Mervyn Peake and Whiteness

I’ve been reading Moby-Dick recently. My reason for reading it is quite specific: I believe that Mervyn Peake read it, and I’m in the process of writing a book about Mervyn Peake. My way of reading is perhaps unusual: each morning I do two hundred press ups, in sets of twenty, and read a paragraph or two of Moby-Dick between each set. Strangely, I find that the book gets imprinted on my mind by the exercise, just as the exercise is made easier by being interspersed with sections of the book. I mention this in case other Melville readers might want to try the same experiment. Readers of Dickens and Lord Dunsany might try it too; I read Bleak House and David Copperfield in the same way, and before that a collection of Dunsany’s brilliant but sometimes hard-to-differentiate short stories. I can differentiate his stories now, thanks perhaps to the rush of blood to the brain occasioned by those interspersed press-ups…

This is a blog post that records one of the key findings of my slow perusal of Melville’s text: that he and Peake were both obsessed with the colour white, and for similar reasons. This shared obsession says something, I think, about the uprooting of the world from faith and other familiar grand narratives in the wake of the industrial revolution and the vastly increased mobility of populations it brought about. The whaling ship Pequod embodies that mobility in obvious terms; but Gormenghast, too, embodies it, as a castle-shaped vessel cut adrift from the meanings and contexts of the rituals that serve as its wayward motor, marooning or islanding it (to use two of Peake’s favourite words) in an ocean-like landscape bereft of identifying names and historical or geographical contexts.[1] Whiteness is to the Pequod and Gormenghast Castle as the blank page of the present is to the migrants of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: a symbol of possibility and terror, laden with past associations which have turned strange and sometimes dreadful as the world enters a period of accelerated and often catastrophic change.

There are certain obvious parallels between Melville’s world and Peake’s – most importantly their common fascination with the architecture of the body, whether human or cetacean, and the fact that Peake was as obsessed with sea stories as Melville was, from the favourite book of his childhood, Treasure Island, to the pirates, explorers and Ancient Mariners who are always showing up in his writing and his artwork. And there are more specific links to be found between Peake and Melville. There’s a chapter in Moby-Dick written from Ahab’s point of view, ‘Sunset’, which transforms him into a seagoing Earl of Gormenghast, iron crown and all: ‘Is, then, the crown too heavy that I wear? this Iron Crown of Lombardy’ (p. 182) (note that the first of these two sentences is an iambic pentameter; Peake’s Lord Sepulchrave, like Ahab, often speaks in Shakespearean pentameters).[2] This is the second in a startling series of chapters in Moby-Dick delivered in the form of first-person monologues or dramatic dialogue, strikingly reminiscent of the chapter in Titus Groan devoted to the internal reveries of its cast of characters as they sit in silence round a ritual breakfast table, communing only with themselves.[3] In another, more conventional chapter that follows the series, called simply ‘Moby Dick’, Ishmael considers Ahab’s madness in terms that align the captain with the passionate knife-wielders of Titus Groan and Gormenghast: Steerpike, Titus Groan, the duellists Rantel and Braigon. Each of these young men pits himself against his destiny armed only with a short blade; and Ahab, too, famously attacked the great white whale armed only with a knife on the day he lost his leg to its jaws. We’ll come across further parallels as we go along.

There’s one chapter in particular that stood out from the rest of the American epic as I read it with Peake in mind. This is Chapter 42, ‘The Whiteness of the Whale’: a prolonged and eclectic meditation on the colour white. As soon as I read it I felt as though an unbreakable link had just been forged between Moby-Dick and the workings of Mervyn Peake’s imagination. Peake too, as I’ve often noticed, had an intense relationship with the colour white. He seems to have found it both dazzlingly, even oppressively beautiful, and somehow disturbing; and it was so central to his imagination that something intensely white provides him with the climax of at least three of his major works. In addition, he wrote many poems about it, some of which strike me as among the oddest and most idiosyncratic he composed. A glance at Melville’s Chapter 42 gives, I think, many clues as to the nature of Peake’s obsession – though Melville himself confessed, in the person of his narrator Ishmael, that no one knows exactly ‘where lie the nameless things of which the mystic sign gives forth such hints’, despite the fact that ‘somewhere those things must exist’ (p. 211). But before taking that glance we should look at the evidence that Peake could in fact have read the chapter in question.

Maeve Gilmore, Moby Dick, c. 1972

That Peake did read Melville is suggested by a number of things, not least the fact that he and his wife Maeve Gilmore had a cat called Moby Dick in the 1930s.[4] There is a portrait by Mervyn of Maeve from this period with a white cat standing on her shoulders;[5] this is presumably the animal in question, while Maeve herself painted Moby, or one of his descendants, in the 1970s, long after the original cat was dead. Mervyn’s poem of 1942-3, ‘I Am the Slung Stone that No Target Has’, refers to mysterious angelic saints with wings ‘like sheets / And as white/ As Ahab’s whale’ (Collected Poems, p. 123), and Ahab appears again in the opening paragraph of the short story ‘I Bought a Palm-tree’.[6] Peake’s picture book Letters from a Lost Uncle in Polar Regions (1948) includes many echoes of Moby-Dick, from the one-legged adventurer of the title, whose missing leg has been replaced with a prosthesis made from the ‘spike’ of a sword-fish or narwhal (Ahab’s, of course, was made of whalebone), to the object of his quest: to take a photograph of the mythical ‘WHITE LION; The LION on the stamp – the Emperor of the Snows’. At the point when the Uncle finally finds the Lion it is accompanied by a whale ‘as long as a street’, which swims underneath the floor of ice where the Lion is standing. Another whale occurs in Peake’s novel Mr Pye (1953) – a small, dead whale, whose appearance seems to symbolise the loss of epic or tragic aspirations in the wake of the Second World War. Its appearance marks a downturn in the fortunes of the book’s hero, a missionary who seeks to convert the inhabitants of the Island of Sark to his own peculiar brand of Christianity; and the whale is a white one.[7] The white whale of Melville’s novel haunts Peake’s work, much as Stevenson’s Treasure Island did; though of course this need not mean that Peake had actually read the novel. Moby Dick, after all, is a myth of the twentieth century, like Barrie’s Peter Pan, the creature from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or L. Frank Baum’s Marvellous Land of Oz; everyone knows about these things without having encountered the books or plays that brought them into being.

Peake’s intimate knowledge of the novel is best confirmed, perhaps, by a comment he made about it in a radio interview of May 1947, quoted in the biography by Malcolm Yorke.[8] The interview addresses Peake’s trade of book illustration – something he says he was drawn into by the limited opportunities and materials available to artists in the Second World War; and in it Peake describes various works of prose in olfactory terms, as an array of distinctive scents, perfumes and odours:

One might say that books have different smells. Wuthering Heights smells different from Moby Dick, Green Mansions smells different from Tristram Shandy. The Book of Job, smells different – very different – from The Fall of the House of Usher. It is for the illustrator to make his drawings have the same smell as the book he is illustrating.

Inhaling involves absorption, and in some cases addiction, a kind of possession readers experience when in the grip of a congenial narrative. Peake speaks, then, of being addicted to or possessed by the books he reads; and some of the characters in his work are clearly so addicted or possessed: Earl Sepulchrave among them, who goes mad when he loses his library, or Mr Slaughterboard, the pirate captain in an unfinished early novel who takes his library with him to sea, and who seeks to write himself into the list of literary greats by staging elaborate and fatal artistic events with his unfortunate crew as the pages he writes on. Yorke tells us, all the same, that Peake was ‘not a great reader’ (p. 195), and goes on to assert that he ‘lacked the stamina or time necessary to get through a long novel apart, perhaps, from Dickens and those swashbuckling books he had loved in his youth’ (p. 196). Elsewhere Yorke actually includes Moby-Dick among these ‘swashbuckling books’ (‘Stevenson, Ballantyne, Defoe, Melville and other writers of adventure yarns’, p. 182), which rather suggests he hadn’t read it himself. But we know that Maeve – herself a voracious reader who loved Proust – read aloud to him a great deal while he was painting or drawing; a ‘catholic selection’ of books, she tells us, which included Voltaire’s Candide and Waugh’s The Loved One.[9] We know, too, that some of the books Peake most enjoyed were decidedly long ones: Bleak House, David Copperfield, Tristram Shandy, Don Quixote (which he wanted to illustrate). In any case, delighting in the ‘smell’ of a book rather than its plot means that one can immerse oneself in giant tomes without feeling the need to read them in their entirety. Dipping into Bleak House, Tristram Shandy or Don Quixote is entirely delightful, evoking the precise mood, taste and texture of the world they bring to life while visiting only chapters or short passages. The same, of course, can be said of Titus Groan or Gormenghast, and of Moby-Dick too, whose brief chapters can be read as individual essays penned by a perverse and playful intellect, each with its own atmosphere and philosophical vision. Tzvetan Todorov has wise words on what he calls the ‘fetishism of the book’, whereby ‘the literary work is transformed both into a precious and motionless object and into a symbol of plenitude, [so that] the act of cutting it becomes an equivalent of castration’.[10] Peake knew the smell of Moby-Dick, even if he knew only a fraction of the novel; and the evidence suggests he knew at least this.

Mervyn Peake, Muzzlehatch with Mouse and Chameleon, sketch for Titus Alone

In the radio interview Peake assigns colours to books as well as smells. He speaks of the importance of capturing the ‘colour’ of the writing, and of how the illustrator must be willing ‘to identify himself with another personality’, as well as having ‘the chameleon’s power to take on the colour of the leaf he dwells on’ (pp. 194-5). There’s a delightful sketch in many editions of Titus Alone showing the misanthrope Muzzlehatch holding aloft both a cheerful chameleon and a tiny mouse, which seems designed to make the point all over again: in it, Peake as illustrator absorbs himself in his character Muzzlehatch, just as Muzzlehatch absorbs himself wholly in the creatures he keeps in his private zoo, who ‘smell one another’ as a reader smells a book (does the chameleon mimic Muzzlehatch’s colouring or Muzzlehatch the chameleon’s, we wonder? There’s no way of telling from a black-and-white illustration).[11] Sniffing and staring at Moby-Dick as he read it, or listened to Maeve reading it aloud as he painted or drew, Peake the visual artist may well have been struck by the only chapter in it dedicated to his medium, colour. After all, he always maintained that ‘we do not see with our eyes, but with our trades’,[12] and Peake seems to have seen his primary trade as painting, even if, as Gordon Smith suggests, ‘he never fully realized his ambitions as a painter in oils’.[13] Moby-Dick is a kind of verbal painting in oils – whale oils – and has many paintings in it, from the picture almost obscured by dirt which hangs in the entrance to the Spouter-Inn in Chapter 3, to the discussion of cetacean art in Chapters 55, 56 and 58 (‘Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales’, ‘Of the […] True Pictures of Whaling Scenes’, ‘Of Whales in Paint; in Teeth; in Wood [etc.]’). No wonder Peake was drawn to Melville’s epic, as an expression of his ambitions as a painter as well as a novelist.

Peake himself painted whales at least three times: as an illustration for Johann Wyss’s The Swiss Family Robinson (1950) and as embellishments for two of his own books, Letters from a Lost Uncle (1948) and the volume of nonsense poems Rhymes Without Reason (1944). The colour illustration in Rhymes without Reason shows a Greenland whale sitting on a mantelpiece over a blazing fire, watched by a cat.[14] The cat is clearly surprised to see its usual place usurped by a sea mammal; but the situation would be stranger still if the cat’s name were Moby Dick. The cat is not white, however, but ginger. The whale is not exactly white, either; more greyish green. Peake may have modelled it on a stranded whale he found on the island of Sark, which also inspired the rotting whale in Mr Pye; but it’s nice to think he may also have consulted Melville’s authoritative chapters on the subject, and the paintings they recommend, in his quest for an accurate image.

Mervyn Peake, illustration for ‘It Makes a Change’, Rhymes Without Reason (1944)

But to return to Moby-Dick Chapter 42; this is one of the most extraordinary moments in Melville’s novel. In it, Melville points out that whiteness has acquired a range of symbolic meanings at different times and in different cultures; but as with so much of the book, the illusion of control at first imparted by the orderly listing of these associations quickly breaks down as the list gets out of hand. The chapter begins by pointing out that many communities have ‘recognised a certain royal pre-eminence in this hue’, so that the monarchs of Pegu in Myanmar, for instance, had exclusive right to possession of a white elephant, while the Austro-Hungarian Empire chose white as the imperial colour, and (inevitably) the ‘white man’ sees himself as having ‘ideal mastership over every dusky tribe’ thanks to the pallid complexion of his skin. The introduction of racism into the chapter, in a book that sees a South Sea Islander forge a bond of brotherhood with a white American, anticipates the unsettling change of tone that occurs in Ishmael’s chapter on whiteness. At the end of the same paragraph, where the narrator also points out the religious significance of the colour white for the ancient Greeks, the Iroquois nations, and the Catholic Church, Ishmael observes that ‘for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honorable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood’ (p. 205, my emphasis). Whiteness has been incorporated into rituals and ceremonies and systems; but it retains an ‘elusive quality’ which ‘causes the thought of whiteness, when divorced from more kindly associations, and coupled with any object terrible in itself, to heighten that terror to the furthest bounds’ (p. 205). The colour, that is, somehow escapes the confines of human organisation, eluding all limits and circumventing taxonomies. The terrible appearance of the polar bear and the great white shark is intensified by it; the glory of the albatross and the legendary White Steed of the Prairies is given them by their pigmentation. And a host of creatures and apparitions is rendered dreadful by their association with this colour; partly, Melville observes, because it is the colour of death, transforming the complexion of corpses until they seem to be frightened by their own condition – ‘as if indeed that pallor were as much the badge of consternation in the other world, as of mortal trepidation here’ (p. 208). The notion that whiteness should be fearful precisely because it is the colour faces take on when a person is frightened has a wonderful, weird logic about it, and extends its appalling reach to embrace our terror of ghosts and of the horse on which Death rides in the biblical Book of the Apocalypse.

In the end, though, Melville’s Ishmael confesses that there is no logical argument to account for the powerful grip maintained by whiteness on the human body and mind, which renders it both supremely worthy of worship and supremely frightening. ‘How is mortal man to account for it?’ he asks himself midway through the chapter, adding that ‘To analyse it, would seem impossible’ (p. 208). He goes on to list many more examples of the fear aroused by whiteness without offering any explanation of that fear, from the apparitions called the White Friar or the White Nun to the ‘tall pale man’ of the Hartz forests (p. 209), from the White Mountains of New Hampshire to the sailor looking out over Antarctic seas:

where at times, by some infernal trick of legerdemain in the powers of frost and air, he, shivering and half shipwrecked, instead of rainbows speaking hope and solace to his misery, views what seems a boundless church-yard grinning upon him with its lean ice monuments and splintered crosses. (p. 211).

The notion of the Antarctic as a ‘boundless churchyard’ decorated with ‘splintered crosses’ conjures up religion again, which adopted white as its colour at the beginning of the chapter. Here, however, it is a forgotten, faithless religion whose insignia have been smashed to pieces by the operation of the polar cold and whose promise of eternal life has been reduced to the posthumous ‘grinning’ of a skull. White is the colour of death again in this passage, though a death that has a hideous life of its own, like the ghosts, the Pale Horse and the White Nun mentioned previously.

But the chapter ends with another explanation for the fearfulness of whiteness. This is the idea advanced by certain philosophers that the colour white represents the ‘great principle of light’ itself (p. 212), which underlies all material things as the blank page underlies the printed word, or as the white-painted canvas underlies the pigments applied by the impressionist’s brushstrokes. Other colours are mere illusions: ‘subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without’. The inherent whiteness of light is only imbued with colour by its interaction with physical media (crystals, fluids, shadows and so forth) or the complex operations of the human mind. Without the influence of these interposed phenomena ‘the great principle of light, [which] for ever remains white or colorless in itself, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge’, so that the universe would resemble a ‘leper’ (whose condition turns their skin white) or a ‘charnel-house’ (a repository of bones) (p. 212). The chapter closes with the illustrative analogy of ‘wilful travellers in Lapland’ who ‘refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes’ and thus gaze themselves ‘blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect’. For the philosopher who adopts this perspective on colour as a cosmetic application screening us from the horror of universal blankness, whiteness embodies not the life promised by religious orators but again death: the shroud, the bones in a charnel house, leprous diseases, an Arctic wilderness utterly inimical to human existence.

Whiteness for Melville, then, symbolizes both the hope and joy of religious faith and the terror of the world as viewed by an unbeliever: a universal blankness on which the semblance of order and beauty has been superimposed by chance, or by the strenuous efforts of those pedlars in distracting illusion, artists and writers. The first aspect of whiteness – as a symbol of faith in a benevolent deity – is constantly slipping into the second – whiteness as utter indifference or even hostility to human life with its symbols and meanings – just as Ahab the Quaker ends up seeking the whale, not for religious purposes, but to impose total destruction on it as it imposed partial destruction on him. Whiteness, then, may be said to represent symbolism itself, which is continually being imposed by communities and individuals on things that resist being constrained by their symbolic functions. ‘Of all these things’, Ishmael tells us, ‘the Albino whale was the symbol’ (p. 212) – but the statement occurs at the end of a chapter in which so many ‘things’ have been connected with whiteness that it has lost its shape; just as a whale is rendered by Melville’s book a thing of such complexity and variousness that it cannot be said to symbolise anything but itself.

Jan van Eyck, Adoration of the Lamb, Ghent Altarpiece, detail

For Peake, too, whiteness was associated with religion, but a religion that was constantly becoming strange to him in different phases of his life. Coming from a nonconformist background – his parents were missionaries in China, where Peake lived for the first eleven years of his childhood – Peake married a Catholic artist, Maeve Gilmore, in 1936, and soon found himself at odds with certain aspects of Maeve’s religion. His poem ‘No Creed Shall Bind Me to a Sapless Bole’ (Collected Poems, pp. 61-2) sees him ‘fighting the Cathedral / And the voluptuous clouds of Catholic / Narcotic ritual / And all the sick / And opalescent glory of the pearl’, the last line associating whiteness with the elaborate ceremony of the Mass and its ‘sapless’ emblem, ‘the jewelled Crucifix, the golden Tree’. A vestment called the alb forms part of this ‘Narcotic ritual’, a garment (Melville tells us) whose name is derived ‘directly from the Latin word for white’, and invokes the white robes of the twenty-four elders in the Apocalypse, who stand ‘before the great white throne, and the Holy One that sitteth there white like wool’ (Moby-Dick, p. 205). As we shall see, this ceremonial whiteness seems for Peake as well as for Melville to ‘strike more of panic to the soul than that redness that affrights in blood’. At the same time, whiteness also attached itself, for Peake, to his parents’ nonconformist faith. When his Welsh mother died in October 1939, just after the outbreak of World War Two, he wrote a number of verses about her in the tetrameters favoured by the Protestant hymns he knew so well (Mr Pye sings several hymns in Peake’s late novel set on Sark). These verses associate the afterlife both with the chalky whiteness of the Sussex downs where Peake’s mother was buried (‘She who was so loved rests now / Gently in the chalk below’) and of the angels who carry her soul to heaven:

Now are gathering in the skies
Round the gates of Paradise
Those white angels who shall come
And gently bear her spirit home.

(Collected Poems, p. 49)

Other, less conventional verses of around the same time – set to the so-called ‘common metre’ of alternating four-stress and three-stress lines, rhymed ABCB – describe a widely-travelled woman (his mother again?) whose interest in the quality of whiteness has persisted throughout her life:

O she has walked all lands that are
In search of all things white –
For they are to her eyes a fair
And lonely sight.
But O, to her, beyond compare,
In all things of delight
Is the whiteness in the darkness
Of wanderers at night.

(Collected Poems, p. 76)

Whiteness in this poem has become detached from its association with conventional faith, a detachment stressed both by the loneliness the unnamed woman intuits in the ‘things’ of that colour and by her particular predilection for the pale shapes of nocturnal ‘wanderers’, rootless and solitary. These wanderers may be the moon and stars as well as people; Peake calls the moon a ‘white coin’ in his poem ‘Burgled Beauty’ (Collected Poems, p. 46).

This eccentric, post-religious whiteness features again in a longer poem which begins in comic mode but ends in a kind of Blakean rapture, making it Peake’s most explicit statement in verse of the combined attraction and weirdness of the colour white as articulated by Melville:

To all things solid as to all things flat
He raised his little peacock-coloured hat

To all things lucent as to all things dense
He bowed his little head in deference

To all things coloured as to things of grey
He turned and smiled in a most gentle way

But ah, at all things white… at all things white
He could but stand and stare in grief’s delight.

White wonderment upon him and within
That filled him to his cold and wrinkled skin.

That was his hour, his phoenix hour, his world
When all his flags of beauty were unfurled

Inhuman ecstasy of chill delight
Unworldly, lonely agony of white;

The white flower of the field, the white mane blowing
The white cloud over the white waters flowing

All things of white transported him to where
Long wings of crystal beat on stainless air

(Collected Poems, p. 75)

Derek Jacobi as Mr Pye

In a number of ways this poem reads like a first draft of Peake’s third novel, Mr Pye (1953), with its diminutive, beaming protagonist, who bows and wears a hat (though Mr Pye’s is not ‘peacock-coloured’ but an ordinary Panama or bowler) and shows ‘deference’ to all things, not just ecclesiastical symbols.[15] Mr Pye is a kind of missionary to the Channel Island of Sark, which could be described as Peake’s spiritual home – he stayed there several times, most notably as a member of an artist’s commune in the 1930s and as the father of a family in the 1940s. The little man in the novel aims to convert the islanders to a pantheistic ‘Faith of Love and Laughter’, presided over by a God who inhabits all things from the sea and sky to a smoking cigarette. The little man in the poem, like Mr Pye, makes gestures of recognition and acknowledgment (bowing, smiling, staring), but to inanimate objects rather than people, as if to suggest a sense of kinship with the many ‘things’ of different visual and physical properties he encounters; and he seeks no converts to his way of seeing. Mr Pye finds that his preoccupation with religion has an impact on his body: as his good deeds proliferate he starts to grow wings like an angel, and has to resort to evil deeds to keep them in check – only to find that doing evil makes devilish horns sprout from his head. The little man of the poem, seemingly by contrast, is drawn to whiteness itself, not just the whiteness of religion. He is as entranced by white animals, plants and weather as by angelic wings or priestly albs: ‘The white flower of the field, the white mane blowing / The white cloud over the white waters flowing’ (Melville mentions the flower japonica in his Chapter on Whiteness [Moby-Dick, p. 204], while weather and horses feature in it prominently). But as with Mr Pye, the little man’s unique philosophy marks him out as different from his fellow humans and therefore isolated and suffering (‘Unworldly, lonely agony of white’). And as with Mr Pye, what he worships ends by carrying him away to a place that can’t be visualised by others. Mr Pye flies away from Sark at the end of the book on his newly-fledged angelic wings, heading out across the sea towards some unknown destination; while the little man of the poem finds himself inwardly transported ‘to where / Long wings of crystal beat on stainless air’. The Catholic Church represents heaven as a place of spiritual hierarchies occupied by beings rendered wholly and permanently collective by the shared and freely given love of God. Mr Pye’s and the little man’s heaven (if heaven it is) seems utterly strange, and no other human beings or human-shaped entities seem to live there. Certain kinds of vision detach the visionary from the rest of humankind, leaving them as lonely in this life as in the world to come, solitary occupants of a church whose symbolism neither they nor anyone else can decipher, and of whose congregation they are in the end the only members.

