The beginning of this month marked the 80th anniversary of Britain’s declaration of war on Nazi Germany, which took place at 11 am on Sunday 3 September 1939. Eleven years ago I published for the first time, in my edition of Mervyn Peake’s Collected Poems, a poem called ‘September 1939’. The poem is short and not particularly distinguished, but it’s attached to the story of a remarkable coincidence – one of several that took place while I was editing the collection. And the coincidence provides an insight into the artistic and political milieu inhabited by Peake in the 1930s. Here, then, is a post about September 1939, the month and the poem, along with a meditation on how a tiny seed of information can begin to effloresce into a full-grown theory about a writer-artist’s friendships, influences and political sympathies.
When I first came across the poem ‘September 1939’ it was in a battered old exercise book full of poems, many of which had never seen print, stowed in a battered old suitcase in the London flat of Peake’s eldest son, Sebastian. The suitcase, as I remember it, was crammed to bursting with manuscripts and typescripts, mostly drafts of Mervyn’s poems, plays and prose of all descriptions. When Sebastian laid it on the table in his living room and opened it up I felt like a pirate suddenly faced with a heap of treasure: tongue-tied, goggle-eyed, caught between the lust of a child confronted by the treasures of a toyshop, with birthday money clutched in its grubby fist, and the astonishment of an adult who has stopped hoping that the world holds surprises like this, yet finds himself in attendance at the fulfilment of a lifelong fantasy. I still feel something of that extraordinary sensation twelve or thirteen years after Sebastian shut the suitcase again and put it away.
I haven’t experienced anything quite like that before or since. Except once, when the internet worked a little magic for me.
Not long after finishing my edition of the Collected Poems and sending it off to Carcanet, at a loss for anything to do with my hands and mind after the white hot excitement of the editorial process, I found myself idly typing a few words from the poem ‘September 1939’ into the search engine of my computer.
I wasn’t really thinking as I did so. I have no idea what made me do it, in fact. The poem from which the words came had never been published before, so there could be no expectation at all of getting a hit. Except that I got one.
The line came up word for word as I had typed it.
I can’t now recall which line it was from the poem, but there it stood, the opening entry in the short list of results for my search terms. And when I clicked on the link I found that the whole poem had somehow been transcribed and put online. I may be remembering this wrong; it may have been only the first few lines of the poem that had been transcribed, while the rest could be read with some difficulty in a low-definition PDF on the webpage I had stumbled across. But the fact remains: there was the poem, and there was I, and once again the impossible had come to pass and the shape of the world had been subtly changed by an unexpected encounter.
The webpage on which I found the poem belonged to an online auctioneer, and the creator of the page had ascribed the poem to a man called Leslie Hurry – quite reasonably, since Hurry had incorporated the poem into a painting of his which had recently been sold. A quick search for Hurry’s name revealed that he was a painter and illustrator of considerable promise in the 1930s who later moved into theatre design at the instigation of the director, dancer and actor Robert Helpmann – most famous now as the Childcatcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. At that time there were not many paintings of Hurry’s to be seen online – partly, it seems, because of a dispute over copyright; but in 2019, as I type these words, you can find a great many paintings, drawings and set designs by Hurry scattered across a range of different websites. One of his best-known paintings is ‘This Extraordinary Year, 1945’, which is on show in Tate Britain. It’s a picture that owes a lot to Blake, and that celebrates the end of World War Two and the election of a Labour Government. The painting I found with the poem in it was also concerned with a significant year, this time less auspicious: 1939. The two paintings, then, stand at the opening and closing moments of World War II, and the one I had just found online provided a kind of gateway or portal onto the dreadful time to come.
