A Reverie of Bone

A review of the work of Mervyn Peake, first published in New Worlds, 1967

While preparing this web site, I was rather dismayed, in coming across several Peake sites, to read that Peake had gone mad. It seems that the romantic myths are starting already. As he wrote the third 'Titus' book, Peake was certainly impaired, which is why he was unable to resist the changes made by the original publishers, but at no time was there a hint of insanity.

With regard to the illness which finally caused his death, at the time this was written one had a variety of diagnoses to choose from. In the light of modern knowledge it seems likely that Peake was suffering from a tragically early onset of Alzheimer's disease.

For those not familiar with pre-decimalisation British currency, 'gns' are 'guineas'. A guinea was one pound plus one shilling, a posh kind of price; one that people tended to think of in terms of pounds, but which carried a five per cent surcharge!

This review was written at the nadir of Peake's popularity, a time when he was virtually unknown. Indeed, after it came out I received a letter from an editor at one of the top London publishers, accusing me of inventing Peake, suggesting that the review was actually a work of Borgesian fiction!

After the review appeared, I received a letter from Maeve, Peake's wife, thanking me for what I had said (which was typical of her) and telling me that she had taken the review with her to the residential home where Peake was staying at that time, and had read it to him. She said that 'he had got something good from it'.

It was not long after this that the tide began to turn, and Peake began to achieve some of the popularity which he deserves.

Discussing the work of Mervyn Peake presents a special difficulty; the reviewer is faced by the incredible diversity of his wide-ranging talents. His creative life has been short, but he has provided an abundance of work enough for several men. Illustrator, painter, poet, novelist and playwright, he represents a creative phenomenon, a man with an intense and individual inner vision that could find expression in a variety of ways.

Peake was born in China in 1911, and came to England as a young boy when his family returned home. While still young he attained a solid reputation as a painter and illustrator. The war came, and Peake was drafted into the Engineers. This must, at the time, have seemed a disaster as far as his creative work was concerned, but in fact what he witnessed during those years provided a great creative spur.

It was in the army that he began work on Titus Groan, the first book of the monumental 'Titus' trilogy. These books have been described as 'Gothic' fantasies, but this does not do them justice. It is true that the first two, Titus Groan and Gormenghast, are set in an enormous crumbling castle, in which meaningless rituals are compulsively carried out by grotesque characters. But their vision is too wide-ranging for them to be classified in this way; the characters are grotesque in the way that Dickens' characters are grotesque, not, as in the case of some of the books with which they have been compared, for the sake of chintzy Walt Disney cuteness, for there is not a trace of that, but in a way that has meaning and purpose. In the trilogy there are dozens of major characters, each one finely drawn, all with the solidity of real people.

Although they are fantasies, in the books will be found real things: human frailty, death and sexual love, as realistically drawn as in the most pertinent of modern novels. Neither are they heavy Germanic romances, for Peake writes with a genuine wit and a clear transparency of touch. One can only compare them with Dickens, for Peake writes like a Dickens drunk with his own imaginings. The style is an unusual one, but is superbly evocative; in his descriptions of Gormenghast castle he brings to bear the eye and imagination of the artist:

"He had seen a tower with a stone hollow in its summit. This shallow basin sloped down from the copestones that surrounded the tower and was half filled with rainwater. In this circle of water whose glittering had caught his eye, for to him it appeared about the size of a coin, he could see that something white was swimming. As far as he could guess it was a horse. As he watched he noticed that there was something swimming by its side, something smaller, which must have been the foal, white like its parent. Around the rim of the tower stood swarms of crows, which he had identified only when one of them, having flapped away from the rest, grew from the size of a gnat to that of a black moth as it circled and approached him before turning in its flight and gliding without the last tremor of its outspread wings back to the stone basin, where it landed with a flutter among its kind."

Although Gormenghast, with its decaying towers, its parapets, its flints, is far removed from the realities of the war during which it was created, it is clear that much of Peake's phenomenal creative energy that began at this time was a direct result of what he had experienced, of the strangeness and destruction he was witnessing. Towards the end of the war, after Peake had left the army, he was sent with a journalist to record what he saw in pictures, and it was in this capacity that he was one of the first Britons to witness the horrors of Belsen, a nightmare that stayed with him, and that later was to influence a great deal of the final book of the trilogy, Titus Alone.

