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‘Crying with Phantom Tongue’: the politics of lamentation in Mervyn Peake’s wartime poetry.

Wasson, Sara-Patricia


Sara-Patricia Wasson


Recent studies of nation and memory propose a new ethics of mourning in which normative mourning – working through grief, accepting loss, and ultimately finding solace – is increasingly seen as ethically suspect. The challenges normative mourning poses to progressive politics are twofold. First, mourners’ acceptance can allow the state to elide the suffering ensuing from war; second, rituals of collective normative mourning often elide the deaths of the marginalized, even recuperating mass deaths into narratives of national triumph. This paper examines how the dead were built into a narrative of British national heroism, and then shows how the wartime poetry of Mervyn Peake resists that labour. Peake’s verse resists the temptation to build the dead into heroic narrative of national triumph. His verse presents the home-front city as a site of death and calamity; the very buildings themselves are flayed bodies, ‘half masonry, half pain’. Peake’s verse arguably stages melancholia: his poem ‘Craters’, for example, depicts the bereaved as occupied by the ghostly voices of the dead, ‘crying with phantom tongue’. Peake’s war poetry can be read as a catalogue of necessary violence done to the deceptive simplicities of narrative form. Indeed, his poem ‘Victims’ presents story as itself cruel: ‘In twisting flames their twisting bodies blackened, / For History, that witless chronicler / Continued writing his long manuscript’. Peake’s war lyrics exemplify subjective fracture, incompletion, and anguish – indeed, the Gothic can be defined in terms of these formal qualities. As such, these texts of wartime Gothic are not only of historical interest, but also of profound contemporary value in that they present alternative ways to respond to collective agony.

Conference Name Poetry and Melancholia
Start Date Jul 7, 2011
End Date Jul 9, 2011
Publication Date 2011
Deposit Date Sep 14, 2011
Peer Reviewed Not Peer Reviewed
Keywords Mourning; Mervyn Peake; lamentation; nation; memory; grief; loss; wartime poetry;
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