’s assemblage of experiences, cultures and histories is brought out with greatest force at the point of death, when the casual demolition of people we have come to know well in the course of the narrative – such as the young lieutenant Mr Jenkins, sinking to the ground with his revolver swinging from its pendulum like ‘the clock run down’ (p. 166), or Private Wastebottom, who is killed waiting in the trenches for the last assault, yet ‘maintained correct alignment with the others, face down, and you could never have guessed’ (p. 158) – is set alongside the deaths of anonymous soldiers whose lives are briefly lit up, so to speak, by the names of the places and people that helped to make them: such as the German killed by Private Ball in the wood, who in dying ‘calls for Elsa, for Manuela / for the parish priest of Burkersdorf in Saxe Altenburg’ (p. 169). Conversely, one Welsh soldier’s death links him to the deaths of all soldiers everywhere, thanks to his being the namesake of the poet Aneirin who wrote Y Gododdin, the poem that provides In Parenthesis with its epigrams:

No one to care there for Aneirin Lewis spilled there
who worshipped his ancestors like a Chink
who sleeps in Arthur’s lap
who saw Olwen-trefoils some moonlighted night
on precarious slats at Festurbet,
on narrow foothold on le Plantin marsh –
more shaved he is to the bare bone than
Yspaddadan Penkawr.
Properly organized chemists can let make more riving power than ever Twrch Trwyth;
more blistered he is than painted Troy Towers
and unwholer, limb from limb, than any of them fallen at Catraeth
or on the seaboard-down, by Salisbury,
and no maker to contrive his funerary song. (p. 155)

Here Aneirin’s personality or personhood – most marked earlier in the narrative by his propensity for singing constantly under his breath, as if transforming the experiences we are reading into song – gets mixed in with those of earlier poetic memorialists of warfare. These include Shakespeare (in the reference to Arthur’s lap, mentioned as Falstaff’s final resting-place in Henry V); the writer of the Culhwch and Olwen section of the medieval Welsh anthology the Mabinogion; the Arthurian storytellers and poets from Nennius to Chrétien de Troyes; the many poets and dramatists who have written about Troy; and the fifteenth-century soldier-storyteller Malory, whose style is echoed in the phrase ‘let make’ and whose story of Arthur’s final battle on Salisbury Plain is referred to in the penultimate line. At the same time, Aneirin is elevated above and separated from these distinguished predecessors by the excessive destructiveness of his demolition. He is more ‘shaved […] to the bare bone’, more ‘blistered’ and rent ‘limb from limb’ then any soldier on the battlefield of Catraeth, where the tragic action of Y Gododdin takes place. Unlike his predecessors, too, after this horrible unmaking he has no poetic ‘maker to contrive his funerary song’ – he is not remade, so to speak, in verbal form. Not, at least, until Jones started writing; and the success of Jones’s exercise in commemoration depends on the reader’s participation in it, their willingness to subject themselves to the dreadful account of Aneirin’s dismemberment, to understand both where it connects with and where it is bracketed off from the past dismemberments Jones lists in this passage. The reader’s importance is acknowledged in the final broken paragraph of the book, from which I quoted earlier: ‘The geste says this and the man who was in the field… and who wrote the book… the man who does not know this has not understood anything’. Understanding is associated with the man who ‘wrote the book’, which makes the book we have just read a means of connecting us with the material reality of the ‘field’, through a combination of the act of writing, the act of reading, and the act of imagining – all of which take courage. Aneirin’s remaking is achieved through Jones’s connection of the field of the Somme with the field of Catraeth, which most of his readers will not have heard of before that too was remade, so to speak, in the epigrams and notes to In Parenthesis. Making Aneirin anew is possible, then, despite the radical dissimilarity of his death from those in the texts alluded to – the tales of Troy and Catraeth and Arthur – and despite the unfamiliarity of most readers with the time and place where it took place.

The most moving moment in the passage occurs when Jones conjures up an intimate detail of Aneirin’s life at the front line: the time when the soldier noticed a certain species of flower, a trefoil, despite his own precarious perch on moonlit slats in a trench under enemy observation. The flower had for Aneirin an association with a story from his homeland, that of Culhwch and Olwen in the Mabinogion: it is ‘Olwen-trefoil’ (my emphasis). So this perception on the part of Aneirin brings life, so to speak – imparts urgency and vividness – to a tiny fragment of Welsh culture; and this process of bringing a fragment of culture to life would have been lost to the world if Jones had not recorded it. The association between a fragile, easily-missed blossom and personal and cultural memory recalls the opening tale in Lord Dunsany’s story 1918 collection Tales of War, in which soldiers from a small Kentish village called Daleswood – all the grown men left in the community apart from the very old – expecting to be wiped out at any moment, seek some way to record what matters to them most about their village. They seek not to register their own names or the grand historical events they and their ancestors have taken part in, but the tiny everyday details which are crucial, in their opinion, to the place’s identity, and which will be lost for ever if none of them survive (the women of the village, they claim, have different priorities from the menfolk, and would choose to remember different things). But the men cannot agree on what those crucial details are; whether the foxgloves in the wood at the end of summer, or the time of year when they cut the hay with scythes, or the ‘valleys beyond the wood and the twilight on them’, or the ‘old village, with queer chimneys, of red brick, in the wood’. In the end they record on a lump of chalk only the sentiment: ‘Please, God, remember Daleswood just like it used to be’. As it transpires, the men survive; but the question of commemoration – of what’s worth preserving about a culture, a place, a person – remains; and the men’s sense that they lack the verbal means to perform the commemorative act, or even a consensus on what should be mentioned in their memorial, lingers on in the reader’s mind long after the story is finished and the men from the village are unexpectedly spared. The death of Aneirin is of course a tougher proposition. Salvaging the details of his death from Jones’s memory, with other wartime matters, was achieved at the expense of a nervous breakdown on the writer’s part, and the details Jones gives us about him are no more than fragments of the man who died. But they form part of a larger structure of great beauty, while being parenthetically bracketed off from the rest of the book by their specific application to a single soldier, now gone for ever. If it does not succeed in memorializing Aneirin adequately, the passage makes quite clear what has been lost by this inability to memorialize – just as Dunsany’s story makes quite clear what would have been lost if the men of Daleswood had died without being able to pass on their small observations of the village to their children and grandchildren.

The parentheses of Jones’s book, in other words, do not segregate his text from the understanding of its ‘lay’ readers – though that understanding will include, for most of them, the awareness that there is a clear distinction between the man ‘who was in the field’ and the man or woman who was not. Parentheses, in fact, are for Jones the condition we all inhabit, not just soldiers: ‘our curious type of existence here is altogether in parenthesis’. Our lives are parenthetically bound in by non-life, before birth and after death, and war serves only to stress their parenthetical nature by means of its difference. The most startling example of a wartime parenthesis – the kind that accentuates parentheses of other kinds – comes in Part Seven, when the enemy artillery gets increasingly accurate in its aim at the British troops waiting in the trenches. As Private Ball stands motionless, listening and waiting, he observes – using one of those flexible pronouns that turn up everywhere, in this case denoting the enemy by way of the third person singular – how ‘He’s getting it more accurately and each salvo brackets more narrowly and a couple right in, just as “D” and “C” are forming for the second wave’ (p. 157). These are the salvos that annihilate Privates Wastebottom and Talacryn, in very different and individual ways: ‘Talacryn doesn’t take it like Wastebottom, he leaps up & says he’s dead, a-slither down the pale face – his limbs a-girandole at the bottom of the nullah [i.e. ravine or trench]’ (p. 158). Sandwiched between these murderous brackets, Private Ball finds the parenthesis of his life reduced to the fewer and fewer inexorable seconds before he finds himself within range of an enemy salvo; and his awareness of this extends his sense of time to encompass whole epochs: ‘Last minute drums its taut millennium out […] and seconds now our measuring-rods with no Duke Josue nor conniving God / to stay the Divisional Synchronization’ (p. 159). By the time he gets the command to go over the top, every second is a parenthesis packed full of stark terror, impotent denial of his own mortality, and a sense of the infinite preciousness of the tiniest temporal fraction of a man’s existence.