In fact, a gate or portal features in the painting. In the middle of what seems to be an ocean stand two white pillars side by side, which rise into blue plantlike growths gradually curving towards each other until they meet overhead to form a lintel. Each pillar has a door and two windows in it, giving it the appearance of a lighthouse or the turret of a medieval castle. Two long staircases approach each door, changing direction twice before they reach it. Between the pillars, through the gateway they form, you can see another ocean with a rock or island in it. There is something small and pale in front of the island-rock but I can’t make out what it is; it could be a boat, a whale, or another rock. The island-rock seems to have another tower on it – possibly two – but they are sketched in pen rather than fully painted.
Behind each of the two towers or pillars in the foreground there is what seems to be an upright, reddish rock, whose curve undergoes a very different metamorphosis from that of the pillars. The pillars grow upwards into cool blue plants or flowers. The rocks instead get extended below the gateway into a pair of clashing scimitar blades, which form another lintel under the doorway, this time painted red. The sea we are looking at through the doorway – or alternatively in a mirror, since the two lintels, above and below, could form the frame of a painting or looking glass – seems itself, as I said at the beginning, to be in the depths of another ocean, whose surface appears at the top of the painting, with the gateway underneath, as if immersed.
We’re looking into the depths, in other words, and the doorway or mirror we are looking through is threatening us. While the blue plants are thrusting upwards towards the lightest part of the sky, the blades are sweeping out towards the viewer. It looks as though they could cut us if we weren’t careful.
There is another island in the sea at the top of the painting, and in the lowering sky above the island Hurry has included what look like technical diagrams drawn in pen: a radio mast on the left, a flying machine above it whose wings recall the pages of an open book, a gun sight in the middle, a web of cables. The ocean at the top of the picture could represent the present, when such diagrams are widespread; or it could represent the consciousness. The portal, with its old-looking towers, could represent the past, or alternatively the subconscious, since it’s immersed in the depths. One thing is certain, though: the portal itself enacts two movements, one upwards towards new growth, the other downwards and outwards towards destruction. It’s a Janus-faced painting, even if the date it refers to is September rather than January. And the aggressive outward gesture of the blades suggests that theirs is the direction the world has chosen to take on this side of the picture – the side the viewer stands on.
As for the poem, as I’ve said, in the exercise book it was titled ‘September 1939’, and that’s the title I gave it in my edition. The painting, however, doesn’t give it a title at all. The lines are laid out differently, too, from the way they were in the exercise book:
This is the year of our Lord;
And nine hundred years
Once the blood was wine
And the flesh was broken
The men of the equal tread
Have come into their own
And the bayonets shine.
This is the year of our Lord;
And nine hundred years
It might be better, I think, if there were a break between ‘thirty-nine’ and ‘Once the blood was wine’, which would make the poem into a mirror image like the mirror image implied by the painting, with two stanzas of four lines framing two stanzas of three lines just as the portal frames the painting’s interior sea. The word ‘Once’ in this version doesn’t quite make sense, at least to me; the exercise book has ‘Since’ in its place. I love, though, the way the poem (and the picture) draws the eye to the three central lines: ‘The men of the equal tread / Have come into their own / And the bayonets shine’. In the exercise book version this is slightly different: ‘And the men of the equal tread / Have come into their own / And their bayonets shine’; but the extra repetition of ‘the’ in Hurry’s version (‘the bayonets’) makes the soldiers more impersonal, conjuring up the familiar newsreels of the 1930s showing lines of Nazi soldiers marching in mechanical triumph through Berlin and Poland. And these three lines represent the mid-point in what seems an inexorable movement throughout history, from the moment of Christ’s birth (‘the year of our Lord’) to his death (‘Once […] the flesh was broken’) and on to the present, when the ‘men of the equal tread / Have come into their own’, with bayonets as sharp as Hurry’s scimitars. Having read it, one can also see something bladelike about the metal-blue plants into which the towers have grown, something sinister about the conjunction of defensive towers, radar, flying machine and gun sight at the top of the painting. Hurry’s picture may indicate two alternative directions, one leading to peace and one to war, but with the declaration of war in September 1939 both directions might be seen as always having pointed to the same destination. The breaking of Christ’s flesh and the spilling of his blood pointed the way to the breaking of flesh and the spilling of blood at the mid point of the twentieth century. This was the only possible fruit, one might imagine, that could be produced by that particular sacrificial tree.
