Whilst searching for the recently published collection of his complete poems, I came across two of Mervyn Peake’s original volumes of poetry, Shapes and Sounds and The Glassblowers. I had to send the librarian down to the Stack to get these. This is the basement area where rarely borrowed books which are nonetheless rare enough to keep are consigned. I like to think that it is a subterranean warren of ‘caverns measureless to man’, but I suspect it is something rather more practically post-war and functional. Whereas Shapes and Sounds is a 1974 re-issue of Peake’s first volume of poetry published in 1941, The Glassblowers seems to be a first edition of this 1950 collection. It comes in its original dustjacket, which features a black and white reproduction of one of Peake’s paintings of glassblowers at work. This is in fairly good condition, possibly reflecting the scarcity with which it has been borrowed.
The inner binding has a brown ticket pouch attached, with now-redundant ticket permanently tucked inside. The pouch has a list of stern instructions which are at odds with the modern library’s warm and fuzzy approach. Particularly alarming is the following: ‘Borrowers in whose homes there is any infectious disease must ask the Medical Officer of Health for the district what is to be done with any books which have been borrowed. They must not return any book to the library without the express permission of the Medical Officer of Health, and must not make any further use of the library until the house has been disinfected or the Medical Officer of Health has given them permission to do so’. Blimey, was this Exeter or East Berlin.
I can understand the appeal of collecting first editions. There is something inexplicably magical about reading from a book which is an actual artefact from the time of publication, a physical as well as notional relic of a bygone decade, with its particular style of design, type and paper. The back cover of The Glassblowers delivers a particular thrill with its note at the bottom stating ‘In Preparation. Gormenghast. The sequel to Titus Groan’.
The poems themselves form a continuum with Peake’s other work in their delight in the frequently grotesque and outlandish products of the unfettered imagination and in their very physical and solid descriptive immediacy. Such a keen eye for the telling detail is unsurprising given that Peake was a talented artist and illustrator as well as a great writer. The poems also reveal Peake’s unabashedly romantic approach to art. He was something of a traditionalist in this sense, and his non-participation in the 20th century streams of modernism in any of the forms in which he worked may account for the neglect which he suffered for so long. These poems, written during the war when Peake was forced into the world of soldiery and parted from his wife Maeve, also allow him the form in which to express his feelings of doubt and sometimes even despair about his role as an artist and a father. This painfully articulated inner battle is put before us with the unsparing honesty of someone who sets himself the very highest standards of reflective self-awareness and authenticity of being. It is this need to meet some self-determined ideal which leads him to such self-excoriation.
Favourite words recur throughout the poems and give a guide to the ideas which Peake is constantly reworking and the material which he uses to form them. Bone and particularly ribs occur frequently. They are the literal boundaries of heart and mind, caging those repositories of imagination and emotional empathy which feature so strongly in Peake’s poetry. Bone is often depicted in sculptural or geological terms, particularly when depicting the ruins of a war-scarred London. It is also a momento mori, a reminder of mortality and the fragility of life. Clay is another recurring word, this indicating the human form, and suggesting a mutability, a material which has been shaped by some hand and which can be recast and transformed. Alchemy is used several times and relates to the transformative power of the imagination, which Peake uses to recast forms. Buildings are given a human form and the human form in turn is recast in geological or architectural terms, or envisioned as mythic or exotic flora and fauna. Eden is also conjured as an image of lost paradise, an intuition of the ineffable and sublime which can never be realised, but which can still inspire.
Shapes and Sounds contains London, 1941, Peake’s poem about the blitz. It’s opening line ‘half masonry, half pain’ immediately turns these ruins into the embodiment of human suffering, imbuing the city with a soul. ‘Her rusted ribs like railings round her heart’ and the ‘vault so vast/How can the head contain it?’ are characteristic pieces of transforming imagery. This poem was used as the introductory preface to Michael Moorcock’s great hymn to the post-war city, Mother London. The Shapes (London) is a similar poem, with its ‘walls of skin, the skin of brick’. The destruction of the cityscape is seen as the death of some unique, ideal form beyond the merely material. All were ‘suffused with their especial emanations’, ‘a ranging world in microcosm’. These poems mourn the death of cities.
