The weight of the world is on our shoulders
Our weight is on the world’s shoulders
The world waits for us to take on the weight we should shoulder
Before the world shoulders us and our weight aside.
[This weekend is the Feast of Saint Nicholas. On the eve of his feast day on 6 December, we always send a poem to our friends from the Netherlands, who now live in Rhode Island. This year the theme of the poem is the legend of the three pickled boys, who are said to have been murdered by a butcher and hidden in a pickle tub. Saint Nicholas brought them back to life, and thanks to this miracle has always been recognised as the patron saint of children, the original Santa Claus. Mixed in with the miracle in this poem is the fact that we are currently moving house to a Victorian ground floor apartment, with all the labour that entails. You can find last year’s poem here.]
Three boys loitering
Underneath the floorboards
Eyes wide open
Staring at the dark.
Three boys leaning
On the broken plaster,
Staring at the brickwork,
Dreaming of the park.
Where’d they come from?
Not the slightest notion.
Somewhere warm, where
People knew their names.
Three boys crouching
By the broken hearthstone,
Cold and empty,
Staring at the flames.
Scrapers smooth fresh
Plaster on the wall.
From the empty kitchen,
Dust-clouds rise from
Living-room and hall.
Warming up the building,
Beating back the chills of
Loneliness and loss.
Scaffolding and laughter,
Sweeping off the cobwebs,
Scraping back the moss.
One bright morning,
Sunlight in the bedrooms,
Three boys floating
Near the bathroom floor
Heard a key-bunch
Rattle at the keyhole,
Saw a face peer
Round the open door.
Bright eyes gleaming
See them for the first time,
Hands stretch out and
Lift them till they stand.
Three boys gabbling
To the lofty stranger
Tell their story
Clinging to his hand.
Three boys smiling
Lead him to the fireplace
Sit him down on
Piles of dusty bricks.
Soon his face is
Shining like a chestnut
As he feeds the
Flames with broken sticks.
Notices the firelight
Through the window
Of the empty flat.
Peeps in softly,
Sees decay and mildew,
Long years later,
Wanderers in darkness
Note the gleam of
Firelight in the glass.
Hear sweet singing
Filter through the window,
See the flat quite
Empty as they pass.
Three boys don’t care
What the world is thinking,
As folks point and
Whisper to their friends.
Tall Saint Nicholas
In his crimson costume
Feeds them, loves them,
Till the winter ends.
[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.]
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’. 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.
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. 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). 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.
The form of verse that dominates the castle is nonsense; and the question of why this should be is well worth asking. 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. 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’ – perhaps a similar vessel to the ‘biscuit-ship’ full of weevils invoked by the castle Poet in another unpublished poem. 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. 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
Alone on the Halibut Hills
With sweet mad Expressions
So we’re told
By the Creatures that Move
In the sky
On the night when the Dead Trees
Prance and Cry.
Sensitive, seldom, and sad –
Sensitive, seldom, and sad –
Simple, seldom and sad
When we take our path
To the purple sea –
With mad, sweet Expressions
Yea, and More
On the Night of all Nights
When the sky
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.
 Mervyn Peake, The Gormenghast Trilogy (London: Mandarin, 1992), p. 367. All references are to this edition.
 For Peake’s ‘default metre’, see Collected Poems, ed. R. W. Maslen (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), introduction, p. 10.
 See Mervyn Peake, Complete Nonsense, ed. R. W. Maslen and G. Peter Winnington (Manchester: Carcanet, 2011), pp. 124-6 and note.
 Peake, Complete Nonsense, p. 184.
 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.
 G. Peter Winnington, The Voice of the Heart: the working of Mervyn Peake’s imagination (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006), chapter 3.
 Peake, Complete Nonsense, p. 53.
 Peake, Complete Nonsense, p. 156.
 Peake, Complete Nonsense, pp. 124-5.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Jones, David, In Parenthesis (London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1978)
 ‘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).
 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
[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.]
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. 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.’. 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.
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. 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. 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. 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?
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:
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’. 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.
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 – 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.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’. 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:
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.
 Approximate dates for Peake’s poems are given in my edition of Peake’s Collected Poems, Fyfield Books (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008).
 Collected Poems, p. 165.
 See Peake, Titus Groan (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968), pp. 281-85 (‘Knives in the Moon’).
 For‘The Touch o’ the Ash’ see Peake’s Progress, ed. Maeve Gilmore, corrected by G. Peter Winnington (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981), pp. 45-61.
 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.
 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.
 ‘Heads Float About Me’ can be found in Collected Poems, pp. 214-5.
 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.
 The Belsen poem is ‘The Consumptive. Belsen 1945’, Collected Poems, pp. 133-4.
 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.
 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.
 Mr Slaughterboard can be found in Peake’s Progress, pp. 63-94.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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).
[This is a poem I wrote for some Dutch friends, former neighbours in Glasgow who now live in Rhode Island. Our two families always celebrated the Dutch festival of Saint Nicholas together, and we still send each other poems every year. Saint Nicholas came from Turkey, though for some reason he always sails to the Netherlands via Spain. His day is 5 December, but his journey from Spain takes a week and you can follow its progress on Dutch TV.]
Saint Nicholas has far to go
Across the waves from Spain.
His little boat is powered by snow
And wind, and spray, and rain.
His little helpers, so they say,
Are blue, and green, and pink;
Saint Nicholas’s hair is grey;
His face is black as ink.
Saint Nicholas was once a girl,
But now his form is male.
He watched his silver beard unfurl
As slowly as a snail.
For centuries he watched it grow
And watered it with tears,
While sun, and rain, and wind, and snow
Marked out the passing years.
And now it flies behind him as
He skims across the waves
With piles of presents in his arms
For refugees and slaves.
And when he sees your waiting shoes
He’ll fill them full of dreams,
Where every shoe’s a bark canoe
And every street’s a stream.
And every stream runs dimpling down
Through hills, and heaths, and trees,
To join the green, red, yellow, brown,
There where the boats dash to and fro
With Nicholas and his friends:
Whales from the lands of ice and snow,
Birds from the ocean’s ends;
And as the waters rise and rise
And as the skies grow dark,
Studded with little blinking eyes,
The boats will form an ark.
The ark will forge through froth and foam,
The birds and whales will hum,
And nudge the vessel gently home
In some strange time to come.
And where it lands its wooden sides
Will root themselves and grow,
And strange new creatures leap or glide
Into the evening glow.
And as they peer about in fear
Dreading another storm,
Saint Nicholas will reappear
In some bizarre new form.
He’ll try to make them understand
They’ve nothing left to lose;
And then he’ll sink down in the sand
And give them back their shoes.
