Collected Poems of Mervyn Peake
Reviewed by David Bratman
[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 109/110.]
On opening the Collected Poems of Mervyn Peake and discovering that, despite the title, the volume excludes his nonsense verse, the reader experiences the same dampened feeling as on finding that T.S. Eliot’s Collected Poems excludes Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. They’ve left out the best part! And the exclusion misrepresents Peake even more than it does Eliot, for the wild imagination of his nonsense verse, most of it for children, is central to Peake’s imagination: so central indeed that it appears in a more serious, adult form in many of the poems here. (One poem on the edge of his children’s verse is included: “An Ugly Crow Sits Hunched on Jackson’s Heart” , which appears to be a grim out-take from the children’s book Letters from a Lost Uncle.)
But for what it does have—putting together a vast array of scattered poems, and including much previously unpublished work—this is a magnificent collection of absorbing work, edited with great care and attention. Reading through such an unprecedentedly large collection gives a distinct and heightened sense of the author’s personality. There is less focus here than in Peake’s drawings from life on his family, though there are some, including a couple of touching memorial poems on his mother’s death (49-50) and several love poems to his wife. What really strikes me on reading this collection is how much Peake was a poet of World War II, the more so as the vast majority of these poems date from the decade-plus between 1937 and the late 1940s. (Most of the previously unpublished ones come from two notebooks, dated terminus ad quem 1939 and 1946.)
Kingsley Amis—another British poet of Peake’s generation who, like him, is better remembered as a novelist—once suggested that the reason the World War I poets are considered better than the World War II ones is that, for health exemptions or other reasons, “a good half of the Second lot managed to stay out of it” (41). Amis did not stay out of it, and neither did Peake; and his response to the war was not limited to the experience of military service. Peake was sent to Belsen, as a documentary artist, immediately after the liberation of that concentration camp. The poem he wrote reacting to seeing the dying prisoners there, “The Consumptive” (133-4), is one of his most powerful, employing the intensely visual language of a pictorial artist. A more positive war-time work, his long poem “The Glassblowers” (125-7), commissioned by the Ministry of Information, is one of the most brilliant depictions ever written of the artistic beauty that may be found in high technology. Reading it here, I realized that the only other copy I had was severely truncated. One of the paintings Peake made after the same factory visit appears on the cover of the book.
Other poems remind us, in the oblique manner typical of lyric poetry, that Peake was a man living through the anxiety of his times. There is bitterness and alarm in many of the war poems. A simple, almost casual poem on the outbreak of war, “September 1939” (47), though nowhere near as searing as W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” contains a striking piece of verbal war imagery. Peake’s fiction is notable for the distancing effect he achieves in his descriptive language. Here, an allusion to the chilling advent of “the men of the equal tread” drops the reader into the cold futurity of Titus Alone. The poem also makes a point Peake repeats in his long and desperate epic war ballad “The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb” (178-201)—that while the number of the year is a constant reminder of the length of time since the birth of Christ, we’re still as far as ever from a reign of peace. Printed with “The Rhyme,” by the way, are small reproductions of the 22 appropriately stark felt-pen illustrations he drew for it in 1961, in a struggle against the final collapse of his health. Peake’s final word on the times he lived in was the resigned but defiant “To live at all is miracle enough” (207).
There are fantasy elements in many of Peake’s poems, and not just in the omitted nonsense verse, ranging from the hallucinatory late poem beginning “Heads float about me; come and go, absorb me” (214) on up. “The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb” may be seen as a symbolical religious fantasy, in the form of a dialogue between a sailor, mired in reality, and the spiritual being of a new-born, eternally re-born child whom he has rescued from a London air raid and hidden in a ruined church. The dialogue has some of the manic quality found in the Titus books, but is grounded in the anxiety of the primary-world war, described with stark simplicity. The resemblance in both tone and verse style to Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is likely to be intentional.
The remaining long poem in Peake’s oeuvre, “A Reverie of Bone” (106-15), was written with less haste and more ornate language. It is a contemplative vision of a desert landscape covered with the bones of a lost people. Apologizing for its own morbidity, the poem has an elegiac tone distantly akin to Tolkien’s, and even more to Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” As a text, this is the most remarkable poem in the collection, for as given here it includes seven stanzas never previously printed, which had been crossed out, for some unknown reason by some unknown hand, in the original typescript, despite the fact that the poem makes much less sense without them.
Though the few longer poems stand out due to size, as many memorable images and lines come from the shorter work. The gazelle inside his wife’s body “That moves as you move / And is one with the limbs / That you have” (38), the moon as God’s lost fingernail (75-6), the firelit glassblowers, the heads that float about him. For an author best known for monumentally Dickensian novels, as a poet Peake is remarkably gifted at being very brief indeed. But verbal imagery was the coin of Peake’s novels as well as of his poems, and he knew it: “Into the dusty well / Of English words / I dip / My wavering pitcher” (158).
Amis, Kingsley. Memoirs. New York: Summit Books, 1991.