Hurry may well have decided that Peake’s poem resembles a set of double doors, which fits into the frame provided by Hurry’s illustration. The repeated four lines at the beginning and end form a verbal counterpart to the painting’s doorframe, while the two sets of three lines form a door each – the door relating to Christ and the door relating to the rise of Nazism. But another way of looking at the poem is as the representation of a fulcrum, the point on which a bar or seesaw balances. The fulcrum lies in the space between the lines ‘Like bread’ and ‘The men of the equal tread’, with Christ’s sacrifice occurring on one side of it, the Nazis on the other; what the poem says is that the world of 1939 has tipped towards the Nazis. Peake’s mind was much preoccupied with fulcrums in the late 1930s. A number of poems from the exercise book – which I’ve dated to 1939 at latest, since it contains sketches of Peake’s mother on her deathbed in October of that year, and no pictures at all of Sebastian, who was born in January 1940 – a number of poems in it speak of a sense of precarious balance, or more accurately of having reached a tipping point, beyond which lies an unknown and troubling future.
Three of these poems are short enough to quote in full. The first is ‘Balance’:
In crazy balance at the edge of Time
Our spent days turn to cloud behind today –
And all tomorrow is a prophet’s dream –
This moment only rages endlessly
Is always the long moment of decay.
This poem insists on the illusory nature of past and future, the turbulent present being the only moment that exists. Hurry’s painting could be read as a response to this sentiment too, with the clouds at the top representing either the ‘spent days’ of the past or the ‘prophet’s dream’ of the future, while the double door-posts – the two ambiguous towers divided between growth and destruction – symbolize the moment of ‘prime’, always engaged in the acts of furious self-destruction which make decay inevitable. A second poem speaks of Peake’s acute sense that it is his own life in particular that is in danger of ending just as it reaches the ‘prime’ of maturity:
O heart-beats – you are rattling dice –
My rattling dice
Proclaim the edge of precipice
At whose hid boulders stands a soundless sea –
My days with hazards of futurity.
The landscape of this poem clearly resembles the rocky, sea-bound islands of the painting, while the diagrammatic drawings in Hurry’s painted sky might be seen as summoning up the ‘hazards of futurity’ in the blueprints they offer for flying machines and gun sights which might so easily be appropriated for military uses. The third poem commemorates another ominous moment in the ticking time-bomb which was the approach to the Second World War. Exactly one year before ‘September 1939’ Peake wrote a poem to mark the September Crisis of 1938, when the appeasers of Europe granted the Nazis free access to the German-speaking region of Czechoslovakia:
Au Moulin Joyeux
September Crisis, 1938
Here with the bread
We tasted anguish; here
The wine was grief,
Swung from a thread.
Yet, while we stared
Blind at a shifting fulcrum,
While our loves
Loaded the bleedy scales
And when to laugh
Here with their burning flags
Of pride unfurled,
All women raised bright goblets to the world.
The poem opens with the image of bread and wine which recurs in ‘September 1938’. Here the eucharistic sacrifice doesn’t mark a long-past historic event but a process that has only just taken place, in a present which is no longer endlessly raging but rather grief-stricken at the betrayal that has just been perpetrated by the appeasers. The moment of crisis occurred, it seems, while the world was at a party, so that the party food – bread and wine – became suddenly and incongruously symbolic, the partygoers’ ‘loves’ – romantic or erotic – helped to weigh down the scales on the side that denotes war, while their laughter replicated the mockery of the onlookers at Christ’s crucifixion. But the poem ends in the present, not the past; a present in which the women at the party collectively raise a toast to the world which is about to be bathed in bloodshed, while their own ‘burning flags / Of pride’ fly in bright opposition to the military flags which have been raised as opposing standards by Europe’s armies. The women’s gesture of defiance insists on the unity of the world at the point when it is about to be divided; it insists, in fact, on the continuance of hope when all the men in the room are frozen into helplessness.
