Mervyn Peake

English author and illustrator

Mervyn Laurence Peake (9 July 191117 November 1968) was an English novelist, artist, poet and illustrator. He is best known for what are usually referred to as the Gormenghast books, though the Titus books would be more accurate.

Blue plaque erected in 1996 by English Heritage at 1 Drayton Gardens, Chelsea, London, SW10 9RL, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

Quotes edit

  • The paper is breathless
    Under the hand
    And the pencil is poised
    Like a warlock's wand.
    • Poem in The Glassblowers (1950)
  • There is a kind of laughter that sickens the soul. Laughter when it is out of control: when it screams and stamps its feet, and sets the bells jangling in the next town. Laughter in all its ignorance and cruelty. Laughter with the seed of Satan in it. It tramples upon shrines; the belly-roarer. It roars, it yells, it is delirious: and yet it is as cold as ice. It has no humour. It is naked noise and naked malice.
    • "Boy in Darkness," Sometime, Never (1956)
  • Each day I live in a glass room
    Unless I break it with the thrusting
    Of my senses and pass through
    The splintered walls to the great landscape.
    • "Each Day I Live in a Glass Room," A Reverie of Bone and other Poems (1967)
  • But we have seen it in the air,
    A fairy like a William Pear
    • Poem O Here it is
  • O'er seas that have no beaches
    To end their waves upon,
    I floated with twelve peaches,
    A sofa and a swan.
    • Poem O'er seas that have no beaches
  • I saw all of a sudden
    No sign of any ship.
    • Poem O'er seas that have no beaches
  • It's not their fault if, in the heat
    Of their transactions, I repeat
    It's not their fault if vampires meet
    And gurgle in their spats.
    • Poem The men in bowler hats are sweet
  • When Uncle Jake
    Became a snake
    He never found it out;
    And so as no one mentions it
    One sees him still about.
    • Poem Uncles and aunts
  • Leave the stronger
    and the lesser
    things to me!
    Lest that conger
    named Vanessa
    who is longer
    than a dresser
    visits thee.
    • Poem Vanessa
  • To live at all is miracle enough.
    • Poem of the same title (also on Peake's tombstone)

