Mervyn Peake: The Poet of Gormenghast

[I’m working on several blog posts just now, but none are quite ready to post, so I’m putting this essay here as a placeholder. I gave it as a talk at the 2011 conference marking the centenary of Peake’s birth, ‘Mervyn Peake and the Fantasy Tradition’, held at the University of Chichester where Bill Gray had established the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy (now the Chichester Centre for Fairy Tales, Fantasy and Speculative Fiction). It afterwards appeared in G. Peter Winnington (ed.), Miracle Enough: Papers on the Works of Mervyn Peake (Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013) – a collection that should be consulted by everyone interested in Peake. I’m putting it here so that all my essays on Peake can conveniently be found in one spot.]

Alan Lee, Gormenghast

Gormenghast is the creation of a poet. Peake’s prose is lyrical, playing with rhythm, sound and metaphor as a poem does, and lapsing at crucial moments into meter. During the fight in the Hall of Spiders in Titus Groan, to mark the narrative’s transition into epic, the prose is full of the rhythm of iambic pentameter, blank verse; and the Earl of Gormenghast, Sepulchrave, catches that rhythm in the broken snatches of speech he utters as he enters the Hall to bear witness to the combat, marking his own descent into the madness of a Shakespearean tragic hero. Again, in the final chapter of Titus Groan, blank verse points the way towards the rebellions and atrocities of the sequel, as if in imitation of the vatic verse of the Delphic oracle: ‘There would be tears and there would be strange laughter. Fierce births and deaths beneath umbrageous ceilings. And dreams, and violence, and disenchantment’.[1] These are the rhythms of Peake’s serious verse, which always hovers on the edge of lapsing into the five-beat line of the Renaissance playwrights he loved so much, and whose cadences he mimicked so adroitly in his own play, The Wit to Woo, in the 1950s.[2]

But poetry itself is a marked feature of the Titus books, a crucial skein in the tapestry Peake weaves from the lives and stony structures that together make Gormenghast Castle. There’s a crucial difference, however, between the use of poems in the first and second books of the sequence. In Titus Groan, verse is the private language spoken by each character in the secluded alcove they think of as their ‘world’ (p. 53) – an architectural manifestation of their inner space. The young Fuchsia reads poems to herself in her hidden attic, where she escapes from the pressures of a life ruled by meaningless ritual. Her father Lord Sepulchrave reads the Martrovian Dramatists and the Sonian Poets in the dusty library which is his own retreat (234 and 251-2). And the youth Steerpike catches an insight into the function of verse as a private code when he comes across the castle Poet in his climb across Gormenghast’s deserted roofscape. The wedge-headed bard has poked his head out of a window and is reciting a poem, as he thinks, to the empty air; but as soon as he knows that someone has heard him, he withdraws his head at once and blocks up the window with random objects – among them books that may well contain further verses of the kind he loves (p. 100). In Titus Groan, then, verse is a secret indulgence, a form of self-defence – that is, defence of one’s private self; and this is hardly surprising, given that Peake wrote the first draft of the novel as a conscript in World War Two, his talents ignored, his companions mostly uncongenial. Scribbling his Gothic masterpiece, and poetry, was the one refuge he had from the meaningless ritual of life in the forces – something his doctors recognized when the pressure of army life landed him in a Southport hospital in 1942, and as part of his therapy he was allowed to go on writing his book.