As with Mr Pye, there’s a transition in this poem from whimsy – the little man in peculiar clothes who makes gestures at inanimate objects as if they were people – to sublimity, a glimpse of something radically other whose identity cannot be fully established, though it echoes Judaeo-Christian iconography. Unaffiliated to any institution, when confronted by whiteness the little man finds himself suspended in a state of ‘White wonderment’ – wonder being definable as the reluctance to assign some specific phenomenon to any given symbolic order, the sort of hesitation that characterizes Todorov’s famous genre of the fantastic. The little man’s reaction isn’t that of an artist, seeking to recreate and enhance the effect that amazes him, or of the conventional missionary, who sees everything in terms of the religious doctrine he serves. He simply experiences, as Peake so often does in his early poems.

In some of those poems this raw experience – unmediated by institutions, trades (such as that of the artist or the missionary) or set forms of knowledge – proves problematic in its purposelessness, the difficulty it presents of finding a suitable outlet for all that the senses have taken in. In ‘Coloured Money’, for instance (Collected Poems, pp. 22-3), the beauty encountered by the poet every day sometimes proves painfully burdensome, like an accumulating heap of gold coins pressing down on or against his heart, and he longs to rid himself of it altogether:

O then I long to spring
Through the charged air, a wastrel, with not one
Farthing to weigh me down,
But hollow! foot to crown[.]

Here the pain of the glut of coinage dispensed to him by the beauty of what he sees each day stems from his inability to ‘spend’ it with sufficient liberality – that is to express or press it all out, so to speak, in charcoal, paint, words, music, or the actions of his own body.[16] Another poem, ‘Heaven Hires Me’ (Collected Poems, p. 30), gives a religious twist to Peake’s sense of being salaried, and identifies the location of the paymaster (or paymasters – the occupants of his ‘Heaven’ are always ambiguous), as ‘Coloured Money’ does not. In this poem, the speaker is paid not in coins but in whiteness, which represents both moments of supreme calm and self-confidence and sudden, startling visionary experiences [my emphasis]:

Heaven hires me; and my payment is in those
White moments of repose
Between the seething of my brain’s all-coloured
Flora of woes,
Fauna from hills unhallowed.
While guilt grows
Stronger as I grow older
And lose love –
How break the terrible girders of the grove?

This is one of those poems whose full meaning may only ever be known to the poet. What grove is Peake talking about, with its ‘terrible girders’? My own feeling is that he’s referring to the heart, the girders being the ribs which serve either to preserve or bar out love; Peter Winnington has shown in detail how crucial the heart is to Peake’s imagination, and the containment of the heart by ribs is an anatomical fact he returns to time and again in his poems.[17] But the broad significance of the poem is plain enough. A sense of depression (‘woes’), shame (‘guilt’) and above all waste pervades the text (‘I do squander a largesse of un- / Uprooted glory’, he tells us in the final section – my emphasis), which is compensated for by moments of unearned ‘payment’. As I said, this payment comes in the form of whiteness, whether it be quiescent ‘white moments of repose’ or dynamic ‘alchemies’ of whiteness; alchemies being Peake’s favourite word for the transformation of the world, often by changing weather or shifting mood, into something fit to be celebrated in art – some substance that reacts with the substances of the artist’s body and brain. These ‘alchemies’ here involve wings or other means of moving through the air, unanchored to the ground, like the springing wastrel of ‘Coloured Money’. In one instance, the appearance of certain birds – migrating swans or geese, perhaps? – somehow empties Peake’s mental landscape of its ‘Flora of woes’ and re-hallows its formerly ‘unhallowed’ uplands:

Great Fowl along the combers of the sky
Undulate on such wings as suck
Breath from the pockets of far cliffs, and prise
The rocks apart with draughts that clear the muck
Out of a sickened sky.

Elsewhere in the poem, clouds are metamorphosed by the evening sunshine into pale deities:

Along the west
White gods move slowly, and the golden scales
Upon their breastplates twinkle momently
Now here, now there along the rim of Wales.

Their transformation balances out Peake’s transgressions against whiteness, whereby he chooses to ‘spit upon the marble face / And carve [his] name upon a seraph’s breast / To testify to my unclean disgrace / The guttersnipe of dreams’. The poet, in other words, still has access to genuine ‘moments’ of vision, despite his propensity for besmirching or vandalising marmoreal and angelic whiteness, a tendency that makes him in his own eyes a dirt-encrusted guttersnipe or mudlark in the vicinity of the house of dreams, rather than the kind of fully-fledged dreamer he most admired: a William Blake (who likewise, he tells us in his poem on the writer-artist, acknowledged plural ‘gods’ rather than a singular God), a van Gogh, a Goya or an El Greco.[18] The phrase ‘unclean disgrace’ in conjunction with ‘marble’ and ‘seraph’ suggests that part at least of his tendency to besmirch whiteness may involve sexual acts, perhaps infidelities (his poems about Maeve often imagine her in terms of whiteness and pallor[19]). But the range of meanings Peake (like Melville) bestows on the colour suggests that to limit it to sexual ‘purity’ would be too simplistic. The poem as a whole, then, gratefully acknowledges the uncomplicated wonder at whiteness he is still capable of feeling, however often he may trespass against that colour and its meanings, both aesthetic and moral.

‘Heaven Hires Me’ concludes that the poet is a split personality, permanently divided between opposing impulses to take pleasure in whiteness and to damage or destroy it: ‘Though I do darken hourly the sweet sun / Of love and ruth – yet, hell / And heaven, so conjoined do make me’. The theme is a repeated one in Peake’s work. Several poems identify ‘conjoined’ but contrasting elements in Peake’s composition – Doppelgängers of the mind and body, so to speak. An example is the poem I mentioned earlier, ‘I Am the Slung Stone that No Target Has’, which sets the whiteness of the writer’s internal saints (whose wings are ‘as white / As Ahab’s whale’) against the ‘hideous ghouls’ that also flow through him, personifications of ‘Death, lust and fever’. ‘Heaven Hires Me’ suggests that Peake’s two conjoined personae embody good and evil, ‘hell / And heaven’; and the opposition of ‘saints’ to ‘ghouls’ in ‘I Am the Slung Stone’ would seem to confirm this reading. But it’s notable that the ‘saints’ in this pairing are associated with the story of the Pequod, with its obsessive, self-destructive captain and his pursuit of the furiously vengeful Moby Dick. The implication is that Peake internally quests after the winged holy ones with the same energy that drove Ahab, but that his quest is constantly side-tracked by his demons; hence his aimlessness, Peake being the stone without a target mentioned in the poem’s title. But Peake’s quest for the whiteness of angels may also be an unhealthily obsessive one, as Ahab’s was. Will they destroy him when he catches up with them, as the whale destroyed the captain? In other Peakean depictions of split personalities the identity of the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ Doppelgängers is even trickier to determine. The ‘good’ side often seems ambiguous, its purity unsettling, its whiteness inhuman; so that even when Peake gives the impression of returning to religious cliché – good versus evil, light versus darkness, angel versus devil – the oppositions being set up do not feel in any way settled or familiar.

Two poems in his first poetry collection, Shapes and Sounds, summarize the ambiguities of Peake’s double being. The first of these, ‘They Move With Me, My War-Ghosts’, identifies the two conjoined aspects of the poet as ‘my rebeller / And my conceder’, one of whom concedes to the ‘lies of hoarding’ – war propaganda – while the other revolts against them. Between them they generate an internal ‘civil war’ in Peake, reflecting the ‘war-filled weather’ of Britain in the early 1940s. The angel is associated with ‘love’, the centaur with brashness and cruelty – ‘thoughtless hooves and violent laughter’ – and Peake’s rational mind is unable to control or reconcile them. So far so straightforward, it would seem. But it’s by no means clear in the poem which of the two figures is the ‘conceder’ to the ‘lies of hoarding’ and which the ‘rebeller’ against them. The wildness of the centaur makes it seem invulnerable to nationalist slogans, except in a spirit of savage irony; while the angel’s affinity for love would hardly permit it to embrace militaristic rhetoric, and ‘rebelling’ angels have an unfortunate reputation in Christian theology. In any case, whichever of the pair adopts which of these two responses to the war, the fierceness with which they ‘greet / Each other’ on the ‘narrow stair’ of Peake’s inward life – represented here as a house too cramped and small to contain them both – makes both figures part of the climate of hostility in which Peake finds himself. They are both ‘conceders’ in that sense, transforming Peake into a helpless reflection of the war he loathes – and hence ‘rebellers’ against his yearning for untrammelled access to uninhibited creativity.

Mervyn Peake, sketches of centaurs

The angel’s whiteness is not mentioned in this first poem; but in the second, ‘I Am For Ever with Me’, it certainly is, and the whiteness makes the angel ambiguous, even threatening, like the polar bears and ghosts of Melville’s chapter. In this poem it’s not at first clear that there are two figures inhabiting the poet. ‘I am always / Companion to the ghost-man whom I nurture’, it begins, and the first stanza summarizes the situation as follows: ‘There I am with me, haunting me for ever, / My ghost-man, and my lover’. That last word hints that Peake desires his ‘ghost-man’; that the figure might, in fact, represent an alternative, queer sexuality, competing for his attention with his acknowledged lover, his wife Maeve Gilmore. As the poem goes on, however, the two personas in Peake begin to be distinguished more clearly. The first is ‘the ghost-man’, the second ‘the man of startling armour’, while later the first becomes ‘The Gabriel-headed scorner / White like light!’ – an arrogant angel who considers himself superior to others – and the second ‘the plunger’, a rash seeker after adventure, boy-like and aggressive. The plunger-adventurer gets aligned soon after this with the figure of the pirate, which dominates Peake’s imagination throughout his work, as I’ve shown elsewhere:

Arises now in me the pilferer
Of hollow goods, the sprig and the swashbuckler.
I find in me the boy of shoddy glamour
And violent laughter.
The penny pirate and his cheap adventure…
Stars! And the cocky feather!

Here the pirate is not a real one but a theatrical pose to be adopted, a play pirate embodying fakery and cheapness, as against the solid earthly riches described in ‘Coloured Money’. The cheapness is there in his pilfering of ‘hollow’ or worthless goods, in the ‘shoddiness’ of his glamour, in his link to the low-cost, mass-produced publications which furnished imaginative adventures for children in Peake’s youth (‘The penny pirate and his cheap adventure’) but not material for the attention of serious artists. Like the centaur’s, his laughter is ‘violent’. Can one detect here a certain shame for Peake’s continuing pirate obsession, which stretched back to his boyhood love of Treasure Island and the swashbuckling books derided by Peake’s biographer, Malcolm Yorke? All the same, there is something attractive about this ‘plunger’, as there was about the centaur in ‘They Move with Me’. The poet’s sudden attack on the childish pirate figure in the following stanza seems disturbingly destructive, as he tears off its ‘cloak of crimson paper’, smashes its wooden sword and plucks out the ‘gaudy […] marbles’ of its eyes. And what is left after the pirate has been demolished is no more attractive than what it replaces: ‘white Gabriel the Scorner’, symbol of pride (thanks to his scorn for others), art, and perhaps ambition.

Students drawing from plaster casts, c.1892, New York

In this poem the angel’s connection with art is explicit. Gabriel the Scorner is, we are told, ‘No plaster cast, no imitation figure […] nor replica / Of some snow-muscled marble’, a description that invokes the plaster casts of old works of sculpture used for teaching and copying purposes in art schools. Instead this white being is the ‘eternal / And terrible original’, an authentically new and living vision despite being founded in ancient ideas (such as the angelic hierarchies listed by Milton), and hence a ‘miracle’ that ‘flares’ for a ‘lit moment […] In the clay prison’ of Peake’s body. The miracle is that something new has been given life, and that the figure perfectly embodies the current time as well as the long tradition it sprang from: ‘In me the modern angel has arisen’. But it remains ‘terrible’ and ‘scornful’, somehow inimical to the person who conceives it, just as the violent laughter and fakery of the pirate have something endearing about them. The two figures of Peake’s being are not moral opposites but alternative aspects of him – different moods, perhaps, or inducers of moods. Both trouble him with their violence or scorn, and both represent equally appropriate reflections of the troubled times he lived in.

In his introduction to The Drawings of Mervyn Peake the writer-artist considers in detail the importance of tradition in art as well as innovation, arguing that originality is born from long study of what came before – all the way back to wall paintings in ‘a cave in Spain’ – combined with an acute sensitivity to what needs to be expressed in the here and now.[20] ‘That the body of a work is common heritage,’ he writes, ‘in no way drowns the individual note […] it is the individual twist that haunts us’. The final section of ‘I Am For Ever with Me’, however, identifies the tradition from which the angel sprang as a profoundly collective one; not unique to the solitary genius but shared by all humanity like a communal meal held in commemoration of the dead, a eucharist reimagined in intensely material and social terms. Having celebrated the presence of the angel in himself (‘In me the modern angel has arisen’) the poet goes on to recognise its presence – alongside that of its twin, the pirate-plunger – in all the living and the dead, not just the gifted poet or artist:

Alive, the million million, and the dead
Breathe from the furrow and the wooden table:
Gulped with the wine, broken with bread,
Arising through the green sheets of the stubble.
In fruit, in flower, springing invisible
The phantom dead who knew the double owner,
The ghost-man, and the fellow
Of obvious colour.

The tracing of the transition from the dead to the living, from the furrow to wooden table, from the ‘green sheets of the stubble’ to the bread that is broken while the wine is drunk, identifies the doubles in Peake as seasonal or cyclical visitants, like the moods I mentioned earlier – a reading that’s confirmed in the stanza that follows when Peake mentions ‘the autumn grief and the spring bubble’, the different moods that visit him at different times of year, as also expressed in his season-poems such as ‘Two Seasons’, ‘Autumn: the lit mosaic of the wood’, ‘Autumn: There is a surge of stillness bred’, or ‘An April Radiance of White Light Dances’ (Collected Poems, pp. 35, 36, 38 and 119). More importantly, though, the ghostly angel and the ‘fellow of obvious colour’ inhabit all humankind, dead and alive, as well as Peake: ‘One of a million million, I’, extending in an unbroken line from the people of the deep past to the populations of the future: ‘The sons / Of our sons’ sons and all the unborn people’. The segregation of one person from another, in other words, on the basis of race, class or inborn abilities, is for Peake dishonest and artificial. A person’s characteristics are equally complex, rich, fascinating, and painfully in conflict with one another no matter who that person may be:

For everyone, the double man: the torture.
The struggle and the grim perpetual laughter.
For everyone his Gabriel and the Mocker,
The stillness, and the fountain, and the Master.

That last line identifies Peake’s Christ figure as being both bound up with the painful struggle between competing personae described in the poem and as a potential resolution to it; but it’s a resolution for everyone, not just the elect, the orthodox, the person of genius. Christ emerges from the physical and mental torment to which he was subjected as the grain that furnishes bread emerges from the furrow, or as the masterful drawing emerges (after long gestation in the form of apprenticeship and practice) from the application of charcoal to the ‘white page’. It’s no coincidence that this final section of the poem invokes Christian art as much as Christian religion: Leonardo’s Last Supper, Raphael’s Annunciation, Bosch’s Christ Mocked, all paintings by artists Peake alludes to by name in his written work. Peake’s Christ is the ‘Master’ in two senses, both as a religious teacher and as an Old Master invoked by the painters known as the Old Masters. His mastery does not set him apart from ‘everyone’ but makes him part of the ‘common heritage’, along with the antagonistic double beings that accompany each individual.

Giampetrino’s copy of Leonardo’s The Last Supper, c. 1520. Royal Academy of Arts, London.

The communion table of the Last Supper occurs a number of times in Peake’s poetry: in ‘Au Moulin Joyeux: September Crisis, 1938’, for instance (p. 43); ‘Absent from You Where Is There Corn and Wine?’ (p. 122); ‘That Phoenix Hour’ (p. 168); and most surprisingly, perhaps, in Peake’s most extended meditation on whiteness, the long poem ‘A Reverie of Bone’ which he wrote (according to Peter Winnington’s calculations) in 1942, part way through the composition of his first novel, Titus Groan. Originally titled ‘Valley of Bones’, the poem identifies bones, as against ghosts or souls, as the sole remaining trace of the human dead, their delicate whiteness transcending the dry intricacies of theology, their beauty surpassing that of any clay-encumbered living person whose ‘bright blood […] swarms their plinths of bone’ (stanza 18). This erasure of colour from the human afterlife, replacing it with what Melville calls the ‘great principle of light’ – the internal whiteness that unites all human beings, of all classes and all races – means that death removes one of the two beings that inhabit the Peakean human body from the picture. The pirate/plunger disappears, leaving only the cold purity of the ghost-man/Gabriel to dominate the landscape. That is the drive behind the poem: the abandonment of struggle and the replacement of it with a beautiful, eerie, and endlessly mutating stillness and silence.

Accordingly, there is something angel-like about bones in Peake’s poem. The skeletal structure of the hands and feet, for instance (‘The gelid / Twigs of the brittle fingers […] And all the arctic filigree of feet’), along with the ulna – the largest bone in the human forearm – are transformed by Peake’s imagination into the instruments of an angelic flight that is lovelier far than any achieved by avian wings. ‘I see,’ he writes in stanzas 3 and 4,

the pallid
Ulna as downless as the lyric quill
Of some sky-wandering pinion that the sleet

And gusts have stripped of all its clinging hairs;
So that a sliver-shred of whiteness wanders
Across the stars until the night-winds fail.

Here angelic flight has been removed from its celestial context and bestowed on the unaffiliated ‘wanderers at night’ we encountered in the short poem Peake wrote around the time of his mother’s death, ‘O She Has Walked All Lands There Are’. The bones’ wanderings are verbal as well as spatial, so that the ulna’s ‘sky-wandering pinion’ is also the ‘lyric quill’ that writes (perhaps) the wandering verses we are reading. The ribs of the dead, too, undergo dreamlike mutations, into household structures and musical instruments: ‘O ribs of light! bright flight, yours are such stairs / As wail at midnight when the sand meanders / Through your cold rungs that sieve the desert gale’ (stanza 4). The imagined flight of the ulna transitions as we read into the ‘bright flight’ of stairs provided by the ribs, which change again in the next two stanzas into a ‘Bright lyre of ribs’ that play ‘a music of fled forms’ when plucked by a gust of wind (stanza 5), like the Aeolian harp in Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’. The poem, then, is a virtuoso exercise in imaginatively mutating the last remains of the human body after death. But the key thing, I think, is that each mutation takes it further away from the brightly-coloured emotions and physical urges, the violence, flamboyant self-display and cruel laughter that drove the pirate aspect of the double human body. And each mutation serves to sever angelic whiteness from its religious framework – with the exception of the reference to the Last Supper, which we shall come to shortly.

The poem’s wanderings are given shape and point by the analogy Peake draws between the location of his imagined bones and the open sea. The bones he celebrates in ‘A Reverie of Bone’ inhabit a vast sandy desert of wave-like dunes, which change shape as the wind blows, alternately revealing and concealing the stripped-down corpses they contain – much as the ever-changing ocean alternately reveals and conceals its treasures, denizens and victims. True to Peake’s sense of being a flung stone without a target, his desert ocean harbours no reefs or shores; it is, then, a destination in itself, the objective as well as the pathway for the non-existent ship he imagines crossing it, steered by an ‘impossible helmsman’ and slicing the dunes with its ‘free keel’ (stanzas 13 and 14). The whiteness of the bones thrown up by the desert is visible everywhere – not, as in Moby-Dick, exclusively in Ahab’s whale, or in the whalebones that decorate the ship and furnish Ahab with his prosthetic leg. One ‘ghosted mountain’ in the wasteland, ‘lit by the full torch / Of a sailing moon’, is ‘littered with the white / Residue of the dead, as though its bright / Steep sides were dusted with dry leprosy’ (stanzas 30 and 31) – leprosy being one of the more unsettling forms of whiteness touched on by Melville. In Peake’s desert ocean, all creatures harbour a pallor of some sort, so that a white whale is no more remarkable (or no less astonishing) than the other denizens of the desert or the deep, or the human wanderers who watch them from the backs of horses or the decks of ships.

A white whale does come to mind as the poet crosses his sea of dunes, but it is not the special objective of a quest or hunt. At one point the poet summons up a ‘blanched whale’, as white as Moby Dick, swimming between ‘floating islands of translucent ice’ (stanza 37). For Peake, this whale is a miracle of bones rather than of flesh, carrying its living skeleton in ‘undulations / Through sunless waters’, while overhead the gulls with their own internal skeletons execute a similar bony dance in the Arctic gale. The emphasis on bones in this passage may remind us of Melville’s series of meditations on the skeleton of the whale in his chapters ‘A Bower in the Arsacides’, ‘Measurement of the Whale’s Skeleton’, and ‘The Fossil Whale’; while the Arctic location recalls Melville’s conviction that the whale can never be hunted to extinction because of its ability to hide itself in certain ‘Polar citadels’, ‘diving under the ultimate glassy barriers and walls’ to reach the ‘icy fields and floes’ where, ‘in a charmed circle of everlasting December’, it can ‘bid defiance to all pursuit from man’ (Moby-Dick, p. 503). There is no hunting Peake’s white whale because it’s already effectively dead, its undulating skeleton anticipating the moment when another Ishmael will stand in awe of its bare bones, fingering his ‘green measuring-rod’ as he considers how best to calculate their dimensions (Moby-Dick, p. 490). And Peake’s whale is imaginary, as is the ocean in which it swims, as is the desert to which that ocean is being compared. The ‘reverie’ or waking dream of the poem is a flight into the imagination from the realities of war – a flight by pen rather than by pinion.

But it is also a flight from death into death, as one might expect from a poet who is also a soldier in wartime. In war there is no escape from the ‘ruthless regions of what’s true’, as the poet puts it in stanza 32; a soldier is always thinking of his end. The material facts of the body’s composition assert themselves, no matter how brilliantly one seeks to play with them. Unlike the Christian heaven, bones are an undeniable fact or truth of existence; an observation that gets wittily confirmed by stanza 33, in which the poet conjures up ‘a prophet’s skull’ being bowled by the wind across the ‘burning scarp,’ its shadow ‘Cruising before it as it rolls through sunlight’. Prophecies form part of a religious grand narrative that may or may not have any validity. The principal bone of a prophet’s head, on the other hand – the skull – undeniably exists, and is pictured here in perpetual motion across the ‘vast and valid landscapes’ conjured up by Peake’s brain (stanza 32), as recorded by the blue ink of his moving pen-nib.