And some of them will put them on
As hats, or masks, or shells,
While others jump aboard and sail
Them off like caravels.
And others still will walk away
With shoes on both their feet,
And build a little town of clay
With trees on every street.
And every house will be an inn
For folk from overseas,
With food and drink and clothes within
For slaves and refugees.
And every night they’ll lay their shoes
Outside the door with care,
So folk with nothing left to lose
Will know they’re welcome there.
And every morning they’ll look out
Through panes of coloured glass
And hum this little song about
The new Saint Nicholas.
The beginning of this month marked the 80th anniversary of Britain’s declaration of war on Nazi Germany, which took place at 11 am on Sunday 3 September 1939. Eleven years ago I published for the first time, in my edition of Mervyn Peake’s Collected Poems, a poem called ‘September 1939’. The poem is short and not particularly distinguished, but it’s attached to the story of a remarkable coincidence – one of several that took place while I was editing the collection. And the coincidence provides an insight into the artistic and political milieu inhabited by Peake in the 1930s. Here, then, is a post about September 1939, the month and the poem, along with a meditation on how a tiny seed of information can begin to effloresce into a full-grown theory about a writer-artist’s friendships, influences and political sympathies.
When I first came across the poem ‘September 1939’ it was in a battered old exercise book full of poems, many of which had never seen print, stowed in a battered old suitcase in the London flat of Peake’s eldest son, Sebastian. The suitcase, as I remember it, was crammed to bursting with manuscripts and typescripts, mostly drafts of Mervyn’s poems, plays and prose of all descriptions. When Sebastian laid it on the table in his living room and opened it up I felt like a pirate suddenly faced with a heap of treasure: tongue-tied, goggle-eyed, caught between the lust of a child confronted by the treasures of a toyshop, with birthday money clutched in its grubby fist, and the astonishment of an adult who has stopped hoping that the world holds surprises like this, yet finds himself in attendance at the fulfilment of a lifelong fantasy. I still feel something of that extraordinary sensation twelve or thirteen years after Sebastian shut the suitcase again and put it away.
I haven’t experienced anything quite like that before or since. Except once, when the internet worked a little magic for me.
Not long after finishing my edition of the Collected Poems and sending it off to Carcanet, at a loss for anything to do with my hands and mind after the white hot excitement of the editorial process, I found myself idly typing a few words from the poem ‘September 1939’ into the search engine of my computer.
I wasn’t really thinking as I did so. I have no idea what made me do it, in fact. The poem from which the words came had never been published before, so there could be no expectation at all of getting a hit. Except that I got one.
The line came up word for word as I had typed it.
I can’t now recall which line it was from the poem, but there it stood, the opening entry in the short list of results for my search terms. And when I clicked on the link I found that the whole poem had somehow been transcribed and put online. I may be remembering this wrong; it may have been only the first few lines of the poem that had been transcribed, while the rest could be read with some difficulty in a low-definition PDF on the webpage I had stumbled across. But the fact remains: there was the poem, and there was I, and once again the impossible had come to pass and the shape of the world had been subtly changed by an unexpected encounter.
The webpage on which I found the poem belonged to an online auctioneer, and the creator of the page had ascribed the poem to a man called Leslie Hurry – quite reasonably, since Hurry had incorporated the poem into a painting of his which had recently been sold. A quick search for Hurry’s name revealed that he was a painter and illustrator of considerable promise in the 1930s who later moved into theatre design at the instigation of the director, dancer and actor Robert Helpmann – most famous now as the Childcatcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. At that time there were not many paintings of Hurry’s to be seen online – partly, it seems, because of a dispute over copyright; but in 2019, as I type these words, you can find a great many paintings, drawings and set designs by Hurry scattered across a range of different websites. One of his best-known paintings is ‘This Extraordinary Year, 1945’, which is on show in Tate Britain. It’s a picture that owes a lot to Blake, and that celebrates the end of World War Two and the election of a Labour Government. The painting I found with the poem in it was also concerned with a significant year, this time less auspicious: 1939. The two paintings, then, stand at the opening and closing moments of World War II, and the one I had just found online provided a kind of gateway or portal onto the dreadful time to come.
In fact, a gate or portal features in the painting. In the middle of what seems to be an ocean stand two white pillars side by side, which rise into blue plantlike growths gradually curving towards each other until they meet overhead to form a lintel. Each pillar has a door and two windows in it, giving it the appearance of a lighthouse or the turret of a medieval castle. Two long staircases approach each door, changing direction twice before they reach it. Between the pillars, through the gateway they form, you can see another ocean with a rock or island in it. There is something small and pale in front of the island-rock but I can’t make out what it is; it could be a boat, a whale, or another rock. The island-rock seems to have another tower on it – possibly two – but they are sketched in pen rather than fully painted.
Behind each of the two towers or pillars in the foreground there is what seems to be an upright, reddish rock, whose curve undergoes a very different metamorphosis from that of the pillars. The pillars grow upwards into cool blue plants or flowers. The rocks instead get extended below the gateway into a pair of clashing scimitar blades, which form another lintel under the doorway, this time painted red. The sea we are looking at through the doorway – or alternatively in a mirror, since the two lintels, above and below, could form the frame of a painting or looking glass – seems itself, as I said at the beginning, to be in the depths of another ocean, whose surface appears at the top of the painting, with the gateway underneath, as if immersed.
We’re looking into the depths, in other words, and the doorway or mirror we are looking through is threatening us. While the blue plants are thrusting upwards towards the lightest part of the sky, the blades are sweeping out towards the viewer. It looks as though they could cut us if we weren’t careful.
There is another island in the sea at the top of the painting, and in the lowering sky above the island Hurry has included what look like technical diagrams drawn in pen: a radio mast on the left, a flying machine above it whose wings recall the pages of an open book, a gun sight in the middle, a web of cables. The ocean at the top of the picture could represent the present, when such diagrams are widespread; or it could represent the consciousness. The portal, with its old-looking towers, could represent the past, or alternatively the subconscious, since it’s immersed in the depths. One thing is certain, though: the portal itself enacts two movements, one upwards towards new growth, the other downwards and outwards towards destruction. It’s a Janus-faced painting, even if the date it refers to is September rather than January. And the aggressive outward gesture of the blades suggests that theirs is the direction the world has chosen to take on this side of the picture – the side the viewer stands on.
As for the poem, as I’ve said, in the exercise book it was titled ‘September 1939’, and that’s the title I gave it in my edition. The painting, however, doesn’t give it a title at all. The lines are laid out differently, too, from the way they were in the exercise book:
This is the year of our Lord;
And nine hundred years
Once the blood was wine
And the flesh was broken
The men of the equal tread
Have come into their own
And the bayonets shine.