There is no equivalent of the defiant women in Hurry’s picture, but the unfurling blue vegetation at the top of the doorway could be seen as raising defiant flags of hope at the point when desolation threatens. Each poem I’ve just quoted, then, represents the world in the late 1930s as precariously poised on the brink of ‘precipice’, as ‘O Heart-beats’ puts it, caught at the point of plunging into the oceanic depths of a dark future. And Hurry’s islands, seas and rocky islands – held in a state of precarious calm before the stormy outbreak threatened by the gathering darkness overhead – show a remarkable consonance with Peake’s concerns in the late 1930s and the images he used repeatedly to express them . The rocky islands in particular speak to the recurring island imagery in Peake’s work, stimulated in part by his boyhood obsession with Treasure Island and reinforced by his lifelong fascination with the island of Sark, where he spent two years or so as a member of an artist’s colony in the early 30s, and to which he returned as often as he could in the years that followed.
One more poem of 1939 points the way towards Peake’s future artistic direction, as represented by the Gormenghast novels. Peake’s wife, Maeve Gilmore, tells us that this poem too was written to mark the outbreak of war; and its repetition of a word from the poem ‘Au Moulin Joyeux’ invites us to consider that word’s significance as an expression of what war meant to Peake.
We Are the Haunted People
We are the haunted people.
We, who guess blindly at the seed
Into the crimson caption,
The birth of that inflamed
Portentous placard that will lose its flavour
Within an hour,
The while the dark deeds move that gave the words
A bastard birth
And hour by hour
Bursts a new gentian flower
Of bitter savour.
We have no power… no power…
We are the haunted people,
The last loose tasselated fringe that flies
Into the dark of aeons from a dark
This poem represents the present not as a tipping-point but as an act of erasure, whereby the out-of-control if short-lived ‘gentian flower’ of propaganda – the ‘crimson caption’ and the ‘portentous placard’ – overwhelms the senses of the ‘haunted people’, leaving them unable to guess at the real ‘dark deeds’ that may underlie this sudden proliferation of false news. The adjective ‘haunted’ suggests the ‘haunted people’s’ attachment to the past, whose traces are being submerged beneath the militant outbreak of vegetation. A haunting implies the intrusion of the past on the present; but the past in question is a nebulous, fragmentary, frail affair – possessing the sort of evanescence or fragmentariness that is also evoked by the unfinished line ‘We have no power… no power…’
It’s the last three lines of the poem, however, that point the way to Peake’s later project, Gormenghast. In this conclusion the ‘haunted people’ themselves become apparitions, loosely attached like the tasselated fringe of an ancient gown to a sombre, aeon-long history, which is rapidly disappearing into obscurity just as an ancient building might disappear under the weight of ivy, bindweed or Virginia creeper. Hurry’s twin white towers are undergoing a similar transformation, though in their case the stone is becoming vegetation instead of being overwhelmed by it. In both cases, something enduring and dynastic – the towers, after all, look like castle turrets – is being replaced by something temporary; and the colour of the turret-plants is the same bright blue as the most common varieties of ‘gentian flower’. The idea of propaganda as a ‘bastard birth’ underlines the break with the past, since dynasties depend on continuity as enshrined in legitimate genealogies. Steerpike comes to mind: that interloper of uncertain origin who inveigles his way (through increasingly hazardous throws of the dice) into a position of power in the dark dynastic castle, assuming the gown of the Master of Ritual in the process, while dispensing his ideas in the form of what might be called ‘crimson captions’. The confrontation between past and present, figured as a collision between the dark, old and ritualistic and the callous, young, and functional, is exactly the clash worked out in the first two books of the Gormenghast sequence. Gormenghast, too, is described on several occasions – most notably in the flood that breaks out in the second novel of the sequence – as a stony island, its contours closely resembling the contours of Sark; so closely, indeed, that parts of the castle are even named after well-known features of the Channel Island. The doors and towers of Hurry’s painting, surrounded by sea and darkness, point the way towards Gormenghast with as much prescience as ‘We Are the Haunted People’, and both works of art – all the works of art I’ve discussed in detail here – identify the Gormenghast books as products of the war that broke out in September 1939, grotesque offshoots from that year’s bitter seed.