The metamorphoses which Peake conjures amongst the rubble of London are also to be found in his observations of people. His preference is for rough, coarse figures who he loves to depict in all their grotesque splendour. He finds and shows vivid and immediate life in forms which are defiantly individual in their departure from conventional notions of beauty and grace. These are the templates for the exaggerated eccentricity of the characters who people Gormenghast. His ‘Cocky Walkers’, eyeing up the main chance as they cup their blooming cigarettes, are so many Steerpikes, whilst the young Promethean figure of ‘The Burning Boy’, ‘enslaved in youth’s vermilion prison’, could be Titus Groan himself. The woman who Peake depicts in ‘Palais de Danse’ has an evening dress which is ‘splitting like the chrysalis’, a new self emerging with the siren call of the swing band. Her cigarette is ‘a white stamen with a burning anther/...drooping from the flower tropical’, a detail which lends her a hothouse exoticism. Peake evidently likes the image of the cigarette as flower, as it reappears as ‘the little flower that lights the palm into a nightmare land’ in ‘The Cocky Walkers’.
These ‘trouser-pocket boys’ are jack-the-lad figures who recur in many guises in Peake’s poetry. As privateers, swashbucklers, ‘penny pirates’ or half-human creatures from mythology they are one aspect of the split impulses which oppose and balance each from the twin poles of Peake’s inner landscape. In ‘They Move With Me, My War-Ghosts’ he describes himself as being ‘split tree-wise inly’, his ‘too small a home’ shared by ‘an angel’s and a centaur’s body’ which ‘greet each other fiercely on the narrow stair’.
This sense of dualism, a necessary state of conflict for the artist, can be found within and between Peake’s poems, the twin calls of the pious and the pagan, the Dionysian and Apollonian, the yearning for divine order and the delight in chaos unleashed. In ‘I Am for Ever With Me’ Peake expresses his feeling of being at a remove from himself, viewing these separate aspects of his soul which vie with each other to gain the ascendant. Here these ‘incompatibles’ who ‘foster and fear each other’ are ‘Gabriel the Scorner’, ‘the one eternal and terrible original’, and ‘the sprig and the swashbuckler’, ‘the boy of shoddy glamour and violent laughter’.
Many of Peake’s poems concern the process of imaginative creation, reflecting on the alchemy through which the outer world is recast by the inner, the mind’s menagerie let loose. They also express the burden of the dedicated artist’s visionary perception. There is a weariness brought about by the ceaseless, unstoppable roil of the synaptic ocean, a feeling of sensory overload. The poem Coloured Money has provided the titles for two recent biographies; Malcolm Yorke’s ‘My Eyes Mint Gold’ and G.Peter Winnington’s ‘Vast Alchemies’, so these Peake scholars evidently see at as emblematic of his view of his art. The lines of this poem from which the biographical titles are taken offer two differing ways of being – the divided selves again. The first sees the world through the kaleidoscopic lens of the imaginative vision.
'I am too rich already, for my eyes
Mint gold, while my heart cries
Is there no rest from richness, and no peace
For me again?'
The alternative, which he temporarily yearns for, is to be divested of these riches, to become one of the ‘fickle, fit-for-nothing fellows’, ‘the empty pocket boys’. Then he would be able
Through the charged air, a wastrel, with not one
Farthing to weigh me down,
But hollow! Foot to crown
To prance immune among vast alchemies'.
But this only a temporary faltering of purpose. In another poem he states that
'Rather than a little pain, I would be the thief
To the organ-chords of grief
That toll through me
With a burial glory'
For the romantic artist, mild contentment is simply not an option. Peake also makes comparison between the spring and the autumn, the latter representing the ancient, sepulchral aspect of the creative imagination. Peake may be ‘more...eager for the spring bubble’ but finds himself naturally tending towards ‘the pain of autumn and the rhythms of old time’ as ‘thoughts of too old a colour nurse my brain.’ It’s almost as if he is pledging his allegiance to older forms of the fantastic in myth and literature rather than the new (spring) forms of social comment, the stylised distance of modernism or the coolly detached observations of lofty ironists.