This is the year of our Lord;
And nine hundred years
It might be better, I think, if there were a break between ‘thirty-nine’ and ‘Once the blood was wine’, which would make the poem into a mirror image like the mirror image implied by the painting, with two stanzas of four lines framing two stanzas of three lines just as the portal frames the painting’s interior sea. The word ‘Once’ in this version doesn’t quite make sense, at least to me; the exercise book has ‘Since’ in its place. I love, though, the way the poem (and the picture) draws the eye to the three central lines: ‘The men of the equal tread / Have come into their own / And the bayonets shine’. In the exercise book version this is slightly different: ‘And the men of the equal tread / Have come into their own / And their bayonets shine’; but the extra repetition of ‘the’ in Hurry’s version (‘the bayonets’) makes the soldiers more impersonal, conjuring up the familiar newsreels of the 1930s showing lines of Nazi soldiers marching in mechanical triumph through Berlin and Poland. And these three lines represent the mid-point in what seems an inexorable movement throughout history, from the moment of Christ’s birth (‘the year of our Lord’) to his death (‘Once […] the flesh was broken’) and on to the present, when the ‘men of the equal tread / Have come into their own’, with bayonets as sharp as Hurry’s scimitars. Having read it, one can also see something bladelike about the metal-blue plants into which the towers have grown, something sinister about the conjunction of defensive towers, radar, flying machine and gun sight at the top of the painting. Hurry’s picture may indicate two alternative directions, one leading to peace and one to war, but with the declaration of war in September 1939 both directions might be seen as always having pointed to the same destination. The breaking of Christ’s flesh and the spilling of his blood pointed the way to the breaking of flesh and the spilling of blood at the mid point of the twentieth century. This was the only possible fruit, one might imagine, that could be produced by that particular sacrificial tree.
Hurry may well have decided that Peake’s poem resembles a set of double doors, which fits into the frame provided by Hurry’s illustration. The repeated four lines at the beginning and end form a verbal counterpart to the painting’s doorframe, while the two sets of three lines form a door each – the door relating to Christ and the door relating to the rise of Nazism. But another way of looking at the poem is as the representation of a fulcrum, the point on which a bar or seesaw balances. The fulcrum lies in the space between the lines ‘Like bread’ and ‘The men of the equal tread’, with Christ’s sacrifice occurring on one side of it, the Nazis on the other; what the poem says is that the world of 1939 has tipped towards the Nazis. Peake’s mind was much preoccupied with fulcrums in the late 1930s. A number of poems from the exercise book – which I’ve dated to 1939 at latest, since it contains sketches of Peake’s mother on her deathbed in October of that year, and no pictures at all of Sebastian, who was born in January 1940 – a number of poems in it speak of a sense of precarious balance, or more accurately of having reached a tipping point, beyond which lies an unknown and troubling future.
Three of these poems are short enough to quote in full. The first is ‘Balance’:
In crazy balance at the edge of Time
Our spent days turn to cloud behind today –
And all tomorrow is a prophet’s dream –
This moment only rages endlessly
Is always the long moment of decay.
This poem insists on the illusory nature of past and future, the turbulent present being the only moment that exists. Hurry’s painting could be read as a response to this sentiment too, with the clouds at the top representing either the ‘spent days’ of the past or the ‘prophet’s dream’ of the future, while the double door-posts – the two ambiguous towers divided between growth and destruction – symbolize the moment of ‘prime’, always engaged in the acts of furious self-destruction which make decay inevitable. A second poem speaks of Peake’s acute sense that it is his own life in particular that is in danger of ending just as it reaches the ‘prime’ of maturity:
O heart-beats – you are rattling dice –
My rattling dice
Proclaim the edge of precipice
At whose hid boulders stands a soundless sea –
My days with hazards of futurity.
The landscape of this poem clearly resembles the rocky, sea-bound islands of the painting, while the diagrammatic drawings in Hurry’s painted sky might be seen as summoning up the ‘hazards of futurity’ in the blueprints they offer for flying machines and gun sights which might so easily be appropriated for military uses. The third poem commemorates another ominous moment in the ticking time-bomb which was the approach to the Second World War. Exactly one year before ‘September 1939’ Peake wrote a poem to mark the September Crisis of 1938, when the appeasers of Europe granted the Nazis free access to the German-speaking region of Czechoslovakia:
Au Moulin Joyeux
September Crisis, 1938
Here with the bread
We tasted anguish; here
The wine was grief,
Swung from a thread.
Yet, while we stared
Blind at a shifting fulcrum,
While our loves
Loaded the bleedy scales
And when to laugh
Here with their burning flags
Of pride unfurled,
All women raised bright goblets to the world.
The poem opens with the image of bread and wine which recurs in ‘September 1938’. Here the eucharistic sacrifice doesn’t mark a long-past historic event but a process that has only just taken place, in a present which is no longer endlessly raging but rather grief-stricken at the betrayal that has just been perpetrated by the appeasers. The moment of crisis occurred, it seems, while the world was at a party, so that the party food – bread and wine – became suddenly and incongruously symbolic, the partygoers’ ‘loves’ – romantic or erotic – helped to weigh down the scales on the side that denotes war, while their laughter replicated the mockery of the onlookers at Christ’s crucifixion. But the poem ends in the present, not the past; a present in which the women at the party collectively raise a toast to the world which is about to be bathed in bloodshed, while their own ‘burning flags / Of pride’ fly in bright opposition to the military flags which have been raised as opposing standards by Europe’s armies. The women’s gesture of defiance insists on the unity of the world at the point when it is about to be divided; it insists, in fact, on the continuance of hope when all the men in the room are frozen into helplessness.
There is no equivalent of the defiant women in Hurry’s picture, but the unfurling blue vegetation at the top of the doorway could be seen as raising defiant flags of hope at the point when desolation threatens. Each poem I’ve just quoted, then, represents the world in the late 1930s as precariously poised on the brink of ‘precipice’, as ‘O Heart-beats’ puts it, caught at the point of plunging into the oceanic depths of a dark future. And Hurry’s islands, seas and rocky islands – held in a state of precarious calm before the stormy outbreak threatened by the gathering darkness overhead – show a remarkable consonance with Peake’s concerns in the late 1930s and the images he used repeatedly to express them . The rocky islands in particular speak to the recurring island imagery in Peake’s work, stimulated in part by his boyhood obsession with Treasure Island and reinforced by his lifelong fascination with the island of Sark, where he spent two years or so as a member of an artist’s colony in the early 30s, and to which he returned as often as he could in the years that followed.