Peake saw drawing itself as a dynastic activity – even the drawings of rebels and iconoclasts, which define themselves as revolutionary by virtue of their opposition to established authorities and orthodox lines. He sketched out his conception of the dynasty or genealogy of drawing in the introduction to The Drawings of Mervyn Peake (1949):
We expect authority in a drawing. The authority which is doubly alive, firstly through its overtones and echoes which show it to be born rapidly or languorously along one of the deep streams that wind back through time to a cave in Spain. The authority, as it were, of a chorus of voices; or of a prince, who with a line of kings for lineage can make no gesture that does not recall some royal ancestor. The repercussions of the dead disturb the page: an aeon of ghosts float by with charcoal in their hands. For tradition is the line that joins together the giant crests of a mountain range – that links the great rebels, while in the morasses of the valleys in between, the countless apes stare backwards as they squat like tired armies in the shade. But we expect, also, the authority of the single, isolated voice. That the body of a work is common heritage in no way drowns out the individual note. To work with pen and paper is in itself a common denominator from the outset. But it is the individual twist that haunts us.
The passage suggests we might read the ‘haunted people’ as artists, who are still conscious of the ‘dark of aeons’ which lies behind each mark they make on a page; a darkness that lends each mark resonance by waking comparisons with the ‘aeon’ of artistic ghosts who have made marks on paper before. In The Drawings of Mervyn Peake this very consciousness of their dynasty is what identifies certain artists as rebels, lifting themselves above the massed armies of ‘countless apes’ – the ‘men of the equal tread’, perhaps – to take command of the ‘giant crests’ of artistic and literary endeavour. And the quality that lifts them, Peake tells us, is a sense of balance:
Those threadbare terms ‘classic’, ‘romantic’, have little meaning when the finest examples of any master’s work are contemplated, for the first thing one finds is that they have that most magisterial of qualities, ‘equipoise’. They are compelling because they are not ‘classic’ and because they are not ‘romantic’. They are both and they are neither. They are balanced upon a razor’s edge between the passion and the intellect, between the compulsive and the architectonic. Out of this fusion there erupts that thing called ‘style’. […] The finest painters express themselves through their styles. It is as though they paint, draw, write, or compose with their own blood. Most artists work with other people’s blood. But sooner or later aesthetic theft shows its anaemic head.
From these remarks we get a sense of what the outbreak of war might have meant to an artist of the kind Peake admired. If the world has been taken over by the ‘men of the equal tread’ – armies with a determination not to mimic the past but to erase it altogether – then the possibility of making art itself stands in danger of being lost, as history is shunted aside in favour of propagandistic placards and fatuous catchphrases. A balance has been upset, not just between the dynastic past and a troubled future but between passion and intellect, the compulsive and the architectonic. Given the mechanistic equality of the armies’ tread one must presume it’s the intellect that has won out over the passions; that the artist-apes who work with other people’s blood have taken the place of the ‘masters’ who work with their own. Peake’s understanding of the outbreak of war as a struggle over the artist’s soul is perhaps most vividly represented in the series of propagandistic drawings he produced in 1940 to demonstrate his potential as a war artist – or perhaps as a designer of ‘portentous placards’ on behalf of the allies against Hitler. The series poses as a catalogue for ‘An Exhibition by the Artist, Adolf Hitler’, and its title is ‘The New Order’. Each picture in the catalogue has an academic title – awaking echoes of past pictures with similar titles – such as ‘Study of a Young Girl’, ‘Landscape with Figures’, ‘Dutch Interior’ and ‘Reclining Figure’; but each picture shows an atrocity perpetrated by Nazi forces in Europe: the young girl has been shot in the chest, the landscape is full of ruins and refugees, the Dutch Interior shows a young woman in the aftermath of a rape, and so on. The titles of the pictures, by invoking the art of peacetime, intensify the shock of the brutal images to which they have been attached. The visceral reactions viewers will have to these images make them romantic, in that they appeal to the emotions rather than the intellect; they clearly mimic the great series of etchings by Goya called ‘The Disasters of War’ (1810-1820). Classical thinking may underlie the orderly ranks of troops marching through Amsterdam and Paris in the year of this imaginary exhibition, but the extremes of horror their actions generate point up the radical detachment of classical from romantic values that has been engineered by Hitler’s New Order.