Titus Groan (1946) edit

All page numbers from the trade paperback omnibus edition The Gormenghast Novels published by The Overlook Press, ISBN 0-87951-628-3
The chapters are not numbered in the book, and are numbered here for ease of reference
  • Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls.
    • Chapter 1 “The Hall of the Bright Carvings” (p. 9; opening words)
  • This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven.
    • Chapter 1 “The Hall of the Bright Carvings” (p. 9)
  • It was not often that Flay approved of happiness in others. He saw in happiness the seeds of independence, and in independence the seeds of revolt.
    • Chapter 2 “The Great Kitchen” (p. 18)
  • This is a love that equals in its power the love of man for woman and reaches inwards as deeply. It is the love of a man or of a woman for their world. For the world of their centre where their lives burn genuinely and with a free flame.
    • Chapter 11 “The Attic” (p. 58)
  • There he was. The infant Titus. His eyes were open but he was quite still. The puckered-up face of the newly-born child, old as the world, wise as the roots of trees. Sin was there and goodness, love, pity and horror, and even beauty for his eyes were pure violet. Earth’s passions, earth’s griefs, earth’s incongruous, ridiculous humours—dormant, yet visible in the wry pippin of a face.
    • Chapter 13 “Keda” (p. 73)
  • Autumn returned to Gormenghast like a dark spirit re-entering its stronghold.
    • Chapter 28 “Flay Brings a Message” (p. 152)
  • It was not possible for him to visit his library as often as he wished, for the calls made upon him by the endless ceremonials which were his exacting duty to perform robbed him for many hours each day of his only pleasure—books.
    • Chapter 29 “The Library” (p. 158)
  • He also knew when to stop. In the fine art of deceit and personal advancement as in any other calling this is the hallmark of the master.
    • Chapter 31 “Reintroducing the Twins” (p. 173)
  • These days a passion to accumulate knowledge of any and every kind consumed him; but only as a means to an end. He must know all things, for only so might he have, when situations arose in the future, a full pack of cards to play from.
    • Chapter 32 “The Fir-Cones” (p. 174)
  • Never having had either positive cruelty or kindness shown to her by her parents, but only an indifference, she was not conscious of what it was that she missed—affection.
    • Chapter 37 “The Grotto” (p. 211)
  • It was not certain what significance the ceremony held, for unfortunately the records were lost, but the formality was no less sacred for being unintelligible.
    • Chapter 40 “Meanwhile” (pp. 230-231)
  • What is Time, O sister of similar features, that you speak of it so subserviently? Are we to be the slaves of the sun, that secondhand, overrated knob of gilt, or of his sister, that fatuous circle of silver paper? A curse upon their ridiculous dictatorship!
    • Chapter 40 “Meanwhile” (p. 234)
  • The ritual which his body had had to perform for fifty years had been no preparation for the unexpected.
    • Chapter 41 “The Burning” (pp. 248-249)
  • At the back of their personal troubles, hopes and fears, this less immediate trepidation grew, this intangible suggestion of change, that most unforgivable of all heresies.
    • Chapter 59 “Presage” (p. 320)
  • Drear ritual turned its wheel.
    • Chapter 60 “In Preparation for Violence” (p. 323)
  • The summer was heavy with a kind of soft grey-blue weight in the sky—yet not in the sky, for it was as though there were no sky, but only air, an impalpable grey-blue substance, drugged with the weight of its own heat and hue.
    • Chapter 60 “In Preparation for Violence” (p. 323)
  • “She thinks she’s a lady.” And then he grinned until the very lake seemed to be in danger of engulfment. “Oh, dear!” the poor thing. Tries so hard, and the more she tries, the less she is. Ha! ha! ha! Take it from me, Fuchsia dear, The only ladies are those to whom the idea of whether they are or not never occurs. Her blood’s all right—Irma’s—same as mine, ha, ha, ha! but it doesn’t go by blood. It’s equipoise, my Gipsy, equipoise that does it—with a bucketful of tolerance thrown in.
    • Chapter 65 “By Gormenghast Lake” (p. 367)
  • What had happened? As he asked himself the question, he knew the answer. That no one had thought fit to tell him! No one! It was a bitter pill for him to swallow. He had been forgotten. Yet he had always wished to be forgotten. He could not have it both ways.
    • Chapter 69 “Mr Rottcodd Again” (p. 393)
  • Through honeycombs of stone would now be wandering the passions in their clay. There would be tears and there would be strange laughter. Fierce births and deaths beneath umbrageous ceilings. And dreams, and violence, and disenchantment.
    • Chapter 69 “Mr Rottcodd Again” (p. 396)