One more poem of 1939 points the way towards Peake’s future artistic direction, as represented by the Gormenghast novels. Peake’s wife, Maeve Gilmore, tells us that this poem too was written to mark the outbreak of war; and its repetition of a word from the poem ‘Au Moulin Joyeux’ invites us to consider that word’s significance as an expression of what war meant to Peake.
We Are the Haunted People
We are the haunted people.
We, who guess blindly at the seed
Into the crimson caption,
The birth of that inflamed
Portentous placard that will lose its flavour
Within an hour,
The while the dark deeds move that gave the words
A bastard birth
And hour by hour
Bursts a new gentian flower
Of bitter savour.
We have no power… no power…
We are the haunted people,
The last loose tasselated fringe that flies
Into the dark of aeons from a dark
This poem represents the present not as a tipping-point but as an act of erasure, whereby the out-of-control if short-lived ‘gentian flower’ of propaganda – the ‘crimson caption’ and the ‘portentous placard’ – overwhelms the senses of the ‘haunted people’, leaving them unable to guess at the real ‘dark deeds’ that may underlie this sudden proliferation of false news. The adjective ‘haunted’ suggests the ‘haunted people’s’ attachment to the past, whose traces are being submerged beneath the militant outbreak of vegetation. A haunting implies the intrusion of the past on the present; but the past in question is a nebulous, fragmentary, frail affair – possessing the sort of evanescence or fragmentariness that is also evoked by the unfinished line ‘We have no power… no power…’
It’s the last three lines of the poem, however, that point the way to Peake’s later project, Gormenghast. In this conclusion the ‘haunted people’ themselves become apparitions, loosely attached like the tasselated fringe of an ancient gown to a sombre, aeon-long history, which is rapidly disappearing into obscurity just as an ancient building might disappear under the weight of ivy, bindweed or Virginia creeper. Hurry’s twin white towers are undergoing a similar transformation, though in their case the stone is becoming vegetation instead of being overwhelmed by it. In both cases, something enduring and dynastic – the towers, after all, look like castle turrets – is being replaced by something temporary; and the colour of the turret-plants is the same bright blue as the most common varieties of ‘gentian flower’. The idea of propaganda as a ‘bastard birth’ underlines the break with the past, since dynasties depend on continuity as enshrined in legitimate genealogies. Steerpike comes to mind: that interloper of uncertain origin who inveigles his way (through increasingly hazardous throws of the dice) into a position of power in the dark dynastic castle, assuming the gown of the Master of Ritual in the process, while dispensing his ideas in the form of what might be called ‘crimson captions’. The confrontation between past and present, figured as a collision between the dark, old and ritualistic and the callous, young, and functional, is exactly the clash worked out in the first two books of the Gormenghast sequence. Gormenghast, too, is described on several occasions – most notably in the flood that breaks out in the second novel of the sequence – as a stony island, its contours closely resembling the contours of Sark; so closely, indeed, that parts of the castle are even named after well-known features of the Channel Island. The doors and towers of Hurry’s painting, surrounded by sea and darkness, point the way towards Gormenghast with as much prescience as ‘We Are the Haunted People’, and both works of art – all the works of art I’ve discussed in detail here – identify the Gormenghast books as products of the war that broke out in September 1939, grotesque offshoots from that year’s bitter seed.
Peake saw drawing itself as a dynastic activity – even the drawings of rebels and iconoclasts, which define themselves as revolutionary by virtue of their opposition to established authorities and orthodox lines. He sketched out his conception of the dynasty or genealogy of drawing in the introduction to The Drawings of Mervyn Peake (1949):
We expect authority in a drawing. The authority which is doubly alive, firstly through its overtones and echoes which show it to be born rapidly or languorously along one of the deep streams that wind back through time to a cave in Spain. The authority, as it were, of a chorus of voices; or of a prince, who with a line of kings for lineage can make no gesture that does not recall some royal ancestor. The repercussions of the dead disturb the page: an aeon of ghosts float by with charcoal in their hands. For tradition is the line that joins together the giant crests of a mountain range – that links the great rebels, while in the morasses of the valleys in between, the countless apes stare backwards as they squat like tired armies in the shade. But we expect, also, the authority of the single, isolated voice. That the body of a work is common heritage in no way drowns out the individual note. To work with pen and paper is in itself a common denominator from the outset. But it is the individual twist that haunts us.
The passage suggests we might read the ‘haunted people’ as artists, who are still conscious of the ‘dark of aeons’ which lies behind each mark they make on a page; a darkness that lends each mark resonance by waking comparisons with the ‘aeon’ of artistic ghosts who have made marks on paper before. In The Drawings of Mervyn Peake this very consciousness of their dynasty is what identifies certain artists as rebels, lifting themselves above the massed armies of ‘countless apes’ – the ‘men of the equal tread’, perhaps – to take command of the ‘giant crests’ of artistic and literary endeavour. And the quality that lifts them, Peake tells us, is a sense of balance:
Those threadbare terms ‘classic’, ‘romantic’, have little meaning when the finest examples of any master’s work are contemplated, for the first thing one finds is that they have that most magisterial of qualities, ‘equipoise’. They are compelling because they are not ‘classic’ and because they are not ‘romantic’. They are both and they are neither. They are balanced upon a razor’s edge between the passion and the intellect, between the compulsive and the architectonic. Out of this fusion there erupts that thing called ‘style’. […] The finest painters express themselves through their styles. It is as though they paint, draw, write, or compose with their own blood. Most artists work with other people’s blood. But sooner or later aesthetic theft shows its anaemic head.
From these remarks we get a sense of what the outbreak of war might have meant to an artist of the kind Peake admired. If the world has been taken over by the ‘men of the equal tread’ – armies with a determination not to mimic the past but to erase it altogether – then the possibility of making art itself stands in danger of being lost, as history is shunted aside in favour of propagandistic placards and fatuous catchphrases. A balance has been upset, not just between the dynastic past and a troubled future but between passion and intellect, the compulsive and the architectonic. Given the mechanistic equality of the armies’ tread one must presume it’s the intellect that has won out over the passions; that the artist-apes who work with other people’s blood have taken the place of the ‘masters’ who work with their own. Peake’s understanding of the outbreak of war as a struggle over the artist’s soul is perhaps most vividly represented in the series of propagandistic drawings he produced in 1940 to demonstrate his potential as a war artist – or perhaps as a designer of ‘portentous placards’ on behalf of the allies against Hitler. The series poses as a catalogue for ‘An Exhibition by the Artist, Adolf Hitler’, and its title is ‘The New Order’. Each picture in the catalogue has an academic title – awaking echoes of past pictures with similar titles – such as ‘Study of a Young Girl’, ‘Landscape with Figures’, ‘Dutch Interior’ and ‘Reclining Figure’; but each picture shows an atrocity perpetrated by Nazi forces in Europe: the young girl has been shot in the chest, the landscape is full of ruins and refugees, the Dutch Interior shows a young woman in the aftermath of a rape, and so on. The titles of the pictures, by invoking the art of peacetime, intensify the shock of the brutal images to which they have been attached. The visceral reactions viewers will have to these images make them romantic, in that they appeal to the emotions rather than the intellect; they clearly mimic the great series of etchings by Goya called ‘The Disasters of War’ (1810-1820). Classical thinking may underlie the orderly ranks of troops marching through Amsterdam and Paris in the year of this imaginary exhibition, but the extremes of horror their actions generate point up the radical detachment of classical from romantic values that has been engineered by Hitler’s New Order.