Going back to Leslie Hurry’s painting of September 1939, it’s clear from everything I’ve said so far that the artist had an intimate awareness of Peake’s imaginative vision, and that the picture he produced is a carefully executed reflection of the emotions and thoughts that underlay the poem it illustrates. The painting, then, shines light on a friendship, one which lasted for most of Peake’s life as a writer-artist. At the time it was painted, both artists were based in London, though Hurry moved to Thaxted in Essex later that year. Both artists became involved in the theatre at a formative moment in their careers; Peake designed costumes for a 1932 production of The Insect Play by the Capek brothers, and went on to write his own plays in the 1950s, while Hurry designed his first theatre set two years after painting the picture, in 1942, and went on to become a celebrated designer for the stage. Both men had a passion for Blake; ‘The Wonderful Year’ invokes one of Blake’s most celebrated pictures, ‘Glad Day’ (now known as ‘Albion Rose’), while Peake wrote a poem about the engraver-poet around the same time he wrote ‘September 1939’. And both artists have often been associated with the neo-romantic movement of the 1930s and 40s. The term ‘romantic’ is used of Hurry on the Tate’s website, while Peake refers to himself as a kind of romantic in a 1932 letter to his friend Gordon Smith: ‘I’ve decided to “be” a Romanticist in Painting, but am going to combine the guts of a Van Gogh with the design of a Puvis de Chavannes, and yet keep the suaveness of a Raphael running through stacks of corn that are yellower than yellow in the sunlight’ (pp. 47-8). Interestingly, Peake’s account of his brand of Romanticism is a fusion of Van Gogh’s passion, Puvis de Chavannes’s classical tendencies and the classically-inspired vibrancy of Raphael, one of the ‘royal ancestors’ of latter-day artist-princes. Balance between passion and intellect is clearly something he was aiming for even at this early stage of his artistic development.
But if Leslie Hurry was inspired by Romanticism, he was also strongly influenced by surrealism, the movement that found its way from France to Britain in the early 1930s and spawned the International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936, in London. Surrealism as a movement was notable for its refusal to be doctrinaire; its resistance to logical structures meant that giving a rationale for its activities was anathema to many of its practitioners, although the British art critic Herbert Read saw it as having affinities with revolutionary Romanticism. Read liked to call the movement ‘superrealism’ rather than surrealism, arguing that traditional realism was unable to take account of the vast proportion of human life which is devoted to dreams and unconscious impulses and that true realism must imitate dream images rather than the contours of the everyday. Surrealists sought to gain access to the unconscious by practising automatic drawing, and Hurry produced two books of automatic drawings in 1940-41 which earned him the title of ‘the ultra-surrealist’, despite his apparent non-involvement in the collective activities of the movement. The surrealist photographer Lee Miller made a portrait of him in 1943, his face reflected in a teapot alongside Miller herself and ‘an unknown man’. Surrealism was closely associated with the modernism of Miró and Picasso, the Apocalyptic Movement of the late 1930s and 1940s, and the neo-romanticism of Paul Nash and David Jones – the latter of whom Peake drew in 1939, possibly as one of a series of portraits of famous people for the London Mercury. The painting, then, forges a link between Peake and all these movements, and helps bring out the surrealist overtones of some of Peake’s images – most notably the one on the dustjacket of his first book of poems, Shapes and Sounds (1941), which represents a bizarre conch in the foreground, incorporating a human eye and ear, with a figure in the background walking off into an ‘architectonic’ space like a younger version of the Ancient Mariner in Peake’s illustrations for that poem.