David Jones, rats shot in the trenches

The murderous bracketing of D and C companies by the double salvo can in turn be understood as an open parenthesis before the assault, for which the closing parenthesis for many will be death by violence. But this is just one of many temporal parentheses in the book. There is the opening bracket of the departure from England after training, bracketed at the other end of the war by the capitalized Big Ship that will ferry survivors home (p. 104). There is the parenthetical space of the night described in Part 3, with its own distinctive rules and visions and language; the night is bracketed by those wonderful passages in which Jones describes the slow departure of light and its equally slow return. There’s the parenthetical space of waiting between brief periods of action, the ‘King Pellam’s Laund’, No-Man’s Land or Wasteland of Part 4 – a location which is physically parenthetical, or unlike any other, in that it is stranded between the elements of earth and water (p. 88) and requires constant labour on the soldiers’ part to maintain its identity as solid land. The life led in this location by combatants on both sides aligns them with that parenthetical animal, the ‘rat of no-man’s land’ (p. 67); a parasite that exists in the interstitial spaces between the mapped regions inhabited by ‘real’ people and ‘real’ animals such as horses and mules. There’s the parenthetical space of Private Ball’s period of rest at the start of Part 6, in which he ties his own groundsheet to those of two comrades for extra comfort; a period that ends when one of the three is ordered away to act as a runner. This leads to the symbolic disengagement of the three groundsheets from one another, an act that gains significance from the friends’ awareness that their separation may well prove permanent: ‘such breakings-away and dissolving of comradeship and token of division are cause of great anguish when men sense how they stand so perilous and transitory in the world’ (p. 137). Private Ball’s meeting later that day with another two friends from different regiments takes place in a parenthesis which is grammatically as well as geographically distinct from their everyday lives: ‘These three seldom met except for very brief periods out of the line – at Brigade rest perhaps – or if some accident of billeting threw them near together. These three loved each other, but the routine of their lives made the chances of foregathering rare’ (p. 139). The final foregathering of the three is bracketed by intimations of mortality: the hammering of carpenters as they work to build coffins ahead of the assault (‘He wished they’d stop that hollow tap-tapping’, p. 139, my emphasis) and the parting shot of one of the friends: ‘don’t get nabbed tapping the Gen’ral’s wire – I’d hate to see you shot at dawn’ (p. 143, my emphasis). Each parenthesis, in other words, is a miniature reflection of the great parenthesis which is an individual lifetime, here all too often curtailed by the cold machinery of war.

David Jones, Christ mocked by soldiers

The military body itself in the book is a kind of parenthetical enclosure, clearly distinguished by virtue of its discomfort – and the forms of violence visited on it – from civilian bodies, as well as from its contents, the thoughts and feelings that make up personhood (‘feet following file friends, each his own thought-maze treading’, p. 37). At each stage of its army existence the body is defined as mechanism, the mind as something sensitive, soft and alien to the machine that encloses it, and Jones repeatedly invokes this awkward disparity between the component elements of a soldier’s self. As Private Ball marches, ‘his loaded body moved forward unchoosingly as part of a mechanism’ (p. 19), while his mind roams in other directions. As he wakes up each morning with other members of his platoon, ‘delicate mechanisms of nerve and sinew, grapple afresh, deal for another day’ (p. 61). As stress sets in before the final battle, the machine falters: ‘the sensibility of these instruments to register, / fails; / needle dithers disorientate. / The responsive mercury plays laggard to such fevers – you simply can’t take any more in’ (p. 156). Then at the point of death the machine runs down and comes to a stop: Mr Jenkins sags to the ground like ‘the clock run down’ (p. 166); Private Talacryn’s ‘mechanism slackens, unfed’ (p. 158); their respective recollections, desires and sense impressions are lost irretrievably as their specific functions in the engine of war come to an end. In the last pages of the book, the body becomes increasingly fragmented: Private Lewis loses his limbs, Private Morgan his head (which ‘grins like the Cheshire cat / and full grimly’, p. 180), and Private Ball the use of his legs in a kind of industrial cataclysm, ‘as if a rigid beam of great weight flailed about his calves, caught from behind by ballista-baulk let fly or aft-beam slewed to clout gunnel-walker’ (p. 183). After the war, we’re told, injured men will learn to live without limbs and organs they once thought essential: ‘Give them glass eyes to see / and synthetic spare parts to walk in the Triumphs, without anyone feeling awkward’ (p. 176). The final scene finds us in a wood full of corpses, recumbent in a tree-made crypt where the body is finally liberated from the state of mechanization. The German dead – tall ‘strangers’ in ‘field-grey’ – resemble stone statues rather than broken engines:

Aisle-ways bunged-up between these columns rising,
these long strangers, under this vaulting stare upward,
for recumbent princes of his people.
Stone lords coiffed
long-skirted field-grey to straight fold
for a coat-armour
and for a cere-cloth, for men of renown:
Hardrada-corpse for Froggy sepulture. (p. 182)

The Welsh dead, by contrast, recall discarded clothing, their bodies reduced by war-damage to the condition of prehistoric bog-people or the occupants of Neolithic burial chambers:

And here and there and huddled over, death-halsed to these, a Picton-five-feet-four paragon for the Line, from Newcastle Emlyn or Talgarth in Brycheiniog, lying disordered like discarded garments or crumpled chin to shin-bone like a Lambourne find. (p. 182)[2]

Deprived of their mechanical rigidity, these resting bodies – some broken, some intact – remain as anonymous as memorials in churches or archaeological discoveries. But as the wounded Private Ball crawls through the wood where they lie he imagines a dryad figure ritually reaping their minds and memories as she selects from among the corpses heroes worthy to ‘reign with her for a thousand years’; and Jones’s own recording of this ritual reanimates the dead men by name and personality as a stone tomb or burial chamber never could.

Mervyn Peake, The Ancient Mariner

If the body is a parenthetical ‘space between’, so too is what might be called the War Time into which Jones plunges as he leaves the training ground and travels to France. He tells us in the Preface, ‘I suppose at no time did one so much live with a consciousness of the past, the very remote, and the more immediate and trivial past’ (p. xi); and this fascinating fusion of the remote past of communities and the trivial past of the individual sets the place of war apart from other places in terms of the way it measures time. Time is distorted by the actions of war. Sentry duty distends it, rendering the phosphorescent dial of the soldier’s watch spookily inadequate to the task of marking its passage. The moments before the assault make the soldier yearn to stop time altogether, or somehow to evade the specific period in which the assault will take place, set it apart from himself in a parenthesis where only other soldiers die (p. 158). Transitions from day to night and from night to day are often used to mark the passage of time when clocks or watches are unavailable, but In Parenthesis is filled with twilight moments when day and night are in contention with each other, and where space too seems to collapse:

With the coming dark, ground-mist creeps back to regain the hollow places; across the rare atmosphere you could hear the foreign men cough, and stamp with foreign feet. Things seen precisely just now lost exactness […] Your eyes begin to strain after escaping definitions. (p. 98)

The past, too, ceases to be distinguishable from the present, because the soldier inhabits a continuous War Time which (as the Preface pointed out) seems to exist as a dark undercurrent that is always present behind or alongside the organized timetable of Peace. This is why Jones keeps straying into the language of the war poets, Aneirin, Malory, Shakespeare, the Chanson de Roland; their literary representations of war are always occurring to Private Ball as accurate statements about the strange world he has entered, despite the major changes that have taken place between their times and his own. History is erased or rendered null by War Time because no one has learned from it; men are still marching out to die as they did in Y Gododdin, in which case what is the point of differentiating 600 AD from 1916? The erasure of history is another of the many equalizing processes at work in Jones’s text. Any man in the army can take part in it, from Private Dai Greatcoat – who delivers himself of a long formal boast that links himself to an endless line of fighters stretching back to Cain and the Trojan War (pp. 79-84) – to Private Donkin, whose personal history has brought him to France in a mission to avenge the atrocity whereby four of his brothers died at the front the year before (pp. 144-5); revenge being a process of balancing the books that effectively wipes the action you are avenging from the records, rendering it null and void. Outside War Time, killing is forbidden, or at least killing for personal reasons such as revenge. In War Time, every soldier finds himself exempt from such restrictions, encouraged to do things that would have got him imprisoned or hanged before he joined up – and which may still get him killed, imprisoned or maimed, as Private Donkin’s story shows. The clock of his life, in other words, has undergone an extraordinary metamorphosis. Long before it winds down and stops, it has entered a ‘space between’ and given itself over to Salvador-Dali-style dissolution, as inadequate for the purpose of measuring the distance between one moment and the next as the luminous watch-dial of a bored or frightened sentry.