Going back to Leslie Hurry’s painting of September 1939, it’s clear from everything I’ve said so far that the artist had an intimate awareness of Peake’s imaginative vision, and that the picture he produced is a carefully executed reflection of the emotions and thoughts that underlay the poem it illustrates. The painting, then, shines light on a friendship, one which lasted for most of Peake’s life as a writer-artist. At the time it was painted, both artists were based in London, though Hurry moved to Thaxted in Essex later that year. Both artists became involved in the theatre at a formative moment in their careers; Peake designed costumes for a 1932 production of The Insect Play by the Capek brothers, and went on to write his own plays in the 1950s, while Hurry designed his first theatre set two years after painting the picture, in 1942, and went on to become a celebrated designer for the stage. Both men had a passion for Blake; ‘The Wonderful Year’ invokes one of Blake’s most celebrated pictures, ‘Glad Day’ (now known as ‘Albion Rose’), while Peake wrote a poem about the engraver-poet around the same time he wrote ‘September 1939’. And both artists have often been associated with the neo-romantic movement of the 1930s and 40s. The term ‘romantic’ is used of Hurry on the Tate’s website, while Peake refers to himself as a kind of romantic in a 1932 letter to his friend Gordon Smith: ‘I’ve decided to “be” a Romanticist in Painting, but am going to combine the guts of a Van Gogh with the design of a Puvis de Chavannes, and yet keep the suaveness of a Raphael running through stacks of corn that are yellower than yellow in the sunlight’ (pp. 47-8). Interestingly, Peake’s account of his brand of Romanticism is a fusion of Van Gogh’s passion, Puvis de Chavannes’s classical tendencies and the classically-inspired vibrancy of Raphael, one of the ‘royal ancestors’ of latter-day artist-princes. Balance between passion and intellect is clearly something he was aiming for even at this early stage of his artistic development.
But if Leslie Hurry was inspired by Romanticism, he was also strongly influenced by surrealism, the movement that found its way from France to Britain in the early 1930s and spawned the International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936, in London. Surrealism as a movement was notable for its refusal to be doctrinaire; its resistance to logical structures meant that giving a rationale for its activities was anathema to many of its practitioners, although the British art critic Herbert Read saw it as having affinities with revolutionary Romanticism. Read liked to call the movement ‘superrealism’ rather than surrealism, arguing that traditional realism was unable to take account of the vast proportion of human life which is devoted to dreams and unconscious impulses and that true realism must imitate dream images rather than the contours of the everyday. Surrealists sought to gain access to the unconscious by practising automatic drawing, and Hurry produced two books of automatic drawings in 1940-41 which earned him the title of ‘the ultra-surrealist’, despite his apparent non-involvement in the collective activities of the movement. The surrealist photographer Lee Miller made a portrait of him in 1943, his face reflected in a teapot alongside Miller herself and ‘an unknown man’. Surrealism was closely associated with the modernism of Miró and Picasso, the Apocalyptic Movement of the late 1930s and 1940s, and the neo-romanticism of Paul Nash and David Jones – the latter of whom Peake drew in 1939, possibly as one of a series of portraits of famous people for the London Mercury. The painting, then, forges a link between Peake and all these movements, and helps bring out the surrealist overtones of some of Peake’s images – most notably the one on the dustjacket of his first book of poems, Shapes and Sounds (1941), which represents a bizarre conch in the foreground, incorporating a human eye and ear, with a figure in the background walking off into an ‘architectonic’ space like a younger version of the Ancient Mariner in Peake’s illustrations for that poem.
Peake’s association with Hurry continued after the war in their joint connection with Grey Walls Press. A book of Hurry’s Paintings and Drawings was published by the Press in 1950, one year after the Grey Walls Press edition of The Drawings of Mervyn Peake. Grey Walls Press was closely associated with the anarchist poets Alex Comfort and Henry Treece, as James Gifford has pointed out, and Peake’s introduction to his Drawings, with its celebration of rebellious individualism, can easily be read as having a strongly anarchist slant.
One of the things the friendship hints at, in fact, is that Peake may not have been as a-political as he’s often taken to be. Surrealism was closely allied with anarchism, as was neo-romanticism, and both anarchists and surrealists were actively involved in the struggles against fascism and Nazism in Spain and Germany. In his strangely hostile biography of Peake, My Eyes Mint Gold, Malcolm Yorke insists that Peake and his wife, Maeve Gilmore, paid little attention to contemporary political events in their travels through Europe in 1937, despite the fact that their journey took them through Hitler’s Germany and brought them to Paris at the time when Picasso’s Guernica was on display there. The existence of Peake’s poems on the September Crisis of 1938 and the declaration of war in September 1939 shows that by that stage in his life, at least, he was intensely concerned with contemporary politics; and Hurry’s illustration to the latter indicates that Peake was happy for a Leftist to provide the imagery to go with his decidedly political text. Hurry’s own political position is suggested by his celebration of the Labour victory in 1945, and by the fact that Paintings and Drawings by Leslie Hurry was published with an introduction by the Marxist poet Jack Lindsay. It may be that Peake was Hurry’s political fellow traveller, on some level at least, between 1939 and 1949.
And despite what Malcolm Yorke contends, Peake did pay attention to the Spanish Civil War in 1937. The bombing of Guernica took place on 26 April, when the German air force laid waste to a Basque town, with heavy loss of civilian life, at the behest of the nationalist general Francisco Franco. In May of that year – a month or so after it was reported in Britain, most famously in The Times – Peake wrote the first of a number of poems about planes, its date being confirmed by the fact that he mentions Wales in the second line (he visited his mother’s homeland over the Whitsun period, which in 1937 fell on 15 and 16 May). The plane he describes is pregnant with menace:
The Metal Bird
Job’s eagle skids the thin sky still,
Her shadow swarms the cold Welsh hill.
The hawk hangs like an unloos’d bomb
And fills the circular sky with doom.
