Here's a thesis. The present florescence of genre fantasy—a continuing and significant cultural phenomenon—has been largely determined by two major influences: on the one hand Tolkien, construing an imaginary magical realm out of Anglo-Saxon and medieval material; and on the other Mervyn Peake, whose rich, Gothic, imaginative grotesque parses a more nineteenth- and early twentieth-century-idiom. This latter fantasy is fascinated by tradition at the same time as being repelled by it, in reaction against an industrialization—or more fully, against a deeper process of social modernization of which industrialization is one symptom—that it both, paradoxically, deprecates and admires. Today, instances of Tolkienian fantasy are legion, of course; but the list of major writers working in a Peakean mode is a long one: Michael Moorcock, M. John Harrison, China Miéville, and Ian MacLeod, among others. For a while, a few years ago, it looked like it might become the dominant form.
It's worth pausing a moment to ponder this. We are naturally suspicious (or we should be) of accounts that reduce the complexity of any cultural genealogy to two quantities only. But at the same time, it is, I think, hard to deny that the other templates for possible versions of contemporary fantasy, whilst they haven't entirely vanished, simply haven't had the same imaginative purchase on our age as Tolkien and Peake. William Morris's peculiar, archaic, and often resonant fantasy tales have some admirers but few imitators; Lovecraft's type of Gothic nastiness remains potent in horror but hasn't really spread outside it; fantasy based on fairy-tale motifs (Angela Carter, Sheri Tepper's Beauty, some of Gaiman's more whimsical pieces) remains a minority taste, and magic realism has desiccated and died. Of the two best-selling fantasy writers today—Pratchett and Rowling—the former uses an attractively warm-hearted Tolkienian world to pastiche a variety of contemporary topics, whilst the latter doses the Chalet School novels with a very weak preparation of Peake.
Carcanet's superb new edition of Peake's Collected Poems is the first complete edition of his poetry. It's expertly and cleanly edited by Glasgow University's R. W. Maslen and presented in a gorgeous 250-page volume liberally supplied with black-and-white illustrations from Peake's own portfolio. It's hard to see how an edition like this could have been better done. (Full disclosure: Maslen is a friend of mine.) The poetry provides, as the book's own blurb puts it, "a dazzling link between the fantasy world of Gormenghast and the narrative of Peake's own life and the turbulent times he lived in." Anybody with the remotest interest in Peake should buy this book.
Both the Titus trilogy (Titus Groan, 1946; Gormenghast, 1950; Titus Alone, 1959) and Tolkien's Rings trilogy (1952-53) appeared soon after World War II, and both are in some sense not only "about" England, but are more specifically accounts of the catastrophe in traditional Englishness occasioned by the war. That fantasy narrative is the best way of apprehending this vast national and cultural sea change seems to me both hard to deny and endlessly surprising. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the change in question had less to do with material realities such as the dismantling of the empire than it had to do with the decay of an idea of England: the collapse of a particular fantasy of the realm. Both authors served in the military, although Tolkien, a generation older, fought in the First rather than the Second World War: there is a good deal of the Somme in Mordor and the Dead Marches. Peake was an official war artist, and made some harrowing sketches of concentration camp survivors in Bergen-Belsen. The barbarism that exists millimetres beneath the skin of an ancient civilization is one of the main themes of the Titus books.
The great strengths of Lord of the Rings are in worldbuilding and narrative. Gormenghast is another matter. Not that the trilogy's worldbuilding is deficient, exactly, but it is of a different kind to Tolkien's: a matter of mood—of atmosphere—rather than particulars (consistency, history, variety, and so on). Peake's characterization is of a different order too: heavily Dickensian, and deliberately grotesque, whereas Tolkien arranges various types as old as romance in interlocking narrative lines. Brian Aldiss once said that, in the sense the word figures in literature today, there is only one character in Lord of the Rings: Gollum. We might equally want to argue that there is only one character in Gormenghast—Titus—but we'd be making a rather different point. Gollum has a degree of interiority, and psychological complexity, not present in the heroic 2-D personages who otherwise stalk about the world of Rings. Titus is an altogether different sort of textual construction: his interiority externalised enormously to become the world through which he moves.
This is a point that can be made more broadly. Peake, in his poetry as in his novels, is a writer for whom narrative, character, and metaphysics tend to be subordinated to atmosphere, mood, and image. Where contemporary writers of fantasy in the Tolkienian tradition still practise detailed and consistent worldbuilding, Peakean fantasy is much more about creating a certain tone, about generating a kind of dark imagistic excess.
Another way of putting this would be to say that he is a Late Romantic, and committed to the Romantic project of self-fashioning. There are many similarities in Peake's verse to Dylan Thomas, Auden, or the Pylon poetry of the 1930s (for instance "The Metal Bird"), but it is impossible to read his Collected Poems without agreeing with the back-blurb assessment: "one of the great originals of the twentieth-century."
