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

Wasson, Sara-Patricia (2011) Sentient ruins and the ventriloquised dead: Mervyn Peake’s wartime poetry. In: Mervyn Peake and the Fantasy Tradition, July 2011, University of Chichester.

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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.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Additional Information: (THIS HAS BEEN PUBLISHED - is not an unpublished paper, but at present no SCI category exists to categorise it) This paper is partially an extract from my monograph "Urban Gothic of the Second World War" (Palgrave 2010).
Uncontrolled Keywords: Mervyn Peake; wartime poetry; fantasy;
University Divisions/Research Centres: Edinburgh Napier University, Institute for Creative Industries
Dewey Decimal Subjects: 800 Literature > 820 English & Old English literatures
Library of Congress Subjects: P Language and Literature > PR English literature
Item ID: 4621
Depositing User: Computing Research
Date Deposited: 14 Sep 2011 08:34
Last Modified: 23 Mar 2012 11:14

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