Leonardo’s The Last Supper, detail

Peake’s evocation in this poem of Leonardo da Vinci’s great mural of the Last Supper has something similar to say about religion. It occurs in stanzas 38 and 39, immediately after the mention of the whale, and like the whale serves as an illustration of Peake’s core statement on whiteness. In stanza 34, Peake observes that ‘this hand that props my forehead / Is not more real than those hands of frost / That lie in myriads like an astral choir / Of endless gesture, eloquent though dead’. Through the study of anatomy, Peake’s training as an artist has made him infinitely familiar with the ‘astral choir’ of the human skeleton, which sings in gestures rather than sound. And it is a choir that celebrates not some theologically elaborated hierarchy but the common whiteness underlying all life – and perhaps all visible objects in the universe, if Melville’s philosopher is correct. Stanzas 35 and 36 sum up this materialist religion in terms that seem to echo the chapter on Whiteness:

O passionless, amoral, unearthly whiteness
Emptied of ardour like a thought of crystal
Scoring a circle in the air of Time:
Closer to darkness is this lovely lightness
Than to the wannest breath of colour. All
That is most ultimate and clear: the prime

And essence of a dream, that flowering, loses
Its colour-tinctured parts on finding climax
And consummation in a spectral land,
Vaster than arctic, rarer than where cruises
The frigate moon, is your demesne that works
Its magic in the thighbone on the sand.

Again these stanzas stress the purging of colour from whiteness, and with it the personality of the plunger-pirate from the composition of the universe at its key moments. At this point of consummation or flowering the desert becomes a ‘spectral land’ as haunting as the land of the Sami in Melville’s chapter, where visitors are urged to don tinted spectacles to avoid being blinded by the unrelieved whiteness of the frozen vistas. And it inhabits an ‘amoral’ space where the distinctions between black and white, light and darkness, good and evil have been replaced with passionless, amoral perfection, free from emotion, doctrine, faith or ‘ardour’.

This is the space occupied by Leonardo’s Last Supper in Peake’s painstakingly non-narrative poem. For Peake, the key feature of the famous mural is neither the people who appear in it – the dramatis personae of the Passion (Christ declaring that one of his followers will betray him, the twelve disciples reacting with various degrees of dismay or anguish) – nor the symbolic substances displayed on the table, the wine that Christ declares to be his blood, the rolls of bread of which only one has been broken: Christ’s roll, in token of the breaking of his body on the cross. Instead it is the white tablecloth on which the Last Supper is served that Peake considers the crucial component of the celebrated image. This is for him a manifestation of the ‘passionless, amoral, unearthly whiteness’ he identified in stanza 35; a whiteness, he writes,

As bleached and scrupulous as that stern linen
Da Vinci laid forever underneath
The isolation of the unfingered loaves,
The desolation of the untasted wine,
The thirteen double islands from the Earth,
Stiff, icebound and estranged from vines and sheaves[.]

In Peake’s reading, the painting shows a moment when all the figures and symbolic objects in the picture have been isolated or ‘islanded’ from one another: Christ because of his consciousness that he alone knows what will happen next and why, the disciples because of the sudden access of distrust (or in Judas’s case guilt and shame) to which they have been subjected, the bread and wine because they have been forgotten in the turmoil of Christ’s revelation. All thirteen people in the picture are referred to as ‘double islands’, not single ones – a phrase that makes little sense except as an assertion that they all contain the twin figures we considered earlier, the ghost-man and the plunger, Christ included. This extraordinary moment renders both figures and objects frozen in time – ‘forever’ – and temperature – they are all ‘icebound and estranged’. But the white tablecloth stands apart from all this turmoil in its passionlessness, its bonelike ‘asceticism’, its sternness – a word Peake invokes twice in successive stanzas. The bread and wine lying on it, Peake suggests,

Show with their pool and crust how pure is flax,
How cold it is and how immaculate
And close it is at the Supper, charged and lorn[,]
To the asceticism of the stern stalk
Of hollow bone that the same master sought –
Blanched, holy whiteness that continues on. [My emphasis.]

The syntax of this stanza is hard to follow, but the drift is clear. For Peake, the bread and wine at Leonardo’s supper are no more than aesthetic supplements to the linen tablecloth, which points the way to what Christ really seeks: the bone-whiteness of a death that will rid him of the turbulence of living, with its betrayals, moral dilemmas, revelations, physical agonies, emotional traumas. Or is it Leonardo rather than Christ who seeks this whiteness; Leonardo who is the ‘master’ or Old Master of this ascetic vision? Or is the power of each master, Christ and Leonardo, somehow shared, like the twin powers that co-occupy the human frame, the angel and the plunger?

The latter reading seems to be invoked in a neologism Peake introduces in stanzas 41-42, as he describes the shifting narratives generated by the desert sands. ‘All is changed’, he notes as knolls of sand collapse into sandy vales or valleys:

the hills as hot as blood
Have given place to corrugated, pale
And ash-grey tracts that have thrown up fresh plunder

From sterile torpor of the desert’s womb;
So that across the desolate plains are littered
Fresh relics of incongruous dynarchies[.]

The word ‘dynarchies’ does not exist, but it fuses three words at least: ‘dynasties’, which implies successions of well-documented generations; ‘anarchy’, which suggests no organisation, documentation, authority, or formal narrative at all; and ‘diarchy’, which means co-rule or shared authority, of the kind Peake repeatedly identifies as present in the human body and mind, dominated as they are by incongruous twins. Such co-rulership could also be implied by the double meaning of ‘master’ in the account of Leonardo’s painting, which may refer either to the ascetic master of the disciples, Christ, or to the grand Old Master, Leonardo, who freezes the key moment of the Last Supper in paint and plaster, capturing its uneasy fusion of evanescent human passion and ‘blanched, holy whiteness that continues on’. Just as the ‘dynarchies’ of the desert circumvent the human dynasties and power systems they repeatedly invoke, so does Leonardo’s painting distance itself from its religious subject; it only represents eucharist, it can never be the eucharistic act as, say, an Orthodox icon can, so that by it eucharist is rendered cold, strange and always elsewhere, always distant. Peake’s meditation on the painting is a meditation on death, not religion, a wresting of the religious subject from the deadening clutch of the ecclesiastical authorities and a returning of it to the material facts in all their strangeness, the beauty of bones in all their insolence, their refusal to be cabined, cribbed, confined within traditional paradigms. As such it empowers the meditator – who is also the artist, the soldier, and the ordinary human being – as well as the human act of creation through painting, dreaming and making verse.

Peake, Letters from a Lost Uncle, First Edition

A similar estrangement of whiteness from its religious context takes place in Letters from a Lost Uncle (1948).[21] The Uncle’s quest for the White Lion is not inspired by missionary zeal, nor by a thirst for imperial conquest, nor yet by an Ahab-like quest for vengeance – despite the fact that the Uncle seems permanently angry (he is always swearing like a whaleman, using phrases like ‘blubber it!’ ‘blubberation!’ and ‘blubber take this thumb mark!’). This said, the fragments of empire lie around him throughout his life. As a youth the Uncle spends his time in the imperialist Museum of Natural History in London, or drawing the imperial lions in Trafalgar Square, which he sketches one by one, unaware that (like the colonial project) they replicate each other precisely in the different spaces they have been allotted. He sets out on his adventures in a ship called the S. S. Em, whose name may stand (he thinks) for Empire or Emu, in either case recognising the curtailment of the British imperial project in the era immediately following the Second World War.[22] The Uncle’s relationship with his only companion, Jackson, is decidedly colonial. On first meeting the mournful ‘turtle-dog’ on a beach of red sand, with his shell, his perpetual cold, and his permanently downturned beak, the Uncle decides at once that the creature would serve as the ideal ‘beast of burden – and possibly as a friend’, while at the same time confessing that ‘I was irritated [by him] right from the start’. The ghosts of missionary zeal and colonialism, then, accompany the adventurer on his wanderings, just as the ghosts of his various adventures haunt the formerly pristine pages of every letter he sends to his nephew, in the form of thumb-prints, drops of blood, gravy stains and splashes of coffee. The Lion itself is a symbol of empire; he appears on stamps, like the head of the British monarch; he features alongside the unicorn on the royal coat of arms; and he represents the grandest prize available to the colonial big game hunter, symbolic of the subjugation of the territories he occupies. But the Uncle’s Lion has been partly purged of colonial associations by his dazzling whiteness – which distinguishes him from all other lions and their significations – as well as by his transplantation from the plains of Africa to the frozen (and in Peake’s book uninhabited) wastes of the North. The Uncle, meanwhile, does not plan to subjugate him or his territories with a phallic gun. Instead he hopes to take pictures of him with his box camera, to supplement the stains and pencil sketches which swarm around the margins of his letters. And even this modest aim is dashed when a whirlwind whips away his camera, leaving him only his pencil and his sword-fish leg with which to face the King of the Snows.

The Uncle’s pursuit of the Lion, in fact, reduces him to rags, detaching him from family, friends, home, institutions, even one of his limbs. Symbolically severed from the oppressions of the past, bereft of the grand narratives that would have given some semblance of coherence or control to his wayward wanderings, the Uncle’s sole attachment is to his nameless nephew, whose mind he seeks to fill with brilliant visions of his own vagrancy, unencumbered by moral lessons or useful facts. His polar pictures are full of non-existent animals – snow serpents, Arctic vultures, polar beetles – and promiscuously mix Antarctic penguins with Arctic bears. Even the conventions of fiction do not govern his adventures; the Uncle’s relationship with Jackson does not improve, despite the fact that they save each other’s lives on several occasions, and he never meets his nephew, despite growing fonder of him as he writes his letters. The Uncle’s story is as haphazard as his method of telling it, given structure only by his obsession with the pristine whiteness of the Lion and the landscape it lives in.

Like the Antarctic landscape of broken crosses described by Melville, Peake’s polar regions resonate with religious imagery. As they approach the frigid zone where the Lion lives, Jackson and the Uncle notice that ‘great glittering steeples of ice began to show above the horizon just as though we were approaching a city of glass churches’. The Lion inhabits the largest church of all, a ‘cathedral of glass’ with ‘twenty thousand spires’, which encloses a see-through floor and a ‘rough and dusky throne of ice’. Blue light, green light, then lights of many colours shine up from beneath the structure’s frozen floor, as if through stained glass, painting the creatures gathered there to pay homage to the king of beasts, just as shadows and reflections paint the essential whiteness of the universe in Melville’s chapter. ‘But although everything else reflected the colours that smouldered through the ice,’ the Uncle tells us, ‘the Lion didn’t. Nothing could change his whiteness. He was apart from everything else’. His apartness, like that of the tablecloth under Leonardo’s Last Supper, cuts him adrift from any acknowledged narrative, religious or otherwise. And the Lion’s own blindness cuts him off from those around him: his ‘vast and silent congregation’ of animal subjects, the Uncle and Jackson, the whale, the swarms of fishes under the ice, the glass cathedral. No longer a symbol of religious or secular power, the Lion has become the embodiment of beauty itself, uncorrupted by the stains of history or story. In token of this, the story culminates in the Lion’s death: he roars, rears up, and freezes into a statue, in which form he remains unvisited forever except in the memory of the Uncle, in the imagination of the nephew, and in the sketches that fill the Uncle’s penultimate letter: ‘alone and beautiful in the wild polar waste,’ as the Uncle puts it, ‘my Lion of white ice’. In this book, then, the Lion’s whiteness may be said to liberate its image from religious and imperial colonialism – though these things echo around it like the traces of its dying roar. Pure sculpture, he is uncontaminated by any kind of purpose beyond the artwork’s singular function of being beautiful, strange and unsettling, as well as averse to entanglement in the convoluted coils of cause and effect as recognised by the conventions of verbal logic.

In a similar way, Mr Pye’s white wings – which grow like leprosy as he indulges his delight in good deeds on the Island of Sark – gradually detach themselves from religious significance in the course of Mr Pye, becoming instead a skill to be mastered, a delight to be enjoyed, an embodiment of liberation from the narrative conventions that governed the lifetime of their wearer. In the final paragraphs of the novel, pursued by the island’s inhabitants as a freak or demon, the little missionary first flings his spirit up to Heaven (‘he drew forth his soul and tossed it skywards to his God’, p. 253) before ending the chase as himself alone, unpossessed, ungoverned, unbeholden; not a representative of a faith or congregation but a being complete and confident in his own uniqueness:

It was a never-to-be-forgotten sight. There was beauty in it, with those ample wings of dazzling whiteness that bore him to and fro as he tried to learn how best to manage them: and there was pathos – for he looked so solitary – adrift in the hollow air. And there was bathos also, for it seemed incongruous to see his city trousers and his small, black, gleaming shoes. (Mr Pye, p. 254)

The last paragraph of the novel confirms that Mr Pye has ‘already mastered his wings’, becoming in the process an accomplished craftsman in the art of flying – and freeing himself from the control of his smug and sometimes tormenting former master, the Christ-figure whom he labelled the ‘Great Pal’.

Again in a similar way, Peake’s novella Boy in Darkness culminates in an act of liberation from religious and imperial mastery. The story begins with the nameless Boy under the tutelage of various masters – the Master of the Ritual, the Master of the Quills – as he suffers day by day through the onerous duties of a child in his position, hereditary ‘Lord of a tower’d tract’ (Boy in Darkness, p. 23). The Boy is of course Titus Groan, and the ‘tower’d tract’ is his ancient home of Gormenghast Castle, but the Boy is as much a subject to tyrannical authority as any other schoolboy under the sway of cruel masters. The Lost Uncle, we learn, evaded the school authorities by making himself ill with doses of ink. The Boy escapes instead by fleeing into the castle, making use of his intimate knowledge of its obscurer tracts to worm his way through its corridors, attics, lost staircases and ruined fortifications into a wasteland twice as bleak as the ocean-desert in ‘A Reverie of Bone’. The Boy’s mastery of the castle displays itself even as he flees the titanic structure; and his flight takes him into the hands of a new kind of mastery. Each escape he accomplishes as the narrative unfolds, in fact, takes him deeper into the convoluted structures of power and servitude to which his heredity has consigned him. As a Boy he cannot escape, though the will to escape and the cunning to effect an escape manifests itself, in potential at least, at every stage of his brief adventure.

The post-apocalyptic landscape to which he flees – a colourless vista strewn with ‘soft white dust’ (p. 38) and littered with industrial wreckage – is ruled over by a malignant relative of the Lion of the Snows: a Lamb of unsettling whiteness. Melville’s chapter on whiteness mentions the regal Lamb of the Apocalypse only in passing (‘the great white throne, and the Holy One that sitteth there white like wool’, Moby-Dick, p. 205), but Peake’s novella makes him the nightmarish focus of the Boy’s journey, entirely defined, like Ahab’s whale, by his distinctive colouring:

White. White as foam when the moon is full on the sea; white as the white of a child’s eye; or the brow of a dead man; white as a sheeted ghost; oh, white as wool. Bright wool… white wool… in half a million curls… seraphic in its purity and softness… the raiment of the Lamb. (Boy in Darkness, p. 56)

The passage invokes the full range of associations given to whiteness in Moby-Dick, from childhood innocence to an unpeopled ocean, from living angels to livid corpses, from priestly albs to ‘sheeted ghosts’. As with the Lion, however, the crowning strangeness of the Lamb is his blindness, which in Peake’s imagination seals him away from sympathy with the human prisoners brought before him, islanding him, so to speak, in his own internal narrative, his lust for power. The Lamb uses his subjects as material for his art, tracing their facial contours with his coldly sensuous little finger before drawing out of them by some diabolical magic the features of the particular beast – bird, mammal, fish or insect – whose likeness he detects in their composition. Peake depicts him as both an artist and an artwork: the ‘creator as it were of a new kingdom, a new species’ (p. 72), comparable in his reworking of limbs and organs to a concert pianist, a sculptor or a gourmet, while himself recalling a ‘marble carving’ (p. 74) and a ‘dancer’ (p. 90), as well as an ‘Emperor’ (pp. 53, 74, 77 etc.), the last surviving emblem of British imperialism. But his art has something wrong with it. Its chilly perfection is deathly. Most of the beast-men he has created in his lifetime are now dead, their bones littering the floors of the mines he makes his home. And the two survivors are grotesques: a muscular, foppish Hyena and a dusty Goat, each of them aspects of the pirate-figure who shares the human body with his white twin, the angel Gabriel, in Peake’s poems. The Lamb, meanwhile, represents the final example in Peake’s work of that ‘modern angel’: master of an art that seeks absolute mastery over its subjects, tormenting, humiliating, reshaping and finally killing them with its intimate attentions. As an embodiment of the soulless present – the pale shadow of Cold War in a post-industrial wasteland, fused with a violent sensuality utterly destructive to its objects – he sums up the topics available to art and artists in the 1950s, which involve making twisted copies of the personal, political and religious power-games on offer, haunted (like the adventures of the Lost Uncle) by spectral memories of the grand narratives of the past.

Under these circumstances, the simple stories that fill the Boy’s imagination – stories of flight, adventure, cunning, unexpected encounters in dangerous places, narrow escapes – take on the status of acts of insurrection, powerful precisely because they are disdained and half forgotten by the authorities. In the narrow confines of his castle bedroom, hemmed in by various forms of adult coercion and control, the Boy finds foreign shores in a patch of mould above his bed: undiscovered countries beyond the reach of his appointed masters, imaginary lands to which he can swear semi-blasphemous loyalty in defiance of his expected total commitment to his role as Earl. Thanks to these inward mental games of piratical abandon, he is able to dream his way out of the castle, although he cannot conjure up any clear images of what lies beyond its broken walls. But once confronted in the wasteland by the Goat and the Hyena, the Boy’s imagination sets to work at once on this new material, discovering ways to imagine them afresh not as the grovelling slaves the Lamb has made them, but instead as powerful rivals to the Lamb, capable of occupying golden thrones exactly like his and of commanding armies of slaves as the Lamb commands the two sad relicts of the army of mighty beast-men he once assembled. Physically weak – the Boy spends much of the novella either asleep or in a faint while being conveyed from place to place, first by a pack of silent dogs, then by the beast-men – Peake’s youthful hero nonetheless has an uncanny ability to conjoin himself to other people’s minds, to inhabit their desires and dreams. When escaping from his bedroom he briefly mingles with an anarchic group of children revelling in the castle grounds, becoming indistinguishable from them by reason of their common youth. Later he becomes an honorary member of the dog-pack thanks to their shared vitality (p. 36); and later still he shows himself able to second-guess the dreams of the Goat and the Hyena, whose own imaginations are limited to the pleasures they already enjoy, rolling in the dust and crunching bones between their teeth – or the pleasures of the Lamb, tyranny and torture. He even imagines himself into the imagination of the inhuman Lamb, describing himself at one point as an escaped ‘figment of [the Lamb’s] thought’ who has somehow ‘wandered – wandered away from his great brain’ (p. 54), and urging the beast-men to let him wander away altogether, out of the wasteland and back again to his abandoned castle bedroom. Each new mind he shares offers a way out of itself, a way to breach its boundaries, and the Boy’s own restless brain is constantly working to uncover these means of egress, these secret passages to an unguessed freedom. He works his way inward to work his way outward, just as he did when effecting his flight from his ancestral home.

The Boy’s mind is coloured, in fact, both by the brilliant lights that shine into it from outside and by the inward light that illuminates his dreams and narratives. This fusion of inward and outward lights is most brilliantly invoked in Peake’s work by the unpublished poem he wrote in Southport hospital in 1942, just before being invalided out of the army, ‘Blue as the Indigo and Fabulous Storm’. In the poem, the blue-uniformed patients at the hospital have a means of inward egress from its thick brick walls by means of the brilliantly-coloured dreams that fill them:

For we are bluer than the fabulous waters
That lap the inner skull-walls of a boy
So that his head is filled with brimming summer’s
Dazzling rollers which make dull the day
Surrounding him, like an un-focused twilight,
Such waters as uplift a rippling acre
Of naked jelly through the sunfire drifting
With at its centre a vermilion ember
Across whose fire the transparent eyelids rove
O fiercer than the azure lights that flare
At the lit core of fantasy.

(Collected Poems, p. 120)

In Boy in Darkness, too, the Boy’s ‘lit core of fantasy’ offers a means of escape from the darkness of the Lamb’s mine, and a means of combating the power expressed by that beast’s tyrannical whiteness. It’s the Boy’s inclination towards the piratical ‘fabulous’ that transforms the Hyena’s murderous knife – at first no more than a ‘long, slim blade’ (p. 49) – into a sword: a ‘long, thin, deadly yard of steel’ (p. 90) perfectly adapted to the needs of a young adventurer in peril of his life. A sword can be ‘brandished’ as a knife cannot, and can destroy a godlike being in an act of quasi-ritual sacrifice:

In fact the air seemed to open up for him as he sprang, his sword brandished. He brought it down across the skull of the Lamb so that it split the head into two pieces which fell down to earth on either side. There was no blood, nor anything to be seen in the nature of a brain. […] The wool lay everywhere in dazzling curls.

(Boy in Darkness, p. 92)

This execution signals the termination of the angel figure in Peake’s work; there are no more beings of immaculate whiteness in his final novel, Titus Alone (1959). The pirate figure, the ‘plunger’ of the poem ‘I Am For Ever with Me’, has finally rid himself of his pale, perfect heavenly twin. Ahab has purged himself of the white whale, Moby Dick, and in the process exorcised his self-destructive obsession. The oppressive pearlescence of Catholic ritual has been dispersed, along with the various hierarchies – symbolized by thrones and distinctive vestments – it sustained. This exorcism is not absolute; Titus in Titus Alone, for instance, remains haunted by post-traumatic echoes of his ancestral castle, and is briefly reinstated on a fake throne before he dashes it to pieces in a fit of fury. The Boy, too, is finally carried back to the ‘immemorial home’ he briefly escaped from (Boy in Darkness, p. 93). But both young people have been given licence to rove, a licence Peake clearly intended to make use of in the later Titus books he never wrote.

Illustration for Boy in Darkness, Santiago Caruso

Something else happens at the climax of Boy in Darkness. Peake’s boyishness, as an artist, is justified; his immaturity confirmed as a strength, his instinctive insurrection necessary, his lust for adventure no longer an aesthetic liability. And Moby-Dick may have helped. Malcolm Yorke, as we’ve seen, wrote with some acerbity of Peake’s continuing affection for the ‘swashbuckling books’ of his youth. G. Peter Winnington suspects he didn’t read anything too ‘literary’ after his schooldays ended. And Peake himself writes in some embarrassment of his lifelong passion for wild romance at the beginning of his short story ‘I Bought a Palm-Tree’:

Perhaps it’s because there is something wrong with my upper storey, for I am incurably romantic. King Solomon’s Mines still haunt me. Coral Island and The Blue Water Ballads are all mixed up in my memory. […] Ben Gunn and Amos Leigh, Ahab and Crusoe – they are with me still in a tangle of fern and palm-trees.

