Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Tag Archives: Poetry London

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?)

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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.

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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.

A neglected modernist masterpiece: Terence White’s ‘Irene’

Squashed in among the largely amateurish outpourings of sincerity that bulk out Tambimuttu’s Poetry London X (1944) sit six pages of stand-out writing: an episodic prose poem, surreal, satiric and punctuated by feverish sonnets, that builds into a rolling onslaught of Joycean wordplay. This neglected modernist masterpiece is billed as Terence White’s “Extracts from ‘Irene’”.

This is not the Terence Hanbury White of The Sword in the Stone etc. Nor Terence de Vere White, the Irish novelist. But Terence White (1913-68), aka Terence d’Olbert White, aka Terence White Gervais – musician, composer, music scholar, Associate of the Royal College of Music, logician, film theorist, psychoanalyst, poet in five languages, playwright, translator, artist, Theosophist and flagellant, described by a contemporary as a “small red-faced man with crazy eyes.”

This is the Terence White whose suite for flute and string quartet, performed at the Wigmore Hall in 1956, drew the comment from a Times reviewer that “one movement after another ended with raised eyebrows.”

The Terence White who reportedly declared: “You know I am feminine in my nature and I have always wanted to experience pregnancy myself. I would love to give birth – just a small animal would be enough to be my salute to the universe!”

The Terence White whose Chastisement across the Ages (1956), penned under the suitably dominating name of Gervas d’Olbert, claims to be a “scientific” survey of corporal punishment (“’comprehensive’ might be a more appropriate word than ‘scientific’”, notes one reviewer) and begins thus:

“Amid a world torn and bruised by dissension and misunderstanding of every type, it is a relief to record one human activity which knows no frontiers of race, religion, dialect or epoch. Chastisement is universal …”

And, sadly, the same Terence White who by the mid-‘fifties was obliged to bed down, destitute, in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields.

But what of his organ concerto, of his piano sonatas, of Piscarille, his prose satire in French, of his “large-scale work” After Leonardo: Quality and Quantity for a New Civilisation, of his play about Sappho, or of his long poem in terza rima, “Sylvia Pregnant”, said to have been admired by James Joyce? None of them published, and all apparently lost forever.

But his poems do survive. And thanks to Tambi’s foresight, we do still have “Extracts from ‘Irene’”, though this is clearly excerpted from a longer original work. In case anyone imagines Terence White Gervais to be some sort of invention of mine, I have posted the full text of “Irene” on a page here (or use the tab above), together with a few notes and three related pieces that seem also to have been part of the full work.

There is much to be done before even the basic facts of White’s life and work can be sketched out here. A photo of the man would be a good start! Meanwhile, my thanks to Bill Bennett for sharing the labour of Googling down what we do know. Much more to come, hopefully …