In the second Titus book, by contrast, poetry has become an integral part of the castle’s official rituals – in other words, it has moved from the private to the public sphere. In Gormenghast, the professors at Titus’s school chant a poem about the castle stones, as long and shapeless as the building’s architecture (pp. 466-7). Poems are recited by performers at ritualistic masques (pp. 615-8), and at the end of the book the role of the Master of Ritual, responsible for reading out the prescribed activities assigned to each moment of each day, falls to the castle Poet, who has been reluctantly coerced out of solitude in response to the threat posed by the upstart Steerpike. In addition, poetry becomes a means of cementing intimacy in families or between couples – a role it didn’t have in Titus Groan. In the first draft of the second novel, the curator of the Hall of the Bright Carvings, Rottcodd, dreams about a lullaby his mother used to sing when he was young – the only verbal contact he has with another human being apart from the servant Flay in either book.[3] Later, Doctor Prunesquallor sings a lullaby about an Osseous ’Orse to his sister Irma (p. 393) – and in the radio play of the Titus sequence, Peake assigns even Nannie Slagg a lullaby to sing to the infant Titus).[4] Verses permeate the air of Gormenghast, so that in the second book Fuchsia’s penchant for writing poetry becomes a sign of her authentic attachment to the castle – an attachment she reinforces by letting the castle physician, her friend Doctor Prunesquallor, read a book of her poems in the privacy of his study (pp. 620-1). Conversely, Steerpike’s inability to appreciate poetry – he thinks it romantic drivel – marks him out as an interloper; something he recognizes with characteristic acuity, and seeks to disguise by writing Fuchsia poems of courtship (which we never get to read). In order to complete his conquest of Gormenghast and gain control over every aspect of its structure – from the intimate goings-on in private rooms to the immemorial rites that govern the denizens’ public lives – Steerpike must master the intricacies of verse. And his success in fashioning himself into an ersatz poet, despite his profound contempt for the art form – his success in becoming what he loathes, in other words – is part of what makes him so disturbingly attractive. He also becomes a perverse romantic hero, the kind of man whose exploits are suitable to be celebrated in metre. Fuchsia confirms this in the only poem of hers we are allowed to read:

How white and scarlet is that face,
Who knows, in some unusual place
The coloured heroes are alight
With faces made of red and white. (p. 621)

Even after badly burning himself while murdering the Master of Ritual Barquentine – an incident invoked here by the reference to his red-and-white facial scars, and by the word ‘alight’ – Steerpike remains a worthy subject for celebration in lyric, as well as in the heroic rhythms of Peake’s prose: the Miltonic, fire-damaged Satan of Peake’s ambiguous Gothic paradise.

Charles w. Stewart, The Dark Breakfast (Royal Academy of Arts)

The form of verse that dominates the castle is nonsense; and the question of why this should be is well worth asking.[5] Nonsense pervades the declamations and empty gestures of the castle rituals. These have been stripped of their original meaning, if they ever had one, by the passage of time, and serve only to humiliate those who observe them – not just the subjects but the dynastic rulers of Gormenghast. At the Dark Breakfast the Groan family must look on helplessly, like everyone else, as the Master of Ritual stamps up and down the breakfast table with his filthy stump and crutch, pulping the luxurious food into inedibility. At Titus’s Earling – his investment as Earl – the whole household must dress in sackcloth, while Titus himself must sport a white smock and a necklace of snails in the pouring rain. In this way the rituals reinforce the need for blind allegiance to what is effectively an enormous set of rambling tomes (somewhat akin to the Titus sequence itself), the Books of the Law; tomes that might stand, among other things, for the traditions of English literature – verse, drama, prose, the cadences of the King James Bible – which Peake so self-consciously followed and made his own. But the Books of the Law are literature divorced from its context, randomly perused in a private library like that of Sepulchrave. The centrality to the castle of such literature – of the letter, of what is inscribed – is reinforced at the time of the baby Titus’s christening, when he’s enclosed in a hollow tube formed by two bent-over leaves of the Book of Ritual, on which are written the blank verse lines appropriate to the occasion, many of them in blank verse, though not written out as such (p. 78). These lines enjoin his blind obedience to the book’s contents, the accumulated instructions penned by generations of despots obsessed (like Sepulchrave) with scribbling, reading and dreaming in isolation. And in their refusal to explain or justify their edicts, the blank verse lines on these pages are akin to nonsense. By reading and composing nonsense verse, then, the characters of the first novel proclaim not only their detachment from the castle – their yearning to find refuge from its patterns – but their deep connection to it. Even their solitude, their aching loneliness – most memorably articulated by the castle poet (‘Lingering is so very lonely / When one lingers all alone’, p. 99) – confirms their involvement in the castle community. To sum up: the Books of the Law are the private code of the Earls of Groan, the coloured book of nonsense by which they mark out the whole of Gormenghast as their private alcove, their suite of attics, their refuge. And this is an essential fact for Steerpike to grasp in his quest to seize power.