David Jones, Capel-y-ffin

The final parenthesis in the book incorporates all the others, and seals the link between Jones’s record of wartime and the other great literary records of wars gone by. It’s the parenthesis of the Wood which is the objective of the assault in Part 7, and which becomes the paradigm of woods and forests everywhere in literature, the ‘spaces between’ where adventures take place, magic lurks, and supernatural people and creatures live and move and have their being. Private Ball identifies the Wood as a place apart as early as Part 4, where he contemplates it from a distance while on sentry-duty, observing: ‘To the woods of all the world is this potency – to move the bowels of us’ (p. 66). Woods, he recalls, are at certain times of year a place of holiday, to which men come ‘in heart’s ease and school-free’ or ‘perplexedly with first loves’; or the perfect hiding-place for an ambush; or a refuge for the justly or unjustly persecuted and the lost. They are associated with exiled ‘sweet princes by malignant interests deprived’, like Shakespeare’s Duke Senior, parenthetically barred from his hereditary role; or madmen running wild from grief and pain, as Lancelot did when Guinevere rejected him, or Merlin in certain Arthurian traditions, as well as ‘broken men’ of other kinds. Private Ball or one of his comrades – it’s not clear which – becomes such a ‘broken man’ at the beginning of Part 7, as Jones himself did while writing the poem: ‘He found him all gone to pieces and not pulling himself together nor making the best of things’ (p. 153), in the prelude to the assault on the Wood where he knows most of his company will be slaughtered. Woods, then, are where men are unmade, in that they are dismantled body and mind; but they are also where makings begin. Here unmade men will find a maker to commemorate them, since makers in the sense of poets and storytellers love the woods, which occur everywhere in old romances, lyrics and laments. Woods, then, are a place of destruction and reconstruction. They’re also a kind of neutral ground in wartime. They occur, we’re told in Part 4, on the maps of army draughtsmen, one of whom

Made note on a blue-print of the significance of that grove as one of his [i.e. the enemy’s] strong-points; this wooded rise as the gate of their enemies, a door at whose splintered posts, Janus-wise emplacements shield an automatic fire (p. 66).

Woods are liminal, in other words, Janus-faced like the first month of the year, facing at once towards past and future, death and life, the Germans and the British, making themselves available to anyone with the guts to approach and seize them for the flag. In addition, the Wood in Part 7 serves both as a gate that closes the parentheses within which the action of In Parenthesis takes place and a gate that opens out from the book onto the postwar era when it was written and published. As a portal of both kinds, it gives the lie to the notion of parentheses as sealing off what they contain from ‘normal life’. The world was deeply affected by the Great War; cultures changed radically in response to it; afterwards, as after Covid 19, there was a ‘new normal’. Parentheses in fact are always permeable, like portals, and In Parenthesis enacts this permeability through the uncanny skill with which it conjures up for a postwar readership the between-space of War Time.

Edward Burne Jones, Panel from The Legend of Briar Rose

Through the wood, as I mentioned earlier, stalks the enigmatic Queen of the Woods – whether in earnest or as a figment of Private Ball’s imagination. Her careful selection from among the dead of a representative twelve to serve as her knights makes that sample too a kind of parenthesis, in that it stands outside the categories of class and nation imposed on ordinary individuals by custom. She chooses for inclusion in her company both German and British soldiers, both privates and officers, both men like gods and men who are nothing more than jokes to their companions. And like the mad Ophelia, exempt by virtue of her broken mind from the restrictions that govern the sane, she presents each with some suitable woodland plant as a token of their admission into the culture of the strange:

Her awarding hands can pluck for each their fragile prize.
She speaks to them according to precedence. She knows what’s due to this elect society. She can choose twelve gentle-men. She knows who is most lord between the high trees and the open down.
Some she gives white berries
some she gives brown
Emil has a curious crown it’s
made of golden saxifrage.
Fatty wears sweet-briar […]
For Balder she reaches high to fetch his
Ulrich smiles for his myrtle wand.
That swine Lillywhite has daisies to his chain – you’d hardly credit it.
She plaits torques of equal splendor for Mr Jenkins and Billy Crower.
Hansel with Gronwy share dog-violets for a palm, where they lie in serious embrace beneath the twisted tripod. (p. 185)

In this scene, reminiscent of an arts-and-crafts painting – a panel, perhaps, from Burne Jones’s Briar Rose series of panels – men of all ranks and origins combine in quasi-erotic intimacy. Twelve of them are selected, like twelve apostles for some vegetable Jesus, twelve members of an assessing jury, none differentiated in terms of rank or importance from his copesmate. Balder the beautiful, the Christ-like Norse god who was killed with a mistletoe sprig through Loki’s trickery, is set alongside the pauper Hansel, driven by hunger to the woods with his sister to be murdered by a stranger; the German Hansel locked in ‘serious embrace’ with the Welshman Gronwy, all enmity forgotten; the unpopular commissioned officer Lillywhite alongside Lieutenant Jenkins and Private Crower, all bound together by daisy-chains ‘of equal splendor’, confirming their equal status in the Wood Queen’s universe, which lies well away from the social and military hierarchies that govern the spaces outside the parentheses of war and madness (‘wood’ means madness in Shakespeare’s time, as Demetrius’s phrase from A Midsummer Night’s Dream – ‘wood within this wood’ – might remind us).

John Everett Millais, Ophelia

A ‘prize’ is something that bestows meaning and value on a person’s achievements. The Wood Queen’s awarding of prizes, with its richly pictorial quality, may remind the reader of Pre-Raphaelite paintings of Ophelia as well as Burne Jones’s Legend of Briar Rose; above all the famous painting by John Everett Millais of the drowning Ophelia in the stream, singing as she sinks, and John William Waterhouse’s image of her sitting bolt upright on the river-bank, bedecking her hair like a sacrificial calf before she throws herself into the murderous waters. Millais was one of the founding members of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, while Waterhouse was one of its final generation of adherents, who worked alongside Burne-Jones and his good friend William Morris, whose guild socialism lived on in Eric Gill’s Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic, to which Jones belonged. Jones’s creation of a post-pre-Raphaelite scene in these final moments of his book anticipates Gill’s attempt to carry forward the ideas of Morris and his predecessor Ruskin into the postwar era.

David Jones, Ancient Mariner with Albatross. He compares his rifle to the albatross in Part 7.

But the end of the book also seeks to leave the past behind, perhaps by ensuring it undergoes a suitably radical transformation in response to the transformative horror of the war years. The work of setting the war and all that brought it about behind him is accomplished by Jones in the section where Private Ball decides to leave his rifle behind in the Lady’s Wood, where he was wounded. The rifle is his lover – just as the ‘many men so beautiful’ who died embracing one another among the trees are also in a sense his lovers (p. xxi). He has been taught by his training to treat this thing of wood and metal, this fusion of the organic and the industrial, as a bride (‘cherish her, she’s your very own’, p. 183); and the process of abandoning the rifle-bride is announced and then accomplished before and after the Wood-Queen’s ritual selection of her own retinue of dead heroes. Left behind at the ‘gate of the wood’ (p. 186) under an oak tree, like the bodies of Ball’s mingled enemies and comrades (‘Lie still under the oak / next to the Jerry / and Sergeant Jerry Coke’, p. 187), the abandoned gun represents the leaving-behind of a period that has brought both terrible violence and terrible beauty, like Yeats’s Easter 1916. But a gate, as we’ve seen, is Janus-faced, a limen or threshold that admits people both ways, both out and in. It’s a permeable boundary. Jones or Ball imagines the rifle becoming a future archaeological find, to be plundered by bloody-minded tourists on the lookout for souvenirs of mass slaughter (‘a Cook’s tourist to the Devastated Areas’, p. 186). And his account of the war experience ensures that it will be brought to life again, as his comrades will, each time a reader chooses to visit his pages. The gun that unmakes is remade, here, as a way to remake the dead, a tool as essential to the work of the maker as his pen.

