Discovering an Artistic Ancestor

The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb by Mervyn Peake

“Imagination is the real and eternal world of which this vegetable universe is but a faint shadow.”

-William Blake

Sometimes a book chooses you. Sheltering from the rain in Black Gull Books in East Finchley, I browsed the poetry section, arranged alphabetically by author, until a familiar surname leapt out at me. I knew Mervyn Peake for his fiction and illustrations, but not his poetry. The opening image from The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb stopped my breath–an infant curled up, crying out into inky blackness. It recalled to me, simultaneously, the earliest images of our son in utero, and our own anguish at his death.

I read the first few musical stanzas about Mervyn’s babe “born in the reign of George”, during the height of The Blitz, down to where “the murderous notes of the ice-bright glass / Set sail with a clink of wings”. It reminded me of one my favourite lines by one of my favorurite poets, the moment in William Blake’s “The Tyger” “when the stars threw down their spears / and watered heaven with their tears”.

The whole poem, and its accompanying illustrations, are Blakean in scope, bringing together images and poetry in a dazzlingly imaginative metaphysical ballad about the resilience and splendour of the human spirit. Like Blake, Peake also describes a hellish world, in this case riddled with one-ton bombs, through the music of English and light-filled imagery:

And a ton came down on a hospital,
And a ton on a manuscript,
And a ton shot up through the dome of a church,
And a ton roared down to the crypt.

And a ton danced over the Thames and filled
A thousand panes with stars…

And in the middle of it all, “… the babe that was born in the reign of George / Lay asleep in the sailor’s arm, / With the bombs for his birthday lullaby / And the flames for its birthday dream.”

The sailor discovers “the tick of its heart beat quick” and tries to protect the infant, whom he affectionately calls “little fish”, declaring “We’d be far better off where the soldiers are / Than naked in London town / Where a house can rock like a rocking-horse / And the bright bricks tumble down.”

When the infant opens “its new-born eye / To the shuffle of the warm, red, restless air / And the dazzle of the witchcraft sky”, the sailor entertains him by dancing. This image, of the sailor dancing with the Christ-like child, is as startling and archetypal as the frontispiece to Blake’s “Songs of Experience.”

L. Frontispiece to "Songs of Experience" by Wiliam Blake. R. Illustration to "Rhyme of the Flying Bomb" by Mervyn Peake

Sheltering in a church, the sailor asks if the child will listen to him sing. Magically, the child replies:

“I will! I will!” cried the new-born babe,
“Though I’ve lived it all before
For there’s nothing new when the womb is through
With its restless prisoner.”

He continues, “You have only to sing, my war-time friend / And I will know what to sing.” After they sing of their past together, the bombs continue, and the sailor is suddenly seized by fear of death. The magical child tells him:

…out of your love, O frightened sailor
You showed me the coloured lights,
And the golden shoals of the falling stones,
And the scarlet of the streets;

And I am rich on my natal day
With such rare tragedy
That I have no fear, but only long
That you could be rich like me.

And I who have died a thousand times
Will cheer you as you die–

As the dying sailor’s visions in the church become increasingly hellish, the infant explains the enduring nature of love, and that the sailor’s death will be the ultimate proof of his love for the child.

The tick of a bomb is heard, and The Virgin Mary appears beside the Tree of Life, while the sailor is filled with strange visions of maritime war, and a headless horse is resurrected. Then a blasted wall “waved and waved and could not fall / Through such portentous air, / While silence like a ghost let down / The long ice of its hair”. And finally:

…the church leapt out of a lake of light
And the pews were rows of fire,
And the golden cock crowed thrice and flew
From the peak of the falling spire.

…the dust rose up from the hills of brick
And hung over London town,
While the babe that was born in the reign of George
Lay coiled in the womb again.

This long poem was written in 1947, nearly two years after Mervyn Peake was sent as a war artist to the newly-liberated concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen, where he produced images of the dying. His son Sebastian later described this experience as “my father’s ‘Heart of Darkness‘”. Rich with Catholic symbolism and fantastical imagery, written in well-tuned metre and alternating rhymes, this poem must have been considered out of fashion when it was finally published in 1962, at the height of the vogue for more plain-spoken poets like Robert Frost.

Yet The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb is, at its essence, a timeless and ambitious act–reconciling worldly atrocity with the beauty and magnificence of the human spirit. I do not know if Mervyn is a relative, since I can only trace my paternal line back to an itinerant great-grandfather. But in coming into possession of this book, it seems as though an artistic ancestor has reached through time to deliver this at once dazzling and disturbing vision, showing, as Peake himself put it, “man’s continuing hopefulness in adversity.”

I read the book aloud to my wife. At the end we turned to one another with tears in our eyes, as if to ask, “What on Earth was that?” Mervyn Peake’s epic poem is nothing on Earth at all, but something that transcends it–an allegorical vision of enduring love “[at] the height of a world at war.”

For both its personal and artistic significance, I am grateful to a Peake I never knew.