(Boy in Darkness and Other Stories, p. 103)

It’s the ‘rainbow-tinted world’ of the tropics that calls out to him, he tells us, though he knows full well that this is a thing of ‘dog-eared and thumb-marked story books’ of the kind the Lost Uncle penned, which invoke the ‘tropics as one wants them, not as they are’ (p. 103). Embedded in this confession is the name of Ahab, whose journey and life both ended in the tropics, in a succession of ‘clear steel-blue day[s]’ when he chose to chase the whale instead of taking the advice of Starbuck and turning his helm towards his home on far-off Nantucket Island (Moby-Dick, p. 589). The novel he appeared in, Moby-Dick, was derided by one London reviewer as an ‘absurd book’, an ‘ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact’ (https://lithub.com/check-out-the-original-1851-reviews-of-moby-dick/). Peake and his writings were just such an ill-compounded mixture of cold, white reason and rainbow colours. But his poetry and prose suggest that all human beings are made up of such a mixture. And Melville’s acknowledged masterpiece showed a way to transmute this ungainly compound into art, without bleaching it of the rainbow tints that illuminated Peake’s ‘upper storey’, the magic of the Boy’s Own adventures that continued to haunt him. For this, as for so much else, we owe Moby-Dick a world of thanks.

NOTES

[1] A good example of Peake’s use of the term ‘islanded’ is the poem ‘Tides’, which begins ‘Always you are remote and islanded’ and ends ‘You will be always far and islanded’. Mervyn Peake, Collected Poems, ed. R. W. Maslen, Fyfield Books (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), pp. 129-30. All quotations from Peake’s poems are taken from this edition.

[2] All references to Moby-Dick or, The Whale are taken from the Penguin edition, with an introduction by Andrew Delbanco and Notes an Commentary by Tom Quirk (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992).

[3] Mervyn Peake, The Gormenghast Trilogy (London: Mandarin, 1992), ‘THE REVERIES’, pp. 285-292.

[4] Maeve mentions the cat in her book A World Away, in Mervyn Peake: Two Lives (London: Vintage, 1999), p. 22.

[5] For the portrait see G. Peter Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies: The Illustrated Biography (London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen, 2009), p. 132; Winnington suggests its name on p. 131.

[6] Mervyn Peake, Boy in Darkness and Other Stories, ed. Sebastian Peake (London and Chicago: Peter Owen, 2007), p. 103).

[7] We learn the whale’s colour after its corpse has drifted away from the beach on Sark where it first appeared: ‘The wind blew into Guernsey from the sea, and as that angry island which had so lately been convulsed at the plight of the Sarkese, closed its doors and windows against the little white whale, the Sarkese opened theirs and breathed again; and grinned’ (Mr Pye [Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978] p. 130. All quotations are from this edition). After its appearance Mr Pye tries unsuccessfully to get to sleep by counting ‘little white whales jumping over a hedge’ (p. 125). For the actual dead whales on which this one was based see Stephen Foote, Mervyn Peake: Son of Sark (Guernsey: Blue Ormer, 2019), p. 42.

[8] Malcolm Yorke, Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold. A Life (London: John Murray, 2000), p. 195.

[9] Maeve Gilmore, A World Away, p. 72.

[10] Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, trans. Richard Howard (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975), pp. 42-3.

[11] The illustration of Muzzlehatch is reproduced in Mervyn Peake: The Man and his Art, ed. G. Peter Winnington (London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen, 2006), p. 16. The quotation from Titus Alone comes from The Gormenghast Trilogy, p. 770.

[12] Malcolm Yorke, Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold, p. 193.

[13] Gordon Smith, Mervyn Peake: A Personal Memoir (London: Victor Gollancz, 1984), p. 118.

[14] See Mervyn Peake, Complete Nonsense, ed. R. W. Maslen and G. Peter Winnington, Fyfield Books (Manchester: Carcanet, 2011), p. 89. The illustration for The Swiss Family Robinson is reproduced in Yorke, Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold, p. 187.

[15] On first sighting his landlady on Sark, Miss Dredger, Mr Pye ‘lifted his hat a few inches from his head and bowed very slightly from the hips’ (Mr Pye, p. 18). Later he gives her, with ‘an old-world charm that was quite inimitable, a little bow’ (p. 134).

[16] The double meaning of the verb ‘express’ is explained by Rosemary Jackson in her book Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London and New York: Routledge, 1981), pp. 3-4.

[17] A striking example is the poem ‘Maeve’, which describes her as ‘the cause / Of my heart crying from its midnight grove / Of ribs’.

[18] For Peake’s poems on three of these four visionary artists see Collected Poems, pp. 41 (‘El Greco’), 44 (‘Van Gogh’) and 63 (‘Blake’). He also refers to Rembrandt in his poem of that title (p. 165) and in ‘She Does Not Know’ (p. 69), which mentions Raphael too; and he wrote poems on Jacob Epstein (p. 45) and Mané Katz (p. 34). For Leonardo, see below.

[19] See e.g. ‘To Maeve’, Collected Poems, p. 38, which refers to ‘your white streams / Of clear clay that I love’ and ‘your ivory grove’, ‘Poem’, p. 39 (‘the white shell of you’); ‘Tides’, p. 129 (‘always a remoteness lingers / About you like a vestment of the moon, / O whitely’).

[20] The introduction is reproduced in Peake’s Progress: Selected Writings and Drawings of Mervyn Peake, ed. Maeve Gilmore (London: Allen Lane, 1978), pp. 235-41.

[21] All quotations from Letters from a Lost Uncle (from Polar Regions) are taken from the Picador edition (London: Pan Books, 1977). This edition is unpaginated, and so are my references.

[22] Peter Winnington tells us that the ship’s name contains a reference to ‘the pre-1912 name of Eltham College, “School for the Sons of Missionaries”. At school matches, the boys would support their team with the chant ‘Ess-ess-emm!”.’ Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, p. 228.

Peake and Dickens

Mervyn Peake was passionate about Dickens. You only need to read a few pages of his first completed novel, Titus Groan, to see this at once, even before it has been pointed out – as Peter Winnington points out in his fine biography of Peake – that the scholar-pirate Mr Slaughterboard in Peake’s unfinished early novel of that name owns a complete set of Dickens bound in red leather; or that the hero-villain Steerpike in the Gormenghast books takes his name from the hero-villain of David Copperfield, Steerforth; or that Peake drew a magnificent set of charcoal illustrations for Bleak House in the 1940s, which wasn’t published till after his death.[1] There are Dickensian touches all over his work, and I’d like to point out a few of them in this post.

Peake looked at people with a Dickensian eye. In 1941, after being drafted into the army, he found himself studying his fellow conscripts with a sense of frustration that they should have been doomed to live in time of war – when lives and talents were being wasted at a frightening rate – rather than at a time when they could have served as imaginative material to be worked into a masterpiece of Victorian fiction. He wrote a poem about his frustration, ‘To a Scarecrow Gunner’. It’s not one of his best poems, and he knew it, leaving it in manuscript along with the unfinished Mr Slaughterboard; but it’s worth considering all the same. Here it is, a fourteen-line sonnet:

To a Scarecrow Gunner

The Fates have willed it that you’re living now
And not when Dickens might have watched your face
Your pigeon body and the tousled crow
That on your scalp finds perilous nesting space
And they have willed that Dickens cannot hear
Your sad inconsequent ejaculations
In such a curlew voice, as none may share
The portent of, save in hallucinations.

But so much less do I respect the Fates.

The Fates have willed the always insecure
And muddy forage cap on your dark head
Should not be part of Dickens’ stock and store –
But now sits cocky while the man is dead

Who might have seen what’s lost upon your mates.[2]

Mervyn Peake, 1945

Written as it is in wartime, this lament for what the scarecrow gunner fails to become – a character in one of Dickens’s novels – is rendered more painful by his likely other fate, to serve as fodder for the enemy’s guns. The birds in the poem – crow, pigeon, curlew – all have unfortunate connotations; the crow is a bird of ill omen, as is the curlew (its mournful cry is often thought to presage death), while the pigeon is a game bird whose use to carry messages in wartime makes it doubly vulnerable, as a source of food and a possible enemy instrument. The gunner’s scalp serves as a ‘perilous nesting place’ for his crow-like hair both because he is permanently dishevelled and because he is himself in peril as a soldier. The sound of the gunner’s voice is ‘sad’ because of the danger he is in, his voice unheard in the general din of a global conflict, the ‘portent’ it carries thanks to its resemblance to a curlew’s cry unnoticed by anyone except in the fever dreams or ‘hallucinations’ of the sick or wounded. The reference towards the end of the poem to Dickens being dead could have a double meaning; the scarecrow gunner’s cap ‘sits cocky while the man is dead’, both in the sense that the man who wears it is effectively dead already before being transported to the battlefields of the continent, and in the sense that the author is dead who might have seen his potential as a model for a character in his latest novel. The abrupt ending of the sonnet, then, while on the one hand it can be read as a poetic failing, can also be said to augur the premature ending of this potential. The scarecrow gunner is one of those lost souls in Peake’s work whose condemnation to obscurity robs the world of something extraordinary; and Dickens’s books are full of similar laments for lost potential.

Mervyn Peake, Harold Skimpole, from Bleak House

David Copperfield was obviously one of Peake’s favourite works by Dickens, and it’s a work that’s full of the fear of wasted talent: from the talent of Mr Micawber, who finds it so hard to find an outlet for his natural skills, to that of Rosa Dartle, whose disfigurement by the spoiled boy Steerforth has condemned her to a state of perpetual bitterness and a permanent quest for revenge against all the world apart from the man who actually injured her; from Little Emily, who is engaged to be married to a kindly and devoted fisherman named Ham, but is seduced by Steerforth into running off with him to Europe, ‘ruining’ her good name in the process, to Mrs Micawber, who is thought by her family to have made a disastrous marriage to the always-indebted Mr Micawber, and Agnes Wickfield, who is let down both by her widower father and her young admirer, David, and finds herself facing financial and personal ‘ruin’ as a result. There are several writers in the novel whose writing never comes to anything: Dr Strong, who is compiling a dictionary that never gets beyond the letter D; Mr Dick, who is writing an obscure Memorial which keeps being invaded by the figure of Charles I, decapitating the writer’s ambitions with every appearance. Mr Micawber, too, is a writer, who turns every event in his life, no matter how trivial, into a letter, very few of which succeed in their primary purpose, which is to bring him financial gain. David Copperfield is a writer, but for much of the novel all the writing he has time for is to jot down Parliamentary proceedings in shorthand, while his ill-considered marriage to the childlike Dora Spenlow quickly makes his nascent career as a novelist into a formidable barrier between them that augments their intellectual and imaginative differences instead of cementing their happiness. Relationships in this book are always on the point of collapsing or being destroyed by hostile forces; writing is always in the process of proving empty and pointless; and growing up, which is supposed to bring the potential of a child to maturation, is always being arrested or cut short.

Miss Mowcher, for instance, has stopped growing upwards at an early age and finds her life defined by her diminutive height. Dora has stopped developing intellectually at an equally early age, and finds herself being cheated by every tradesman or servant she asks to help her. Mr Dick, too, is widely perceived as having a childish mind, although his formidable guardian Betsey Trotwood remains convinced of his untapped genius. Mr Micawber is childish in his inability to find gainful employment, his permanent reliance on the kindness of a few good friends; Agnes too is trapped in childish dependence on others by the machinations of the upwardly-mobile clerk, Uriah Heep; Uriah has been forever tainted by the philosophy of the charitable foundation school where he was educated, which taught him to keep proclaiming his own humbleness no matter how fiercely he might resent it (p. 464).[3] For a Bildungsroman, a novel of growth from youth to maturity, David Copperfield is packed with people for whom growth has proved impossible in the teeth of the various social, economic, emotional and educational barriers they have been faced with.

Phiz, Steerforth at school

Perhaps the most striking figure of lost potential in the book is James Steerforth, the seemingly heroic young man who effortlessly wins the affection of people from every social class with his charm and charisma. Steerforth delights the inhabitants of the fishing community of Great Yarmouth, where he chooses to spend much of his time; the sailors and shipbuilders there, whose trades he learns at a whim; the schoolboys at the school where he gains his education – including David, who adores him with a passion; the women who fall for him and whom he betrays. Handsome, clever, rich (like Jane Austen’s Emma), he misuses his abundant gifts to damage the people who love him most as if in a destructive game – a game that proves self-destructive in the end. Rosa Dartle, the woman whose face he scarred and whose life he blighted, considers him to have been in potential worth ‘millions’ of any other person in the novel (p. 644). In practice he does nothing at all except flirt with David, damage Rosa Dartle and his mother, abscond with Little Emily, abandon her, and finally die pointlessly in a shipwreck.

As one might expect from the poet who lamented the lost possibilities of the scarecrow gunner, Gormenghast Castle in Titus Groan positively teems with similar cases of arrested development – to such an extent that Alice Mills has written an entire monograph about ‘stuckness’ in the fiction of Mervyn Peake.[4] In the first of the novel series that bears his name, Titus Groan himself gets stuck in childhood, growing with difficulty until he is ‘not two years old’ in the final chapter of the book that bears his name.[5] He is surrounded by people who are variously imprisoned by habit and custom, from the eremitic castle poet, who walls himself up in his tower with a barricade of books, to the community of the Bright Carvers, obsessively dedicated to the pursuit of carving wood into fantastic shapes while also being doomed to grow suddenly old at the age of twenty. There is the manservant Flay, so devoted to the castle that he has begun to ossify into a moving sculpture himself, and his arch-enemy Swelter the chef, permanently swathed in self-indulgence in the form of the imprisoning folds of fat that engulf him. There is the Countess Gertrude, Titus’s mother, an intelligent and formidable woman who is so wholly absorbed by her birds and cats she has no time for her children. There is his father Sepulchrave, so committed to his library that when Steerpike burns it he goes mad, repeatedly recreating the books he has lost by arranging pinecones on the ground as if on shelves, speaking in blank verse like his favourite dramatists and poets, and transforming himself as if by an act of unhinged imaginative will-power into a Death Owl from one of his tragedies or lost novels. Titus’s sister the Lady Fuchsia is stuck in her position as an impotent family member, ignored by everyone except her doting nurse and the castle doctor; and his aunts, the Ladies Cora and Clarice, are identical twins who are stuck in a permanent loop of mindlessly echoing each other’s thoughts and dreaming of a political coup that will never happen. All these characters embody the capacity of human beings to cut themselves off from one another – and from the past and the future, as the scarecrow gunner is cut off both from Dickens and from the life he might have lived in the time to come, if the deadly rituals of military life had not taken possession of his ‘pigeon body’. Gormenghast Castle is itself the mournful dream of an infinitely fertile imagination left to decay, like the forgotten halls and roofscapes of the seat of the Groans.

If Gormenghast perfectly embodies the lost potential that haunts the characters in David Copperfield, the young antagonist Steerpike embodies the character in Dickens’s book who has the most potential, Steerforth. Peter Winnington has pointed out that Steerforth had already made an appearance around ten years before the publication of Titus Groan in Peake’s unfinished novel, Mr Slaughterboard:

the moment when the dwarf, Shrivel, stands on the table and brushes Smear’s hair to a gloss inevitably brings David Copperfield to mind: the dwarf Miss Moucher [sic] is described by Dickens and memorably illustrated by Phiz, standing on a table, brushing and combing Steerforth’s hair which she has treated with oil.[6]

Phiz, ‘I make the acquaintance of Miss Mowcher’, from David Copperfield

This, Winnington says, is ‘about the closest Mervyn came to borrowing from Dickens’; but the echoes of Steerforth in the kitchen-boy Steerpike have been recognised for years. Steerpike is both charismatic and strangely attractive to others, despite his strange appearance and unsettling personality. Dr Prunesquallor is as arrested by his energy and naked ambition as Fuchsia is entranced by his mimicry of an adventure hero and a circus clown. Skilled, like Steerforth, in every craft he turns his hand to, he is galvanised into action by the birth of Titus, just as Steerforth is galvanised into action when he is invited to share in his young friend David’s personal life: to visit David’s working-class friends in their boat at Yarmouth, to meet David’s childhood sweetheart, Little Emily, and to entrance her adoptive family, slipping easily into their confidence thanks to his friendship with David, and laying his plans to break up their seaside idyll as if challenging himself to provide the most tragic of endings to David’s life story. Steerpike similarly worms his way into the lives of Titus’s family and associates: his sister, mother, father and aunts, the doctor who presided over his birth, the official who oversees the rituals they are obliged to attend, his elderly, diminutive nurse. Steerpike shares Steerforth’s playful brand of wicked humour, his willingness to do harm on a whim, and is at his most strenuously active when laying the groundwork for seemingly pointless acts of villainy: burning Sepulchrave’s library; designing imperial thrones for the aunts which will never be occupied; scrambling up and down a ladder to rescue members of the Groan family from a fire he himself has started; mixing poisons in the Doctor’s laboratory which he never uses, unless for the singularly pointless purpose of killing Nannie Slagg; lurking in a hammock under the Earl’s dining table to listen in on conversations that tell him nothing. His penetration of Titus’s environment is as complete, and as ruthless, as Steerforth’s invasion of David’s.

Mervyn Peake, Steerpike

In the second Titus book, Gormenghast, the former kitchen boy is more maliciously playful than ever, accompanied always by a monkey as if to point up his tricksterish nature. In this book his role as a double for Titus Groan – a kind of malignant substitute for him – is finally confirmed by his purloining of Titus’s boat, a light canoe the boy has imaginatively invested with the personality of the feral girl who was his first crush. And death is Steerpike’s constant companion or shadow, just as it is Steerforth’s. After being seduced and abandoned by Steerforth, Little Emily is urged to commit suicide by the envious Rosa Dartle, while her friend Martha (also ‘ruined’ by illicit sex) almost succumbs to the same temptation as she lingers on the banks of the Thames, before being saved by David and Mr Peggotty. In Gormenghast the young woman seduced by the upstart Steerpike ends by really committing suicide, since there is no one nearby to save her – one more in the trail of victims he leaves in his wake. She dies by drowning, as Martha nearly did. Steerpike, meanwhile, ends his days in water, like Dickens’s Steerforth, as if to atone for driving Fuchsia to despair. As we might expect, Steerpike is at his most strenuously active in the moments that lead to his death, nimbly evading hordes of pursuers, picking them off one by one with his catapult, skimming about the surface of the rising flood waters in his stolen canoe, until he is symbolically trapped in the ivy of the castle walls – and even then he wields his knife in delighted defiance and crows in triumph like a second Peter Pan. His ingenuity and energy are at their peak when there is nowhere left to go, and as a result he is as charismatic in the termination of his story as ever he was in its slow unfolding.

Steerforth’s death, too, contains unnerving echoes of an adventure story for boys. His charisma shines through as David observes him from a distance, labouring away with his less industrious shipmates in a hopeless attempt to fashion an escape from a deadly storm. Watching helplessly as Steerforth’s ship comes to grief among the breakers, David tells us: ‘I plainly descried her people at work with axes, especially one active figure with long curling hair, conspicuous among the rest’ (p. 637); and a few minutes later, ‘four men arose with the wreck out of the deep, clinging to the rigging of the remaining mast; uppermost, the active figure with the curling hair’ (p. 638). Even from far away David notices the beauty as well as the energy of the ‘active figure’, from the curling of his hair – so carefully tended by Miss Mowcher – to the very attractive head-covering that does so little to confine it: ‘He had a singular red cap on, – not like a sailor’s cap, but of a finer colour; and as the few yielding planks between him and destruction rolled and bulged, and his anticipative death-knell rung, he was seen by all of us to wave it’ (p. 639). Steerforth remains distinctive, handsome, stylish and theatrical in his final seconds, just as Peake’s Steerpike when he knows he is about to die promises to savour every second of it in a performance of melodramatic self-indulgence: ‘He would indulge himself – would taste the peculiar quality of near-death on his tongue – would loll above the waters of Lethe’ (p. 741). Steerpike is childish in his death, letting out the ‘high-pitched, overweening cry of a fighting cock’ as Titus strikes at him. Steerforth’s childishness comes out only after his death, when David sees him lying on shore among the ruins of Mr Peggotty’s boat-house, ‘with his head upon his arm, as I had often seen him lie at school’ (p. 640). He does not die alone; in another echo of a boy’s adventure story, the boatbuilder Ham – whose fiancée, Little Emily, Steerforth stole from him – makes a final heroic attempt to rescue his enemy, and drowns in the attempt, adding one more name to the list of lives destroyed by the young man’s influence. In both books – David Copperfield and Gormenghast ­– water comes to represent the threat of obliteration and obscurity, against which the books’ protagonists and villains struggle with every ounce of strength they have. The protagonists keep their heads above the water, while the villains and their victims succumb to it – on the villains’ part, at least, with seeming enjoyment, as they flash their knives and wave their caps in a last farewell.

Frank Reynolds, Uriah Heep

The other David Copperfield connection in the Titus books can be found in Steerpike’s resemblance to the book’s other villain, Uriah Heep. The ambitious clerk who rises to a position of power over the family that previously gave him employment has much in common with Peake’s unscrupulous kitchen-boy, who shares his humble beginnings and vaulting ambition. The pair resemble each other physically in obvious ways: Uriah when we first meet him is a ‘cadaverous’ youth of about fifteen, ‘who had hardly any eyebrows, and no eyelashes, with eyes of a red-brown, so unsheltered and unshaded that I remember wondering how he went to sleep’ (p. 181). Steerpike is seventeen when we first meet him in Swelter’s kitchen. He does not lose his eyebrows and eyelashes until he is almost burnt to death in the process of murdering Barquentine in the second Titus book, Gormenghast, but his eyes are of a distinctive shade of red from the beginning: he has ‘dark-red concentrated eyes’ (p. 111) when he first opens them to look at Fuchsia in her attic, and by the day of his death they have intensified to ‘two red points of light’ or ‘beads of blood’ (p. 743). Uriah is ‘high-shouldered and bony’ (p. 181), and Steerpike when he strips to wash is ‘very thin, very bunched at the shoulders, and with an extraordinary perkiness in the poise of the body’ (p. 115). Uriah is given to spasms of self-deprecating ‘writhing’ – at one point early on he ‘writhe[s] himself quite off [his] stool in the excitement of his feelings’ (p. 194) – and Steerpike undergoes a similar spasm when he begins to realise he has Fuchsia under his spell: ‘A snake writhed suddenly under the ribs of Steerpike. He had succeeded’ (p. 116). Uriah has the daughter of his employer firmly in his sights from the beginning of his rise to power, in much the same way as Steerforth has Little Emily in his sights from their first meeting; and Steerpike’s desire to fascinate Fuchsia stems from a similar conviction, when he first meets her, that she will be useful to him later – and afterwards perhaps from a sheer delight in imposing his power on people weaker than himself.