To-day across the meadow
There runs another shadow
Cast by a grizzlier bird that swings
Her body like a scythe, nor beats her wings,
A bloodless bird, whose mother was a man;
A painted bird of steel – a skeleton
That sheers shrill-naked to the screaming bone,
And bears her sexless beauty to the town.
O hawk with naked eyes!
O bloody eagle circling the skies!
Our century has bred a newer beauty,
The metal bird from the cold factory.
Once again the poem charts the displacement of the past – embodied in Jove’s bird, the eagle (which has got fused here with the suffering Job of the Old Testament) and the ‘hawk with naked eyes’ – by a manmade military machine, whose metallic precision and coldly efficient destructiveness marks it out as a product of logic, as against romantic passion. The fact that this bird is flying ‘to the town’, along with the references to skeletons and screaming bones, might have linked it at once to Guernica in the minds of the poem’s first readers. The poem was published in the London Mercury in January 1938; and almost two years later, in November 1939, Peake published in The Listener another version of the same conceit, this time cast as a sonnet, ‘Where Skidded Only in the Upper Air’. In this version, the plane in question is certainly a bomber, ‘Whose metal womb is heavy with a cold / Foetus of bombs unborn, that, ere they rest / In death will revel in a birth of blood’. By 1939, however, when children were being evacuated from all the urban centres of Britain, the significance of these explosive foetuses would probably have struck much closer to home than Guernica.
Between these two versions of the same poem, however, Peake made his most direct poetic reference to the bombing of Guernica. This occurs in another sonnet, this one dedicated to the greatest Spanish painter of the sixteenth century:
They spire titanic bodies into heaven,
Tall Saints enswathed in a tempestuous flare
Of twisting draperies that coil through air,
Of dye incredible, from rapture woven,
And heads set steeply skywards, brittle-carven
Against the coiling clouds in regions rare;
Their beauty, ice-like, shrills – and everywhere
A metal music sounds, cold spirit shriven.
So drives the acid nail of coloured pain
Into our vulnerable wood, earth-rooted,
And sends the red sap racing through the trees
Where slugged it lay, now spun with visions looted
From whining skies and cold Gethsemanes
Of hollow light, and all the wounds of Spain.
Here again, as in all the poems we’ve been looking at in this post, the past finds itself utterly transformed by the present; not displaced or lost in darkness, this time, but given a terrible new significance that could never have been anticipated by a sixteenth-century painter, no matter how visionary. In the introduction to The Drawings of Mervyn Peake the artist writes about how one’s perception of a well-known picture can be utterly transformed by increasing familiarity with the artistic tradition it springs from. ‘A particular man,’ he tells us, ‘can see only his own reflection’ as he studies any given painting or drawing; but ‘When he enriches his knowledge of pictures – in other words, when he becomes to that extent a slightly different man – he will see a slightly different picture, and so on, until the canvas or the drawing bears no relation to the work he stared at five years earlier. […] And so,’ he concludes, ‘before all work that is authoritative and vital there must be an inner adjustment: a willingness to change, in other words – to grow’. ‘El Greco’, by contrast, traces a different kind of transformation. In this poem, a familiar painting on a religious subject – ‘Tall saints […] from rapture woven’ – is suddenly overlaid with a modern significance. The curling clouds to which they lift their enraptured hands suddenly get filled with a strange new noise; they shrill, like the implied bomb in ‘The Metal Bird’ that ‘sheers shrill-naked to the screaming bone’. This new ‘metal music’ shifts the scene to twentieth-century Guernica. The viewer feels a stab of ‘coloured pain’ at the association, as if a nail of sympathy has been driven home by the shared nationality of the painter and the bomb victims in the devastated town. The association wakens the sluggish viewer’s response to El Greco’s image into urgent new life. Instead of a religious theme the painting is ‘now spun with visions looted / From whining skies and cold Gethsemanes / Of hollow light, and all the wounds of Spain’. From being historical it has been made urgently topical, and from this moment on the painter’s works can never be looked at in the same light again.
Leslie Hurry’s painting ‘September 1939’ brings a moment of history to life. Plugged into the complex circuitry of Mervyn Peake’s artistic and literary context, it illuminates associations and links that had largely lain in darkness before its discovery: links with the political Left, with the British surrealists, with the major historical markers in the approach to the Second World War – Guernica, the September Crisis, the declaration of war, the evacuation of London. It points up the obsession with equilibrium and its loss that dominates Peake’s thoughts about art and human identity. And it provides a gate or doorway to new, more passionately topical readings of the Gormenghast sequence than the ones we’ve practised before. Read as a continuation, for instance, of his close encounters with surrealists as well as neo-romantics, with anarchists and experimentalists as well as with pillars of the British establishment, Gormenghast Castle starts to look less eccentrically isolated, more organically bound up with other artistic and political responses to the global conflicts of the twentieth century. I look forward to exploring these associations in greater detail.
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.’
The reign of Mary Tudor (1553-8) has never been celebrated for its imaginative writing. Yet perversely enough it has always provided ample material for imaginative rewriting: reinventions of history which seek to construct some sort of orderly narrative out of the chaos of England’s erratic journey towards Protestantism in the turbulent middle years of the sixteenth century. After the accession of Elizabeth I her sister’s reign began to be characterized by Protestants as a period when the religious imagination of the English people temporarily ran amok, drawing them away from the dawning light of the gospel and back to the illusions and conjuring tricks of the Catholic church. And by the early seventeenth century the period was sometimes represented, thanks to the softening mist of nostalgia, as a time of relative innocence, when communities were united in their conviction (however misguided) that they shared the land with benevolent fairies as well as affectionate (sometimes over-affectionate) priests, monks and nuns.
The poet William Warner, for instance, included ‘A Tale of Robin Goodfellow’ in the 1606 edition of his ever-expanding epic Albions England (1606). In this little-known episode from the country’s history, a ‘bare-breeched Goblin’ laments the departure of superstition as the reformed religion took hold, robbing monks and nuns of their livelihood and depriving Robin himself of the dishes of milk and other titbits which had once been considered his due. The over-active imaginations of Marian Catholics, the goblin tells us, meant that for fairies and their infernal accomplices – the Pope and the Devil – it ‘Was then a merry world with us when Mary wore the Crown […] But all things have gone cross with us since here the Gospel shined’. Around the same time the poet-bishop Richard Corbett wrote a celebrated lament for the forgotten customs of the Marian ‘good folk’, such as leaving coins in the shoes of diligent housemaids as a reward for (sexual?) services rendered, stealing away the illegitimate children of priests to be raised elsewhere, or dancing at dawn to cover the tracks of early-rising lovers:
Witness those rings and roundelays
Of theirs, which yet remain,
Were footed in Queen Mary’s days
On many a grassy plain;
But since of late, Elizabeth,
And later, James came in,
They never danced on any heath
As when the time hath been.
