proud and terrible / Denied to those whose duty / Is to be cerebral’.
What then is this nonsense, to which Peake devoted so much time and effort in his short but prolific career? Peake himself refused to define it when in 1954 he gave a talk on the BBC about his illustrations for Carroll’s Alice books. ‘In Alice,’ he explains – despite all the potential terrors the books contain, from the monster Jabberwocky to the bloody-minded Queen of Hearts –
there is no horror. There is only a certain kind of madness, or nonsense – a very different thing. Madness can be lovely when it’s the madness of the imagination and not the madness of pathology. Nonsense can be gentle or riotous. It can clank like a stone in the empty bucket of fatuity. It can take you by the hand and lead you nowhere. It’s magic – for to explain it, were that possible, would be to kill it. It swims, plunges, cavorts, and rises in its own element. It’s a fabulous fowl. For non-sense is not the opposite of good sense. That would be ‘Bad Sense’. It’s something quite apart – and isn’t the opposite of anything. It’s something far more rare. Hundreds of books are published year after year. Good sense in many of them: bad sense in many more – but non-sense, oh no, that’s rarity, a revelation and an art worth all the rest. Perhaps one book in every fifty years glitters with the divine lunacy we call nonsense. (‘Alice and Tenniel and Me’, p. 22)
Despite Peake’s reluctance to ‘explain’ Carroll’s ‘certain kind of madness’, he says a number of important things about it in this passage. It possesses its own nature, like a newly discovered species, and inhabits its own element – a country of its own, perhaps, with its own rules, or (from the verbs he chooses to describe it: ‘swims’, ‘plunges’, ‘rises’) a medium like water in which there is no bar to movement in any direction. It’s not the opposite of ‘good sense’ because there is often sense or reason in it which, when applied in the context of the element that nonsense inhabits, produces wholly unexpected results. Can we describe nonsense, then, as an arrangement of words on the page without regard to meaning but with careful regard to grammar, form, sound and rhythm? That’s more or less right, except that in this mode of writing form gives rise to meaning. Words chosen for their sound and rhythm (or for the startling images or actions they conjure up) acquire a vigorous life of their own, determining the