Peake’s association with Hurry continued after the war in their joint connection with Grey Walls Press. A book of Hurry’s Paintings and Drawings was published by the Press in 1950, one year after the Grey Walls Press edition of The Drawings of Mervyn Peake. Grey Walls Press was closely associated with the anarchist poets Alex Comfort and Henry Treece, as James Gifford has pointed out, and Peake’s introduction to his Drawings, with its celebration of rebellious individualism, can easily be read as having a strongly anarchist slant.
One of the things the friendship hints at, in fact, is that Peake may not have been as a-political as he’s often taken to be. Surrealism was closely allied with anarchism, as was neo-romanticism, and both anarchists and surrealists were actively involved in the struggles against fascism and Nazism in Spain and Germany. In his strangely hostile biography of Peake, My Eyes Mint Gold, Malcolm Yorke insists that Peake and his wife, Maeve Gilmore, paid little attention to contemporary political events in their travels through Europe in 1937, despite the fact that their journey took them through Hitler’s Germany and brought them to Paris at the time when Picasso’s Guernica was on display there. The existence of Peake’s poems on the September Crisis of 1938 and the declaration of war in September 1939 shows that by that stage in his life, at least, he was intensely concerned with contemporary politics; and Hurry’s illustration to the latter indicates that Peake was happy for a Leftist to provide the imagery to go with his decidedly political text. Hurry’s own political position is suggested by his celebration of the Labour victory in 1945, and by the fact that Paintings and Drawings by Leslie Hurry was published with an introduction by the Marxist poet Jack Lindsay. It may be that Peake was Hurry’s political fellow traveller, on some level at least, between 1939 and 1949.
And despite what Malcolm Yorke contends, Peake did pay attention to the Spanish Civil War in 1937. The bombing of Guernica took place on 26 April, when the German air force laid waste to a Basque town, with heavy loss of civilian life, at the behest of the nationalist general Francisco Franco. In May of that year – a month or so after it was reported in Britain, most famously in The Times – Peake wrote the first of a number of poems about planes, its date being confirmed by the fact that he mentions Wales in the second line (he visited his mother’s homeland over the Whitsun period, which in 1937 fell on 15 and 16 May). The plane he describes is pregnant with menace:
The Metal Bird
Job’s eagle skids the thin sky still,
Her shadow swarms the cold Welsh hill.
The hawk hangs like an unloos’d bomb
And fills the circular sky with doom.
To-day across the meadow
There runs another shadow
Cast by a grizzlier bird that swings
Her body like a scythe, nor beats her wings,
A bloodless bird, whose mother was a man;
A painted bird of steel – a skeleton
That sheers shrill-naked to the screaming bone,
And bears her sexless beauty to the town.
O hawk with naked eyes!
O bloody eagle circling the skies!
Our century has bred a newer beauty,
The metal bird from the cold factory.
Once again the poem charts the displacement of the past – embodied in Jove’s bird, the eagle (which has got fused here with the suffering Job of the Old Testament) and the ‘hawk with naked eyes’ – by a manmade military machine, whose metallic precision and coldly efficient destructiveness marks it out as a product of logic, as against romantic passion. The fact that this bird is flying ‘to the town’, along with the references to skeletons and screaming bones, might have linked it at once to Guernica in the minds of the poem’s first readers. The poem was published in the London Mercury in January 1938; and almost two years later, in November 1939, Peake published in The Listener another version of the same conceit, this time cast as a sonnet, ‘Where Skidded Only in the Upper Air’. In this version, the plane in question is certainly a bomber, ‘Whose metal womb is heavy with a cold / Foetus of bombs unborn, that, ere they rest / In death will revel in a birth of blood’. By 1939, however, when children were being evacuated from all the urban centres of Britain, the significance of these explosive foetuses would probably have struck much closer to home than Guernica.
