Saturday, 21 July 2012

Portsmouth Point Poetry: Satan

Commentary by George Laver

Satan by William Blake (based on a design by Henry Fuseli)

This fortnight’s selection is a shorter piece by English poet and artist Mervyn Peake (9 July 1911 – 17 November 1968), entitled Satan. Although Peake’s poetry is not as widely recognized today as that of some of his contemporaries, he wrote an impressive number of intriguing, entertaining and, at times, comical poems and novels. His artistic career was one of diverse imaginative scope; among his works are included war poems, nonsense lyrics and fantastical novels, although it is his philosophical, Romantically-tinged pieces which have earned him the greatest part of his recognition.

Peake began his career as a painter and secured several art exhibitions throughout the 1930s, as well as illustrating various children’s books (including one of his own, Captain Slaughterhouse Drops Anchor), while teaching at the Westminster School of Art. It was here that he met his wife, Maeve Gilmore, with whom he had three children, Sebastian (born 1940), Fabian (1942) and Clare (1949). His applications to become a war artist during World War II were repeatedly rejected and this eventually led to his nervous breakdown. Despite this, Peake’s career as a writer and artist continued almost unfalteringly; between 1943 and 1948, he completed two of his most well-known literary works, the novels Titus Groan and Gormenghast. Much of his most vivid poetry and art was inspired by his 1945 visit to the Nazi concentration camps, where he witnessed at first hand the death and suffering.

During the mid- to late 1950s, Peake’s health began to decline with the onset of Parkinson’s Disease. Despite this, he managed to complete the third instalment of the Gormenghast series, Titus Awakes, which was published in 1959, and a few poetry compilations. His condition steadily worsened, with failed attempts at electroconvulsive therapy, until his death in 1968.
Satan is the first piece in the posthumously-published compilation, Selected Poems (1972). I believe that the poem’s appeal lies in its Milton-esque manipulation of vivid imagery and drama along with compelling philosophical and theological questioning. The closing lines of the work may lead us to interpret it as an enquiry into the importance of evil’s existence to artistic power and effect, but the reader is drawn also to the unusual “fish” metaphor in the fourth line; Peake seems almost to suggest that the “sin” he describes is necessary if we are to become distinct from the shoal and achieve any degree of excellence (poem below):


Sickened by virtue he rebelled and cried
For all things horrible to be his bride

For through the hot red tides of sin move such
Fish as lose radiance at virtue's touch.

Should he reform and vomit up his evil?
It would not only be that his spiked devil
Would be dethroned, but also, amid groans
Those swarming hues that make his joints their homes.

                                                            Mervyn Peake

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