The Collected Poems traces Peake's development as a writer. The poems are printed chronologically, starting with those written when Peake was at a very young age, and ending with a number written towards the end of his life. Some of the early poetry, it has to be acknowledged, is very bad. "Birth of Day" begins:
Th'invisible scimitar of Morn,
Again had passionately torn
And slashed the Sky's pale neck;
Way down aye far within that East. (p. 21)
Of course, it's poor form to chaff a poet's juvenilia (this was written when Peake was in his teens), but it's worth noting that the faults here—a fondness for archaic vocabulary, a stilted style, and a drift towards Poe-like adolescent and Grand Guignol imagery—spot some of his mature poetry too. His ear was not always faultless: "Out of the flesh / But the tough branch / She lances" ("Spring," p. 41) is more a tongue twister than verse. The line (and poem title) "I, Like An Insect on the Stainéd Glass" ruins its effect with that prissy, antiquated acute accent. In the introduction, Maslen reports that Peake liked to "plunder" Roget's Thesaurus for unfamiliar terms; and his poetry often does bear witness to a resulting strenuous oddity of diction and vocabulary that veers sometimes into poetic clumsiness. There's also (talking of "plunder") a tendency towards repetition and, occasionally, monotony. A 1939 poem is called "Where Got I These Two Eyes That Plunder Storm"; and there's a touch of the stuck record about the word "plunder" in Peake's poetic imagination . For all the brilliance of his poetic imagination—and there is a great deal of brilliance—it's hard to read through Peake's whole corpus without a sense of a kind of intermittency of genius. The late sonnet "Coarse as the Sun is Blatant" (1958) starts with some fine and striking nature poetry ("the high spinach- / Coloured elms, the lawns a yellow matting / Of tired grass"), but manages to end with the strikingly feeble couplet:
Nature! I hate you for you scorch my brain
And make me see my weakness yet again. (p. 216)
Even in his best poetry—the work produced in the war and immediately afterwards—superb effects mingle with less effective ones. The eight-line "Satan" (1946) begins with four lines worthy of Baudelaire at his best:
Sickened by virtue he rebelled and cried
For all things horrible to be his bride
For through the hot red tides of sin move such
Fish as lose radiance at virtue's touch. (p. 159)
And whilst the poem doesn't end badly, it is hard to avoid the sense of a slight waning in power:
Should he reform and vomit up his evil?
It would not only be that his spiked devil
Would be dethroned, but also, amid groans
Those swarming hues that make his joints their homes. (p. 159)
These four lines only reiterate the point made in the first pair of couplets, and do so with less focus: "amid groans" is padding; the last three lines have a rather broken-backed feel. There's nothing to match the lovely, off-kilter step-over from the line-ending "...such" to "fish", revealing with a conjurer's flourish the gleaming image that lifts the whole poem. Had Peake stopped at line 4, the poem as a whole would have been more perfect.
This may give the impression that I am scoring points off Peake by isolating less effective lines and touches. But that's not my intention. On the contrary, I'm trying to make a larger point about his aesthetic, something as evident in his poetry as his prose. What I identify above as a mode of aesthetic intermittency is a symptom of a deliberate and effective excessiveness in Peake's writing, a refusal of self-restraint that is less a statement of individual rebellion than a way of talking about the inadequacy of ordinary reality.
Again and again his poetry addresses precisely the numinous, the fantasy quality that quotidian existence lacks: "fled, like the unicorn, away, / For ever gone" ("His Head and Hands Were Built for Sin," p. 162). There is a yearning to (as the title of a 1946 poem puts it) "Let Dreams Be Absolute." It is a central premise of Peakean fantasy that it feels itself excluded from the sort of secondary creation to which Tolkien dedicated his artistic life; this is a greater focus on the excluded, and marginalised. Every stanza of "When Tiger-Men Sat Their Mercurial Coursers" ends with the same four-word refrain:
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 ... (p. 148)
This in turn generates a yearning, and a backwash of intensity. The excess in which Peake, as a writer, often indulges is a core Romantic strategy ("the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom," claimed Blake; and Keats, famously, aimed to load every rift of his poetry with ore), and Peake embraces it with a rare full-heartedness.
He doesn't always, as it were, turn it up to 11. In more restrained mode, Peake was capable of poems of remarkable power and resonance. Here is 1940's poignant lyric of parting, "Troop Train."
The wheels turn over
And you are gone
O my little lover,
My only one.
Beneath my ribs are the spaces
Of the Pleiades,
And a blind ocean presses
Behind my eyes. (p. 80)
Understatement works more powerfully than it might because it is a relatively rare thing in Peake's oeuvre. Similarly, "The Glassblowers" (1943), a poem often selected by critics as an example of Peake writing at his best, subordinates its striking and faerie imagery ("Their cheeks are blown like gourds that sweat and flush / With goblin hues, rose-gold, diaphanous, / The violet glow and the alizarine blush") to a clear, effective portrait of actual glassblowers at work, which in turn articulates a point about poetry, eloquence, and expressiveness. The point has to do with the way the fantastic underpins the quotidian.
