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Sentient ruins and the ventriloquised dead: Mervyn Peake’s wartime poetry.

Wasson, Sara-Patricia


Sara-Patricia Wasson


This paper explores a key fantasy trope in Peake’s wartime poetry, arguing that his work offers a valuable counterweight to dominant period discourses of nationhood. Adam Roberts opens the way to such analysis, noting that the Titus books are ‘accounts of the catastrophe in traditional Englishness occasioned by the war …. the decay of an idea of England: the collapse of a particular fantasy of the realm’. In line with fantasy tradition, Peake often depicts buildings as sentient. Castle Gormenghast is an anthropomorphised edifice where every stone throbs with projected human emotion. In draft notes for a theatrical adaptation, the Castle explains, ‘I am … the component exhalations of the shell and the interstices, from my battered spine of stone to the vaults’, and it speaks gently to baby Titus, urging him to sleep. Peake’s wartime poetry, too, abounds in this trope, often depicting London as a mother. Peake, however, unsettles the trope, anthropomorphising buildings as maternal only to describe them as ruined composites, ‘Half-masonry, half pain’ (Poems 89). The war years saw a paradoxical enthusiasm for fine art representations of ruins. A magnificent structure in ruin can display remnants of monumental grandeur, so ruins were often presented as symbolic of Britain’s noble past and enduring history, bolstering narratives of the nation’s triumph and endurance. Peake’s poetry, by contrast, offers tender ruins, vulnerable, decayed, and weighted with grief. His anthropomorphized ruins demand we recognize the pain of mortality and the suffering of war. While wartime propaganda deployed the ventriloquised dead -- in which the war dead declare that their sacrifice was willing and worthwhile – Peake’s ruins portray war’s suffering and the stark silence of the corpse. As such, Peake’s work was a rare and valuable antidote to the simplistic tropes that saturated home-front representations of death.

Conference Name Mervyn Peake and the Fantasy Tradition
Start Date Jul 15, 2011
End Date Jul 17, 2011
Publication Date 2011
Deposit Date Sep 14, 2011
Peer Reviewed Not Peer Reviewed
Keywords Mervyn Peake; wartime poetry; fantasy;
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