Phiz, ‘Somebody Turns Up’, from David Copperfield

Uriah’s designs on Agnes Wickfield form part of a long-term plan whose slow working out involves putting the unfortunate girl through what is effectively slow torture, as she watches her father gradually lose his identity under the combined influence of alcohol and Uriah’s remorseless exposure of his calamitous financial dealings. ‘My Agnes is very young still,’ Uriah tells David at one point (p. 310), ‘so I shall have time gradually to make her familiar with my hopes, as opportunities offer’; his hopes being that he can marry her after taking control of her father’s affairs. Peake’s Fuchsia undergoes a similar torture at Steerpike’s hands, as she watches her father slowly lose his reason after Steerpike has burned his beloved library. Both men, as well as Steerforth, worm their way like parasites into other people’s lives, taking possession of their most intimate private spaces – their rooms, their papers, their families, their bodies, their thoughts. And both men, it seems to me, embody this process of parasitical possession and consumption in a metaphor that represents another clear echo of Dickens’s wording in the work of Peake.

Many months after informing David of his ambition to make Agnes his wife, Uriah comes up with a novel way of describing the lengthy process of bringing his plans for her to fruition. ‘I say! I suppose,’ he says to David at one point, as the young man waits for a coach to leave, ‘you have sometimes plucked a pear before it was ripe, Master Copperfield?’ (p. 469). David answers, ‘I suppose I have’; and Uriah tells him: ‘I did that last night’. He is referring to his first abortive attempt to ask Mr Wickfield for his daughter’s hand in marriage, an attempt that resulted in wild rejection. Uriah remains convinced, however, as he tells David, that his plan will succeed. ‘It’ll ripen yet!’ he gloats; ‘It only wants attending to. I can wait!’ Shortly afterwards, David notices him through the coach window, moving his mouth as if in the process of eating the pear. ‘For anything I know,’ David observes, ‘he was eating something to keep the raw morning air out; but he made motions with his mouth as if the pear was ripe already, and he were smacking his lips over it’. Uriah’s gesture is as cannibalistic as it is proprietorial.

Frederick Barnard, Uriah Heep

In this passage, Uriah’s unpleasant anticipation of Agnes’s ripening contrasts to his habit of referring to David by the honorific reserved for young boys. Uriah is always calling him Master Copperfield instead of Mister Copperfield – something he rarely fails to point out whenever he does it. David, in other words, has always been unripe as far as Uriah is concerned, and always will be. This habit of making people seem younger than they are is shared by Steerforth, who feminises and belittles David by calling him Daisy, and by Steerforth’s scheming manservant Littimer, whose every word and gesture makes David think himself terribly young. In the passage I’ve just quoted, Agnes too is infantilised, as Uriah assumes that the only reason for her to reject him is because she has not yet reached maturity – and conversely, that maturation will render their marriage inevitable. At the same time, her prospective maturation is described in terms that wholly subject her to his body as well as his will; ‘smacking his lips’ anticipates the moment when he will effectively ingest her, making her part of himself. For Uriah, Agnes’ qualities and talents are reserved for his use alone, since he has effectively bought her when he took control of her father’s money. David listens to him with all the horror of a man who recognises how far this assumption implies the wastage of Agnes’s qualities and talents.

Mervyn Peake, ‘Sensitive, Seldom and Sad’, from Rhymes Without Reason (1944)

Steerpike has a similar moment of acute acquisitiveness in relation to the woman he desires. Having escaped from a prison cell in which the servant Mr Flay has locked him and climbed across a vast expanse of the castle walls and roofscape, the kitchen boy tumbles in through an attic window and loses consciousness. When he wakes he finds himself in a hidden room that belongs to a young girl: fifteen-year-old Lady Fuchsia, who retreats to this attic to withdraw into her imagination and forget the humdrum life of ritual that enfolds her in the formal spaces of the castle. Little by little Steerpike pieces together the evidence he sees around him of the proclivities and age of the attic’s owner – above all the picture book he finds open on a table, in which he finds a poem about three eccentric old men in a ‘grey and purple world’ (p. 106) and notices on the page the signatory marks of the book’s last reader: ‘Steerpike noticed small thumb-marks on the margin of the page. They were as important to him as the poem or the picture’ (pp. 106-7). Beside the picture-book lie two wrinkled pears, and Steerpike is hungry; he picks one up and notices that a bite has already been taken from its side. Nevertheless he proceeds to bite into the pear himself, as if intentionally to continue his violation of Fuchsia’s personal space as embodied by the attic:

Making use of the miniature and fluted precipice of hard, white discoloured flesh, where Fuchsia’s teeth had left their parallel grooves, he bit greedily, his top teeth severing the wrinkled skin of the pear, and the teeth of his lower jaw entering the pale cliff about halfway up its face; they met in the secret and dark centre of the fruit – in that abactinal region where, since the petals of the pear flower had been scattered in some far June breeze, a stealthy and profound maturing had progressed by day and night. (p. 107)

At this point in the novel Steerpike has only once seen Fuchsia at a distance, through a ‘circular spyhole in the wall of Octagonal Room’ where the Groans were gathering after the birth of the castle’s heir (p. 108). He does not know that she is the proprietor of the attic, the reader of the book who left her thumbprints on the pages, the biter of the pear.  Steerpike’s ascent is as yet only physical – the ascent he has just made up the wall of the castle, which finally severed his connection with the castle kitchens where his own development was cabined, cribbed, confined, hemmed in, by his monstrous master, Swelter the Chef. Steerpike himself is young – only seventeen. But his deliberate biting into the pear that has already been bitten – and the implications of this violation of the ‘secret and dark centre of the fruit’ – prefigures his invasion of the secret and dark centre of the castle, as well as his exploitation of the fruit’s first consumer, Fuchsia, whose personal space he is occupying at the moment he bites – and the trajectory of whose life will be interrupted by his meeting of her within a few pages of the bite. Like Uriah, he will assume that he possesses her from that moment, and that her maturation will provide him with another sumptuous meal like the pear he ate in her attic. But unlike Uriah, Steerpike will succeed in the end in wasting her talents completely – her talent for love as well as for all the various arts her attic contains.

Mervyn Peake, Fuchsia

As he wrote Titus Groan, Peake was intensely aware that the time he lived in was inimical to the process of bringing the rich potential of youth to maturation, especially for young artists such as Fuchsia or himself. Dickens gave him the language and some of the other novelistic techniques he needed to articulate this threat of artistic waste and loss. His version of David Copperfield, however, goes further in fulfilling this threat than Dickens dared to, at least at this stage in his career (Bleak House goes much further). Gormenghast castle and its occupants have been cut off from the historical, familial and economic resources that gave Dickens’s protagonist, David, the outlets he needed to fulfil his potential as a novelist. Cut adrift from the past and the future, as England was cut adrift from the rest of the world by war, Peake’s castle finds itself tossing on a sea of oblivion as deadly as the ocean that drowned Steerforth and threatened to overwhelm his victims, as well as the victims of his red-eyed double, Uriah Heep. At the same time, writing in response to Dickens perhaps gave Peake a sense of control in the chaos of wartime; control, and a promise that the arrested development of his cast of lonely characters might find a way to maturation after all.

Mervyn Peake, Miss Flyte from Bleak House

Notes

[1] See G. Peter Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies: The Illustrated Biography (London: Peter Own, 2009), pp. 95, 100, 283. For the full set of Bleak House illustrations see Mervyn Peake, Sketches from Bleak House, selected and introduced by Leon Garfield and Edward Blishen (London: Methuen, 1983).

[2] Mervyn Peake, Collected Poems, ed. R. W. Maslen, Fyfield Books (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), p. 85.

[3] The Personal History of David Copperfield (London:Hazell, Watson and Viney, n.d.).

[4] Alice Mills, Stuckness in the Fiction of Mervyn Peake (London: Rodopi, 2005).

[5] The Gormenghast Trilogy (London: Mandarin, 1989), p. 365.

[6] Winnington, Vast Alchemies, p. 95.

Two Poems: A Penny for your Thoughts

1.

The little man who sweeps the roads
Once dropped a penny down a grille.
At that appalling tragedy
He sat and wept, and sits there still

And rocks his body back and forth
While tears like small abandoned loads
Well out between his fingertips
And wash the litter off the roads.

2.

King Sam spent all his money in a vain attempt to wheedle
A dehydrated camel through the eyepiece of a needle.
Eventually, dying at the age of eighty-seven
In a poor but pious hermitage, the monarch went to heaven.

Fantasy 1939: Mervyn Peake and Jacob Epstein

Jacob Epstein, Adam (1939)

I was recently reading a book about Adam: Oliver Langmead’s Birds of Paradise (2021), which presents the Father of Humankind as a scarred giant bearing the wounds of many generations, stalking the world in quest of surviving fragments of the fabulous Garden of Eden.[1] Each item from the Garden – bird, beast or flower – has the quality of a Platonic ideal, and this quality is signaled with capitals: the first magpie is Magpie, the first rose is Rose, the first crab is Crab and so on, each being the Crabbiest, the Rosiest or the most Magpieish being in existence. The book is full of the delight of first discoveries, as piece by piece the fragments restore to Adam the sensation of his initial encounter with Rose, Magpie, Crab, Fox, Butterfly and the rest, in the early days of the world’s creation. It’s a fully worked-out model of Tolkien’s notion of Recovery, whereby fantasy (or fairy story, as Tolkien calls it in his famous essay) restores to its readers the exhilarating strangeness of the common creatures and plants that inhabit our world, as if we were encountering them for the first time.[2] There has never been a time when Recovery has been more urgent, and Langmead gives it to us here in lavish profusion, inviting us to learn afresh how wonder-filled the planet is, or has been, in these days of its decline and possible fall.

Jacob Epstein, W H Hudson Memorial (1925), showing Rima

The book reminded me of another act of Recovery around the time when Tolkien wrote his essay on Fairy Stories, which he delivered as the Andrew Lang lecture in St Andrews University in March 1939, in the dark days before the outbreak of the Second World War. The 1930s saw the great sculptor Jacob Epstein turn his attention to the things that made the world, recreating in a series of three-dimensional artworks the delights of creation, the surprise of the new, in defiance of the dictatorships that worked to denigrate, smother, damage or destroy the oddly lovely and the beautifully strange. As a Jew in the 1930s, Epstein had borne witness many times to the distortion and damage that could be inflicted on things of beauty for ideological reasons, and on people and cultures whose achievements lay at the heart of civilizations, but whose contributions were being systematically erased from the records by sneering pseudo-historians. He had seen his own things of beauty – his most ambitious sculptures – subjected to ridicule, outrage and defacement for their bold exposure of things that were meant to remain unseen in civilized countries: homoerotic desire, as embodied in the Tomb of Oscar Wilde; adolescent exuberance in the monument to W. H. Hudson, which featured the writer’s most famous creation, a native Venezuelan girl called Rima; key moments in the life of the human body, from procreation to inelegant old age, in the eighteen spectacular nude sculptures for the British Medical Association Building in the Strand. The desiring sphinx on Wilde’s tomb was fitted with a symbolic figleaf by the Parisian authorities; Rima was tarred and feathered and defaced with swastikas; while the statues on the BMA building were mutilated in 1937, supposedly in the interests of health and safety (the stone had started to decay), but also because of long-term hostility to their open display of human nudity on a prominent public building. Epstein himself had been repeatedly subjected to anti-Semitic abuse, suggesting that hostility to his art was in many cases prompted by racism. He carefully listed the different kinds of verbal and physical damage inflicted on his sculptures in his autobiography, Let There Be Sculpture (1940). But he also gave that book a title which insisted on his continuing commitment, against all odds, to the act of creation, as incapsulated in the words of Genesis 1:3: Let there be light.

Jacob Epstein, Genesis (1931)

Epstein’s choice of title linked his autobiography – and hence his life – to his recent series of sculptures celebrating the early days of the world’s creation as recorded in the Hebrew scriptures. The first of these was a monumental statue titled Genesis, first exhibited in 1931. The image showed a pregnant woman, leaning backwards to display her swollen belly, and touching it with her hands in a gesture of tender pride, puzzlement, protectiveness and pleasure. The woman’s legs seem to be embedded in earth or stone, there is power in her thighs, hips, stomach and hands – which seem to draw strength from the stone below her – and her face resembles an African sculpture, such as the famous Great Bieri bought by Epstein in the 1920s from the Parisian art dealer Paul Guillaume. The name of Epstein’s sculpture, Genesis, implies that it represents Eve, and that the infant in her belly was the first child ever conceived. When it appeared in the Leicester Galleries the statue was vilified by many reviewers, largely because of its African features. The Daily Express described the woman as having ‘the vapid horrible stare of the idiot’, while the Daily Mail called her ‘a simian-like creature whose face suggests, if anything, the missing link’, and poured scorn on the sculptor’s ideas of beauty, which grow ‘every year more peculiar’.[3] Ironically, the Mail’s reference to the so-called missing link – a hypothetical common ancestor of humans and the great apes – touched on one of the points of the sculpture: to bring alive the link between the living and the dead, the people of the present and those who came before, stretching all the way back to the common origins of humankind on the African continent. Eve’s seeming emergence from the soil makes nonsense of the petty nationalisms and racial theories which draw hierarchical distinctions between one branch of humanity and another. The decision to model the face on a religious artifact of the Fang people of Equatorial Guinea, who honour their ancestors, seemed to the sculptor wholly appropriate for this purpose. Epstein’s interest in kinship between all peoples stemmed, he suggests in his book, from his childhood in the multicultural East Side of New York, where ‘swarms of Russians, Poles, Italians, Greeks, and Chinese lived as much in the streets as in the crowded tenements’, and where he made friends – to the shock of his respectable parents – ‘with negroes and anarchists’.[4] His critics had a narrower and nastier set of affiliations.

Jacob Epstein, Einstein (1933)

To some British observers, the project of associating the modern citizens of the United Kingdom with the people of sub-Saharan Africa was at best maliciously wrong-headed, at worst politically explosive, unsettling as it did the assumption that there was a natural racial and cultural hegemony which served to justify British imperialism. In The Daily Mirror a poet calling himself ‘Merry-Andrew’ – the early modern term for a professional clown – took Epstein to task for working so hard in his recent sculptures ‘To prove you and I are related to negroes’, in ‘flat contradiction of all that’s in Genesis’.[5] The poet, meanwhile, chose to identify Epstein as a relative of the great physicist Albert Einstein, presumably because of a perceived resemblance between their names. Like Einstein, Epstein has ‘Invented a theory about Relativity / Called Art for the Artless’, and his work can only be understood by certain intellectuals such as G.B.S. – the Irish socialist playwright George Bernard Shaw – who was one of the sculptor’s staunchest defenders. The Mail made the link with Einstein, too, suggesting that for his next project Epstein take on the theme of the Theory of Relativity, because since very few people understand it, the artist will thereby find himself ‘safe from criticism’.[6] A few years later, a Catholic reviewer of Epstein’s sculpture of the crucified Christ, Consummatum Est (‘It is finished’), again suggested that the two men were indistinguishable, both in name and in their common willingness to traduce plain common sense: ‘What is all this about Mr Epstein or Mr Einstein or whoever it is? I know one invented Relativity and the other Rima, only I never remember which is which. Probably because I can’t make head or tail of either’.[7] The characterization of both as comically foreign-sounding violators of the safe certainties that provided the foundation of British culture mark them out as amusing but potentially dangerous internationalists, scornful of the values that elevated Britain above its continental neighbours. The barely concealed anti-Semitism of this 1937 article is rendered more disturbing by the fact that the writer must have known very well that Einstein had been driven out of Germany by Nazi death threats four years earlier (Epstein made his bust of Einstein during the physicist’s short stay in Britain on the way to the United States). Jokes about Epstein’s and Einstein’s shared interest in disrupting time (and Epstein did say in his autobiography that with Genesis, ‘At one blow, generations of sculptors and sculpture are shattered and sent flying into the limbo of triviality’)[8] had by this point in European history taken on a distinctly menacing air.

Jacob Epstein, Consummatum Est (1937)

Epstein returned to the theme of creation at the end of the 30s. In 1938 he made a bronze sculpture of Adam and Eve being expelled from Eden, as if in acknowledgement of the dreadful turn taken by global events since he first depicted the Mother of Mankind. In the same year he sculpted The Burial of Abel, which like Consummatum Est could be interpreted as a response to the Spanish Civil War, a tribute to the republican idealists whose lives had been cut short by the fascist enemies of democracy. Epstein described Consummatum Est, which shows a prone Christ showing the wounds in his hands to the sky, as a post-apocalyptic vision of bombardment, his equivalent of Picasso’s Guernica: ‘I imagine a waste world; argosies from the air have bombed the humans out of existence, and perished themselves, so that no human thing is left alive’;[9] and The Burial of Abel inhabits a similar wasteland at an earlier stage in its degeneration, with two tortured figures mourning over the limp corpse of a third. In these three sculptures – Adam and Eve, The Burial of Abel, Consummatum Est – the promise for the future Epstein represented in his Genesis, with its burden of vibrant new life, has been replaced with images of exile and destruction; the first beginning had been superseded by foreshadowings of the final end, when all humanity will say with Christ the words consummatum est, ‘It is finished’. But in the same year as his statue of the expulsion from Eden, Epstein produced his most ambitious sculpture yet: the titanic Adam that provides Let There Be Sculpture with its frontispiece. And this sculpture signaled a major change of mood, returning to the exuberant defiance of its partner, Genesis, but in a far more militant tone.

As with Genesis, creation not destruction is Adam’s theme. Once again the power of the body, with both hands held upturned against its ribs, one giant leg thrust forward and the other backwards, like an arch and a pillar or buttress in a Gothic building, was complemented by the masklike face, reminiscent of Fang sculpture, here half obscured by being lifted to the sky. Once again the figure paid homage to the medium from which it was carved, ‘a block of alabaster’, in its shape, colour, texture and proportions. Once again fertility was offensively visible in the sculpture’s anatomy, Adam’s half-engorged phallus providing a flamboyant counterpart to Eve’s pregnant belly. And once more the statue triumphed over time, pointing backwards towards the African origins of humankind in its stylized face, pointing forward to an African future (as Eve’s infant did) through the forward motion of its giant legs, bearing the face and body towards new horizons. In his book Epstein spoke of the sculpture as if it were a machine – ‘a dynamo where a tremendous energy is generated’ – and as if it overthrew nationalism by its mere existence: ‘I feel […] that generations spoke through me, and the inner urge that took shape here was a universal one’ [my emphasis].[10] Observers agreed. The sculptor reports that one Australian observer said, ‘It is as if a people had done this work and not just an individual’; and a New Yorker went one step further: ‘Adam is as if it were not made by a man, but by mankind’.[11] The Scottish artist William McCance went further still, and claimed that the statue was in a sense the product of the stone itself:

[Epstein] has too great a respect for his block of stone to distort it in order to make it look like flesh. He has that kind of humility which respects innate differences of nature; an artist, not a dictator.[12]

His recognition of the right of the stone to retain its nature throughout the process of carving sets the artist up as the antithesis of dictatorship, a teller of inconvenient truths as against a purveyor of nationalist dreams. Adam’s raised face was interpreted by one critic as a gesture of aspiration and spiritual yearning. But the face of the statue Consummatum Est was raised skyward too, and Epstein saw in that a response to blanket bombing on a global scale. Adam’s turn to the sky could be read as speaking calm defiance out of the wasteland. And the wasteland for him is palpably fertile. He is aroused, and the upturned hands raised to the level of his ribs may make us think of Eve, his partner and workmate. God fashioned Eve, we’re told, from Adam’s rib; but Epstein’s statue makes us think the first man might have done it himself, in a fierce continuation of the divine gesture that brought Adam himself into fruitful being, in triumphant repudiation of the related concepts of isolation and uniqueness. Adam insists on having a companion in his primordial garden. Bombs may fall, but the shared existence of Epstein’s Adam and Eve – their shared generative power bracketing the calamitous decade of the 1930s – guarantees that life goes on, and that its energies are unstoppable, as well as impossible to obscure with nationalist figleaves.

Sculptural Element from a Reliquary Ensemble: Head (The Great Bieri), Nineteenth Century

It’s at this point in the story that the writer-artist Mervyn Peake comes into the picture. Peake and Epstein had first met in 1931, when the sculptor visited an exhibition put on by Peake and two other young artists at the Chat Noir café, a significant landmark in London’s gay scene between the wars. They don’t seem to have met again until some years later, but there’s no doubt they had a certain amount in common. Peake shared a number of Epstein’s artistic and political interests: a lifelong fascination with the human body; a delight in unusual bodily and facial proportions, which sometimes led to his being accused of favouring the grotesque; anarchist friends (as James Gifford has demonstrated);[13] a religious bent that remained detached from institutional practices, which Peake expressed in one poem against religious bigotry (‘How Foreign to the Spirit’s Early Beauty’, 1937), and another poem on Christ as the forceful ‘Jewish man’, whom he imagines shorn of the trappings of Catholic ceremony and ornament (‘No Creed Shall Bind Me to a Sapless Bole’, 1939).[14] Peake is known to have been an admirer of W. H. Hudson’s Green Mansions, since Rima inspired the wild girl called ‘the Thing’ in Gormenghast, and one wonders whether Epstein’s Hudson memorial, with its depiction of Rima surrounded by jungle birds, might have sparked off the younger artist’s interest in the writer. Finally, Peake liked to acknowledge, as Epstein did, the lingering presence of past artistic practices in his own modern works of art. In the fine essay that precedes his book The Drawings of Mervyn Peake (1949) he speaks of the ‘authority’ of a good drawing, ‘which is doubly alive, firstly through its overtones and echoes which show it to be born[e] rapidly or languorously along one of the deep streams that wind back through time to a cave in Spain’, and secondly in the ‘individual note’ that marks it out from other products of its time, setting the artist against the monotony of current conventions.[15] Peake’s conviction of art’s capacity to challenge time in these two distinct ways chimes perfectly with Epstein’s desire to work in the tradition of Michelangelo, Rodin and the anonymous sculptor of the Great Bieri while resolutely treading his own path, unaffiliated to contemporary movements.