Gormenghast (1950) edit

All page numbers from the trade paperback omnibus edition The Gormenghast Novels published by The Overlook Press, ISBN 0-87951-628-3
  • Titus is seven. His confines, Gormenghast. Suckled on shadows; weaned, as it were, on webs of ritual: for his ears, echoes, for his eyes, a labyrinth of stone: and yet within his body something other – other than this umbrageous legacy. For first and ever foremost he is child.
    A ritual, more compelling than ever devised, is fighting anchored darkness. A ritual of the blood; of the jumping blood. These quicks of sentience owe nothing to his forebears, but to those feckless hosts, a trillion deep, of the globe’s childhood.
    The gift of the bright blood. Of blood that laughs when the tenets mutter ‘Weep’. Of blood that mourns when the sere laws croak ‘Rejoice!’ O little revolution in great shades!
    • Chapter 1, section 1 (p. 399; opening words)
  • Withdrawn and ruinous it broods in umbra: the immemorial masonry: the towers, the tracks. Is all corroding? No. Through an avenue of spires a zephyr floats; a bird whistles; a freshet bears away from a choked river.
    • Chapter 1, section 1 (p. 399)
  • So limp of brain that for them to conceive an idea is to risk a haemorrhage.
    • Chapter 2 (p. 403)
  • If ever he had harboured a conscience in his tough narrow breast he had by now dug out and flung away the awkward thing—flung it so far away that were he ever to need it again he could never find it.
    • Chapter 2 (pp. 404-405)
  • A spider lowered itself, fathom by fathom, on a perilous length of thread and was suddenly transfixed in the path of a sunbeam and, for an instant, was a thing of radiant gold.
    • Chapter 4, section 1 (p. 408)
  • At an ink-stained desk, with his chin cupped in his hands, Titus was contemplating, as in a dream, the chalk-marks on the blackboard. They represented a sum in short division, but might as well have been some hieroglyphic message from a moonstruck prophet to his lost tribe a thousand years ago.
    • Chapter 4, section 2 (p. 410)
  • It was thought that he had genius, if only because he had been able to delegate his duties in so intricate a way that there was never any need for him to do anything at all. His signature, which was necessary from time to time at the end of long notices which no one read, was always faked, and even the ingenious system of delegation whereon his greatness rested was itself worked out by another.
    • Chapter 11 (p. 440)
  • His face wore the resigned expression of one who knew that the only difference between one day and the next lies in the pages of a calendar.
    • Chapter 11 (p. 441)
  • This extreme air of abstraction, of empty and bland removedness, was almost terrifying. It was that kind of unconcern that humbled the ardent, the passionate of nature, and made them wonder why they were expending so much energy of body and spirit when every day but led them to the worms. Deadyawn, by temperament or lack of it, achieved unwittingly what wise men crave: equipoise.
    • Chapter 11 (p. 441)
  • How merciful a thing is man’s ignorance of his immediate future! What a ghastly, paralysing thing it would have been if all those present could have known what was about to happen within a matter of seconds!
    • Chapter 17 (p. 484)
  • This upstart, this dangerous, unprecedented upstart, whose pursuit of the doctrines was propelled by a greed for personal power as cold as it was tameless.
    • Chapter 22 (p. 527)
  • There is something about a swarm that is damaging to the pride of its individual members.
    • Chapter 32 (p. 555)
  • They knew now that they could never accomplish that long carpet-journey with anything like Cutflower’s air, but he reminded them at every footstep, every inclination of the head, that the whole point of life was to be happy.
    • Chapter 34 (p. 570)
  • There are times when the emotions are so clamorous and the rational working of the mind so perfunctory that there is no telling where the actual leaves off and the images of fantasy begin.
    • Chapter 35 (p. 577)
  • The tremendous gulf between the sexes yawned—and an abyss, terrifying and thrilling, sheer and black as the arbour in which they sat; a darkness wide, dangerous, imponderable and littered with the wrecks of broken bridges.
    • Chapter 36 (p. 595)
  • The walls of Gormenghast were like the walls of paradise or the walls of an inferno. The colours were devilish or angelical according to the colour of the mind that watched them. They swam, those walls, with the hues of hell, with the tints of Zion. The breasts of the plumaged seraphim; the scales of Satan.
    • Chapter 38 (p. 606)
  • Other people’s faults can be fascinating. One’s own are dreary.
    • Chapter 48 (p. 647)
  • There is danger in deep water, and danger is more real than beauty in a boy’s mind.
    • Chapter 50, section 2 (p. 661)
  • The days wear out the months and the months wear out the years, and a flux of moments, like an unquiet tide, eats at the black coast of futurity.
    • Chapter 51, section 5 (p. 667)
  • He knew that he was caught up in one of those stretches of time when for anything to happen normally would be abnormal. The dawn was too tense and highly charged for any common happening to survive.
    • Chapter 57, section 3 (p. 686)
  • He was meaner, more irritable, more impatient for the ultimate power which could only be his through the elimination of all rivals; and if he had ever had any scruples, any love at all for even a monkey, a book, or a sword-hilt, all this, and even this, had been cauterized and drowned away.
    • Chapter 58 (p. 704)
  • What had his memory done to her that he should now be seeing a creature so radically at variance with the image that had filled his mind?
    • Chapter 68, section 1 (p. 730)
  • He had learned that there were other ways of life from the ways of his great home. He had completed an experience. He had emptied the bright goblet of romance; at a single gulp he had emptied it. The glass of it lay scattered on the floor. But with the beauty and the ugliness, the ice and the fire of it on his tongue and in his blood he could begin again.
    • Chapter 68, section 3 (p. 737)
  • The lives of the Outer Dwellers had become almost normal again. Bitterness was their bread and rivalry their wine.
    • Chapter 69 (p. 743)
  • “Then be silent,” said Titus, and in spite of his anger, the heady wine of autocracy tasted sweet upon his tongue—sweet and dangerous—for he was only now learning that he had power over others, not only through the influence of his birthright but through a native authority that was being wielded for the first time—and all this he knew to be dangerous, for as it grew, this bullying would taste ever sweeter and fiercer and the naked cry of freedom would become faint and the Thing who had taught him freedom would become no more than a memory.
    • Chapter 77 (p. 774)
  • His days were full of meaningless ceremonies whose sacredness appeared to be in inverse ratio to their comprehensibility or usefulness.
    • Chapter 80 (p. 802)
  • It was when he saw the great walls looming above him that he began to run.
    He ran as though to obey an order. And this was so, though he knew nothing of it. He ran in the acknowledgement of a law as old as the laws of his home, the law of flesh and blood. The law of longing. The law of change. The law of youth. The law that separates the generations, that draws the child from his mother, the boy from his father, the youth from both.
    And it was the law of quest. The law that few obey for lack of valour. The craving of the young for the unknown and all that lies beyond the tenuous skyline.
    • Chapter 80 (p. 805)