Like Gormenghast itself, the nonsense verse read and generated by the castle’s inmates makes no reference to any political, economic or historical framework beyond its limits; each – both verse and castle – is a kind of island cut off by the sea. Gormenghast is a landlocked island, as Peter Winnington has shown us.[6] A forest and a mountain cut it off from communication with the rest of humankind, and at the Earling Barquentine declares that Titus ‘will in letter and in spirit defend it in every way against the incursions of alien worlds’ (p. 358). The castle Poet describes its architecture as ‘the sharp archaic shore’ (p. 98), and at the end of the second book the building acquires an actual shoreline when the floodwaters rise until ‘this gaunt asylum’ becomes an island and Gormenghast is ‘marooned’ (p. 691). It does not seem surprising, then, that the nonsense verse in the Titus books is filled with seas, those vast empty spaces which are both barriers and aids to mobility. In an unpublished song he sings to the kitchen urchins in Titus Groan, the Chef Swelter yearns for a ‘shmall shea-worthy pashte-boat’[7] – perhaps a similar vessel to the ‘biscuit-ship’ full of weevils invoked by the castle Poet in another unpublished poem.[8] Fuchsia’s favourite nonsense verses tell the story of a ‘Frivolous Cake’ pursued across the sea by a lustful knife (pp. 158-9). A poem read by Steerpike in Fuchsia’s attic traces the steps of three old men as they take their path ‘To the purple sea’ (p. 106) – the same ocean, perhaps, that features in the lullaby sung to Rottcodd by his mother, beside which groves of rhubarb flourish.[9] The sea, in fact, seems bound up with nonsense verse in Peake’s imagination. The glorious colour illustrations for his collection of nonsense verse, Rhymes Without Reason (1944), ensure that the whole collection takes place in what looks like an archipelago, with water lapping at the edges of each poem. The sea is both beautiful and terrible, lonely and seductive, constricting (think of life on ship-board) and liberating, and thus provides a perfect equivalent for the bitter-sweet atmosphere of Gormenghast, whose grim battlements and stifling ceremonies inspire such passionate devotion from its denizens. And these qualities link both the castle and the sea to the work of the verbal or visual artist as Peake sees it: the artist who plies his trade in solitary communion with the object of his attention, his model – life or still life – to whom he commits himself, in whom he immerses himself utterly, oblivious to interference from beyond the intense magic circle of their mutual exchange.

To take command of Gormenghast, then, the upstart Steerpike must become an artist – a poet – but specifically a purveyor of nonsense. In doing so he will gain access to the most private spaces of the castle’s inhabitants: the secret attic where Fuchsia keeps her book of nonsense verse, her version of the brightly illustrated Rhymes Without Reason; the room where the Countess of Groan reads a nonsense fairy tale to her host of cats about a murderous Dwarf whose ears are fixed on backwards (p. 215); Sepulchrave’s library, with its shelves of verse and drama. And later, his deployment of nonsense gives Steerpike total control of the castle’s ceremonies: the chants and rhythmic declamations that bind the professors, the servants, the Earls themselves, to the archaic books of nonsensical laws of which Steerpike takes possession when he assumes the role of Master of Ritual after murdering Barquentine. It’s therefore appropriate that his rise up the ladder of power begins with his most intense encounter with nonsense. Arriving in Fuchsia’s attic after an epic climb across the castle’s roofs, he finds himself in a landscape cluttered with lumber from Peake’s nonsense verse: the leg of a stuffed giraffe (‘The Giraffe’), the portrait of a jaguar (‘The Jailor and the Jaguar’), a painting of a group of children playing with a viper (think of the snake poems: ‘A Languorous Life’, Uncle Jake from ‘Aunts and Uncles’), a great writhing root from Gormenghast Forest (‘The Hideous Root’). Here he stumbles across a picture book on a table, ‘a large hand-painted book that lay open where a few verses were opposed by a picture in purple and grey’ (p. 105), and finds himself caught in a peculiar limbo between different kinds of reality; a limbo that offers a valuable insight into the process that will propel him from his position at this moment – a half-starved runaway adolescent from the castle kitchens – to the apex of power in the ancient halls of Groan. For this reason it’s worth lingering over the scene.