Emmanuel Mané-Katz, The Quartet (1930s)

Peake, too, was disinclined to attach himself to contemporary movements. He had a marked interest in Spanish art, as the passage from The Drawings of Mervyn Peake suggests; El Greco, Velazquez, Goya and Picasso were major landmarks along the stream that winds back to a cave in Spain, each of which he referenced often in his writings and drawings, as did Epstein. Peake also appreciated Jewish art, as he showed when he paid a visit with his wife Maeve Gilmore – herself a gifted artist – to the studio of Emmanuel Mané-Katz in Paris in 1937. Mané-Katz wasn’t at home, but some of his work was visible through the window. Peake’s short poem about the visit is packed with references to the threatening context in which Mané-Katz was practising his profession. The day is oppressively hot, and makes Peake think of ‘the end of all the world / When no-one knows or cares if hell or heaven / Or nothingness cries trump upon tomorrow’, while the period the couple hope to spend with the artist is imagined as taking up ‘An hour of a painter’s nervous time’ [my emphasis].[16] Even the piratical ferocity of the canvas they glimpse through the studio window seems to be ominously cut off from its surroundings: ‘Upon a shadow’d easel there upreared / A silent canvas with its breast on fire / While all around it silence grew…’ Mané-Katz was best known at this point in his career for his vibrant depictions of everyday life in the Jewish community, and the idea of a painting of, say, a Hassidic wedding or a party of Jewish musicians being hemmed in by mounting silence offers a powerful commentary on the situation faced by Jewish artists at a time when Fascism, Stalinism and Nazism were tightening their grip on Europe.

Stefan Lorant by Howard Coster

Peake’s account of his visit to Mané-Katz’s Paris studio, unpublished in his lifetime, was one of only two poems in which he mentions contemporary artists. The other is a poem he wrote immediately after seeing Epstein’s Adam, which was published in the letter pages of the magazine Picture Post. The editor of Picture Post, Stefan Lorant, was a Hungarian Jewish filmmaker and photojournalist under whose editorship the magazine reported extensively on the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany. Lorant followed Einstein to the United States in 1940, well aware that a German invasion of Britain – which at the time seemed imminent – would condemn him to death. In this context, Peake’s passionate verse defence of Epstein against his detractors may be read as political, placing the poet shoulder to shoulder with anti-Nazi agitators like Lorant. It’s worth bearing in mind that an earlier poem by Peake, a sonnet on ‘El Greco’ published in January 1938, transforms one of the most famous paintings of the Graeco-Hispanic visionary painter into a meditation on the sort of mass bombing carried out in Guernica,[17] in a gesture that closely corresponds to Epstein’s transformation of Christ into a bomb victim in Consummatum Est. Peake is often described as apolitical; but the anti-Nazi interventions in his verse tell another story, as do his close ties to anarchism, as convincingly identified by James Gifford.

Peake’s poem ‘Epstein’s Adam’ is worth giving in full:

EPSTEIN’S ADAM

I have seen this day
A shape that shall outlive our transient clay
And hold
A virile contour when the world
Renews its crust
With our decayed and horizontal dust.
When this our perilous
Bright blood and bone,
Our hectic inches and the singing tone
Of throats and fingers are for ever gone,
And our sons’ sons shall have forgotten us,
This shape that I have seen shall journey on
Erect along the winding corridors
Of the future years –
A craving of cold stone! A vertical
Symbol of man’s perpetual
Dumb cry for light
Among the tangled Edens of our night;
A flowering fact;
A towering dawn of alabaster, hack’d
Into the yearn of Adam. His flat face
Lies parallel to the eternal skies,
His chiselled chest
Swells like a straining sail that holds a tempest
Captive within the rigging of his ribs –
The angular
Stone pistons of his arms – the architecture
Of surging thighs, deliver
A power and a magnificence
As brooks no question; this tremendous stance
Be-damns the bloodless mocker with his smug
And petty vision. Epstein fought
His burning tyrant for the shape he sought
And emptied a stone splendour from his heart.
There is a breed at large who have forgotten
That it is sap that drives the frozen tree
Into an April spasm; that it is blood
That drives the man; and that eternity
Is glimpsed through passion in a sudden light
That blinds the fickle processes of thought,
Thus in my sight
From those charged rhythms, suddenly
Adam broke free
And surged into my darkness, and made bright
The spirit’s deathless hankering
Within man’s body, that proud, tortured thing.[18]
(June/July 1939)

Peake’s poem confirms the sculptor’s conviction that his figure of Adam breaks free from conventional perceptions of time – a conviction ironically shared by the critics who mockingly aligned Epstein with Einstein, the architect of relativity. For Peake, however, the direction of travel of Epstein’s figure is unremittingly forward. The opening of the poem represents the sculpture as a figurative message from the present to the distant future, a shape that ‘shall outlive our transient clay’; outlive the flesh, that is, which was made from ‘the dust of the ground’ by God, according to Genesis, and whose ‘transient’ nature has been demonstrated in the 1930s by the impact on it of mechanized warfare. These lines remind the reader that they are made of the same substance as their progenitor, but that their death, which may be imminent, will shortly renew the earth’s crust ‘with our decayed and horizontal dust’, in stark contrast to the permanent stone sculpture. The second sentence of the poem underscores this sense of fleshly transience in the phrase ‘perilous / Bright blood and bone’, where the term ‘perilous’ and the brightness of blood remind us how often these usually hidden features of the human body have been brutally exposed by conflict in recent decades, as graphically described in (for instance) David Jones’s epic poem about war in the trenches, In Parenthesis (1937).[19] ‘Hectic inches’ in line 9 makes living men seem minuscule as well as feverishly active (hectic is often used to describe the heightened colouring of fever victims), while the ‘singing tone’ produced by ‘throats and fingers’ can only be achieved by the living, and only then under special circumstances – when the mood and conditions make music possible. Bodily transience is made doubly transient by forgetfulness, and in this poem it seems inevitable that ‘our sons’ sons’ will soon have forgotten our very existence. Present generations having been erased like this in the first eleven lines of the poem, it’s for Peake to consider in the next section what sort of message to the future Adam embodies, as the sole survivor from the perilous present day.

In this poem, Epstein’s sculpture speaks first and foremost of masculinity. It has ‘a virile contour’ and line 11 mentions ‘our sons’ sons’ rather than our granddaughters. Its outlasting of living human beings stands in stark contrast to the fate of the many men who died in recent wars, often in far-off places that mattered personally to Peake such as Spain and China (where he was born). Adam’s ability to outlive Peake’s and Epstein’s contemporaries identifies him with a positive, creative version of masculinity as against a negative, destructive kind; he ‘journeys on / Erect along the winding corridors / Of future years’ like a discoverer, not a warrior, and articulates craving rather than hostility or revenge, becoming as he goes ‘A vertical / Symbol of man’s perpetual / Dumb cry for light’ as against darkness, a ‘flowering fact’ rather than a dream of conquest, a ‘towering dawn’ as against a heroic sunset. Violence is present in his makeup; in him an alabaster block has been ‘hack’d / Into the yearn of Adam’, and the idea might remind us of the sculptors Braigon and Rantel in Titus Groan, whose mortal combat over the woman they love, Keda, is fought out with the knives they use when sculpting wood and described as if they were chiselling each other’s bodies instead of stabbing each other to death. Peake’s understanding of Epstein’s Adam, however, is as an ebullient sign of life wrested from a time of death, as expressed in the statement that his cry for light emerges from ‘Among the tangled Edens of our night’. The notion of positive, creative masculinity emerging from destruction, darkness and death is enacted in the way Peake’s description of Adam’s figure emerges only after eleven lines describing man’s mortality, and the way the poem is structured around longer lines emerging out of shorter ones. Epstein’s Adam is for Peake a message of hope for creative men like himself or his editor Stefan Lorent, who were on the verge of being hurled against their will into the tangled night of war, a war fought over competing versions of Eden – some of which have no Jews in them, in spite of the fact that Eden itself is a Jewish concept.

Jacob Epstein, Jacob and the Angel (1941)

Adam’s creativity is one of action, associated with travel, industry and construction as much as with sculpture. His ‘flat face’, which ‘lies parallel to the eternal skies’ in a statement of equality or at least equivalence to his maker, tops a body made up of elements of strenuous physical achievement: a chest which ‘Swells like a straining sail that holds a tempest / Captive within the rigging of his ribs’, arms like pistons, legs like architecture. And in generating this emblem of potent creativity, the sculptor had to fight, Peake tells us, like Braigon and Rantel; though the lines in which the poet describes this struggle make it sound as though Epstein had to fight himself: ‘Epstein fought / His burning tyrant for the shape he sought / And emptied a stone splendour from his heart’ (my emphases). ‘His burning tyrant’ might refer to the sculptor’s lifelong compulsion to create, which he speaks of often in Let There Be Sculpture, while the phrase ‘emptied a stone splendour from his heart’ suggests ejaculation as much as artistic self-expression. The lines capture the way Adam’s upturned hands press forcefully against his own ribs – protectors of his heart – as if in combat or in ecstasy; but they also invoke Epstein’s next and most famous colossal sculpture, Jacob and the Angel (1940), which depicts the grandson of Abraham supported as if in exhaustion by a muscular angel, their posture closer to that of postcoital lovers than the night-long wrestlers of the biblical account. Epstein’s sculptures in stone transform violent combat into sensual intimacy, and so overcome the tyranny of conflict that threatened to overwhelm the world in his lifetime. Peake’s poem does something similar, identifying Adam’s liberation from constraint (‘Adam broke free’) as a gesture like that of the artist, as described in the introduction to The Drawings of Mervyn Peake: ‘the creation of a work of art. The smashing of another window-pane’.[20]

Mervyn Peake, Illustration for Shapes and Sounds (1941)

Set against this strenuously creative, transgressive masculinity in the poem is the emasculated ‘bloodless mocker with his smug / And petty vision’. The line might invoke for art lovers the most famous mockers of all – the people who mocked Christ on the way to his crucifixion at Calvary, as vividly recalled in Peake’s own poem ‘Thunder the Christ of it’[21] – and makes of the artist a Christ figure, the offspring of the divine creator who seeks to redeem creation by renewing it, investing it with fresh purpose and energy. Epstein represented Christ, as we’ve seen, in his most direct response to the rise of fascism, and was roundly mocked for it. Peake’s artists and heroes are repeatedly assailed by mockers: Steerpike is the ultimate mocker, mimicking the dignitaries and servants of Gormenghast and parodying in quick succession a romantic adventurer, a clown, a lover, an efficient medical assistant, a stern functionary and so on – always with that characteristic bloodlessness of his, a refusal to allow his current role to take possession of his body, or more specifically his emotions, the aspects of him governed by his heart. Adam is his polar opposite: representative of the capacity of nature to awake the seeming dead to impossible life, as a tree awakens after a hard winter; committed to seek the ‘sudden light’ when he sees it, irrespective of the rules and expectations that govern other people; unconcerned by the ‘fickle processes of thought’ that instruct the thinker to change direction regularly in pursuit of the best advantage for any given set of circumstances. His monumental body speaks to the capacity of human life to overcome death as arboreal life overcomes the February frosts. Born from stone, he has stone’s endurance in the face of destructive forces, and can frame or capture light in the planes and angles of his body, limbs and head. He is a progenitor of that stupendous structure Gormenghast Castle, though not ruled by ritual as the castle is; in this respect he’s more of a Titus Groan, that ‘proud, tortured thing’. Titus had stone in his heart and mind; other inhabitants of Gormenghast – Flay, Sourdust, Lady Gertrude, the Grey Scrubbers – were practically made of stone. Adam marks that stone as a bastion of defiance against the Nazis, a proclamation of the capacity of material things to resist attempts to reshape them into structures inimical to their properties.

Cover illustration for Peake’s first poetry collection

Viewed from the point of view of the twenty-first century, Peake’s description of Adam’s stone form tramping down unpopulated corridors in a deserted castle, carrying with him pain and love, seems perfectly matched to the actual fate of Epstein’s sculpture. In the year it was exhibited at the Leicester Galleries in London – where Peake held exhibitions, too – Adam was bought by a gold miner Charles Stafford, who leased it out to Lawrence Wright, a Blackpool showman. As Jonathan Lee Cronshaw puts it, ‘Adam was exhibited as a sideshow and was later sold to Louis Tussaud’s waxworks [again, in Blackpool,] as a permanent exhibit, to be joined later by Consummatum Est, Jacob and the Angel and Genesis’.[22] Adam remained in Blackpool for many decades, before being bought by Lord Harewood and displayed in a major retrospective exhibition of Epstein’s work in Edinburgh in 1961. Peake could have seen the sculpture he loved for a second time when he lived in Blackpool as an unhappy conscript between 1940 and 1942. Adam seems to have been displayed there as a kind of pornographic peep-show, with a film from 1939 showing women giggling and fainting at the sight of his enormous genitals.[23] Peake, meanwhile, managed to transmute him into raw material for his own strange masterpiece carved in stone. Much of the first draft of Titus Groan was written in Blackpool, within a few streets of the place where Adam was ignominiously stowed, in his own version of Gormenghast’s Hall of the Bright Carvings, where great sculptures carved in wood reside in perpetuity, unvisited by anything but the settling dust.

In response to Peake’s poem, Epstein invited him and Maeve to dine at his house, where they met the sculptor’s wife, the Scotswoman Peggy Epstein. Peggy has been described as ‘an over-life-size woman with deep red hair’,[24] who resembled Countess Gertrude in the Titus books, or so Maeve thought. One wonders if Epstein himself may have had some hand in ensuring that the most prominent form of art in those books isn’t Peake’s own medium of painting and drawing but sculpture.

Jacob Epstein, Tomb of Oscar Wilde (1914)

NOTES

[1] Published by Titan Books, April 2021.

[2] Tolkien, ‘On Fairy Stories’, Tree and Leaf (London: HarperCollins, 1988), pp. 3-81. For Recovery see pp. 56ff.

[3] Jacob Epstein, Let There Be Sculpture (London: Michael Joseph, 1940), pp. 308-9.

[4] Let There Be Sculpture, pp. 11 and 16.

[5] Jonathan Lee Cronshaw, Carving a Legacy: The Identity of Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) (University of Leeds PhD, 2010), p. 211. http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/3259/1/uk_bl_ethos_540786.pdf

[6] Let There Be Sculpture, p. 309.

[7] Let There Be Sculpture, p. 179.

[8] Let There Be Sculpture, p. 162.

[9] Let There Be Sculpture, p. 178.

[10] Let There Be Sculpture, p. 195.

[11] Let There Be Sculpture, pp. 195 and 198.

[12] Let There Be Sculpture, p. 330.

[13] James Gifford, A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism and the Radical Fantastic (Victoria: ELS Editions, 2018), Chapter Three.

[14] Mervyn Peake, Collected Poems, ed. R. W. Maslen (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), pp. 39 and 61-2.

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

[16] Collected Poems, p. 34.

[17] See my blog post on Mervyn Peake’s poem ‘September 1939’, here: https://thecityoflostbooks.glasgow.ac.uk/mervyn-peake-september-1939/

[18] Collected Poems, pp. 45-6.

[19] See my blog post on Jones’s poem, here: https://thecityoflostbooks.glasgow.ac.uk/david-jones-in-parenthesis-1937-a-kind-of-space-between/

[20] Writings and Drawings, ed. Gilmore and Johnson, p. 81.

[21] Collected Poems, p. 222. Cf. line 6, ‘Christ is forgotten in a world of wit’.

[22] Carving a Legacy, p. 23.

[23] https://www.britishpathe.com/video/VLVACWP431BEMCHS8N10LIHB66XTX-ARTS-EPSTEINS-ADAM-DRAWS-THE-CROWDS/query/Art

[24] Vast Alchemies, p. 134.

Armour that doesn’t work: an anti-meme in medieval and Renaissance romance

[I wrote this essay for a Festschrift in honour of my DPhil supervisor, Professor Helen Cooper, Medieval into Renaissance: Essays for Helen Cooper, ed. Andrew King and Matthew Woodcock (Woodbridge and Rochester, NY: D S Brewer, 2016); you can find it on pp. 35-54. I place it here in Helen’s honour, with infinite thanks for her patience, scholarship, good humour and support through the difficult years of writing a doctorate.]

One of Helen Cooper’s finest essays concerns the function of magic that doesn’t work in medieval and Renaissance romance.[1] Bringing together her impish sense of humour, her astonishing range of reading and her infectious delight in tracing the mutations of genre in response to cultural change, the essay is a scholarly tour de force, perhaps the most memorable chapter in her celebrated monograph The English Romance in Time. It is particularly suggestive where it draws attention to the moments in medieval romance when the presence of magic serves to focus the reader’s attention on some peculiarly human quality: on selfless love, for instance, as when the imperiled teenage lovers Floris and Blancheflour compete over which of them will bestow on the other the magic ring which is said to preserve its owner’s life; or on stubborn courage, as when an anonymous lover in a tale by Marie de France refuses to drink the magic potion that would help him carry his beloved up a mountain, an act of heroic obstinacy that kills them both.[2] The chapter is not about a ‘meme’, Cooper explains – an idea or theme that survives from generation to generation, mutating in response to the changing pressures of the time. Instead it concerns what she calls a ‘meme that got out of hand’, that of the magical object.[3] All too easily magic can get boring, operating in too predictable a fashion, providing too easy an escape route from a tricky situation. The magic that doesn’t work revitalizes the magical narrative by introducing a crucial element of surprise, disorder, or emotional crisis; and as such it resists replication, since the whole point of it (when well used) is to unsettle the romance reader’s expectations.

Robert Addie as Mordred in Excalibur (1980)

I would like to consider in this essay another recurring theme that has given us some of the most striking passages in medieval and Renaissance romance: that of armour that doesn’t work. For a modern reader, armour is the ultimate emblem of chivalric romance, especially the full plate armour of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, as fetishized in the paintings of John William Waterhouse, John Boorman’s film Excalibur, or the BBC TV series Merlin. For the late medieval reader, too, armour or harness that worked was romance incarnate. Someone in the fifteenth or sixteenth century wearing splendid harness instantly displayed his gender, his status, his affiliations (if he wore a coat armour, or if the steel itself bore heraldic devices), and his physical attributes (think of Henry VIII’s expanding girth as recorded in his successive sizes of battle dress). Armour stood for the chivalric code; praying over it was an integral part of a squire’s induction into knighthood.  What you wore in the Middle Ages was, in theory, who you were; and fine armour was at the very apex of the sartorial pyramid.[4]

Sir Galahad, by George Frederick Watts

For all these reasons – because it is so instantly readable in so many ways – armour can be a boring object in romance, especially when its bearer is vying for the position of Number One Knight, so to speak, in the chivalric standings. Under these conditions the armour bearer is like a machine, whose limited functions are always predictable and whose victory always assured. The ultimate example of an armour-bearing machine is of course Sir Galahad, who gallops through the landscape of Malory’s ‘Tale of the Sankgreal’ fulfilling prophesies left and right without any emotional engagement with the men and women he encounters. Galahad is the embodiment of spiritual commitment; he has no personality or history, and when all his deeds have been accomplished his soul is carried up to Heaven by a team of adoring angels, leaving little physical trace behind on the earth he barely touched.[5] In some ways, then, he is the worthy forebear of Spenser’s mechanical man Talus, the metallic dispenser of justice in Book V of The Faerie Queene who signals the poet’s uncomfortable commitment to the Tudor project of subjugating Ireland by force. Talus’s status as what can anachronistically be termed a self-propelled suit of armour conveniently sets him apart from human beings in such a way as to make that project seem (barely) defensible, since though devised by men it is executed by an agent without a soul. Nevertheless, the iron man’s association with the animated statues of Virgilius the Sorcerer or Cornelius Agrippa confirms his ambiguity as a representation of justice.  Virgilius derived his power from the devil and Marlowe assumed, in Doctor Faustus, that Agrippa too was in cahoots with the fiend.[6] Given that Talus is simply an allegorical machine, unsullied by magic, he can in theory be employed by Spenser’s knight of justice, Sir Artegal, without tainting his employer with infernal associations. But the memory of other moving statues would have been hard to shake off for an early modern reader. And there remains the fact that Talus is impossible to like, with his remorseless efficiency, his predictable reactions to every situation, and his utter indifference to the Christian quality of mercy.

This problem of the perfect knight as a soulless machine is brilliantly addressed by Italo Calvino in The Non-existent Knight (Il cavaliere inesistente, 1959), his sparkling tribute to Ariosto and Cervantes.[7] The book’s protagonist, a full-body harness that comes to life by an act of sheer will power, makes himself universally unpopular with his fellow paladins by his rigid adherence to the rules of military and chivalric good conduct. As the book proceeds, however, the knight’s increasing sensitivity to other people’s views of him makes him increasingly likeable, and his posse of followers – the fool Gurduloo, the idealistic female warrior Bradamante, the confused young squire Raimbaud – endow him by proxy with the flesh and emotions he lacks. He becomes the focus of their dreams and passions, the anchor of their identities, no longer merely a metal container for the regulations by which these dreams are rendered manageable by the authorities. Armour requires the flesh to make it move, both emotionally and physically speaking; and codes of conduct, however impractical, give direction to the undirected yearnings of the flesh. Calvino’s story beautifully captures the awkward symbiosis between the organic and the inorganic which is the late medieval and early modern knight.

Flesh, then, is the essential adjunct to the carapace of protective steel, as late Victorian painters such as Waterhouse acknowledged when they surrounded their gleaming knights with voluptuous temptresses. Men, of course, can display their fleshly qualities in romance by defeating powerful opponents without the benefit of armour; this is the homosocial equivalent of the amorous encounters, chaste or unchaste, with which romance women have been traditionally associated. A fine example of such an unarmed hero is the young Sir Perceval de Gallys in the Middle English metrical romance, whose lack of armour serves at first merely to underline his lack of education in chivalry.[8] Wearing only goatskins, young Perceval’s first heroic act is to transfix his father’s killer, a fully armoured knight, with a light Scottish throwing-spear, when the man is foolish enough to raise his visor. But Perceval is an adolescent at the time, and every reader knows from the old stories that he will soon acquire some armour and join his fellow knights at the Table Round. For Perceval, the acquisition of his harness from the slaughtered body of his enemy makes it an emblem of his power and skill, a natural extension of the unusual muscularity of his right arm and torso, his easy mastery over the objects and people he meets on his travels.  But I am concerned in this essay with the knights whose harness proves useless in one way or another after its acquisition; either because the adventure they are on cannot be achieved with the help of steel, or because they are caught without armour through trickery, neglect or betrayal, or because their armour provides inadequate protection – or even because their harness itself is a kind of trap. For these heroes, armour is a difficult affair, never at hand when you need it, not fulfilling its prescribed function when you have it, brittle, permeable or imprisoning rather than impervious, encumbering rather than enabling. And in the adventures they take part in, armour often becomes intriguing in its own right, for a variety of unpredictable reasons.