Titus Alone (1959) edit

All page numbers from the trade paperback omnibus edition The Gormenghast Novels published by The Overlook Press, ISBN 0-87951-628-3
  • He was as young as twenty years allowed, and as old as it could make him.
    • Chapter 5 (p. 815)
  • “There is no point in erecting a structure,” said Muzzlehatch, taking no notice of Titus’s question, “unless someone else pulls it down. There is no value in a rule until it is broken. There is nothing in life unless there is death at the back of it. Death, dear boy, leaning over the edge of the world and grinning like a boneyard.”
    • Chapter 14 (p. 826)
  • “I am a beggar.”
    “You are a travesty,” said Titus, “and when you die the earth will breathe again.”
    • Chapter 16 (p. 829)
  • And yet, though his eyes shone with the thrill of his discovery, he suffered at the same time a pang of resentment—a resentment that this alien realm should be able to exist in a world that appeared to have no reference to his home and which seemed, in fact, supremely self-sufficient.
    • Chapter 18 (p. 831)
  • “Life must be various, incongruous, vile and electric. Life must be ruthless and as full of love as may be found in a jaguar’s fang.”
    “I like the way you talk, young man,” said Grass, “but I don’t know what you’re saying.”
    • Chapter 24 (p. 841)
  • Art should be artless, not heartless.
    • Chapter 24 (p. 845)
  • “You have a rough manner,” said Titus. “But you have saved me twice. Why are you helping me?”
    “I have no idea,” said Muzzlehatch. “There must be something wrong with my brain.”
    • Chapter 29 (p. 852)
  • An aching to be once again in the land from which he grew gave him no rest. There is no calm for those who are uprooted. They are wanderers, homesick and defiant. Love itself is helpless to heal them though the dust rises with every footfall—drifts down the corridors—settles on branch or cornice—each breath an inhalation from the past so that the lungs, like a miner’s, are dark with bygone times.
    Whatever they eat, whatever they drink, is never the bread of home or the corn of their own valleys. It is never the wine of their own vineyards. It is a foreign brew.
    • Chapter 34 (p. 862)
  • What was important, now, with her eyes bent upon him, and the shadow of a branch trembling across her breast, was the immemorial game of love: no less a game for being grave. No less grave for being wild. Grave as a great green sky. Grave as a surgeon’s knife.
    • Chapter 42 (p. 881)
  • “So you thought you’d come back, my wicked one. Where have you been?”
    “In hell,” said Titus. “Swigging blood and munching scorpions.”
    “That must have been great fun, my darling.”
    “Not so,” said Titus, “hell is overrated.”
    • Chapter 42 (p. 881)
  • His mind fell asleep. His wits fell awake. His cock trembled like a harp-string.
    • Chapter 42 (p. 881)
  • “There’s something else, Mr. Muzzlehatch.”
    “I’m sure there is. In fact there is everything else.”
    • Chapter 47 (p. 893)
  • “Let go of my arm, or I will scream for God.”
    “He never helped you. Have you forgotten?”
    • Chapter 56 (p. 910)
  • Pompous as only failures can be.
    • Chapter 82 (p. 959)
  • “Let him play,” whispered Cheeta. “Let him make believe that he’s alive again.”
    • Chapter 105 (p. 1000)
  • Once there were islands all a-sprout with palms: and coral reefs and sands as white as milk. What is there now but a vast shambles of the heart? Filth, squalor, and a world of little men.
    • Chapter 114 (p. 1012)