Steerpike’s hunger and disorientation after his climb mean that he loses the ability to distinguish between the ‘imaginary’ landscape of the picture book and the ‘actual’ castle. As a result, he reads the poem as if he were Fuchsia, or the reader of Titus Groan – entranced, his habitual coldly analytical disbelief temporarily suspended:

It was to Steerpike in his unusual physical state as though that picture were the world, and that he, in some shadowy adjacent province, were glimpsing the reality.

He was the ghost, the purple-and-grey page was truth and actual fact.

Below him stood three men. They were dressed in grey, and purple flowers were in their dark confused locks. The landscape beyond them was desolate and was filled with old metal bridges, and they stood before it together upon the melancholy brow of a small hill. Their hands were exquisitely shaped and their bare feet also, and it seemed that they were listening to a strange music, for their eyes gazed out beyond the page and beyond the reach of Steerpike, and on beyond the hill of Gormenghast and the Twisted Woods.

Equally real to the boy at that moment were the grey-black simple letters that made up the words and the meaning of the verses on the opposite side of the page. The uncompromising visual starkness of all that lay on the table had for a moment caused him to forget his hunger, and although uninterested in poetry or pictures, Steerpike, in spite of himself, read with a curiously slow and deliberate concentration upon the white page of the three old men in their grey and purple world:

Simple, seldom and sad
We are;
Alone on the Halibut Hills
Afar,
With sweet mad Expressions
Of old
Strangely beautiful,
So we’re told
By the Creatures that Move
In the sky
And Die
On the night when the Dead Trees
Prance and Cry.

Sensitive, seldom, and sad –
Sensitive, seldom, and sad –

Simple, seldom and sad
Are we
When we take our path
To the purple sea –
With mad, sweet Expressions
Of Yore,
Strangely beautiful,
Yea, and More
On the Night of all Nights
When the sky
Streams by
In rags, while the Dead Trees
Prance and Die.

Sensitive, seldom, and sad –
Sensitive, seldom, and sad.

Steerpike noticed small thumb-marks on the margin of the page. They were as important to him as the poems or the picture. Everything was equally important because all had become so real now where all had been so blurred. His hand as it lay on the table was now his own. He had forgotten at once what the words meant, but the script was there, black and rounded. (pp. 105-6)

For a moment, then, while reading the poem, Steerpike finds himself removed from his usually utilitarian state of mind. He is always intensely observant, scanning each detail of each scene through which he passes, but not as an artist scans it: he wishes to retain every impression in case it will prove useful to him. At one point, for instance, he spots a swordstick in an abandoned armoury, and is fascinated by the air of treachery and cunning it exudes. He therefore goes back to fetch it when the chance arises. Steerpike sees everything in relation to himself; but in this passage he forgets himself for a passing moment, so that even his own hands look like someone else’s, and the three old men become the centre, himself the periphery. The men are as real as Gormenghast hill or the Twisted Woods, and occupy the same dimension, staring out of the page and beyond the reader, Steerpike, in quest of some unknown object or vision to which he has no access. Their seeming motivelessness, or the unguessable nature of their motives; their self-confessed madness; their communication with aerial Creatures unknown to science; their link with the aimless motion of storm-tossed trees; their simplicity, which proclaims the pointlessness of trying to extrapolate any orderly narrative from these ingredients – all these things make them precisely the kind of thing the kitchen boy would not normally give a second glance to. The extreme old age of the three men, their mad expressions, deprive them of any significant social function; just as the old metal bridges in the background of the picture, made of material which hints at an industrial past, no longer seem to lead anywhere, have become mere decorations in a painting. For a moment, here, Steerpike is at one with the world of nonsense verse, where the black and rounded script in which words are written, the music of their vowels and consonants, are as valuable as their meanings, and where function itself is secondary to the pleasures of sight, sound, mood and atmosphere.