One twentieth-century embodiment of this difficult relationship to armour is King Pellinore in T. H. White’s novel The Sword in the Stone (1938). Pellinore is an errant knight who is perpetually engaged in the rather pointless pursuit of a friendly creature called the Questing Beast. When the future King Arthur, here known as the Wart, first encounters Pellinore, the boy quickly learns a great deal about the inconvenience of closed helmets for those who wear spectacles (the lenses get ‘completely fogged’[9]), and of armour generally. As the knight explains:

All this beastly amour takes hours to put on. When it is on it’s either frying or freezing, and it gets rusty. You have to sit up all night polishing the stuff. Oh, how Ay do wish Ay had a nice house of my own to live in, a house with beds in it and real pillows and sheets. […] [T]hen Ay would […] throw all this beastly armour out of the window, and let the beastly Beast go and chase itself, that Ay would.[10]

In this passage King Pellinore is a kind of human snail, whose metal shell serves as an uncomfortable substitute for the nice warm house he yearns for. His armour has little value as a means of defence, since the Questing Beast is far too friendly to attack him. Instead it tends to erase the distinction between its bearer and the animal world through which he wanders, exaggerating the limitations of the King’s body by fogging up his spectacles and fraying his temper to the extent that he keeps referring to his equipment as beastly. When the Questing Beast turns up a page or so later, the King’s animal passions get further excited and he promptly forgets the allure of sheets in the thrill of the chase. An unsuccessful fusion of animal unruliness and rigid artifice, of chaos and convention, White’s knight is a direct descendant of Carroll’s White Knight and Cervantes’s Quixote, both of whom are always damaging their elderly bodies precisely because they insist on wearing protective steel. For all three, the harness they wear underscores the limitations of the flesh it encases, as well as the eccentric relationship between that flesh and the code of conduct that the harness represents.

In this as in other ways, armour that doesn’t work has a similar function to magic that doesn’t work, as Cooper describes it. If full plate armour is a kind of meme in late chivalric romance – like the meme of the magic object – then the armour that doesn’t work is designed to circumvent the narrative problems posed by that meme; an ‘anti-meme’, in other words. The romance hero is nearly always one of the greatest fighters of his time, and in full armour his fighting prowess must necessarily render him as indestructible as the owner of an effective charm or talisman – and hence as dull, in terms of the narrative possibilities to which he gives rise. For such a knight to retain his stature as a combatant while engaging in properly perilous adventures, he must be stripped of his protective exoskeleton, deprived of the tools of his trade by one means or other – or those tools must be turned against him, like King Pellinore’s fog-inducing helmet. And the effect of this process of stripping down, deprivation or armorial recalcitrance is to draw attention to the fragile humanness of the romance’s male protagonist.

This may be the central difference between the magic that doesn’t work and the armour that doesn’t work. Cooper’s examples of non-functional magic (and she includes under this rubric magic that might well work but isn’t used, just as the present essay includes functional armour that gets left aside at crucial moments) often serve to demonstrate the spectacularly exceptional nature of the people who fail to use it. It is the exceptional strength of Floris and Blancheflour’s love that prompts a sympathetic king to urge their captor, the Admiral or Emir of Babylon, to spare them. In Marie de France’s tale, it is the refusal of the lover to drink the magic potion that exhibits the exceptional potency of his love, since love alone gives him strength to achieve what no other man has managed by carrying his lady unassisted up a mountain. Armour that doesn’t work, by contrast, tends to underscore the vulnerability of the person it fails, or who fails to wear it. For this reason it becomes one of the defining themes of the late chivalric tradition, when the best writers (Chaucer, Malory, Shakespeare) chose to produce ‘works designed to question their own generic assumptions’ in response to the ‘strong self-consciousness of a genre now passing into its fourth century’, as Cooper reminds us.[11]

These comments on late chivalric romance come from the final chapter of The English Romance in Time, ‘Unhappy Endings’, and armour that doesn’t work is strongly represented here among the romances that choose to resist the genre’s assumption that all its narratives must end well. But like magic that doesn’t work, non-functional armour can be comic too. Inevitably it is Chaucer who provides the best examples of both the comic and tragic aspects of this ‘anti-meme’ (Cooper was always pointing out to me in tutorials that Chaucer provides the best examples of almost anything before the late sixteenth century). In The Canterbury Tales, Sir Thopas exhibits his own and his narrator’s ignorance of the romance tradition by getting caught without his armour when he meets a giant. Any medieval reader would have known that an errant knight should be wearing armour when he seeks adventure, and that if he happens not to be wearing it he should defeat his antagonist regardless, as Perceval beats the Red Knight dressed only in goatskins. But for Chaucer’s narcissistic protagonist, wearing the wrong clothes for any given deed is inexcusable; he must hurry home to arm himself before he can even think of engaging in combat.  When he does so, it is in an elaborate metal and fabric confection which again violates romance conventions, both by its placement in the wrong part of the narrative (he should have armed himself at the beginning) and by the sheer weight of clichés that cluster round it (his coat armour is ‘whit as is a lilye flour’, his fine cypress spear ‘bodeth werre, and nothyng pees’, and so on).[12] The belatedness of Sir Thopas’s arming also confirms his inverted understanding of the chivalric code, which has already been signaled by his plan to marry an elven queen because no mortal woman is worthy of him. After reading this poem it is hard to imagine anyone taking another metrical romance entirely seriously.

At the tragic end of the spectrum, ‘The Knight’s Tale’ provides an example of a yet more radical inversion of the proper order of the chivalric romance narrative and the code to which it theoretically adheres; and it does so largely through the difficult relationship it sketches out between a man and his armour. Like a true romance hero, the protagonist Arcite defeats his friend and rival Palamon in combat, and the tournament in which he achieves this is stuffed to bursting with allusions to armour: from the frantic ‘devisynge of harneys’ that precedes the fighting (line 2496) to King Theseus’s prohibition of certain weapons from the contest itself  (‘ne polax, ne short knyf […] Ne short swerd, for to stoke with poynt bitynge’, lines 2544-6).  As it turns out, however, neither harness nor prohibition offers much protection to the contestants. ‘The helmes they tohewen and toshrede,’ the poet tells us with unnerving relish; ‘Out brest the blood with stierne stremes rede;/ With myghty maces the bones they tobreste’, and it is by the merest chance that no one dies in the melee (lines 2609-2611). When the tournament is over, Arcite takes off his helmet to salute the woman who inspired his triumph; and at once his horse falls over and fatally crushes him. The calamitous effect of this fall on Arcite’s flesh is described in lurid detail, as if to stress the limitations of his strong young body: ‘The pipes of his longes gonne to swelle,/ And every lacerte [muscle] in his brest adoun/ Is shent with venym and corrupcion’ (p. 44, lines 2752-2754).  In this narrative, then, armour and the rules that govern its use represent men’s feeble attempt to take control in a world full of insidious poisons, from the venom of corrupted wounds to the contagion of desire, from the disease of jealousy that sets the knights at odds to the poisonous rivalry of the gods who sponsor each combatant. Theseus does his best to re-impose a sense of order after Arcite’s accident, declaring the tournament a draw and delivering a speech that affirms the continuing stability of creation. But Arcite’s death was not in fact accidental. It was engineered by Venus (or rather by Saturn acting on her behalf), and intended to benefit Palamon, her devoted acolyte. Arcite, by contrast, was an acolyte of Mars, the god of war, who also happens to be Venus’s lover. So the pantheon of pagan gods would seem to be as violently competitive as the knights they sponsor, and as capable of circumventing regulations and breaking alliances. The armour that doesn’t work here serves to point up the limitations of the structures that bind us: above all the kind of structure represented by traditional stories and comforting fictions, the imaginative armour with which we defend to ourselves such slippery concepts as honour and friendship.

The works of Malory, too, offer fine examples of both the comic and tragic aspects of non-functioning armour. On the tragic side, there is the tale of the brothers Balin and Balan, who hack each other to death because each is wearing unfamiliar harness. The final section of ‘The Knight with the Two Swords’ begins with Balin accepting a shield from a stranger knight in place of his own, whereupon a mysterious damsel warns him that ‘ye have put yourself in grete daunger, for by your sheld ye shold have ben knowen’ (p. 56, lines 22-4).  His brother meets him shortly afterwards wearing unmarked red armour, and in the fight that follows both men dismantle each other plate by plate until ‘their hawberkes [were] unnailed, that naked they were on every syde’ (p. 57, lines 12-13).  Mortally wounded, Balan crawls to his brother and takes off his helmet; but he cannot recognize him at first because of the damage he himself inflicted in the battle: he ‘myght not knowe hym by the vysage, it was so ful hewen and bledde’ (p. 57, lines 22-3). As Cooper has argued, part of the power of this denouement springs from the fact that it forms part of a larger narrative with which the medieval reader was well acquainted – the Arthurian cycle – while the knights themselves have no idea what forces drive their fate.[13]  Throughout his adventures, the invincible Balin is helplessly propelled by the machinery of story, unwittingly setting up riddles, problems and conundrums that will only be resolved long after his death by the machine-man Galahad.  The armour that destroys him, then, embodies his entrapment in structures he cannot understand because of his limited vision – the restricted view you get from inside a closed helmet (think of Pellinore’s spectacles). The fact that he cannot recognize his brother, and that his brother cannot recognize him, sums up his condition as an ignorant tool of dispassionate supernatural forces – as represented at Balin’s burial by the sorcerer Merlin, who laughs sardonically as he makes further predictions about the tragic fate of Balin’s sword.

Sir Launcelot and the Witch Hellawes, by Aubrey Beardsley

Malory’s Lancelot, meanwhile, furnishes us with examples of both the comic and tragic aspects of the armour that doesn’t work. Of all the knights in Malory’s pantheon apart from Galahad, Lancelot stands in greatest danger of becoming boring, since he is the best knight in the world and we know in advance the likely outcome of every battle – and hence of every narrative – in which he is involved. For this reason Malory is careful to vary the scenes he selects for inclusion in the parts of his work he devotes to Lancelot; and an inordinate number of these episodes involve non-functional armour. In ‘A Noble Tale of Sir Launcelot du Lake’ the hero is forced to don another man’s armour if he wants adventures; wearing his own means he is avoided like the plague. But some of his best adventures occur when he wears no armour at all. On one occasion, for instance, he finds a pavilion in the forest, lavishly prepared for the reception of a guest. In many romances such a discovery would signal the presence of the supernatural: the pavilion would belong to a fairy or enchantress, as in Sir Launfal, and Lancelot would have to deploy all his knightly self-control to resist the seductions of its owner. It seems only natural, then, to the reader, that on finding the tent he should remove his armour, lie down in the bed and go to sleep; this is what you do in enchanted pavilions. Later, the knight who owns the pavilion comes home and gets into bed. Finding Lancelot between his sheets and assuming him to be his lover, he ‘toke hym in his armys and began to kysse hym’, scratching the sleeping hero with his ‘rough berde’ (p. 153, lines 27-8).  This leads to a brief, fierce swordfight between the two warriors – presumably naked – during which Lancelot wounds the stranger ‘sore nyghe unto the deth’ (p. 153, line 33).  At this point, the men pause to explain themselves to each other. Lancelot then takes the stranger indoors to tend his injuries, and the knight’s lady arrives. The lady is naturally inclined to blame Lancelot for her husband’s injuries; but she soon comes up with a means for him to make amends. He must use his influence at court, she insists, to procure her man a place at the Round Table. In this way Lancelot’s nakedness leaves him exposed to the lady’s judicial expertise, to the extent that he must set aside the usual procedure for admitting knights to that exclusive company and offer a seat at the Round Table to an unproven stranger. What began as an encounter with potential enchantment ends not with a dazzling display of unmatchable swordsmanship but with an out-of-court settlement, a legal compromise; and in this way the episode exposes the absurdity both of chivalric convention and of the narrative traditions Lancelot lives by.

Later in the same book, Lancelot is tricked into removing his armour and climbing a tree to rescue a lady’s falcon. Once he is safely in his breeches and astride a branch, the lady’s husband leaps out of a bush ‘all armed’ (p. 169, line 44), and explains that this was all a plot to get Lancelot into a state of undress so as to enable him to be summarily dispatched. Lancelot disarms the knight with a stick and kills him with his own weapon; but the episode neatly illustrates one of the perils of being a romance hero, which is that the landscape gradually fills up with people who hold a grudge against you, and whose only hope of besting you is by trickery. As a hero you can only trust that your own wiles, or the wiles of some well-disposed passing damsel, will permit you to escape from the tricks to which these grudgers are prepared to resort. And in the last two books of Malory’s work, a deadly web composed of grudges and trickery binds together all the major episodes that feature armour that doesn’t work.

Herbert James Draper, Lancelot and Guinevere

Lancelot’s relationship with armour in these last two books becomes increasingly difficult, as if to emphasize the increasing difficulty of reconciling his duty to King Arthur with his devotion to Arthur’s wife. In the tale of the Fair Maid of Astolat, Lancelot plays his old trick of borrowing armour in order to participate in a tournament. But the armour fails him – he is pierced through the side by his cousin Bors while wearing it; and during his long period of convalescence, necessarily unclothed, his body attracts the devotion of his nurse, the Maid of the title. The borrowed armour has meanwhile got him into trouble with Guinevere, since to complete the disguise he wore a token on his helmet, a red sleeve lent him by the Maid. The sleeve misleads the Queen into thinking he has transferred his affections to another woman, while encouraging the Maid to believe he might eventually fall in love with her. In ‘A Noble Tale of Sir Launcelot du Lake’, Lancelot’s appropriation of Sir Kay’s armour had no serious consequences; it was a game, as were the fights he undertook while bearing it. In the last two books, games turn to earnest, and borrowing armour becomes a problem, which interweaves itself with the personal and political problems that accumulate around the adulterous couple.

Armour is yet more problematic in ‘The Knight of the Cart’. The villain here is a kind of anti-Lancelot, Sir Melliagaunt, who shares his alter ego’s obsession with Guinevere but none of the chivalric qualities by which he justifies that adulterous passion. The difference between the two men can be summed up by their attitudes to armour. Melliagaunt captures the Queen while she is out a-maying with some unarmed knights, who are seriously wounded trying to defend her against the villain’s armed retainers. Lancelot sets out to rescue her, but his horse is shot dead by Melliagaunt’s archers, and as a result his armour ceases to assist him and becomes a burden. He cannot get at the archers because it weighs him down, and when he tries to continue his journey he finds himself ‘sore acombird of hys armoure, hys shylde, and hys speare’ (p. 653, lines 41-2).  Worse still, when he finally arrives at Melliagaunt’s castle – travelling in the requisitioned transport of the title like a prisoner carted off to punishment – the villain refuses to fight him, throwing himself on Guinevere’s mercy. The Queen grants him her protection, and as a result all Lancelot’s skills, as embodied in his harness, are rendered useless. At the end of the first part of this story, Lancelot has been reduced to a state of helpless jealousy, all his efforts to act as the conventional romance hero having been thwarted either by his enemy or by his lover, neither of whom play by the rules a knight’s harness represents. There could be no more devastating exposure of the many chinks in Lancelot’s emotional and physical defences.

Ben Cross as Malagant in First Knight (1995)

Next Melliagaunt succeeds in underscoring the moral link between himself and Lancelot, thus breaking down any clear distinctions that might have been signalled by their different attitudes to armour. The night after arriving at Melliagaunt’s castle, Lancelot disarms himself and slips into Guinevere’s bed, leaving blood on her sheets from a minor injury to his hand. Melliagaunt finds the blood, and accuses Guinevere of infidelity with one of the unarmed knights who were wounded defending her. Lancelot’s discarding of his harness here endangers his knightly colleagues, and he seeks to make up for this lapse by resorting to the chivalric rules of engagement by which he has always lived: rules that require full body armour for their fulfillment. He challenges the villain to trial by combat, as if Lancelot remained the impregnable entity he has always been thanks to his hitherto unquestioned identity as a top romance hero. But God is the ultimate judge in any such trial, ensuring that the fighter with the best cause will emerge triumphant; and in this case, the hero is saddled with a cause which is decidedly questionable.  Guinevere has indeed committed adultery, as Melliagaunt asserts, and Lancelot is forced to equivocate in order to place himself on the side of justice. He therefore challenges his alter ego on the basis, not that Guinevere has not been unfaithful but that she has not slept with any of the knights who were wounded in her defence. This is a blatant prevarication, and its problematic moral status is reflected in the peculiar nature of the trial itself. After a brief bout of hand-to-hand fighting, Melliagaunt surrenders tamely to Lancelot, and chivalry dictates that his opponent must accept his surrender. But Guinevere signals to the hero that her accuser must die, and if Lancelot is to obey her he must once again find a way to circumvent the rules of the judicial game. He persuades Melliagaunt to fight on by offering to disarm his own head and left side to make the contest more even; and he kills the villain, of course, despite this handicap. But the half-armoured state in which he does so confirms his morally compromised position, his susceptibility to the corruption his opponent embraces.  And the disarming of his body on the left side in particular, where the heart is, may be taken to demonstrate the extent to which the desires of that body are undermining his role as a knight.  The whole adventure, in fact, foreshadows the part that will be played by armour in the final book, which tells how Lancelot’s adultery with Guinevere brings about the dissolution of the Round Table and the fall of Arthur.

In this last book, the ‘Morte Arthur’, it is the lack of armour that takes centre stage rather than its failure. When Lancelot is finally caught in flagrante delicto in Guinevere’s bedroom, he blames his resulting predicament on his unarmed state: ‘Alas,’ he complains, ‘in all my lyff thus was I never bestad that I shulde be thus shamefully slayne, for lake of myne armour’ (p. 676, lines 24-5). The sentence recalls the wording of his earlier complaint when trapped up a tree in the story of the falcon: ‘Alas […] that ever a knyght sholde dey wepynles!’ (p. 170, line 17).  But on that occasion Lancelot could have been taken as a representative ‘knyght’, the equivalent of any romance hero trapped by treachery. In Guinevere’s room, by contrast, his situation is unique: he considers it only in the context of his private misfortunes (‘in all my lyff thus was I never bestad’), and sees the situation as ‘shameful’ to himself, not to those who have trapped him. The contrast between the two laments underscores his increasing alienation both from honour or worship and from his fellow knights. He succeeds, of course, in escaping; but he does so by killing one of his comrades of the Round Table, Sir Colgrevaunce, then donning his armour and fighting his way to freedom. The echo here of the many past occasions on which Lancelot borrowed armour serves only to underscore the extent to which what was once a game has become a disaster. And a lack of armour plays a yet more tragic role in the events that unfold in the wake of this episode.

N. C. Wyeth, Lancelot rescues Guinevere

Another knight killed at the door of the Queen’s chamber is Sir Agravain, brother of Gawain, Lancelot’s best friend. It is a measure of Lancelot’s worth that Gawain does not resent his killing. Indeed, Malory fills these late books with loyal friends who refuse to begrudge the hero his unfortunate propensity for causing the deaths of those who love him: the faithful horse in ‘The Knight of the Cart’ which is shot full of arrows by Sir Melliagaunt’s archers, yet continues to follow its master with its guts hanging out; the Maid of Astolat, who dies for love of Lancelot, and her brother Lavayne, who understands why she chose to do so: ‘for sythen I saw first my lorde sir Launcelot I cowde never departe frome hym’ (p. 639, lines 13-14).  Gawain’s younger brother Gareth is another of these paragons of loyalty, who never forgets that Lancelot was the man who made him knight.  He switches to Lancelot’s side in ‘The Great Tournament’ and fights against his brothers on his mentor’s behalf; and when Arthur orders him to accompany Guinevere on her final journey to execution as an adulteress, he refuses to wear his ‘harneyse of warre’ as a token of solidarity with her absent lover (p. 683, line 41).  Inevitably Lancelot rides to her rescue; and inevitably Gareth is killed with his brother Gaheris in the confusion, ‘for they were unarmed and unwares’ (p. 684, line 26).  At this point in the story Lancelot is once again the most efficient of killing machines, as he was before things got complicated. But his repeated compromising of the chivalric code means that his mechanical efficiency is no longer simple. Instead of being deployed in the service of some good cause, his force gets visited on the vulnerable flesh of the men he loves. Even Guinevere suffers from its effects, since the enmity brought about by Gareth’s death – the falling out it occasions between Gawain and Lancelot – is responsible both for her husband’s downfall and for her penitent demise.

Lancelot himself claims it is the brothers’ missing armour that was responsible for their deaths. ‘God wolde,’ he says at one point, that Gareth and Gaheris ‘had ben armed […] for than had they ben on lyve’ (p. 695, lines 41-2).  He duly offers to make reparation by forgoing his warrior status, as embodied in his harness, and walking from end to end of the kingdom ‘in my shearte’, founding religious houses along the way to sing masses for the dead men’s souls (p. 696, line 14). But Gawain, too, has by this stage become machine-like – welded, so to speak, into his martial persona. War against Lancelot is the only reparation he will accept. And since everyone knows by now that Lancelot will be victorious in any conflict, the reader sees at once that this mechanical insistence on revenge will usher in the end of Arthur’s reign. Malory has reversed the machinery of the romance narrative so that it destroys its most efficient components, the iron-clad knights; and it is the armour that doesn’t work which is largely responsible for changing the function of the armour that does, from protective covering to engine of (self) destruction.

Interestingly, what brings about this major change in the function of armour is a change in the form of Malory’s evolving Arthurian narrative. Many of his earlier works consist of a succession of largely disconnected episodes, such as ‘A Noble Tale of Sir Launcelot du Lake’, with its errant structure neatly but loosely bound together by certain recurrent themes: the tricks Lancelot has to play to get a fight, the tricks played on him to render him vulnerable. But the episodes in the laterBook of Launcelot and Guinevere’ are woven together by tangled chains of cause and effect. The consequences of each episode get played out in the next; and the final book, theMorte Arthur’ itself, is more tightly woven still, with each tale emerging organically from its predecessor. It is as if armour can only remain impervious in episodic narratives. Where one adventure has few links to the next, the simplicity of armour’s function as an emblem of the knightly ideal can be sustained, or can readily be recovered when that function has been compromised. But where competing allegiances – to friend and lover, to King and Queen, to knightly honour and a jealous mistress – get carried over from one episode to the next, armour too becomes permeable. In Malory’s interlinked narratives, harness loses its singular purpose and becomes instead, in its uneasy relationship with the flesh it covers (or fails to cover), an increasingly sophisticated device for undermining its bearer’s pretensions to honour, for exposing the fissures and flaws in his logic, the anarchic passions he seeks to hide or suppress.