That his eloquence is facilitated by fantasy rather than realism—that, to repeat myself, fantasy proves to be the best way of addressing the central concerns of the real—is, given the extraordinary times through which Peake lived, the core issue. Here's a specific example of what I mean: Peake's sketches of the survivors, and the dying, of Belsen-Bergen he encountered in 1945 are heart wrenching (several are included in this volume). But when he attempts to register his outrage and sorrow in verse it is less effective. "The Consumptive. Belsen 1945" is heartfelt and sometimes moving, but nevertheless feels somehow inadequate to its enormous theme:
Than pallor what is there more terrible?
There lay the gall
Of that dead mouth of the world.
The image blurs and the quick razor-edge
Of anger dulls, and pity dulls. O God,
That grief so gliby slides! (p. 134)
Yet a few pages earlier, a poem about a dead rat manages to focus all the pity and stubborn beauty of life preyed upon by death that "The Consumptive" cannot quite manage. It's short enough to quote in full:
Now, a person who could actually grieve more for a dead rat than for a human dying in Belsen would be a monster. So why is this poem more moving than "The Consumptive. Belsen 1945"? In part it is because it is better written, stylistically more controlled: five plain pentameters of farmer-life enable the poem to open up strikingly with the flowers of frost in line 6; life, exquisite in fragility, gains pathos by the rattish humbleness of its embodiment. Of course, the juxtaposition of these poems in the collection plays its part in the aesthetic effectiveness. That Nazis libeled Jews precisely as vermin means that the last five lines of "Dead Rat" become recontextualised by the holocaust—they could equally well be describing (for instance) a murdered child. Another way of putting this would be to say that "Dead Rat' sets out to do what SF and fantasy also do: to represent the world without reproducing it. "The Consumptive. Belsen 1945" is hamstrung by the overpowering immediacy of its subject, and the result is a kind of overcompensating rhetorical mannerism ("O Jesus! has the world so white a yellow / As lifts her head by but a breath from linen?"). The rat finesses this double bind. It operates via the same creative displacement—metaphor, image, and imaginative recreation—we find in fantasy and SF as modes of art. The alt-real opens a sluice for the things that matter, in terms of (say) emotional immediacy, ethical focus, aesthetic intensity, in a way that the real does not.
It is in this context that it is best to read what is probably Peake's poetic masterpiece, his Blitz recasting of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, "The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb." This (together with its fine series of illustrations) tells a story about a baby born into the middle of a WWII German bombing raid. It starts right in: "A babe was born in the reign of George" ... into a house being bombed by the Luftwaffe. The babe's mother is killed "when the roof ran in," and the baby is blown into the street, where he is found by a passing sailor:
Found in a fire-bright drain asleep
By a sailor dazed and lost
In a waterless world where the searchlights climbed
The sky with their fingers crossed.
Through streets where the little red monkey-flames
Ran over the roofs and hop
From beam to beam, and hang by their tails
Or pounce on a table-top. (p. 179)
This is what Peake does best: ingenious or grotesque images that strike the reader with enormous freshness and vividness—those crossed fingers!—even as they elaborate a coherent mythic or symbolic framework. In this case, the powerfully created environment of a London undergoing apocalyptic purgation is figured in Christian typological terms. The sailor is a fish out of water, the hellish landscape purgatorial. He calls the baby "little fish."
The sailor strode over the glittering glass
A-dazzle with jags of red
And came to a man leaning over a wall
A shadow above his head.
'Can you tell me the nearest First Aid Post?'
The sailor said to the man,
But the lounging figure made no reply
For the back of his head was gone.
The sailor wiped the sweat from his face
And he laughed in a hapless way.
'O Christ, little fish,' he said to the babe,
'This isn't no place to stay.' (pp. 182-83)
"O Christ, little fish" is, we realize, doubly pitched. The poem moves from a recognizable London to a phantasmagoric scene inside a ruined church: the sailor promises to worship the babe as "the lion of Judah, or Africa, / Or the one that lay down with the lamb" (p. 187), and the baby replies by flying up into the air and singing to him that he has died and been reborn ("I have drowned through the bruise-blue sea, / I have burned through an age of scarlet fires", p. 187). A flying bomb strikes them and they die together, except that the baby ends the poem lying "coiled in the womb again." The Christian symbolism of all this is appropriate enough for a reworking of The Ancient Mariner (a poem also about how far Christian redemption can operate in a world fundamentally pagan and barbarous). But it works on its own terms too. Peake is saying that this mundane world is constantly hovering on the point of flowering into something much richer and stranger—fantasy—and that a suitably engaged and intense poetic, an eye attuned to the immanent possibility of this transformation, can apprehend this crucial fact. His is a poetry of amazement. It is amazing.
 "Trees that bleed/And fill my eyes with plunder!" ("Autumn," p. 36); "I stole a white coin from the sky,/And hid it in my plund'rous eye" ("Burgled Beauty," p. 46); "All for these eyes, these eyes my plunderers" ("I Could Sit Here an Age-Long of Green Light," p. 54); "the Cock Eagle ... pinioned for plunder" ("Eagle," p. 59); "She ... cries to Raphael and yearns/for plunder at his pencil point" ("She Does Not Know," p. 69). There are other examples.
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