But despite their determined uselessness in social and economic terms, the poem and the picture are or have been of some importance, it would seem, to somebody; important enough to lavish time and skill on. The picture is not merely printed but hand-painted, emphasizing the old men’s ‘exquisitely shaped’ hands and feet and the anthropomorphic contours of the small hill’s ‘melancholy brow’. It is no commercial production but a lovingly crafted artefact designed for the appreciation of a limited but passionate readership. The small thumbprints on the page show that it has been carefully studied by at least one enthusiastic reader. The fact that the pointlessness, the nonsense of the poem and picture have been taken so seriously – indeed, the poem is wholly serious in mood and tone, for all its irrationality – gives Steerpike a crucial clue to the nature of his castle environment, its implacable hostility to the rational notions of cause and effect to which he claims to adhere.

The castle is both self-absorbed and curiously selfless, like the artist. Everything in it is ‘equally important’, despite its rigid hierarchy and its economic inequalities, since everything in it is part of its identity as a castle. In Gormenghast, servants and impoverished artists from the mud huts beneath its walls can take part in tragedies, make themselves works of art, as Flay and Swelter do in their fight to the death in the Hall of Spiders, or as Rantel and Braigon do as they hack each other to pieces for the love of Keda. Steerpike signals his awareness of these facts, his intention to take possession of them, when he picks up an unfinished pear which Fuchsia left beside her book of poems and bites into it, using her bite-mark as purchase for his own teeth. Fuchsia took the pear to the attic not out of utilitarian hunger or need but as a means of intensifying the attic’s atmosphere – reinforcing its vitality, its centrality to her life, by the act of consuming food there (that’s why the fruit remained unfinished). Steerpike takes her decorative, unnecessary food and uses it to staunch his hunger – a hunger to take things to himself which extends to everything he looks at. For Fuchsia, then, the pear is one with the nonsense verse she loves – a pleasure rather than a function – while for Steerpike it is useful, a necessary meal. Fuchsia herself is akin to nonsense; she is not particularly useful to her family, being an adolescent girl who cannot inherit the Earldom, and her concerns are insular, disconnected from the mainland, as it were, of castle life; but Steerpike makes her useful to him as a crucial part of his improvised scheme for self-promotion. Steerpike, then, is a threat to nonsense, to what nonsense stands for – in Keatsian terms, art without a palpable design upon its recipients – and therefore a threat to Gormenghast and all its inhabitants.

What makes Steerpike so dangerous to Gormenghast is his ability to mimic the kind of nonsense art it nurtures with astonishing precision, and hence to appropriate that art to his own ends. On meeting Fuchsia, he first draws her attention to the things he has seen in his climb over the castle rooftops – above all, the senseless parts of it: the empty field of stone, where nobody goes and which therefore has no connection to the narrative of the castle; the horse and its foal swimming in a pool at the summit of a tower, which is manifestly impossible. Later he transforms himself for the girl’s benefit into an exact copy of a clown, the embodiment of nonsense, a performance of simplicity and bizarreness that has no function whatsoever except as a means of captivating her attention, of distracting her from Steerpike’s ruthlessly motivated cunning.