These lines come from the marvellously titled ‘I, While the Gods Laugh, the World’s Vortex Am’, which could have been a story from the 60s or 70s by American new wave sf writers like Samuel Delany, Roger Zelazny or Harlan Ellison. Likewise, stories with titles like ‘We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line’, ‘Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones’ (Delany), ‘The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth’ (Zelazny), ‘The Wine Has Been Left Open Too Long and the Memory Has Gone Flat’ or ‘The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World’ (Ellison) could be the titles of Peake poems. There seems to be some affinity there, an unashamedly prolix romanticism.
The Glassblowers continues with the themes and imagery found in Shapes and Sounds. The opening poem, ‘His Head and Hands were Built for Sin’, could be a description of Karloff’s Frankenstein-fashioned monster.
'Hell’s dice were thrown. It was not he
Who carved his brows crude beetling size
Or scooped the caverns for his eyes
Where squat the hatreds'
This creature is an empty vessel whose rough form is animated by powers over which it has little control.
'His thudding heart is drawn and driven
By rhythms as immemorial as
The tides of the moon: and dangerous,
And naked as their waves he is,
And as innocent in the shrewd eye of heaven.'
He is another emanation from the chaotic, penumbral hemisphere of Peake’s inner world.
The vicious side of Peake’s unbridled gothic imagination also emerges in ‘What Panther Stalks Tonight’. This could be a poetic description of one of Val Lewton’s ‘night walk’ scenes (had Peake seen Cat People or The Leopard Man?) It is a veritable slasher movie of a poem as a woman ‘tinkles tombwards to the lilt of coins/Down avenues of globe-stars’ before ‘the inverted tombstone of a starched/And ghastly shirtfront...leaves a penknife in the seeded heart of the strawberry blonde’. The End.
The poem ‘Grottoed Beneath Your Ribs Our Babe Lay Thriving’ is perhaps the ultimate expression of his tendency to see people in terms of landscape (and vice-versa). Here he bears witness to the birth of his and his wife Maeve’s first child, and his parting from ‘Eden’s midnight garden’. The baby becomes ‘like madagascar broken from its mother’, the continent from which he is splintered, divided by the ‘wild strait which separates your bodies’.
Peake himself takes on geographical qualities as he contemplates holding his newborn son in ‘My Arms are Rivers’. In a poignantly tender admission of inadequacy, the baby’s face ‘lit up as though by stars or a quick breeze/Of lucent light that nowhere else abides’ leaves him feeling heavy and cumbersome, his ‘crass embrace’ lacking the required purity, so that ‘the rivers freeze.../and my idiot arms fall, heavy, to my sides’. He has become the innocently destructive creature of ‘His Head and Hands Were Built for Sin’.
The Glassblowers also contains a number of love poems addressed directly or implicitly to his wife Maeve. These follow on from the dedicatory verse which prefaced Shapes and Sounds, To Maeve:
'You walk unaware
Of the slender gazelle
That moves as you move
And is one with the limbs
That you have'.
‘For Maeve’ portrays their love as a singular entity; indivisible yet forever mysterious:
'I can be lost in a familiar realm,
The more my knowledge the more lost to be
In all you are who are the Maeve of me'.
But there are poems which express doubt and anxiety too, the unsparing self-examination of a Romantic who demands an authentically honest and ever-renewing love. Mervyn and Maeve’s separation during the war inspires such poems as ‘Absent from You where is the Corn and Wine?’ and ‘All Eden Was then Girdled by my Arms’. These poem exude the fear that the mere contemplation of a dreaded diminution of feeling might actually serve to bring it about. Love is endangered by the self-distancing, the sense of dreamy abstraction, of remote-viewing which Peake noted in ‘I Am Always With Myself’. This is a feeling which is compounded by real, physical distance. All that can be done during such periods is to maintain a sense of the ideal, the knowledge of what was and what can be. Thus, at the end of ‘O, This Estrangement Forms a Distance Vaster’, though ‘The bitter/Knowledge of failure damns us where we stand/Withdrawn, lonely, powerless’ they remain ‘hand in hand’, a gesture towards connection and hope.