The war stripped the veneer from those elemental forces that Peake had always sensed so strongly, and now they became supreme. The blitz on London, for example, with its surrealistic images of warfare, the incongruous dead, the buildings lifting themselves from the ground, retaining their shape for a timeless moment, the immediacy of fear and pain, all this forms the background to The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, which tells in a hundred-and- twenty-five stanzas of the compassionate meeting of a sailor and a new-born baby, who talk of death together, in a ruined church, a flying bomb approaching.

These tortured images of war, particularly that of crumbled, dead masonry, find expression mainly in Peake's poetry, as in 'London, 1941', from the collection Shapes and Sounds:

Half masonry, half pain; her head
From which the plaster breaks away
Like flesh from the rough bone, is turned
Upon a neck of stones; her eyes
Are lid-less windows of smashed glass,
Each star-shaped pupil
Giving upon a vault so vast
How can the head contain it?

This is what seemed most expressive to Peake; the wrecked masonry of London, after the destruction had ceased, the remains of houses from which all life had passed:

What are these shapes that stare where once strong houses
Rose with their sounding halls and rooms of breath?
No, not their skeletons for those have fallen
Dragging to earth
The coloured muscles from a thousand walls,
And all the slow
Articulate organs that are now
The rubble that a cold well of the night
Erects its height
Of re-assembled emptiness upon.

Here are the landscapes of Gormenghast, but a dead Gormenghast, a stage from which all the characters have fled in terror. The meaningless decay left behind after the triumph of those evil forces which are never far away.

What of this skin that once enclosed all this?
Oh it will fall to darkness, to cold darkness
For it is ichabod and Life has fallen
Down into darkness through its quickened crate,
And it will fall to darkness, to cold darkness
Where nothing stirs among the dynasties.
The rubble that is rotting in the rain
Exhales the death of Warsaw and Pompeii,
Guernica, Troy and Coventry - all cities,
And every breathing building that died burning.

The shapes departing and the brick returning.

And yet, despite this, the work of Peake is not pessimistic. Although a great deal of his work is based upon the images of death - skeletons lying pallid in the night - crows perching in a blear landscape - rats lying stiff and dead in cold morning light - there is, as well as a broad (at times knockabout!) sense of humour, a strength and vitality going through everything he creates; although Peake feels the pulse of tragedy, he can observe without being dragged into a morass of confusion - his own personal vitality resists the impulse to surrender to pain. And Peake's vision becomes, as a result, vast in scope. In his drawings he can report, with objectivity, the look of interested concentration in the eyes of a young boy; he can show the grotesqueness of the crying face of a baby, expressing nothing but the desire to suck; he can, like George Grosz, highlight the distortions of corruption in the faces about him; he can create his own visions of the grotesque, with only elements of the human.

And he can write a book like the superbly comical Mr Pye, a novel which begins innocuously enough, with the visit of an apparently ordinary man to the island of Sark, but which goes along to break all the rules, and finishes, if unconventionally, in a brilliantly funny way. This vision has enabled him to design the stage sets of Capek's The Insect Play.

His kind of vision made Peake an ideal book illustrator, and he was commissioned to illustrate a new edition of the Alice books, and also Carroll's 'The Hunting of the Snark'. These were particularly successful, for Peake, like Tenniel, captured entirely the atmosphere of the books (which wasn't surprising) but gave the characters a wry comicality, a lightness that was all his own.

Peake enjoyed a great flourish of popularity during the forties and early fifties, but since then his public has not been wide. The tides of fashion have ebbed, and the paintings now are sought by isolated connoisseurs, but not known to the public at large. One can understand this neglect of the paintings, for Peake had his own path to follow, and he followed it tenaciously and characteristically, ignoring contemporary trends entirely. Even so this neglect can be frustrating, for the work does have value, and one hopes that in the future his paintings will regain an audience which will then be lasting. However, as far as the literature is concerned, this oblivion is completely incomprehensible (although, with the planned publication of hard cover and paperback versions in England, and a paperback version in America, of the 'Titus' trilogy, it is showing signs of abating). Here are some of the richest, most controlled fantasies of the language, a treasure-house of experience; they should be in every library, required reading in secondary schools, a familiar part of the literary heritage. It is true that not everyone is fond of fantasy, but everyone with some feeling for language, some imagination, should be drawn irresistibly into their pages, and should remember the books for the rest of their lives.

Peake is not a desiccated cynic. He is wild, romantic, bursting with a profusion of ideas:

I am too rich already, for my eyes
Mint gold, while my heart cries
"O cease!
Is there no rest from richness, and no peace
For me again?"
For gold is pain,
And the edged coins can smart,
And beauty's metal weighs upon the heart.