In the preface to In Parenthesis, one of the transformations Jones imagines taking place in the wake of the war is the capacity to see the post-industrial world and its killing engines as stunningly beautiful – of giving guns and bombs and poison gas the romantic or magical associations of other murderous objects, such as swords and fires, or tarot cards, or landscapes like the plains of Troy or Salisbury or the hills of Catraeth. ‘It is not easy,’ he observes,

in considering a trench-mortar barrage to give praise for the action proper to chemicals – full though it may be of beauty. […] We who are of the same world of sense with the hairy ass and furry wolf and who presume to other and more radiant affinities, are finding it difficult, as yet, to recognize these creatures of chemicals as true extensions of ourselves, that we may feel for them a native affection, which alone can make them magical for us. It would be interesting to know how we shall ennoble our new media as we have already ennobled and made significant our old – candle-light, fire-light, Cups, Wands and Swords (p. xiv).

One of the techniques by which Jones turns his War Time into a ‘place of enchantment’ is through the practice of radical anachronism: the running together of old and new, past and present, to produce a synthesis which is both disturbing and wonderful (disturbing because wonderful, I could have written). The experiments he practised among the parentheses of In Parenthesis anticipate the experiments practised by fantasy writers after the war, when they invented radically anachronistic, parenthetical secondary worlds as a means of understanding the strange new fusions that surrounded them, whose novelty the Great War threw so violently into relief. Jones helps us to understand, I think, how far these seemingly distant fantastic spaces can be read as responses to the equally anachronistic spaces through which their writers moved, within which they worked. Lovers of fantasy, then, should embrace his epic with the same enthusiasm as the modernists embraced it on its first appearance.

David Jones, Everyman

Notes

[1] ‘It was not that the look of the place was unfamiliar to you. It was at one to all appearances with what you knew already. […] That’s a very usual looking farm house. […] The day itself was what you’d expect of December’ (pp. 18-19).

[2] The Seven Barrows and the Long Barrow at Lambourn (spelt Lambourne here) are thought to have inspired Tolkien’s account of the Barrow Wights in The Fellowship of the Ring. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lambourn

Fantasies of War in the Poetry of Mervyn Peake

[This essay was first published in Peake Studies, Vol. 10, No. 4 (April 2008), 5-23, and can also be found online here, beautifully typeset by Peter Winnington. Among other things, it’s a supplement to my edition of Peake’s Collected Poems.]

Wartime sketch

Mervyn Peake was pre-eminently a war poet. Of course not all his poems concern themselves directly with armed conflict, but the condition of warfare infects the tissue of his major verse, shaping and distorting it whatever its primary subject. He began to publish poems in 1937, during the long approach to the Second World War, each step of which they record, from the bombing of Guernica to the September Crisis; and he wrote the bulk of his verse between 1939 and 1945.[1] Even his post-war poems continue to worry away at the themes and traumas of his wartime experiences. How could it be otherwise, when he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1942 after two fruitless years in the army, and later witnessed the aftermath of war in France and Germany, above all at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp? Like many who lived through it he internalized the global crisis, making it part of his inward landscape. He may even have laboured at times under the horrible illusion that the war had sprung fully-fledged from his imagination, like a monstrous version of the winged horse that springs from the floor of a station concourse in his poem ‘Victoria Station. 6.58 p.m.’.[2] It is this possibility I would like to look at here, with the help of a few fragments of poetry I was not able to include in my edition of his Collected Poems.

From The Drawings of Mervyn Peake (1949)

Peake’s imagination, after all, could be a fearsome place. From the beginning to the end of his writing career it preoccupied itself with violence, to the extent that artistic creation and physical aggression seem at times to be locked together in an intimate symbiotic relation ship inside his head. The relationship may be encapsulated in the duel scene between two rival lovers in Titus Groan, where the men, both sculptors, hack away at each other’s naked bodies in a knife-fight that parodies the process of carving a work of art from a block of wood.[3] Peake wrote this fight during the war, when it might be thought his imagination was unusually concerned with bloodshed. But one of Peake’s earliest surviving poems, a long Masefield-inspired narrative called ‘The Touch o’ the Ash’ (1929), constructs a story from an act of still more horrible brutality.[4] In it, a tyrannical ship’s captain flings an old sailor into the furnace of his vessel, in grotesque anticipation of the Nazi atrocities. The old sailor has his revenge; through a titanic act of posthumous will-power he makes a new body from the ashes of his old one, and visits the captain three times at night, killing him on the third visit after driving him insane. Clearly then, from the start of his career Peake was willing to make poetry from violence; aggression was part of his imaginative make-up. One wonders whether this had anything to do with his childhood experiences in China. He was born in 1911 during a savage civil war, which his father recorded in a series of graphic photographs; and as he grew up, his father’s work as a missionary doctor brought Peake into close proximity with pain and death. From an early age he watched him perform surgery, including amputations, and saw long lines of maimed or diseased patients entering and emerging from his clinic.[5] Did these youthful encounters with dismemberment and debility haunt his dreams, reconstituting themselves from the material made available by war, as the old dead sailor in ‘The Touch o’ the Ash’ repeatedly reconstitutes his body from the grey dust which is all that remains of him after his death?

Sketch

Certainly hauntings of one kind or another are a recurrent motif in Peake’s writing. A poem of 1939, ‘We Are the Haunted People’, figures the helpless lookers-on at the outbreak of war as visited by the shadows of ‘dark deeds’ on the continent – deeds that sow the horribly fertile seeds of propaganda and destruction. Then in Titus Groan (1946), the young earl’s father Lord Sepulchrave is a perpetually haunted soul, his brain thronged with imaginary owls, which eventually merge with the real owls in the Tower of Flints who tear him apart when he brings them Swelter’s corpse to feed on. And towards the end of his working life, Peake represents himself as troubled with apparitions just as terrible as the ones that killed Sepulchrave and the tyrannical captain. A manuscript of Titus Alone from the early 50s contains this fragment:[6]

Out of cloud the face emerges
Every night before I sleep
It is pale as when cold surges
Burn like frost upon the deep
It is pale this head of horror
Save for where its chin shines red
With the blood

The ghostly head, like the ashen body of the old sailor in ‘The Touch o’ the Ash’, is linked with the ‘cold surges’ of the sea; and it would seem that the nightmare recurred with increasing frequency as Peake’s final illness took a grip of him. After his hospitalization in 1958 he wrote the poem ‘Heads Float About Me’, in which phantoms float about the corridors of Holloway hospital terrifying Peake, while being ‘haunted’ themselves by ‘solitary sorrows’.[7] And the most frightening thing about these disembodied heads is that they ‘deny the nightmare / That they should be’. They are real, not just a nightmare; or else they embody something real, ‘the horror / Of truth, of this intrinsic truth / Drifting, ah God, along the corridors / Of the world.’ Since childhood Peake had known the worst of nightmares to be true, not merely fiction; and his experiences in the Second World War drove home ‘this intrinsic truth’ with terrible force.

Recently discovered sketch (c. 1940), with centaurs and soldiers

Two previously unknown drafts of poems he wrote about the Blitz during or shortly after the War give powerful, though quite different insights into the interaction between Peake’s fantastic imagination and the fantastic works of art being shockingly produced by global conflict. The first reminds us of something that Peake was intensely aware of: until he visited Bergen-Belsen in 1945, war’s atrocities were some thing he could only imagine, as he studied the astonishing shapes it left in the urban landscape – the visible marks both of its terrible impact and of its absence, the fact that he has missed the moment when that impact took place. His poems ‘The Shapes’, ‘London 1941’ and ‘The Craters’ (all published in his first collection, Shapes and Sounds (1941)) scrutinize the contours war leaves behind – the mournful beauty of shattered buildings, the emotional impact of the gaping pits and quarries dug by bombs; but for the events that produced them he had to turn to black-and-white newsreels and the colourful pictures furnished by his own imagination. And finding a way to imagine these events responsibly – to disengage them from what might be seen as his predisposition to glamorize violence, to revel in horror, and to delight in extremes of physical suffering for their own sake – was something, I suggest, that he found difficult. The two new drafts offer an insight into his difficulties.