Not long after this oddly disturbing episode – disturbing because Steerpike remains utterly detached throughout it, having no interest in the clown or anything he represents – Fuchsia takes him to visit Doctor Prunesquallor. Here the boy is treated to the spectacle of genuine nonsense in full flight, sent soaring into the ether with every speech the doctor utters. Prunesquallor, like Steerpike, links the teenaged Fuchsia with a young horse; but for Prunesquallor the horse retains its identity even as he uses it as an analogy for her fusion of grace and awkwardness. ‘Fuchsia dear,’ he tells her as he presents her with a ruby,

‘you were so distraught as you ran like a wild pony away from your father and me; so distraught with your black mane and your big hungry eyes – that I said [to] myself: “It’s for Fuchsia,” although ponies don’t usually care much about such things.’ (p. 128).

Just as the ruby has no function in the doctor’s world except to make Fuchsia happy, so the wild pony he has conjured up effectively refuses to be restrained by its intended verbal function. If Fuchsia is like a pony, a pony is not like Fuchsia, since it has no interest in aesthetics or theatre as embodied in the blood-red stone. In Prunesquallor’s discourse, then, Fuchsia gets detached from what he says she resembles – she does not get trapped, even metaphorically, by his metaphor. Steerpike used his field of stones and his swimming horse to worm his way into Fuchsia’s imaginative universe for his own ends. Prunesquallor uses his stone and his pony to show Fuchsia herself, her sensitivity to colour and beauty, her unselfconscious energy, her need for what she has not been getting (hence her ‘big hungry eyes’) – above all, for liberty and affection. But Prunesquallor also offers her these things as of value in themselves, as being worthy of attention, simply as a lovely stone, a headstrong pony. The doctor’s nonsensical fantasias of punning rhetoric represent a form of successful yet undamaging resistance to the stifling rituals of the castle, a celebration of the opposite of ritual – love and freedom – both of which are rendered more lovely by the castle’s indifference to and confinement of its inhabitants.

By contrast, Steerpike’s methodical deployment of his observations of the castle, his mental inventory of the nonsense he encounters there, is a form of resistance which is utterly inimical to nonsense itself, utterly destructive to all those nonsensical characters who find refuge in the castle’s crevices, or who shelter beneath its walls in abject poverty. Steerpike, in fact, comes to represent – as the Titus series develops – everything that is inimical to the practice of making art, as Peake perceives it. He is the embodiment of self-interest, of the inability to commit oneself body and soul to what is outside oneself, whether it be a person, a community, a landscape or a still life. As such, the young man’s journey through the landscape of Gormenghast forms an analogy for the irruption into the privacy of Peake’s imagination of a succession of hostile ‘alien worlds’: Nazism, military life, commercialism and the ever-present need to earn a living through his art; war and the cold war; and the contempt of the artistic elite for the kind of art he made – the art of the fantastic, the nonsensical. For this reason, Steerpike’s relationship to the nonsense of Gormenghast – and in particular, perhaps, to its nonsense verse – is worth pursuing very much further than I have been able to in this essay.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Steerpike in the BBC production of Gormenghast (2000)

Notes

[1] Mervyn Peake, The Gormenghast Trilogy (London: Mandarin, 1992), p. 367. All references are to this edition.

[2] For Peake’s ‘default metre’, see Collected Poems, ed. R. W. Maslen (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), introduction, p. 10.

[3] See Mervyn Peake, Complete Nonsense, ed. R. W. Maslen and G. Peter Winnington (Manchester: Carcanet, 2011), pp. 124-6 and note.

[4] Peake, Complete Nonsense, p. 184.

[5] See Alice Mills, Stuckness in the Fiction of Mervyn Peake (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2005), chapter 4, and Vanessa Bonnet, ‘A World of Nonsense’, Peake Studies, vol. 12, no. 4 (April 2012), pp. 37-8.

[6] G. Peter Winnington, The Voice of the Heart: the working of Mervyn Peake’s imagination (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006), chapter 3.

[7] Peake, Complete Nonsense, p. 53.

[8] Peake, Complete Nonsense, p. 156.

[9] Peake, Complete Nonsense, pp. 124-5.

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