Between these two versions of the same poem, however, Peake made his most direct poetic reference to the bombing of Guernica. This occurs in another sonnet, this one dedicated to the greatest Spanish painter of the sixteenth century:
They spire titanic bodies into heaven,
Tall Saints enswathed in a tempestuous flare
Of twisting draperies that coil through air,
Of dye incredible, from rapture woven,
And heads set steeply skywards, brittle-carven
Against the coiling clouds in regions rare;
Their beauty, ice-like, shrills – and everywhere
A metal music sounds, cold spirit shriven.
So drives the acid nail of coloured pain
Into our vulnerable wood, earth-rooted,
And sends the red sap racing through the trees
Where slugged it lay, now spun with visions looted
From whining skies and cold Gethsemanes
Of hollow light, and all the wounds of Spain.
Here again, as in all the poems we’ve been looking at in this post, the past finds itself utterly transformed by the present; not displaced or lost in darkness, this time, but given a terrible new significance that could never have been anticipated by a sixteenth-century painter, no matter how visionary. In the introduction to The Drawings of Mervyn Peake the artist writes about how one’s perception of a well-known picture can be utterly transformed by increasing familiarity with the artistic tradition it springs from. ‘A particular man,’ he tells us, ‘can see only his own reflection’ as he studies any given painting or drawing; but ‘When he enriches his knowledge of pictures – in other words, when he becomes to that extent a slightly different man – he will see a slightly different picture, and so on, until the canvas or the drawing bears no relation to the work he stared at five years earlier. […] And so,’ he concludes, ‘before all work that is authoritative and vital there must be an inner adjustment: a willingness to change, in other words – to grow’. ‘El Greco’, by contrast, traces a different kind of transformation. In this poem, a familiar painting on a religious subject – ‘Tall saints […] from rapture woven’ – is suddenly overlaid with a modern significance. The curling clouds to which they lift their enraptured hands suddenly get filled with a strange new noise; they shrill, like the implied bomb in ‘The Metal Bird’ that ‘sheers shrill-naked to the screaming bone’. This new ‘metal music’ shifts the scene to twentieth-century Guernica. The viewer feels a stab of ‘coloured pain’ at the association, as if a nail of sympathy has been driven home by the shared nationality of the painter and the bomb victims in the devastated town. The association wakens the sluggish viewer’s response to El Greco’s image into urgent new life. Instead of a religious theme the painting is ‘now spun with visions looted / From whining skies and cold Gethsemanes / Of hollow light, and all the wounds of Spain’. From being historical it has been made urgently topical, and from this moment on the painter’s works can never be looked at in the same light again.
Leslie Hurry’s painting ‘September 1939’ brings a moment of history to life. Plugged into the complex circuitry of Mervyn Peake’s artistic and literary context, it illuminates associations and links that had largely lain in darkness before its discovery: links with the political Left, with the British surrealists, with the major historical markers in the approach to the Second World War – Guernica, the September Crisis, the declaration of war, the evacuation of London. It points up the obsession with equilibrium and its loss that dominates Peake’s thoughts about art and human identity. And it provides a gate or doorway to new, more passionately topical readings of the Gormenghast sequence than the ones we’ve practised before. Read as a continuation, for instance, of his close encounters with surrealists as well as neo-romantics, with anarchists and experimentalists as well as with pillars of the British establishment, Gormenghast Castle starts to look less eccentrically isolated, more organically bound up with other artistic and political responses to the global conflicts of the twentieth century. I look forward to exploring these associations in greater detail.
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.
 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’.
 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.
 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.’