The first of the drafts, ‘I was not there’, is a sketch for a poem first published in his prizewinning 1950 collection The Glassblowers and reprinted in Selected Poems (1975) and Peake’s Progress (1980). In all its published forms the title is ‘When Tiger-Men Sat their Mercurial Coursers’. And it was always printed without its final verse, so that nobody till now has known it had anything to do with the war. Indeed in Peake’s Progress it appears in a section called ‘Other Worlds’, as if to reinforce its nostalgic escapism. In one of his poetry notebooks, however – tentatively dated to around 1946, though many of the verses it contains were written earlier[8] – the poem is given a different title, and a fourth stanza, which fuses the other worldly with the experiences of the Blitz which Peake never lived at first hand:

I Was Not There

When Tiger-men sat their mercurial coursers,
Hauled into granite arches the proud fibre
Of head and throat, sank spurs, and trod on air
I was not there.

When clamorous Centaurs thundered to the rain-pools,
Shattered with their fierce hooves the silent mirrors,
When glittering drops clung to their beards and hair,
I was not there.

When through a blood-dark dawn a man with antlers
Cried and throughout the day the echoes suffered
His agony, and died in evening air
I was not there.

Even when Paul’s voluminous dome reflected
The apple-green and lilac fires; or swelling
Like an enormous Ethiopian breast, raw crimson
Weltered behind its rare
Sweep of plumbed midnight – when the air was madness,
When water shot like blood from serpent hoses,
And excellence was wrested from a nightmare
I was not there.

In this version, the notion of absence – of missing things – is enshrined in the title, whereas the title of the printed version laid emphasis on the visions Peake could conjure up so vividly despite never having seen them. And in ‘I Was Not There’, the central lack or loss is trans formed from a simple threnody for unwitnessed moments to a complex meditation on the relationship between the imaginary and the imagined, two spheres that get fused in Peake’s dreamscapes (and dreams are specifically evoked in the penultimate line). It’s worth reminding oneself here that much of Peake’s war was a time of frustration, as the young conscript was shunted from one army training camp to another in a quest to find some military role for him, while his appeals to have his real talents turned to good use through employment as a war artist were repeatedly turned down. Exclusion from the centre of things here extends from the source of his imaginative energy – the horses and man-horses which figure everywhere in his poems and pictures, and from which his conscription diverted him so fruitlessly – to the dazzling vision of St Paul’s Cathedral under bombardment, miraculously intact among the ruins of the City of London. The poet’s absence becomes an exclusion from ecstasy, both homoerotic and heterosexual, and one might detect in the poem at once the rage of the artist denied access to his art, the intense sexual frustration which is an integral component of military service, and the psychological disturbance generated by war’s perverse conversion of erotic energies and male bonding rituals into integral components of the military machine.

Illustration to a poem by Oscar Wilde

The first three stanzas record scenes of gigantic masculine energy. Each is marked by violence: the restraining of a horse as the rider hauls its head and throat into a semblance of architectural rigidity; the shattering of the peace of a mirror-like pool; the death (as it seems) of an antlered man, whose agony gives new voice and feeling to the old metaphor of the ‘blood-dark dawn’. Each stanza records the encounter between disparate elements: in the first, man and horse, concrete and air; in the second, centaur and water, clamorous thunder and silence; in the third, the antlered man and the air to which his suffering transmits itself. But the previously unknown fourth stanza is much more shocking. The disparate elements – the lights of the blazing city and the cathedral’s racialized darkness; the breast-like dome and the phallic hoses – are fused with more drastic violence than in any of the first three verses. The ‘raw crimson’ of the sky sounds like a wound, and the hoses like severed arteries, hideous pastiches of male and female genitalia. The wresting of excellence from a nightmare makes the agonized sexual act recorded here sound as though it has been forced on its participants, so that the work of art Peake imagines being created by the Blitz is also an act of violation, a dual rape. The stanza makes explicit what is only implicit in the first three stanzas – that the male energies being described there are erotic ones, which culminate in the orgasmic roar of a rutting stag, and that the sexual acts they describe are aggressive. The extent of that aggression is intensified by that fourth stanza, and rendered unnerving by the introduction both of an implied woman and of a racial dimension into the picture. The myth or legend of the first three stanzas thus becomes contaminated, forced to align itself with the abominable motives behind aerial bombardment.

‘Mother and Child’, from Peake’s Catalogue for an Exhibition of Work by the Artist Adolf Hitler (1940)

Many works of art produced in wartime, perhaps, have this sense of being the products of force or compulsion. One thinks of Peake’s well known poem about a Belsen inmate, which is filled with guilt about the cold artist’s eye he brings to the business of sketching the death agonies of a young girl, with a view to working it up into a great finished painting at some future date.[9] The fourth stanza of ‘I Was Not There’ is in some ways worse than this, in that its celebration of the ‘excellence’ of the fire-surrounded dome seems guilt-free. The fact that three clearly fantastical scenes have preceded it liberates the poet from the severe judgement to which he subjected himself at Belsen. Regretting that one was not present at the death of a legendary stag-man is unproblematic; regretting one’s absence from a real-life inferno is not; and it’s not clear from that fourth stanza whether the poet is ready to acknowledge the difference. It would be interesting to know if it was Peake himself or someone else who decided he should cut it when the poem went to press.

Illustration for The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (c. 1960)

The second of our two drafts comes from an early version of Peake’s long narrative poem, The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, a revision of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner (which Peake famously illustrated) written on Sark in about 1947.[10] I suggest in my introduction to the Collected Poems that this is the work in which Peake finally laid what he called his ‘war-ghosts’ to rest, sloughing off his sense of complicity with the global atrocities being perpetrated as he laboured to produce his art.[11] He achieved this exorcism, I think, by having the beauty of the Blitz witnessed by two innocents: a new-born baby (albeit an infant possessed of astonishing powers and unexpected knowledge), and the sailor who finds it in a gutter after a bomb has killed its mother. The innocence of these two witnesses is reinforced by the fact that both are denizens of a different element from the one in which they find themselves. The sailor is a figure from the maritime adventure stories Peake loved as a boy; his language makes him sound like a combination of Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver, the teenager and the murderously avuncular pirate, both of whom are badly out of their depth in wartime London. Cut off by fire from his beloved water, the sailor is confronted by real scenes more savagely absurd than anything in Stevenson’s fiction. And the baby, too, hails from the sea: the sailor calls it ‘little fish’, and when it suddenly gains a voice it reveals that it has shared many of his nautical experiences in previous lives. Together the pair reinvent the burning city as a scene from their seafaring past, turning blazing buildings into ships, flames into sea-flowers and red-hot ashes into the wide red mouths of figureheads. The baby’s comradeship gives the sailor courage to face his death, and by the time the ballad ends the ghastly beauty of the ruined metropolis has been retrospectively brought under control, tamed, as it were, by being harnessed to children’s fictions, without having its impact softened or diminished in the process.

Yet there is something missing from the poem: a specific absence at its core that becomes glaringly obvious once it’s been pointed out. As the pair take shelter in a shattered church, the sailor mounts the pulpit and announces that he is going to tell the baby a story. ‘Now listen to me while I sing you a tale,’ he announces, and goes on:

For the things I’ve forgotten for many a year
Are shouldering into my mind,
Of the time when my heart was a wave that heaved
To the gale of my sea-mad mind.

The infant at first seems keen to hear the narrative, but soon afterwards remembers that it has got plenty of sea-memories of its own, and asks instead to join him in a song. The early draft of the poem formerly held in the Bodleian Library, however, shows that the sailor did at one point begin to tell his tale; and it also shows why the full tale never got told. Here is the relevant section of the draft.

We had been at sea for a month or more
With the rich black coal below
But the storms had swept the bridge away
And the ship was a sheet of snow.

And the shining engines were red with rust
And the winter water lay
In mucky pools all over the coal
In the hold of our ship that day –

And there was no wind, and there was no warmth
And there was no water or food,
And our anchor was plunged in the freezing sea
As deep in the snow we stood.

