Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Venerable, pitiable, frightful: Mervyn Peake’s ‘Ancient Mariner’

Volume X (1944) of Tambimuttu’s Poetry London has been mentioned in an earlier post here. Besides much mediocre poetry, it contained Terence White’s remarkable “Irene”, images by Gerald White, Tambi’s perceptive review of Keith Douglas and, as a bonus, Mervyn Peake’s eight illustrations to Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, published the previous year. These latter, as if they needed it, were pegged onto a forgettable essay by critic and minor poet Margaret Diggle comparing the Mariner with Eliot’s The Waste Land, her thrust seeming to be that both have something to do with redemption. (Quite so. And your point is?)

detail 1

detail 2

Peake’s images are sometimes tentative, under-observed, or coyly sentimental – a failure of much “fantasy” illustration. But here he is at his most resolved and most ferociously intense. This intensity derives from the obsessive and disciplined density of his pen line, which shows extraordinary virtuosity; I particularly like the looping “scribbled” hatch that forms the sky in the first image below. In the mood of their tonality these owe something to the example of Doré, but otherwise they are very much their own vision. Elsewhere they are described as ink and wash, but I can see no signs of any wash, though white ink lines are used occasionally and judiciously. C S Lewis commented on these drawings in a much later letter to Peake, praising their “disquieting blend of the venerable, the pitiable, and the frightful”, and the sheer gracefulness of their representation of horror.

thumbnails
In their Poetry London reprint, the images were numbered and usefully supplied by Peake with thumbnail sketches keying them to exact lines of text, which I have used as captions. The eight drawings are available here and there online, though sometimes slightly cropped or blurred, so it will do no harm to show them again. A click on the small images will throw up enough of an enlargement (click again with the magnifier cursor) for the interested viewer to lose her/himself indulgently and entirely in the jaw-dropping intricacies of Peake’s cross hatching.

The sun came up upon the left, Out of the sea came he! And he shone bright, and on the right Went down into the sea.

The sun came up upon the left,
Out of the sea came he!
And he shone bright, and on the right
Went down into the sea.

... 'with my cross-bow I shot the Albatross.'

… ‘with my cross-bow
I shot the Albatross.’

Instead of the cross, the Albatross About my neck was hung.

Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.

I bit my arms, I sucked the blood And cried 'A sail! a sail!'

I bit my arms, I sucked the blood
And cried ‘A sail! a sail!’

Her lips were red, her looks were free Her locks were yellow as gold Her skin was white as leprosy, The Night-mare Life-in-Death was she, Who thicks man's blood with cold.

Her lips were red, her looks were free
Her locks were yellow as gold
Her skin was white as leprosy,
The Night-mare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thicks man’s blood with cold.

Alone, alone, all, all alone, Alone on a wide, wide sea!

Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide, wide sea!

I could not draw my eyes from theirs Nor turn them up to pray.

I could not draw my eyes from theirs
Nor turn them up to pray.

I pass like night, from land to land.

I pass like night, from land to land.

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