For Corbett the departure of the fairies has left a glaring absence of convenient excuses for covering up a man or a woman’s erotic adventures, and an England dominated by eagle-eyed, judgmental Puritans is no happy substitute. Corbett is all for the imaginative rewriting of the history of sex between consenting adults, and the relaxed attitude to the sins of the body which such retouching of past misdemeanours would seem to imply.
Corbett’s poem is of course well known, especially to fans of Rudyard Kipling. Less well known is the fact that during Mary’s reign, too, the struggle between Catholics and Protestants was often represented by its chroniclers – both authorised and unofficial – as a heated struggle for the imaginations of English subjects. Like More and Tyndale in their controversy over the translation of the scriptures into English, each side accused the other of fabricating fictions in their efforts to gain control of people’s minds (indeed, the More/Tyndale controversy was reanimated by the publication in 1557 of William Rastell’s edition of Thomas More’s Workes). The Protestant martyrologist John Foxe encapsulates these accusations and counter-accusations in an anecdote he tells about ‘A false fearful imagination of fire’ at Oxford University, in which academics assembled to hear the recantation of a Protestant colleague in St Mary’s church are thrown into panic by a false alarm:
And as in a great fire (where fire is indeed), we see many times how one little spark giveth matter of a mighty flame, setting whole stacks and piles a burning: so here, upon a small occasion of one man’s word, kindled first a general cry, then a strong opinion running in every man’s head within the church, thinking the church to be on fire, where no fire was at all. Thus it pleased Almighty God to delude these deluders: that is, that these great Doctors and wise men of the schools, who think themselves so wise in God’s matters as though they could not err; should see, by their own senses and judgments, how blinded and infatuated they were, in these so small matters and sensible trifles.
The incident offers an elaborate comic allegory, scripted by God himself, of the ‘imaginations’ or delusions spun by Catholic apologists as they labour to ignite an ersatz pentecostal flame in the English church, whether by the force of their own ‘strong opinion’ or by burning Protestants. Imaginary fires like these illuminate the landscape of Marian England alongside real ones, drawing the bewildered populace (so the propagandists would have us think) first to one faith, then to another, and threatening to render the light of religious truth invisible forever.
But the workings of the imagination were also taken to be central to political struggles throughout the period. George Cavendish’s celebrated Life of Wolsey (c. 1553-8) documents Cardinal Wolsey’s efforts to discredit attempts by his enemies to sow suspicious ‘imaginations’ about him in the head of his master, Henry VIII. As his fall is engineered by noblemen close to the king, the Cardinal’s only hope of overcoming ‘the enemy that never sleepeth, but studieth and continually imagineth, both sleeping and waking, my utter destruction’ is to get close to the king himself, ‘that my truth should vanquish all their untruth and surmised accusations’. Cavendish’s Life itself constitutes a sustained effort to counteract what he calls the ‘untrue imaginations’ about the Cardinal set forth in ‘divers printed books’ which have been circulating since his death. William Roper’s Life of Thomas More (c. 1553-8) similarly records the systematic exclusion of the titular Lord Chancellor from the king’s presence, which lends credibility to the ‘slanderous surmises… imagined against’ him by his detractors in his absence. But unlike Wolsey, More collaborates with his enemies in engineering his own withdrawal from political action. The court is a glamorous world of fictions to which his skills as a performer initially grant him access, and his one hope of establishing himself as custodian of the truth is to mortify his imaginative faculties – or at least, to ‘dissemble’ them. In Mary’s reign, by contrast, religious dissidents who did not aspire to the martyr’s crown found that the safest place to practise their religion was as close as possible to the Queen’s person. Edward Underhill, known as the ‘hot gospeller’ for his combative Protestantism, tells us in his autobiography (written after 1561) that for members of the true religion ‘there was no such place to shift [hide] in, in this realm, as in London, notwithstanding their great spial and search; nor no better place to shift the Easter time [i.e. to avoid taking the Catholic mass] than in Queen Mary’s Court’. The closer you were to the body of a Tudor monarch, the less the imagination of the monarch could be turned against you by your enemies, and the less vulnerable you were to accusations of ‘imagining’ or plotting against the prince’s person.
Conversely, the further you were from the monarch’s body the more vulnerable you were to slander, suspicion and rumour. The focus of Mary’s fears was the provinces: from nearby Kent, where Wyatt’s rebellion of 1554 broke out inflamed by reports ‘maliciously imagined and blown abroad’ of an invasion by a Spanish army, to far-off Wales and Cornwall, which were expected to rise in support of the rebellion and which remained the focus of rumours of new rebellions throughout the remainder of Mary’s reign. John Proctor wrote his Historie of Wyates Rebellion (1554), he tells us, partly to discredit the ‘sundry tales thereof… far wide from truth’, and partly to vindicate his Kentish fellow-countrymen from the ‘notable infamy’ which the rebellion had brought them. The fear of insurrection in the provinces was by no means pure paranoia on the part of Mary and her supporters. The great historical verse miscellany The Mirror for Magistrates (1555-1610) – especially those parts of it known to have been composed during or shortly after Mary’s reign – suggests repeatedly that the further you live from London the more likely you are to succumb to dynastic fantasies, based for the most part on what Cavendish calls ‘dark and strange prophecies’ and the ‘imaginations and travailous business’ undertaken either to prevent their fulfilment or to bring it about. In the Mirror the fifteenth-century Welsh prince Owen Glendower bases his claim to the throne of England on the compositions of irresponsible Welsh prophet-bards, while the Cornish blacksmith who led the 1497 ‘An Gof’ rebellion – and whose insurrection prefigures both the Prayerbook Rebellion of Edward’s reign and the Wyatt Rebellion of Mary’s – similarly bases his claim to princely status on the vatic encouragements of ballad-mongers. William Baldwin, the first editor of the Mirror and its principal poet, is of course eager to insist that these examples demonstrate the difference between imagined pretensions to monarchic supremacy and real ones. But as claims to power multiply in the Mirror’s successive tragedies, the possibility of distinguishing between authentic pretensions and imagined ones, between the genuine dynasties traced by historians and the fantastic ones forged by heralds, grows ever more remote. The problem is summed up by Fulke Greville in his account of Sir Philip Sidney’s letter to Elizabeth I on the subject of her proposed marriage to the Catholic Duc d’Alençon in 1579. For Sidney, Mary’s marriage to Philip II of Spain offers the best of reasons for avoiding such another match between an English Queen and a Spanish monarch, working as it did solely in the interests of King Philip, who hoped by this means to ‘possess this diversly diseased estate with certain poetical titles of his own’. In Mary’s time, according to Greville, plots to seize power were evolved in the diseased imaginations or poetic fancies of ambitious men, generated by the faculty which also generates verses, monsters, insurrections, false genealogies and heresies of all kinds.