The masts were gone and all was gone
But a thick white layer of snow
Like a poultice laid from end to end
With the two black dots to show

Where the last two men alive stood stiff
At the side of the ice-bound rail,
When out of the sea with a splash and a shout
Came a thing with a bright green tail.

Its cheeks were red as a sunset fierce,
And its hair streamed out behind
In a tangle of jet-black weed and its eyes
Were as yellow as lemon-rind.

Then up it lifted its great big head
From out of the murky sea
And opened the great salt merman curve
[Of] his mouth that was big as three.

‘And are you the crew of this ship of snow
That has so molested me
By dropping of your anchor at the door of my cave
At the bottom of the winter sea?

‘You have dropped your anchor across my door
And my wife is trapped inside
With our five blue chicks that are crying out their hearts
For a taste of the morning tide.’

Then the two stiff men cried, ‘Sorry we are
To have so disturbed your home,
But our captain it was who ordered us
To lower our anchor down.’

And our captain is dead and the crew is dead
And we are the last to go,
And we have no strength for to work the crank
And to haul back the anchor now.

‘We’re as frozen up as the engines are
And as cold as the ice on the rail.
But where O where did you get that hair
And that beautiful bright green tail?’

The merman he heaved himself aboard
And he swished the decks with his tail
And the white snow flew up into the air
And over the frozen rail.

‘Now I’ll answer you this and many things more,’
He said, ‘but I first must know,
With your arms so weak, what the deuce can be done
About the anchor that you’ve plunged below?’

His cheeks shone red and his yellow eyes
Were as bright as sovereigns in his head.
‘There’s only one thing can be done about this,
So listen to my words,’ he said.

‘You’ll never get home, and you’ll never find food
And you’ll have no strength to stir,
And you’ll freeze to death by the afternoon
If you go on standing here.

‘You must dive with me through the cold black sea
To my cave where your anchor stands,
And there you must marry a mermaid chill
With little white fins for hands.

‘And there you must marry a mermaid sweet
With a tail as long as your arm.
O it’s then you’ll have the strength for to move away
Your anchor from

And the rest is missing. By this point Peake must have known very well that his readers will have forgotten the Blitz, the baby and the sailor, as they mull over the problem of the trap the sailors find them selves in, and meditate, perhaps, on the relationship between this story and the old song ‘O ’twas in the broad Atlantic’. Peake has written himself into a dead end, and he dealt with it in the most sensible way he could: by stopping and going back to take up his tale at the point where the false trail began.

Long John Silver

This wasn’t the first time Peake had written himself into a hole, and on one occasion the hole had been very like this one. His unfinished early novel Mr Slaughterboard comes to a halt with another ship jammed in mid-ocean, impaled this time on a needle of rock improbably rising to within a few feet of the surface miles from the nearest shore.[12] The most notable feature of this ship, the Conger Eel, is its magnificent library, the Room of Books, where the Captain pores over the volumes he loves in the company of his eyeless servant Smear, and wonders what it would be like to add his own name to the illustrious register of dead authors. The closest he comes to doing so is by casually butchering his men, killing them off singly and in batches in the name of what he calls ‘art’. His brutality is unpleasant, but not especially disturbing, because it’s so obviously divorced from the world beyond the pages of Peake’s fiction. Smear’s eyelessness confirms his own and the captain’s determined self-segregation from the concerns and moral systems that govern other communities. As Peake puts it, ‘They formed their own Universe. Untouched by the workings of other minds, solely dependent upon themselves, they formed a cosmos of existence, a reality that moved and thought between the sea and the sky’. The marooning of the ship enables them to achieve their highest ambition: to be disconnected for ever from all inhabited countries, free to dedicate themselves to the workings of their own mental cosmos without reference to anybody else’s; and the Captain celebrates the moment with another bout of aesthetically-motivated slaughter. And this final orgy of killing again fails to disturb the reader because of the grotesqueness of the crew they slaughter, whose physical peculiarities mark them out as denizens of the Room of Books, like the Captain and Mr Smear.

‘Self Portrait’, from Peake’s Catalogue for an Exhibition of Works by the Artist Adolf Hitler (c. 1940)

But by the time he wrote The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, it was not so easy for Peake to justify casual slaughter in his writings, and the notion of aesthetically-motivated murder had become deeply disturbing. This shift in perspective was given visual expression in a series of pictures he drew in 1940, as a means of advertizing his skills to the War Artists’ Advisory Committee. The series purports to be a portfolio of pictures by the artist Adolf Hitler, and has as its frontispiece Hitler’s self-portrait, staring in horror out of the page at what was presumably once a mirror – but is now the reader, who seems to have been made complicit with the dictator’s crimes by becoming the focus of his gaze. At the time Peake drew this series he had not yet seen the horrors of war at first hand, and had to rely on reports and his own imagination to flesh them out. But he wrote The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb after witnessing the aftermath of atrocities on French, German and British soil, and the relationship between his wild imaginings and the world they obliquely reflected had undergone a radical change. No longer motivated primarily by a yearning to be absorbed into the world of books, his habitual use of the fantastic possessed a new urgency that fills the later pages of his novel Titus Groan. The merman fragment offers an opportunity to consider the nature of that urgency.

Illustration for The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (c. 1960)

Mr Slaughterboard’s ship and its occupants are things of fiction, which get transfixed in the course of a sea story that moves with seeming inevitability towards this goal. The story of the merman, by contrast, is dredged up from the sailor’s memory by what seems its polar opposite: the devastated London cityscape through which he wanders. The elements of fire and water have already become perversely fused for the sailor a few stanzas earlier, as the burning streets reassemble themselves into a bright pageant playing out his personal history: ‘And the ships of brick and the ships of stone / And the charcoal ships lurched by / While his footsteps clashed on the frozen waves / That shone to the scarlet sky.’ It is this pageant of fire and water, heat and cold that triggers his recollection of the merman incident, and he narrates it to the baby as a means of explaining the specific resonance that the London flames have struck in him, the particular ‘frozen waves’ he has in mind.

It’s clear enough why he sees these two traumatic moments of his life as related. The extremes of physical suffering produced by both environments – the Arctic seas and the wartime conflagration – are the same. In both cases, the miraculous emergence of a living person from a dead world is the same (the talking baby and the merman), suggesting against all likelihood that extremes of temperature may provide a congenial habitat for intelligent beings. And in both cases the being in question offers the sailor an uncanny escape route from what’s clearly an inescapable situation. In fact, both baby and merman can be read as the hallucinations of a dying mind, as it struggles to find an alternative to the intolerable inevitability of death. As the cold or heat becomes too intense to bear, the sailor discovers in each forbidding zone a native inhabitant, whose physical attributes – nakedness in the baby’s case, brilliant hues in the merman’s – proclaim their indifference to the flame or frost that is killing the sailor. This is a very different use of fantasy from Mr Slaughterboard’s exuberant self-indulgence; its escapism is a psychological necessity rather than a piece of adolescent whimsy, and the quest to find some sort of moral explanation, or even absolution, for the unjustified torment to which its protagonists are subjected, starkly contrasts with Mr Slaughterboard’s tormenting and slaughtering of his crew, which invites no moral justification at all.

‘Coming Up to Scratch’, from Figures of Speech (1954)

The merman story is sung in a church ‘To the tune of a bleeding hymn’; its impulse is religious, and marks religion in this context as a story that’s built from memory and fantasy, and from the desperation that fuses the two. The sailors in the narrative are frozen stiff until they are indistinguishable from the frozen vessel on which they’re stranded. There’s clearly no way out of their predicament except through death; and it’s in this extreme situation that a manifestation of the fantastic emerges godlike from the waves, adding the brilliance of oil colour – Peake’s painterly palette of greens, reds and yellows – to the whites, blacks and greys of the Arctic seascape. The merman also brings with him, godlike, both an accusation of guilt and a promise of forgiveness. Those who suffer invariably convince themselves that they deserve to suffer, so as to preserve some sense of the crude but safe moral coordinates with which they have been raised; and the merman brings a rationale for the sailors’ suffering in the form of a crime they have committed. The ship’s anchor has trapped his wife and children in their underwater cave, and the sailors will not be released from their torment until the anchor is raised again, the door of the cave opened and the family set free. Like Adam and Eve, or like conscripts accused of a crime against humanity, the sailors respond by transferring responsibility for their actions to a higher authority. It was the ship’s captain who ordered the anchor to be lowered, and the captain is now inaccessible, cut off from retribution, like most of his crew, by death. Like Adam and Eve and the rest of humanity, too, the sailors are incapable of atoning for their inadvertent crime under their own steam, as it were; they lack the strength to raise the anchor. Having confessed and sought to exonerate themselves, the men wait for divine judgement.