If these poems articulate the fear of loss, others express what John Clute in ‘The Encyclopedia of Fantasy’ describes as the ‘thinning’ of the world. This is a description of the sense of a gradual depletion of enchantment and richness from the world, and Clute locates it in such fantasy works as The Lord of the Rings and Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea novels. It is a greying homogenisation which is all too apparent to our modern sensibilities. Peake clearly articulates this in ‘The Heart Holds Memories Older than the Mind’s’:
'When a great beauty silences the heart
And holds it spellbound, it is recognition
Of something half remembered, long before
Atlantis was, when love was the wild fruit
We fed upon in golden climes forgotten.'
‘When Tiger-Men Sat Their Mercurial Coursers’ recounts the hunting by these fantastical creatures on their centaur steeds of some antlered Herne figure, each verse ending with the lament ‘I was not there...’ Eden is also invoked on several occasions to evoke this sense of loss.
The central poem of the collection is ‘The Consumptive. Belsen 1945’. This recounts what was clearly a formative encounter for Peake, which made him question his core beliefs and sense of purpose. His self-doubt over the distancing perspective of the artist which allows him to observe with a recording eye the dying moments of a desperately frail young girl is expressed with a self-loathing disbelief. His is the necessary toughness which allows the objectification of what is seen. His fear that this reduces his empathy and thus also his humanity is indicative of the very high moral standards which he sets for himself. But if this is the price which he himself pays, then that feeling of empathy which he finds lacking in his heart is offered to us. The vivid picture of the young girl fixes the moment of her passing with an unbearable yet unsentimental poignancy, her death embodying the very human cost of war with a keenly felt immediacy that only an artist’s eye could capture. Thus, despite the doubts and self-criticisms, the poem in the end validates the representation of such a terribly private moment. And it also shows the connection that was made. If Peake accepts nothing less from himself than absolute commitment and participation in the human moment, then his avowal that ‘though I be the glass, it shall not be betrayed’ is honoured. For this is one of the most beautifully affecting war poems ever written.
‘Features Forgo Their Power’ is a moving meditation on what may be the death of Peake’s mother. The poem reiterates his view of the body’s ‘clay’ (the ‘temporal pillar’ of ‘I Am For Ever With Me’) as the house for the spirits within. Once these have departed, it lies ‘cold and exact’, and
'Most far...most far,
From the white host now-
Its guesthood ended, the flower
Floats from the bough.'
Other poems are a simple celebration of the creative imagination. In ‘The Glassblowers’, Peake finds the perfect physical embodiment of processes which he normally locates within his skull. The glassblowers’ craft is likened to a dance (‘of men unconscious of dancing’ in ‘a ballet of gold sweat’), to music and to ‘a poetry of barbarous birth’. The molten glass is the fiery, elemental matter of the mind, juggled and shaped through its mercurial morphoses until it is given final form, and ‘what was thrusting/In dragon wrath is calm and twists no more’.
Peake locates the favoured haunts of his own imaginative world in the poem whose opening lines are as follows:
'It is at times of half-light that I find
Forsaken monsters shouldering through my mind.'
These monsters have ‘rags about their bruise-dark bodies bound,/And in each a ruby like a wound.’ They are to be treasured, in other words. The poem ‘With Power Supernal Dowered’ depicts the creatures of earth, sea and air as icons of fantastically variegated creation. Peake admits that:
'I have nor scale, nor pinion,
Nor limbs with thews of steel,
Nor head of gold.'
But he does have an imagination that ‘is tropical and real/As the pen I hold’, and so he can bring this phantasmagoria of exotic fauna to life for us.
The poem which more than any other acts as a manifesto for Peake’s belief in the importance of the power of the imagination, and the way in which it opens our eyes (inner and outer) to the wonders and terrors (and terrible wonders) of the world is ‘To Live at all is Miracle Enough’. It echoes the speech of Max von Sydow’s knight in the Seventh Seal (‘this is my hand. I can move it, feel the blood pulsing through it.) It is forthright, declamatory and unshadowed by doubt. It says all that ultimately needs to be said. Live by it!
To live at all is miracle enough.
The doom of nations is another thing.
Here in my hammering blood-pulse is my proof.
Let every painter paint and poet sing
And all the sons of music ply their trade;
Machines are weaker than a beetle’s wing.
Swung out of sunlight into cosmic shade,
Come what come may the imagination’s heart
Is constellation high and can’t be weighed.
Nor greed nor fear can tear our faith apart
When every heart-beat hammers out the proof
That life itself is miracle enough.