Collected Poems: Mervyn Peake

Collected Poems: Mervyn Peake

by Mervyn Peake

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Published to mark the 40th anniversary of his death, this comprehensive edition of the poetry of Mervyn Peake includes pieces that touch on some of the most significant historical moments of the 20th century. His celebrated works range from the unemployment epidemic in pre-war Britain to the horrors of the blitz and the concentration camp at Bergen–Belsen,

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Published to mark the 40th anniversary of his death, this comprehensive edition of the poetry of Mervyn Peake includes pieces that touch on some of the most significant historical moments of the 20th century. His celebrated works range from the unemployment epidemic in pre-war Britain to the horrors of the blitz and the concentration camp at Bergen–Belsen, with each serving to anchor the fantasy world of his celebrated Gormenghast books. Black and white illustrations, drafted by the author, accompany the verse, along with previously unpublished illustrations and photographs.

Product Details

Carcanet Press, Limited
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)

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Mervyn Peake Collected Poems

By R.W. Maslen

Carcanet Press Ltd

Copyright © 2008 R.W. Maslen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84777-971-7


    Birth of Day

    Th'invisible scimitar of Morn,
    Again had passionately torn
    And slashed the Sky's pale neck;
    Way down aye far within that East
    Where paleness reigns, and pale stars cease
    The Sky's wide bowl to deck.

    There where the long and cruel blade
    Within those livid heavens had made
    Its deep sweeps, in the Sky –
    Blood in the gashes, welled; and grew;
    Intensified; diffused; and blue
    Slate coloured clouds stole by.

    Above those dark and sepia hills –
    Intensely deep, the Great Sky thrills
    In a welter of Blood and Grey;
    And in that welter of living fire
    Be-jewelled and robed to his heart's desire
    Was born – young Day.



    The crash of the turbulent sea is around us, about us, below;
    The green ice shimmers above us, as we steer through the
          jet-back floe;
    The sun is a blood-red disc that reddens a Polar sea –
    And the Viking men are abroad again,
    Bending the stout pine-oars again,
    Exploring the wonderful world again,
    Questing an unknown sea.

    The 'Winged-hats' nod to the rowing, their rugged faces scan
    The ice-green land of perpetual snow, unknown to the ways of
    The oars dip deep in the brine, and the shields along the side
    Clank, as the ship bursts for'ard again,
    Bucking her nose in the Polar rain,

    Cutting through unknown seas again,
    Testing an unknown tide.

    Proud, though torn, is her bellying sail, with the Crimson Eagle
    Proudly erect is the Dragon's head, though its colour had long
        since gone;
    But the ship is hardy and tough, and the men are hardy as she,
    When their Viking ships are abroad again,
    Daring the uttermost wrath of the main,
    Exploring the wonderful earth again,
    Daring the wonderful sea.

          (c. 1932)

    Coloured Money

    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.

    How can I spend this coinage when it floods
    So ceaselessly between the lids,
    And gluts my vaults with bright
    Shillings of sharp delight
    Whose every penny
    Is coloured money?

    Storm, harvest, flood or snow,
    Over the generous country as I go
    And gather helplessly,
    New wealth from all I see
    In every spendthrift thing –
    O then I long to spring
    Through the charged air, a wastrel, with not one
    Farthing to weigh me down,
    But hollow! foot to crown
    To prance immune among vast alchemies,
    To prance! and laugh! my heart and throat and eyes
    Emptied of all
    Their golden gall.

          (March 1937)

    If I could see, not surfaces

    If I could see, not surfaces,
    But could express
    What lies beneath the skin
    Where the blood moves
    In fruit or head or stone,
    Then would I know the one
    And my eyes
    When dead
    Would give the worm
    No hollow food.

    If I could hear
    Beyond the noise of things
    Those Happenings
    That stir the seed of sound,
    And know the springs
    Of Eden flood the round
    Chasms of my twin shells, and beat
    Old water-hammers on the hidden drums,
    Then would I know my music wells
    From the hot earth, and comes
    Astride the long sea-organ
    Of man's ocean.

    If I could feel
    Beyond each slender
    Movement of her head, that trails
    A track of earthless clay
    Through gloom,

    The rhythm titanic
    Whence the tender
    Gesture drifted, like a feather
    Fallen from the downy throat
    Of some winged mother,
    Desolately, to fail and flutter,
    Falter, and die
    In the rented room –
    Then would I plunder splendour
    At the womb.

    If I could feel
    My words of wax were struck
    By the rare seal
    Of crested truth,
    Then would I give bold birth
    To long
    Rivers of song.

    Where is that inexhaustible,
    That secret genesis
    Of Sound and Sight?
    It is too close for me,
    It lies
    Unexcavated by these eyes
    In the lost archives of my heart.

          (April 1937)

    Palais de Danse

    Can you not see within that small
    And callow head, a brightness far
    From this dance hall?
    Her evening-dress
    Is splitting like the chrysalis,
    And when she stirs
    A caterpillar moves.

    Can you not see through her twin panes
    Of coloured glass
    That dusky room within
    Her house of powder'd clay?
    O stranger, stay,
    Do you not see
    A barbarous glory?