The merman’s judgement comes in the form of a solution to their impasse: they are to wed themselves to the elements that are killing them. First they must plunge into the inhospitable sea, then bind themselves by nuptial contract to an alien being: a ‘mermaid chill / With little white fins for hands’. Having performed this dual act of self-negation they will, he claims, gain the strength to raise the anchor, as if sexual and contractual union with a hostile environment has made everything within it easy for them. The merman anticipates their naturalization in the Arctic wastes in the fragment’s final stanza, where the once chilly mermaid is described as ‘sweet’, and her most alien feature – her tail – is measured against the familiar length of a sailor’s upper limb. In this way the fusion with ice and steel that was killing the sailors at the beginning of the extract is replaced by a marriage with cold black water and fishiness, that will inject them by some undisclosed means with the merman’s virile energy. Religion becomes the process of accepting – or rather of actively, passionately embracing – the causes of pain and destruction that you are too frail to fight. And it becomes, too, a fantasy, a dream born from desire, whose resistance to the remorselessness of wartime logic offers the only satisfactory solution to a problem insoluble by any other means.

Illustration to The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (c. 1960)

But the merman isn’t necessary to The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, as Peake recognized when he chose to stop writing about him. The sailor in wartime London has already found a god before he begins to tell this story – a miniature god which gently points out that it contains within itself all the sailor’s memories, desires and dreams – and this is the baby. While the sailor is gearing up to tell the merman story in the ruined church, the baby suddenly manifests its superhuman powers for the first time, responding to the sailor’s offer to narrate with a shrill cry of assent, then levitating in front of the pulpit, ‘Where it hovered with its hands clenched tight at its breast’ just next to an open Bible, like a latter-day version of Robert Southwell’s Burning Babe. The moment is a natural next stage in a process that began with the miracle of the baby’s discovery – when the sound of its heart in the midst of destruction astonished and awed the sailor. This miracle was reinforced by the sailor’s perception that the child is absurdly, insanely out of place (‘All bare and cold in that gutter of gold / You had no cause to be, / No more than it’s right for the likes of you / To be born in this century’); and led at last to his decision, after entering the church, to ‘worship’ the child for its ‘brand-new look’, its ‘fists like a brace of anemones’, and the miraculous ‘ticker’ it keeps in its fragile chest. The baby, then, provides an emblem of war’s absurdity, the incongruous juxtapositions it generates, and the fantasies that are the only apt response to these. And the comfort it dispenses is quite different from, and more imaginatively satisfying than, the strange sub-oceanic marriage offered by the sea-god as a solution to the sailor’s woes.

For one thing, the child refuses to adopt a position of judgement over the sailor – or of superiority to him – as the merman does. It refers to him as ‘sailor, saviour’, as if sharing its divinity with the dying man. Despite his scepticism, it extends to him the promise that he will share its ability to regenerate after death; and it gives him the benefit of its awareness that appalling events like the Blitz are nothing new, that they have precedents in history, and that therefore the sailor need not be erased from the earth with the disintegration of his body under the impact of the last flying bomb; after all, the baby is proof of this, with its new wrinkled arms and its astonishing memory for adventures, seascapes and people it has encountered in previous lives. Its only advantage over him, in fact, is that it remembers having ‘seen it all before’, and can therefore give him words of counsel as he drifts bleeding and blistered, with lacerated feet and unrecognizable face, towards his own particular death.

Illustration to The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (c. 1960)

More importantly, perhaps (and this is a comfort Peake needed as much as his Stevensonian seafarer) it reassures him that his fantasies – the visions of miracles which Peake always associated with his heart – have as much validity as a response to the world, and above all to the World War, as any historical, philosophical or political narrative lodged in the archives at the British Library or the Imperial War Museum. ‘For, sailor,’ it says, ‘there’s nothing that is not true, / If it’s true to your heart and mine, / From a unicorn to a flying bomb, / From a wound to a glass of wine’. It’s the sailor’s imagination, after all, that first made the baby’s environment bearable for it, as he showed it ‘the coloured lights’ of the burning city, ‘And the golden shoals of the falling stones / And the scarlet of the streets’ – thus making loveliness out of horror. It’s the sailor’s imagination which permits him to conceive of a loving afterlife, and to believe in the love he has found in this one, despite the fact that ‘There is no proof’, rationally speaking, of either. And it’s his imagination that gives the sailor his final, joyful vision, which transmutes the urban devastation into a maritime adventure far more dazzling than the merman narrative:

‘The masts are bright with silver light,
The decks are black with grass
And the bay’s so smooth that I can see
The blood beneath the glass.

‘And here’s a child, and there’s a child
Running across the bay.
They laugh and shout, “Look out! look out!
We haven’t long to stay!”

‘And here’s a man who somersaults
Across the mid-mast air.
The long-shore flames leap out to sea
And drag him by the hair.

‘And the guns that shine with oil and wine
Are smothered in sea-flowers deep,
And in the throat of every gun
A mermaid lies asleep.

‘And the figurehead with mouth so red
Is drinking up the sea…
O little babe, why won’t you leap
Aboard, and sail with me?’

So the mer-people do find a place in The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, after all, nestled in the mouths of cannons in an imaginary warship. And Peake’s wayward imagination, too, finds a role for itself with relation to the war. What may have made the War Artists’ Advisory Committee so reluctant to employ him was a perception that his work was better suited to conveying the unreal than recording ‘facts’.[13] The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, including the unprinted fragment about the merman, demonstrates the vital relationship between the material conditions of war and the fantasies to which it gives rise. Peake’s fantasies are composed of searing frost and scorching fire, of metal, stone, coal, glass, and all the matter that makes up a bomb or the destruction it causes. And they are anchored, above all, in the body, in its bones and internal organs, its flesh, skin, limbs and bowels. His position as artist can be summarized in one more unpublished fragment from the early 50s:[14]

Neither a sage nor plowboy dumb, I stand
A marvel and a clod in either hand
And in my breast a vacillating heart

Without Peake’s solid clods and marvels, fused together by his vacillating heart, our picture of what it was like to live through the calamitous nineteen-forties would lack one vital and little-explored dimension. The fragments unearthed here, with the evidence they give of the extent to which even Peake’s most extravagant fantasies are bound up with war and its aftermath, suggest that further exploration of fantastic writing in wartime would be well worth undertaking – no matter how inhospitable the land- and seascapes into which that exploration might take us.[16]

Illustration to The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (c. 1960)

NOTES

[1] Approximate dates for Peake’s poems are given in my edition of Peake’s Collected Poems, Fyfield Books (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008).

[2] Collected Poems, p. 165.

[3] See Peake, Titus Groan (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968), pp. 281-85 (‘Knives in the Moon’).

[4] For‘The Touch o’ the Ash’ see Peake’s Progress, ed. Maeve Gilmore, corrected by G. Peter Winnington (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981), pp. 45-61.

[5] See G. Peter Winnington, Vast Alchemies: The Life and Work of Mervyn Peake (London: Peter Owen, 2000), pp. 38-39, which gives an account of operations witnessed by Mervyn as a boy in China; also Malcolm Yorke, A Life of Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold (London: John Murray, 2000), pp. 24-26.

[6] UCL MS Add. 234, Box 4 (iv), sig. 32r. At the time of writing the manuscript was on loan to the library of University College London; it now forms part of the Peake Archive in the British Library.

[7] ‘Heads Float About Me’ can be found in Collected Poems, pp. 214-5.

[8] For details of the 1946 notebook – now in the Peake Archive at the British Library – see Peake’s Collected Poems, Introduction. ‘I Was Not There’ occurs on p. 14 of Notebook 2 (as I call it in my notes), and is typed.

