Friday, July 20, 2018

Collected Poems by Mervyn Peake

I stumbled upon this book by accident and what a fortuitous fall! I had only recently heard of Mervyn Peake because C.S. Lewis mentioned him in On Stories. Out of curiosity I checked out his Collected Poems and was rewarded with surprising riches.

Peake (1911-1968) was born to missionary parents in China but when he was eleven, the family returned to England. Christian imagery is occasionally woven into his poems. He wrote about love, nature and the horrors of war. He is much better known as an artist and novelist than as a poet. This book has 230 of his poems (80 of them never before published).

One of his repeated themes is the lavish wealth of creation. He describes the colors of spring as minted coins in this excerpt from “Colored Money” -

How can I spend this coinage when it floods
So ceaselessly between the lids,
And gluts my vaults with bright
Shillings of sharp delight
Whose every penny
Is colored money?
Storm, harvest, flood or snow,
Over the generous country I go
And gather helplessly
New wealth from all I see

In another poem he describes a budding tree in springtime: The green hesitation of the leaf was prophecy for richness. He succeeds in writing poems that are hauntingly beautiful and deeply meaningful yet accessible without a PhD in literature. That doesn’t mean I understood every one of them (some were only fragments that he never finished), but I reveled in the lush imagery and sumptuous language of each one. Even the war poems weren’t nearly as full of bitterness as the poetry of some other poets such as A.E. Houseman and Edna St. Vincent Millay.

I’ll close with the first half of his poem called “Autumn”

The lit mosaic of the wood
Stayed me at the turn of the road
To stare
At autumn standing there
In Joseph’s coat; a tree
Golden, and bright, and free
For head; his feet In the rich earth were set.
The wind
Was tugging blind
At the fierce rainbow rags, the tattered turban,
Under a fitful sun.

A feast for poetry lovers!

Blessings,

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