The poets of The Mirror for Magistrates would have agreed with Greville. In unfolding the tragedies of princes and great men, they lay heavy emphasis on the origins of these tragedies in the wayward imaginations of their protagonists: their dreams, hopes, fears, delusions. They also locate these origins at or beyond the margins of the Tudor demesnes, from Wales and Cornwall to Ireland, where the elder Mortimer meets his end, and Scotland, where James IV unlearns all the civility he acquired during his childhood residence in England, regressing rapidly to Celtic treachery and barbarism. From the margins imagined sedition spreads with unnerving rapidity to the centre, in the form of gossip, rumours, fake news, scaremongering. William Baldwin records the spread of superstition and violence from Ireland to central London in his late-Edwardian prose fiction Beware the Cat (c. 1553), just as John Proctor records the successive waves of rumour – that the Spaniards had invaded, that Wyatt had taken London – which almost secured the success of Wyatt’s rebellion. At the margins, too, that imaginary entity the nation could be appropriated with alarming ease by factions hostile to the government. When marching through Kent, Wyatt appealed for support from all true Englishmen; the band of ‘white-coats’ who joined his forces offered the statement that ‘we are all Englishmen’ as explanation for their decision; while the later insurrectionist Thomas Stafford, who seized Scarborough castle in 1557, called on the English to overthrow a ‘most unworthy queen’ who had ‘forfeited the crown; because she, being naturally born half Spanish and half English, sheweth herself a whole Spaniard in loving Spaniards and hating English, enriching Spaniards and robbing English’. During the Marian period the task of imagining the English nation achieves a political significance and urgency it had never possessed before, as a result both of the counter-Reformation and of Mary’s Spanish marriage: and a great many of the texts it generated take the concepts of England and Englishness as their themes.
As the historian Whitney Jones has pointed out, this is also a period when literature of all kinds is much preoccupied with social and economic reform, focused in particular around the concept of the Tudor Commonwealth. With the partial exception of Tottel’s poetic Miscellany (1557), every major ‘literary’ text of Mary’s reign addresses social and economic problems and their solutions, from Nicholas Udall’s Christmas play Respublica (1553) to John Heywood’s fabular epic The Spider and the Fly (1556), from William Baldwin’s satirical elegy The Funerals of King Edward VI (1553) to the conduct-book The Institution of a Gentleman (1555). In each case the imagination is taken to be the faculty responsible for social and economic abuse: the imagination which enables the vice Avarice and his cronies to adopt new, misleading names in Respublica, and so to beguile the Lady Commonwealth into allowing them to take control of her affairs: the imagination which seduces the aristocracy and gentry in The Institution of a Gentleman into idleness, lust and tyranny; the imagination which, in Baldwin’s poem, gives the aristocracy such inflated self-esteem that Death has difficulty in distinguishing King Edward’s palace from the palatial residences of his subjects as he seeks out the boy-king to punish him for the sins of his people. At one point in Heywood’s The Spider and the Fly a fly caught in a spider’s web changes places with the spider in order to understand his point of view as an aristocratic oppressor of the commons. They agree, as the prose argument puts it, ‘to change places (each for the time) to imagine and set forth other’s part the best they can […] Wherein the fly anon is so allured to pride and ambition in occupying (for the while) the spider’s stately place, that he at last with an oath affirmeth that spiders are owners of all windows’ – that is, that the aristocracy has a God-given right to the possession of all the land in a commonwealth. Power or stateliness is a mind-altering drug, inducing in its possessor the condition of imaginative ‘vainglory’ which Marian writers – like their Edwardian predecessors – take to be the presiding vice of the time.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, the epistolary prose fiction The Image of Idleness (1556) constitutes an extended examination of ‘vainglory’ as it is manifested in one of Mary’s humbler subjects, an elderly gentleman-soldier named Bawdin Bachelor who wants a wife but fails to persuade any woman to marry him. He combats the depression brought on by successive rejections by immersing himself in a fantasy world, designed to boost his flagging self-esteem in the face of adversity:
For doubtless this transitory life is entangled with so many kinds of misery, that unless a man will flatter himself with some kind of vain glory or, contrary to the lively eye of his reason, delight or rejoice in some one trifle or other, the calamity and unquietness thereof will so fret nature that none shall be able to live out half their natural course.
I take The Image of Idleness to be a satire on contemporary social and religious mores, identifying the centrality of fantasy, dissimulation and flattery – especially self-flattery – to Marian culture. The Marian government and the church it sponsors depend for their survival on cultivating the fertile imaginations of their subjects: and the anonymous author of this epistolary narrative subjects the workings of contemporary ideologies to the same witty analysis as Erasmus practised in The Praise of Folly, a book on which The Image of Idleness is partly modelled.
If I were to write a book on the literature of Mary Tudor’s reign, then, it would have the title Marian Imaginations. It would concern itself with the workings of the English imagination in and after the reign of Mary Tudor: from the imagination of the rebel, who spawns fear and paranoia in the provinces for his own ends, to that of the Queen herself, whose imaginary pregnancies bodied forth her desire to alter the course of English history; from the role of the imagination in the story of England as recorded in Cavendish’s Life of Wolsey, William Baldwin’s Mirror for Magistrates and Joh Proctor’s History of Wyatt’s Rebellion, to the imaginative rewriting of Mary’s reign by Elizabethan historians such as John Foxe. It would end by demonstrating the profound effect of these various Marian and post-Marian explorations of the imagination on the better-known products of the writerly imagination in the reign of Elizabeth I.
The book will never, I think, be written – at least by me; but as a curious missing link in the history of the human imagination it would, I think, have been well worth writing. So I’m duly placing it here, in one of the obscurer libraries of the City of Lost Books. If you find it here, feel free to rewrite it for yourself…
Dancing at the bottom of my string,
My tangled string, a merry little thing,
Merry because my wooden features smile,
Smile open-mouthed, as if about to sing,
Sing with delight, although the weather’s vile,
Vile because rain has polished both my cheeks
From an unnaturally lurid red
To shining apples in my wooden head,
My head that wobbles through the rainy weeks,
Weeks that have doubtless some mysterious use,
Use which the passers-by, on growing tired
Of hearing, drenched, a lonely puppet’s squeaks,
Have made of them when softly they retired,
Retired beneath a layer of autumn ooze,
Autumn which sets about discolouring
The leaves and I, weighting my feet with lead,
My feet which turn towards the winter gales,
Gales which will set me dancing on my head
And billow out my pinafores like sails –
I ought to be a sight to see in spring.