    Observe her, one of that bright million
    Wherever the blood roars and the limbs sing:
    Unknown to her
    One foot is tap-tap-tapping on the floor:
    Her neck supports a brittle
    And thoughtless miracle

    Deadened with chalky pollen.
    A cigarette
    Like a white stamen with a burning anther
    Is drooping from the flower tropical
    That has two petals
    Of dead, wet scarlet.

    The sons of swingtime with their feet tap-tapping
    The hollow platform wait the millionth moment
    When to let loose on us the tinsel tiger.
    Arise the fag-end boys from the tin-tables,
    And slide into the hollow of the rhythm.

    The crimson jazz is bouncing on the boards!

    Where is she now?
    She glides,
    She comes
    With a small shiny man,
    And rides
    Into the marrow of the Congo drums.

          (April 1937)

    Rhondda Valley

    Here, are the stiffen'd hills, here, the rich cargo
    Congealed in the dark arteries,
    Old veins
    That hold Glamorgan's blood.
    The midnight miner in the secret seams,
    Limb, life, and bread.

    Here, are the strong hands hard,
    And furrow-palmed alike
    With the grasped pick.
    These are the men; they chance
    Another existence
    To the fresh seasons of the sun and moon,
    And where no winds are blown.

    In the portentous dark
    For bread
    They make their stake,
    And gamble with the spark
    Of the non-dead.
    Their fear
    Is of the seeping gas; they pin
    Their faith in props, and wear
    Their labour on the skin,
    As soldiers home
    From the hot battle come,
    With red
    On hands and head,
    So they
    Arise to the light
    In grey.

    Here, are the gentle women with black lashes,
    And here the infant in the shoulder-shawl.
    With every man his bright bird at the throat,
    And every girl a mavis at her heart,
    Under the hills of coal.
    I see the weary mountain and the mine;
    Here lies the doldrum army, stranded men,
    Rusting the shovel.

    Yet these are they that knew the cage at morning,
    They trod the fiery dew-shine at the cock-crow,
    Through the Welsh fields to pit-head, line, or level.
    For them the glimmering evenings and the voices;
    They ran their darling dogs across the valley;
    The callow nights upon the gun-grey mountains;
    The street-lamp singer and the easy laugh
    Defied at sundown the consumptive's cough.

    Remains no lure along the hill-rich river
    Now that their hands hang loose with barren creases
    That feel no pick, only the cigarette,
    Pale substitute
    For the once strenuous fingers.
    The swarming stars gesticulate like torches
    Across the vaulted coal-mine of the sky;
    The virile sunlight's irony
    Burns on the grey pit-head
    Like a mouth toothless, and dead,
    And the sleek greyhounds
    Mock with their streaming speed
    The feet
    That root the pavements of the grievous street.

    At every door a ghost; I saw them lean
    With tightened belts and watch the sluggish tide,
    Through the long hours at the riverside.
    Their shoulders prop the lintel-posts at evening –

    And then, I heard them sing,
    And loose the Celtic bird that has no wing,
    No body, eye, nor feather,
    Only song,
    That indestructible, that golden thing.

          (c. April 1937)

    Heaven Hires Me

    Heaven hires me; and my payment is in those
    White instants of repose
    Between the seething of my brain's all-coloured
    Flora of woes,
    Fauna from hills unhallowed.
    While guilt grows
    Stronger as I grow older
    And lose love –
    How break the terrible girders of the grove?

    Yet; heaven hires me, and my weakness is
    Threaded with alchemies.
    Great Fowl along the combers of the sky
    Undulate on such wings as suck
    Breath from the pockets of far cliffs, and prise
    The rocks apart with draughts that clear the muck
    Out of a sickened sky. Heaven hires me still –

    Though I do spit upon the marble face
    And carve my name upon a seraph's breast
    To testify to my unclean disgrace
    The guttersnipe of dreams. Along the west
    White gods move slowly, and the golden scales
    Upon their breastplates twinkle momently
    Now here, now there along the rim of Wales.

    Though I do squander a largesse of un-
    -Uprooted glory, yet heaven hires me still.
    Though I do darken hourly the sweet sun
    Of love and ruth – yet, hell
    And heaven, so conjoined do make me.

          (c. April 1937)

    The Metal Bird

    Job's eagle skids the thin sky still,
    Her shadow swarms the cold Welsh hill.
    The hawk hangs like an unloos'd bomb
    And fills the circular sky with doom.
    To-day across the meadow
    There runs another shadow
    Cast by a grizzlier bird that swings
    Her body like a scythe, nor beats her wings,
    A bloodless bird, whose mother was a man;
    A painted bird of steel – a skeleton
    That sheers shrill-naked to the screaming bone,
    And bears her sexless beauty to the town.
    O hawk with naked eyes!
    O bloody eagle circling the dark skies!
    Our century has bred a newer beauty,
    The metal bird from the cold factory.

          (c. April 1937)


Excerpted from Mervyn Peake Collected Poems by R.W. Maslen. Copyright © 2008 R.W. Maslen. Excerpted by permission of Carcanet Press Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Mervyn Peake is the author of the Gormenghast novels, which includes Titus Groan, as well as several poetry collections. Robert Maslen is a professor at the University of Glasgow and a visiting professor at Dartmouth College.

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