[9] The Belsen poem is ‘The Consumptive. Belsen 1945’, Collected Poems, pp. 133-4.

[10] The full text of The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb is given in Collected Poems, pp. 178-201. The manuscript from which I took the text of the merman fragment was at the time on loan to the Bodleian Library, Oxford (Bod. Dep. Peake 5, fol. 33v-34v); it’s now in the Peake Archive in the British Library. I have added some punctuation. The rest of The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb is quoted from Collected Poems.

[11] See ‘They Move with Me, My War-Ghosts’, published in Peake’s first poetry collection, Shapes and Sounds (1941); also in Collected Poems, pp. 93-94.

[12] Mr Slaughterboard can be found in Peake’s Progress, pp. 63-94.

[13] Twelve of the 25 pictures are reproduced in Mervyn Peake: The Man and His Art (London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen, 2006), compiled by Sebastian Peake and Alison Eldred, ed. G. Peter Winnington, pp. 66-69. An account of the series can be found on p. 65.

[14] Writing to Peake about his prospects of becoming a war artist, Sir Kenneth Clark observed that on the whole he seemed to be ‘much better away from facts’ (18th October 1940). Peake’s attempts to adapt his ‘non-factual’ artistic talents to the needs of the War Artists’ Committee – first by painting surreal representations of the Blitz, then by offering his services for the production of propaganda – can be traced through his (as yet unpublished) correspondence with Clark.

[15] The fragment was formerly held in UCLMS Add. 2.34, Box 4 (ii), fol. 30v, and is now in the Peake Archive. This contains an earlier draft of Titus Alone than the one in Box 4 (i), which gives as its earliest date December 1.

[16] Quite a bit has been written about fantasy in wartime since this was written; see for example Sara Wasson, Urban Gothic in the Second World War: Dark London (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010).

The New Saint Nicholas

[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,
Kaleidoscopic seas;

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.

Mervyn Peake, ‘September 1939’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leslie Hurry, ‘September 1939’

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

Leslie Hurry, This Extraordinary Year, 1945

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

Leslie Hurry, ‘Self-Portrait 1944’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Au Moulin Joyeux

September Crisis, 1938

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

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

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

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

We Are the Haunted People

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

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

Mervyn Peake, ‘Steerpike’

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

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

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

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

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

Mervyn Peake, ‘Reclining Figure by Hitler’

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

Puvis de Chavannes, ‘La Fantaisie’

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

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

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

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

One of the things the friendship hints at, in fact, is that Peake may not have been as a-political as he’s often taken to be. Surrealism was closely allied with anarchism, as was neo-romanticism, and both anarchists and surrealists were actively involved in the struggles against fascism and Nazism in Spain and Germany. In his strangely hostile biography of Peake, My Eyes Mint Gold, Malcolm Yorke insists that Peake and his wife, Maeve Gilmore, paid little attention to contemporary political events in their travels through Europe in 1937, despite the fact that their journey took them through Hitler’s Germany and brought them to Paris at the time when Picasso’s Guernica was on display there.[15] The existence of Peake’s poems on the September Crisis of 1938 and the declaration of war in September 1939 shows that by that stage in his life, at least, he was 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).[16] The plane he describes is pregnant with menace:

The Metal Bird

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

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

El Greco, ‘Landscape of Fire’

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

El Greco

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

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

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

Additional thoughts, April 2020.

At the time I wrote this post I’d somehow forgotten that Leslie Hurry also illustrated two poems of Peake’s that were published in the year this painting was made, 1939. These were  ‘Watch, Here and Now’, first published in Pinpoints, May-June 1939, No.4, p. 25 (see Collected Poems, pp 42-3), and ‘Au Moulin Joyeux: September Crisis, 1938’ (see above), first printed in Eve’s Journal, July 1939, p. 48. Along with the newly discovered illustration discussed in this post these three examples confirm that Peake and Hurry were working together intensively for a while to combine Peake’s words with Hurry’s images. It’s interesting to note that two of the three poems refer to major current events; was this the sort of thing the two artists discussed together? When I get access to the published Hurry illustrations I hope to have something to say about them.

Another idea occurred to me this month which may be worth mentioning here: that the line ‘The men with the equal tread’ in Peake’s ‘September 1939’ may owe something to one of the epigrams in David Jones’s modernist masterpiece In Parenthesis, first published by Faber and Faber in 1937. The epigram is from a medieval Welsh epic, Y Gododdin, quoted throughout Jones’s own epic: ‘Men marched, they kept equal step… / Men marched, they had been nurtured together’ (In Parenthesis, London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1963, p. xx). The link with Jones’s epigram, if there is one, suggests that Peake’s line ‘the men of the equal tread’ may refer to soldiers of all kinds, not just the Nazis. After all, Jones is careful to dedicate his poem both to his comrades-in-arms and to the German soldiers on the front line, ‘WHO SHARED OUR PAINS AGAINST WHOM WE FOUND OURSELVES BY MISADVENTURE’ (p. xvii). It’s worth mentioning too, perhaps, that on the title page of Part One of Jones’s work the Y Gododdin quote occurs alongside a quote from Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner, ‘The many men so beautiful’. Peake drew a picture of Jones in 1937, as one of a series of portraits of major figures in the arts he published in The London Mercury; see The Drawings of Mervyn Peake, introd. Hilary Spurling (London and New York: Allison and Busby), p. 46, and G. Peter Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies (London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen, 2009), p. 108. Another connection between the two artists is that both claimed Welsh ancestry (Peake through his Welsh mother – hence his Welsh Christian name) and both illustrated The Ancient Mariner, Jones in 1929, Peake in 1943.

Notes

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

[2] See Collected Poems, p. 1.

[3] Collected Poems, p. 65.

[4] Collected Poems, p. 52.

[5] Collected Poems, p. 43.

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

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

[8] Collected Poems, p. 48.

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

[10] Writings and Drawings, p. 81.

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

[12] ‘Blake’, Collected Poems, p. 63.

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

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

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

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

[17] Collected Poems, p. 31.

[18] Collected Poems, p. 50.

[19] Collected Poems, p. 41

[20] Writings and Drawings, p. 81.

Imagining England in the Reign of Mary Tudor

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.

Thomas Wyatt the Rebel

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.

From Beware the Cat

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.

Image from The Spider and the Fly

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.

A groat from the reign of Mary Tudor

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…

 

Puppet

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.

 

Cloud Palace

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.

 

Summer Songs

MAYFLY

The little mayfly flew about
Until the mighty sun went out.
A minute more the mayfly flew –
And then the mayfly went out too.

 

MIDGES

Have you ever seen the midges
Dancing on a summer eve?
Tropic flowers, insect bowers
Form and grow and interweave.

Duck your head and flap your hands,
Close your eyes and groan;
Midges dance in happy bands
Many miles from home.

Midges bow, advance, and mingle,
Strains of music rise and fall,
Motes in moonshine on the shingle,
Silver-spangled insect ball.

Duck your head and swing your arms
On a highland beach;
Lose yourself in false alarms
And uncompleted speech.

In the shade beneath the beeches
Hovering throughout the day
Singing where the sunlight reaches
Lady midges mate and lay.

Duck your head and strike the air,
Kick your dainty legs;
Otherwise they’ll fill your hair
With tiny silver eggs!

 

SOLSTICE

On the longest day in the year
I danced on the lawn and sang
As the sun went down behind the trees,
‘Nothing is finite! All the world is God’s!’

Mervyn Peake at Southport

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

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Sapper Peake

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

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Southport Promenade Hospital today

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

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

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

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

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

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Long John Silver by Peake

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

WE ARE THE LIFELESS GYPSIES

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

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

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

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

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

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

BLUE AS THE INDIGO AND FABULOUS STORM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CURL UP IN THE GREAT WINDOW SEAT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FOR GOD’S SAKE DRAW THE BLIND

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

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

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

EACH DAY I LIVE IS A GLASS ROOM

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

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

Lesley Hurry’s illustration for ‘September 1939’

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

ForS+S1941
Illustration for ‘The Craters’

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

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

Here it is:

GATES OPEN AND LOVE’S VISTAS SPREAD

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

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

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