Gawain and the Green Knight, illustration from original manuscript

The most sophisticated medieval study of the armour that doesn’t work is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; and here too it is the structure of the narrative that renders that armour problematic, as it accumulates associations through the successive sections or ‘fits’ of the poem. In the opening scene at Arthur’s court, where the mysterious Green Knight invites one of the king’s champions to strike off his head with an axe, the poet makes much of the stranger’s unarmed status: ‘Whe[th]er hade he no helme ne hawbergh nau[th]er,/ Ne no pysan ne no plate [th]at pented to armes’.  The Green Knight’s armourlessness is notable because he possesses a body so eminently suited to martial exploits (‘Hit semed as no mon my[gh]t/ Under his dynttez dry[gh]e’), and because the giant axe he carries underscores the violent nature of the strange game he proposes.[14] The relationship between flesh and steel, then, is implicitly foregrounded from the moment he rides into the court; and when Sir Gawain takes up his challenge, the blow he aims at the Green Knight’s neck constitutes perhaps the most graphic encounter between flesh and steel in English literature: ‘[th]e scharp of [th]e schalk schyndered [th]e bones,/ And schrank [th]ur[gh] [th]e schyire grece, and schade hit in twynne,/ [Th]at [th]e bit of [th]e broun stel bot on [th]e grounde’ (lines 424-6). And flesh and steel continue to dominate the poem. The Green Knight survives the blow, by supernatural means, and leaves the court; Gawain sets off to find him the following year, as the game dictates; and his journey begins, as in all proper romances (though not that of Sir Thopas), with a ritual arming, described in loving detail as the knight’s servants assemble his harness piece by piece around his torso, limbs and head. But even as this physical armour is assembled the reader is aware that it will prove useless, since the encounter Gawain has agreed to entails exposing his own ‘naked’ neck to the Green Knight’s axe. And that approaching moment of nakedness is recalled again and again throughout Gawain’s journey.

It is invoked in the physical rigours of his passage through wintry landscape, during which armour provides no protection against the cold: ‘Ner slayn wyth [th]e slete he sleped in his yrnes/ Mo ny[gh]tez [th]en innoghe in naked rokkez’ (my emphasis) (lines 729-30). It is recalled, too, in the Christmas game Gawain plays while staying at Bertilak’s castle. Each day Bertilak goes hunting while his guest remains at home, and at the end of the day they agree to exchange whatever they have obtained in their respective activities. This second contest, like the Green Knight’s, involves the conspicuous juxtaposition of flesh and steel: the lavish descriptions of Bertilak’s wife, who seeks to seduce her guest in her husband’s absence, being interlaced with passages that describe the mangling and butchering of animal flesh with steel on Bertilak’s hunting expeditions. And as the game goes on, the final encounter between flesh and steel at the Green Knight’s chapel draws steadily closer, until it hardly seems surprising when on his final day at the castle Gawain succumbs – not to the lady’s seduction, but to her offer of additional armour. The armour, however, is not metal, since we already know that metal is useless. Instead she offers him a girdle, whose virtue, she claims, is to protect its wearer so that ‘no ha[th]el vnder heuen tohewe hym [th]at my[gh]t,/ For he my[gh]t not be slayn for sly[gh]t vpon er[th]e’ (lines 1853-4). Gawain accepts the gift and does not declare it to Bertilak that evening, thus violating the terms of the game they have been playing; and next morning he ties it on over his harness like an extra layer of proofing. He never, however, wholly trusts in its protection – witness the flinch he gives when the Green Knight raises his axe. After all, the green girdle represents the love of the body, which is intimately connected through food, drink, desire and clothing with the beasts and growing plants in the world around it; and flesh is frail as grass, as the Bible reminds us.[15] The body’s frailty could not be better suggested than by the contrast between the soft silk girdle and the iron plates it binds, or between the fatty tissue of a man’s exposed neck and the steel blade that nicks it. The girdle confirms Gawain’s humanity, and as such it serves a similar purpose to the armour that doesn’t work which he is wearing, and which he knows full well will do him no good when he meets his enemy.

Michael Smith, Gawain and the Green Knight, linocut available for purchase

In tying on the girdle over his harness, as Cooper points out in The English Romance in Time, Gawain compromises the symbolic function of that armour in an effort to supplement its function as protection.[16] This symbolic function is indicated by the device he wears on his coat armour: a pentangle that stands for five interlinked virtues, each virtue possessing five aspects, together making up the combined qualities to which a knight is expected to aspire. In tying on the girdle, Cooper points out, Gawain obscures the ‘endeles knot’ of the pentangle with a lace which has two distinct ends (‘pendauntez’, line 2038) and which is also tied in a ‘knot’ (line 2376). As a man who knows he has an end – the death that awaits all mortals – Gawain shares with his readers the wish to defer it for as long as possible. He is not made of metal, and metal in any case has been inescapably connected with mortality throughout the poem. Most commentators agree with the Green Knight that Gawain’s love of life, as embodied in the girdle, makes him more, not less, attractive.[17]

Gawain’s useless armour, which gets trumped by a band of green silk, foreshadows the many varieties of non-functioning armour in the sixteenth century. Spenser, whose iron man Talus embodied the grimmer connotations of fully functional armour, opens The Faerie Queene with the portrait of a young knight whose ancient armour does not quite suit him, as if to alert us to the complex relationship between physical, spiritual and political struggle that the poem explores. In the first stanza we read about the ‘cruell markes of many a bloody fielde’ with which Redcrosse’s arms are covered, together with the paradox that ‘armes till that time did he never wield’; and Redcrosse certainly does not find it easy to acclimatize himself to his antique equipment.[18] At the half way point of the first book we find him cavorting with the sorceress Duessa, ‘Pourd out in loosnesse on the grassy grownd’ (I.vii.6), just at the moment when a ferocious giant happens by. Sir Thopas, too, met a giant when he was unarmed, but unlike Chaucer’s hero Redcrosse never gets time to dress for the occasion. ‘Ere he could his armour on him dight’ the knight finds himself the giant’s prisoner (I.vii.8), and has to be rescued by a better-furnished hero, Prince Arthur, whose worth is signaled by his ‘glitterand armour’ (I.vii.29). This hero, too, has something in common with Sir Thopas – he serves a fairy queen – but fortunately his excellent dress sense is better matched by his prowess and he slays the giant with ease (Sir Thopas never even gets close to his). The whole of Spenser’s poem, in fact, is populated by people whose outward garb bears a difficult relationship with their inward qualities, or lack of them, and by the time the reader meets Redcrosse’s rescuer Arthur she has become well used to scrutinizing the verbal and emblematic context of each character’s first appearance in the poem before passing judgement on them.

Redcrosse slaying the dragon, from the frontispiece to the first edition of The Faerie Queene

Even after his rescue by Arthur, who ought to have furnished him with a good example of a knight whose inward qualities match his harness, Redcrosse’s armour remains a problem to him. His climactic fight sees him face a dragon whose scales resemble a ‘plated cote of stele’ (I.xi.9), and whose weaponry (the fire he breathes, his claws, the stings in his tail) render armour a hindrance rather than a help to his antagonist. Finding himself ‘seard’ through his metal covering (I.xi.26), Redcrosse seeks to remove it and unlace his helmet.  Soon afterwards the monster pierces his shoulder with its stings, then grips his shield so fiercely he is forced to cut off its claw, which remains attached to the shield, much to the knight’s annoyance. In his ‘Letter to Ralegh’ Spenser explains that the ancient armour Redcrosse wears is the armour of Christ described by Saint Paul in Ephesians 6:10-18; but its emblematic associations (the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation) keep breaking down in this encounter, and the steel has to be reinforced with further injections of allegory – water from the well of life, balm from the tree of life – whose exact significance (baptism? Eucharist?) has never quite been settled. The intense pain Redcrosse endures in his battle with an enemy who is as well armoured as himself tends to overwhelm the allegorical function of his harness, and only the spiritual remedies applied to his scorched and damaged flesh can restore him to his symbolic identity as the champion of holiness.

Lorna Hutson has written brilliantly about how the feats of physical combat that had been central to medieval romance were displaced in many Tudor romances by verbal combat, in which the hero displays his prowess through eloquence rather than force.[19] It is for this reason, perhaps – the widespread emphasis on debate, and in particular the orator’s skill in arguing on both sides of any given question – that there are so many examples of armour that doesn’t work throughout the period: from the armour borne by Parthenia in Sidney’s New Arcadia, which she dons not to avenge her dead husband but to share his fate; to the borrowed armour worn by the hero to hide his identity in Robert Greene’s Gwydonius, which means that he nearly kills his own father in the romance’s climactic fight; or the poisoned helmet put on by Duke Brachiano in John Webster’s tragedy The White Devil. In each of these cases the tools of defence are transformed into agents of destruction – much as Redcrosse’s armour becomes a furnace when he fights the dragon.  The analogy with the way a skilful orator could deploy the same material to argue against a cause he had just been defending is irresistible.

Troilus, Cressida and Pandarus, Act 4 scene 2, by J. Coughlan

The most sophisticated post-medieval treatment of this anti-meme occurs in Shakespeare’s most knotty play, Troilus and Cressida. Like The Faerie Queene the play can be read as a response to Chaucer, though it also recalls the other English-language versions of the Trojan War that had circulated since the Middle Ages. By the sixteenth century Troy was best known, perhaps, as the focus of a conflict about which radically different accounts had been written, some biased towards the Greek perspective, others towards the Trojan. Debate, then, and many forms of falsification were inseparably attached to the Trojan myth, as we learn from the early fifteenth-century romance The Destruction of Troy: ‘sum poyetis full prist [th]at put hom [th]erto/ With fablis and falshed fayned [th]ere speche,/ And made more of [th]at mater [th]an hom maister were’.[20] And armour was the theme of one of the most celebrated debates of the conflict: the quarrel between Ulysses and Ajax over which of them should inherit the arms of Achilles, as described by Ovid in the thirteenth book of the Metamorphoses. Ulysses won those arms with his crafty tongue, a result that led to the suicide of Ajax; and in the process Ajax’s claim that Ulysses was dedicated to undermining his Greek comrades as much as his Trojan enemies was lent a large measure of credibility.

Shakespeare’s play is full of similar debates, between purported friends as well as deadly enemies. The Trojans squabble over whether they should continue to keep Helen from the Greeks; the Greeks contend over whether she is worth fighting for, and over how to maintain discipline in the ranks of the pan-Hellenic army. Caught up in these controversies, armour finally loses the chivalric connotations it possessed in romance, becoming instead a potent weapon in the war of words, fought out in a period of stalemate between the Greeks and Trojans when other forms of fighting have been temporarily suspended. Shakespeare punctuates this, one of his most verbally inventive plays, with allusions to armour, and these become increasingly contaminated by the anxieties and inconsistencies of the armour-bearers as the play wears on.

The performance opens with a ‘Prologue arm’d’, who delivers his speech clad in protective steel. His appearance may have resembled that of the actors illustrated in Henry Peacham’s near-contemporary sketch of a scene from Titus Andronicus: a peculiar fusion of ancient and modern costume, with Elizabethan vambraces and legharness tacked on to Graeco-Roman cuirasses.[21] The Prologue’s harness is, however, no sign of heroism, as it was for Shakespeare’s Henry V when he wore it at Agincourt. Instead it betrays his lack of ‘confidence’ in the play itself, an uncertainty that stems in part from his ignorance about which side the audience will favour in this particular version of the Trojan war: ‘Like, or find fault,’ he tells us, ‘do as your pleasures are:/ Now good, or bad, ’tis but the chance of war’ (Prologue, 30-1).[22] In these lines, as in the play that follows, values have become contingent, the quality of ‘goodness’ being assigned to whichever side emerges victorious from the conflict, while ‘badness’ is used to brand their defeated enemies regardless of any merits they might have had. Under such circumstances, armour is a political weapon, a means of gaining the upper hand in the confusion of battle. Its links with knightly honour have been severed, and with them the romance presumption that a common code of conduct binds together the men who sport it.

Theo Ogundipe as Ajax and Daniel Hawksford as Hector in 2018 RSC production

The first scene of the play confirms the central part that will be played by armour in the action that follows. Angered, we learn, by a recent defeat at the hands of Ajax, the Trojan hero Hector has ‘chid’ his wife that morning and ‘struck his armourer’ before going to battle (1.2.6). His chiding of Andromache, taken together with the blow against a nameless technician, points to the culture of violence that underpins the Trojan claim to be waging war for the best of reasons: in defence of honour and the women they love. Helen may be the official cause of the Trojan War, but she is in reality no more than an excuse to engage in the testosterone-fueled grapplings that define a young man’s standing in a warrior culture. To drive the point home, Shakespeare later makes Hector use Andromache as an excuse for a return match against Ajax, offering to engage in single combat with any Greek who refuses to acknowledge her as ‘a lady wiser, fairer, truer,/ Than ever Greek did couple in his arms’ (1.3.274-5). The terms of this challenge effectively explode the Trojan claim that Helen is worth fighting for (if Hector is right, she is neither as ‘fair’ nor as ‘true’ as his Trojan wife). This fact, however, is mentioned by nobody; and this is because everyone knows full well that the claim for Andromache’s pre-eminence among women has been swiftly cooked up for the single purpose of restoring Hector’s pre-eminence among fighting men. The real motive for the single combat is made clear when Hector enters the Greek camp, as enemies on both sides eye up each others’ muscles and embrace with more than soldierly enthusiasm. Men are far more interested in their own masculinity than in the women they claim as prizes; and this fact is reflected in the tendency of that most masculine of costumes, armour, to get caught up in the rampant infidelities of its bearers.

Ulysses, for instance, deploys armour prominently in his bid to set his fellow Greeks against each other, while ostensibly inciting them to honourable action. When he informs the Greek commanders that Achilles and Patroclus have been undermining their authority among their men, he reinforces the claim by re-enacting one of the scenes Patroclus is supposed to have acted for Achilles’s pleasure: a mocking imitation of the aged warrior Nestor ‘Arming to answer in a night alarm’, where the coughing and spitting old man ‘with a palsy fumbling on his gorget/ Shake[s] in and out the rivet’ (1.3.171-5). Whether or not Ulysses is telling the truth about Patroclus, his performance in front of Nestor of Nestor’s own ineptitude with his armour is clearly more subversive of the old man’s authority than any performance that may have taken place in Achilles’s tent. Later, when Ulysses urges Achilles himself to return to military action after an extended hiatus, he tells him that only ‘Perseverance’ will maintain his heroic status in the public eye: ‘to have done is to hang/ Quite out of fashion, like a rusty mail/ In monumental mockery’ (3.3.150-3). In saying so, Ulysses encourages Achilles to break his promise to the Trojan princess Polyxena, whom he loves, and who has made him swear he will not harm her fellow citizens. This is, then, another treacherous invocation of armour on Ulysses’ part. And when Achilles’s ‘rusty mail’ does indeed go to war, first enclosing the body of Patroclus (who dies in it), then on Achilles’s own body as he seeks revenge for Patroclus’s death, it is more a monument to his serial faithlessness than to his valour.  Achilles has betrayed Polyxena with his male lover Patroclus, betrayed the Greeks by making a promise to Polyxena, and betrayed Polyxena by going to war and breaking his promise. When he finally fights Hector in Act Five, the Greek hero is out of condition and unused to wearing armour or carrying weapons (‘my arms are out of use’, 5.6.16), and it is this that leads him to his final act of betrayal: to have the ‘unarm’d’ Hector slain by his men-at-arms, the Myrmidons, instead of fighting him hand to hand (5.8.9).

Hector, meanwhile, has a passion for armour that amounts to infidelity, not only to his wife Andromache but to the values he purports to be defending. In the central scene of the play, Act 3 scene 1 – our only extended encounter with Helen, the woman whose ‘worth’ is cited by both Greeks and Trojans as justification for their conflict – Paris exhorts his purloined lover to encourage Hector to keep fighting by indulging in a little erotic dalliance with his equipment:

Sweet Helen, I must woo you
To help unarm our Hector. His stubborn buckles,
With these your white enchanting fingers touch’d,
Shall more obey than to the edge of steel
Or force of Greekish sinews: you shall do more
Than all the island kings – disarm great Hector. (3.1.145-50)

Peter Paul Rubens, Achilles Kills Hector

Paris’s request links the act of disarming with a whole sequence of infidelities: Helen’s to her husband Menelaus; his own to Helen in encouraging her to seduce his brother; and Hector’s to Andromache in being aroused by Helen’s ‘white enchanting fingers’. Later, it is Hector’s armour that points up his forgetfulness of the value he earlier attached to his wife Andromache. When she begs him ‘Unarm, unarm, and do not fight today’ (5.3.3) – convinced by many omens that he will die if he ignores her warning – he threatens to ‘offend’ her, for the second time in the play, if she does not lay off (5.3.4). It seems appropriate, then, that armour should also prove his undoing. His last act of war is to pursue a weaponless soldier because he admires his harness (‘I like thy armour well’, 5.6.28). This is another mark of Hector’s inconsistency; he earlier told Troilus that he would never kill a helpless enemy because of his commitment to the rules of ‘fair play’. When he kills the fleeing soldier for the sake of his outer covering he describes him as a ‘putrefied core’ concealed in ‘goodly armour’ (5.8.1-2); and it is not entirely clear here whether he means that all mortal flesh is effectively putrid or that this soldier in particular was diseased, perhaps with syphilis, another mark of infidelity. There is certainly something rotten about Achilles’s actions when he catches Hector ‘unarm’d’ beside the victim’s body. The Greek hero orders his Myrmidons to kill him, which is bad enough; but he then dresses up the unequal contest in a garb of ‘fair play’, by ordering them to spread the word that Achilles killed the Trojan champion in equal combat: ‘On, Myrmidons, and cry you all amain/ “Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain”’ (5.8.13-14). In this scene the audience sees history being written; and it looks very much like a scam, fronted by the ‘goodly armour’ that conceals the cross-infected rottenness of the flesh within.

Shakespeare’s play completes the process of conceptually disengaging armour from its bearer and investing it with a grotesque life of its own; a process that had been steadily at work over the preceding two centuries. There are other manifestations of this process, some contemporary with this one, which would be worth holding up as exemplary representations of the complex relationship between human flesh and the rigid social, cultural and moral carapaces we don in a vain attempt to contain and define it. The most notable of these is the armour of Quixote. The inadequacy of this ancestral iron shell (most notably the various home-made helmets with which he seeks to complete it) reflects the weakness of the bearer’s ageing brain; but it also embodies his infectious delight in the imaginative glamour bestowed on the world by a romance sensibility, and his determination to invest the world with that glamour whatever the cost to his unguarded head. What is evident, however, is that armour that doesn’t work deserves the same close attention Cooper gave to non-functional magic; and that it has enabled equally startling transformations, down the years, of the romance tradition. It is time to polish up the rusty mail.[23]

John Waterhouse, La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Notes

[1] Cooper, Romance, ch. 3: ‘Magic that doesn’t work’.

[2] Cooper, Romance, pp. 148-51.

[3] Cooper, Romance, p. 138.

[4] My knowledge of medieval armour depends largely on two sources: Claude Blair’s European Armour circa 1066 to circa 1700 (London, 1958); and the kindness of Dr Ralph Moffat, Curator of European Arms and Armour at the Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow. Warm thanks to Ralph for showing me round the museum’s remarkable collection and providing me with an invaluable reading list.

[5] ‘And so suddeynly departed hys soule to Jesu Cryste, and a grete multitude of angels bare hit up to hevyn evyn in the sight of hys two felowis’: Sir Thomas Malory, Works, ed. Eugène Vinaver (Oxford, 1977), p. 607, lines 6-8. All references are to this edition.

[6] See [Anon.], Virgilius (Antwerp, 1518), sigs. A5v-A6v; Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, eds. David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen (Manchester and New York, 1993), A-Text, I. i. 102-168. For Agrippa’s moving statues, see Three Books of Occult Philosophy Written by Henry Cornelius Agrippa, trans. J.F. (London, 1651), pp. 77-8.

[7] Italo Calvino, Our Ancestors, trans. Archibald Colquhoun (London, 1980), pp. 285-382.

[8] Sir Perceval of Galles, in Middle English Metrical Romances, ed. Walter Hoyt French and Charles Brockway Hale, 2 vols. (New York, 1930), 2: 530-603.

[9] T.H. White, The Sword in the Stone (London, 1959), p. 26.

[10] White, Sword in the Stone, p. 30.

[11] Cooper, Romance, p. 363.

[12] Sir Thopas, in Geoffrey Chaucer, Works, ed. F.N. Robinson, 2nd edn. (Oxford, 1977), p. 166, lines 867 and 882. All references are to this edition.

[13] Cooper, Romance, pp. 367-9.

[14] Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon, 2nd edn., ed. Norman Davis (Oxford, 1979), lines 201-4. All references are to this edition.

[15] Isaiah 40:6 and 1 Peter 1:24.

[16] Cooper, Romance, p. 160.

[17] Cooper, Romance, p. 52.

[18] Spenser, Faerie Queene, I.i.1. All references are to this edition.

[19] See The Usurer’s Daughter: Male Friendship and Fictions of Women in Sixteenth-Century England (London, 1994).

[20] Middle English Metrical Romances, ed. French and Hale, p. 811, lines 33-5.

[21] The sketch is reproduced in The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, et al., 2nd edn. (London, 2008), p. 89.

[22] All references to Troilus and Cressida are taken from Kenneth Palmer’s edition for the Arden Shakespeare (London, 1982).

[23] My thanks to Matthew Woodcock for his comments on this essay. He asked me a number of excellent questions I have no space to answer here, among them ‘do you have a sense of when the “armour that doesn’t work” anti-meme develops’? The fact that Beowulf is the first example I can think of (the episode in which the hero’s specially-forged iron shield fails him in his fight against the dragon, of course, but more interestingly the whole notion that Beowulf has never managed to fight with weapons because they have always failed him) suggests to me that it is as old as armour itself.

Three Lost Boys

The three pickled boys depicted in a church window at Barefreston, Kent

[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.

Hammers thundering,
Saw-blades grating,
Scrapers smooth fresh
Plaster on the wall.
Music spirals
From the empty kitchen,
Dust-clouds rise from
Living-room and hall.

Someone’s working,
Warming up the building,
Beating back the chills of
Loneliness and loss.
Someone’s raising
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.

Walker passing
Notices the firelight
Through the window
Of the empty flat.
Peeps in softly,
Sees decay and mildew,
Wanders homewards
Cogitating that.

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.

Saint Nicholas

Mervyn Peake: The Poet of Gormenghast

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

Alan Lee, Gormenghast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mervyn Peake, David Jones (1939)

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

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

David Jones, Frontispiece to In Parenthesis

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

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

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

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

David Jones, The Mariners, from The Ancient Mariner

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

David Jones, page from the manuscript of In Parenthesis

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

David Jones, sleeping soldier (1915)

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

David Jones, Periscope

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

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

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

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

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

David Jones, rats shot in the trenches

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

David Jones, Christ mocked by soldiers

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

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

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

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

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

Mervyn Peake, The Ancient Mariner

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

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

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

David Jones, Capel-y-ffin

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

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

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

Edward Burne Jones, Panel from The Legend of Briar Rose

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

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

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

John Everett Millais, Ophelia

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Jones, Everyman

Edition Used

Jones, David, In Parenthesis (London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1978)

Notes

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

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

Fantasies of War in the Poetry of Mervyn Peake

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

Wartime sketch

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

From The Drawings of Mervyn Peake (1949)

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

Sketch

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Was Not There

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

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

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

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

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

Illustration to a poem by Oscar Wilde

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long John Silver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOTES

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

[2] Collected Poems, p. 165.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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