About Mervyn Peake edit

  • Mervyn Peake is a finer poet than Edgar Allan Poe, and he is therefore able to maintain his world of fantasy brilliantly through three novels. It (Gormenghast trilogy) is a very, very great work … a classic of our age.
  • Words were shapes and sounds to him. He saw them, as if he were listening to an unknown language, in shapes.
    • Maeve Gilmore (his widow), Introduction to A Book of Nonsense, p. 10
  • You are the first person who has been able to illustrate the book adequately since Tenniel, though I still argue as I think I argued with you years ago that your Alice is a little bit too much of a gamin.
  • Change and growth cannot be halted, time must run on. That is the whole moral of the three books.
    • Colin Greenland, Beowulf to Kafka: Mervyn Peake’s Titus Alone, reprinted in the omnibus edition The Gormenghast Novels published by The Overlook Press, p. 1141
  • [Peake's books] are actual additions to life; they give, like certain rare dreams, sensations we never had before, and enlarge our conception of the range of possible experience.
    • C. S. Lewis, On Stories and Other Essays on Literature, p. 66
  • There was a library and it is ashes. Let its long length assemble." These words made me a writer. When I was in middle school, my mother brought home a used paperback copy of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast…Reading this at the age of 13, I understood that fantasy, the place I was looking for, is not to be found in dragons, ghosts, or magic wands. It resides in language. Fantasy is death by owls. It’s mourning through gesture. It’s music, incantation in half-light. An inverted heart.
  • The host of specifically religious suggestions and images, in a story that until now has been devoid of such concern, suggests very strongly that Peake is here referring to the Christian religion as a debasing influence. Peake’s treatment of Gormenghast’s ritual shows that he dislikes any system of values imposed on the individual from outside, offering him nothing directly relevant for himself and encouraging him in whatever weakness he possesses. So, here, the Lamb can break down but not build; despite his worshipper’s praise, he does not really understand how to keep his creatures alive. Still the Lamb glories in his power. True, in changing men he has destroyed them, denying them freedom to develop for themselves; to the Lamb, however, that is incidental to his own gratification.
    • Joseph L. Sanders, “The Passions in Their Clay” Mervyn Peake’s Titus Stories, reprinted in the omnibus edition The Gormenghast Novels published by The Overlook Press, p. 1093
  • For Peake, the weight of moral standards comes from their being part of a tradition, and any tradition lies outside the individual’s potential and needs. Thus adherence to a morality impedes development of the whole self and denies real maturity.
    • Joseph L. Sanders, “The Passions in Their Clay” Mervyn Peake’s Titus Stories, reprinted in the omnibus edition The Gormenghast Novels published by The Overlook Press, p. 1098

External links edit

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