Snow in Sark
The island has become waist-deep in snow –
The ravenous starling’s wheel and swarm and flow,
Fighting among the rocks, half tame with hunger,
Half crazed with it. The cries of fear and anger
From birds still strong enough to cry, are thin
Like needles through the falling snow. The whine
Of an icy wind in caves cathedral cold
Echoes along the winter sands, a world
Of spectral beauty. To its edges crawl
Great networks of grey brine, shawl after shawl
Of darkness like a funeral of the tide,
While the gaunt island, glittering like a bride
In dazzling vestment, shines fantastically
Upon her father’s arm, the dark-browed sea.
From the sunset I turn away
To the sweep of a steel bay.
The lonely waters are grander far
That the red and the gold are.
From Mr Pye
It did not take Mr Pye very long to acquaint himself with the main features of the island. Within the first month he had made a reputation for himself as the most active and enterprising visitor the Sarkese had ever known. It often happens, of course, that the newcomer to a place, whether an island or a city, will very soon outstrip the native in local knowledge. But it was more than this with Harold Pye. His thirst for was not confined to his daily expeditions to the many bays of Sark’s indented coastline; to the famous coloured caverns of the Gouliot, the ‘Dog’ and the ‘Pigeon’: to the Convanche Chasm’ below the Coupée on the Jersey side, and the Souffleur Cave in Little Sark, which, when the seas run high and the wind is from the north, spouts back the foam from its deep throat like an exhaling whale; it was not merely that he became so intensely aware of the physical island—it was also that he began to sense the inherent nature of the place. It was really this ‘background’ that he needed most, for Mr Pye was a wise as well as a virtuous man. He knew that his high mission might very well miscarry, if he failed to put first things first. And the first thing was the island itself, the strange wasp-waisted ship of stone. He must understand her – the structure of her jaws and broken flanks, the rhythm of her alternating needs. Until he had grasped the eternal permanence of the great she he trod, it would surely be not only premature but dangerous to accost the new crew aboard her with his love. He must fire them by degrees. He must be patient. His first duty was to explore their home. His second to explore their hearts. His third to bring them joy. It did not occur to Mr Pye that he was taking upon himself a crusade of a kind well calculated to try the strength and patience of an archangel or a god with a soul as clear as the highest quality glass and the physical strength of the abominable snowman. It did not occur to him: he was without a qualm in the world. His habit of concentration had schooled him so to fix his eye upon the target of his ambition, that he was hardly aware of the distances that lay between himself and the bright core of his dreams. As each problem arose he addressed himself to it with delight as though it were the last. For Mr Pye all things were penultimate. He was always on the threshold, dealing with that minor technicality that had, of necessity, to be cleared up before the trumpets rang, and the heavens opened and the moon at last showed him her other side. By the time Harold Pye had identified himself with every spur and shoulder, every perilous descent, every winding way among the idiosyncrasies of Sark’s fantastic coastline from the extreme south – by the time he had gripped the island in the sharp, neat, shining vice of his brain – he was all but a legend. When abroad and at large on the island he kept his silence – a silence of fantastic pregnancy more awesome than thunder. And particularly so as he was no slinker through the dusk, but a sharp, quick, daylight figure, an enigma of noon – now here, now there, ubiquitous and sprightly, for all the trim volume of his paunch – his brilliant and abstracted smile, un-nerving the great fishermen, and filling the island with outlandish rumour. He was preparing his way: and at the same time he was preparing her – his island – for a revolution of the heart, for already he felt that she was his. A strange, proprietary instinct told him that he must offer back to the islanders, that which was theirs, but not before they were ready to receive it, for they must learn that it was to their ultimate good that he should hold a spiritual mandate over their was-waisted rock. That he had been treading its bony back for no longer than six weeks was of no significance. What mattered was that he had forced his way into the very core of what had made the island into Sark, and Sark into the island. He had wormed his way into her dank, primordial caves; had stared his fill at her emblazoned flanks; had dived, a pear-drop in his mouth, into her cold April tide; he had sat for an hour upon a fallen tree and drunk his fill of the sweet of Dixcart Valley where the primroses, the bluebells and the celandine, smothered the wooded slopes; and exposed himself like a sensitized plate to her every whim. Now here, now there, silent as the sun as it skips in and out of the clouds, Mr Pye, his antennae flickering, was now ready to turn from the physical island and leave the searchlight of his love upon the human heart – the ultimate quarry.
Mr Pye was first published in 1953. This excerpt, chapter seven of the novel, describes the island through the eyes of Peake's angelic hero, Mr Pye. I like the way it describes the ownership he feels of the island, a common phenomenon among its visitors. And one can't help wondering just how much Peake's own feelings about the islanders mirrored those of Mr Pye. Peake lived on Sark 1933-35, and from 1946-52.