Now these riches are no more. The mine is exhausted, and Peake's creative life is over. In 1958 he contracted a viral infection of the brain. He was at the time working on the last book of the 'Titus' trilogy, and was barely able to complete it. He was forced to stop work and go into hospital, where he has remained ever since. The dark forces, those destructive powers that had been such a preoccupation of Peake's, have finally overtaken him. During the final part of Titus Alone, after a great struggle, these forces in their ultimate form were defeated. It is tragically ironic that while this was being written the struggle was taking place in reality, and that in reality they finally triumphed.

Titus Alone was published after extensive editorial revision by the publishers. It is clear that Peake's illness had some effect on the final shape of the book, but, having seen the original manuscript, I feel that there is, unpublished, much of value (a complete character has been deleted, and the close of the book has been greatly reduced in scale), and once the chaotic manuscript has been fully pieced together it will be fascinating to see what emerges.

Although Peake no longer works, he has left a vast quantity of material; there are, alone, about a hundred poems still unpublished.

Out of this store-house of material have been chosen - by George Lawson and Peake's wife, Maeve - a selection of poems and drawings, which are being published by Bertram Rota as A Reverie of Bone, in a special edition of three hundred numbered copies, priced at 3 gns.

Although the poems have not been revised, some of them represent the best of Peake. This selection has a particular interest, in that the poems were written between 1940 and 1959, covering a large proportion of Peake's working life. Although the poems are not virtuoso displays, in them one can clearly see Peake's particular strengths. In 'May, 1940', for example, the poem unfolds at its own tempo and finishes with a strong last line that resonates after the poem is over. Even in this mood, in which the insanity and repeated horrors of war give to life a feeling of worthlessness, the countryside is described with love, not with the dim eyes of the defeated:

Be proud, slow trees. Be glad you stones and birds,
And you brown Arun river and all things
That grow in silence through the hours of maytime -
Be glad you are not fashioned in God's image.

Peake observes horror, and records it relentlessly. Is there a more graphic picture of dehumanised war-death than the following lines from 'Victims'?

Where was the lavender
Or gentle light? Where were the coverlets
Of quiet? Or white hands to hold their bleeding
Claws that grabbed horribly for child or lover?

In the war poems there is a tiredness of spirit, an utter weariness of repeated sufferings. The seduction of a quick and peaceful death is felt, but rejected:

"Old, cold Lady"
I said to her,
"I know of bosoms
Softer far
To sleep upon"

The old, cold Lady
Turned away,
"I had forgotten"
I heard her say
"How old I am ... how old I am ..."

The title poem is beautifully sustained, a meditation of thirty-eight verses on that detritus of flesh and brick so fascinating to Peake:

What is more exquisite than to be free
Of all that presses on the crying core
Of the long bones, that now so nakedly
Can hear the desert winds along the scree,
How loud they are that were so drugged before,
By the dumb bullion of the shrouding clay.

Queens in their tombs are mouthed by the furred lips
Of humid plants, or, stretched upon stone shelves
Of granite, where the sandy sunlight fingers,
How ruminatively with hazy fingertips.
High tiers of skeletons and skulls revolve
Among the motes where the dank lizard lingers.

Some of the poems are less successful. 'Dead Rat', for example, is too naïve, and at times descends into sentimentality: "... your little fore-paws so beseeching,/Crossed on your breast, and pink like human fingers ... "; but most of them have great strength, particularly those about painters, 'El Greco' and 'Rembrandt', " ... Until death laid him in a pauper's grave,/Gulfed in those shadows that his pictures have".

The final poem is one of the last things that Peake ever wrote. There is no more struggling, no more resistance; the battle was over, and Peake could only succumb to those forces that he knew would destroy him:

Drawing by Peake
Heads float about me; come and go, absorb me;
Terrify me that they deny the nightmare
That they should be, defy me;
And all the secrecy; the horror
Of truth, of this intrinsic truth
Drifting, ah God, along the corridors
Of the world; hearing the metal
Clang; and the rolling wheels.
Heads float about me haunted
By solitary sorrows.

Copyright © Langdon Jones 1997
Links to other Peake sites may be found on my links page.

Order the Gormenghast trilogy here ...

The Gormenghast Trilogy
I don't know whether this edition carries the reconstructed edition of Titus Alone.