Walter de la Mare 1873-1956
We are at the end of the 20th century, it is the Georgian era and Walter de la Mare is a bystander to the tempest that surrounds him. A quiet poet, a shy muse, a poet who wrote in the shadows of sentiment not passion; of description not drama; of allegory, and of ghosts, but also of simple things, of dreamy things, placid, serene, and unhurried. Even when he wrote of Shakespearean characters; he did so without contempt, pity, or despair but with love of and sympathy for the everyday man and woman in the true Georgian spirit.
“Along an avenue of almond-trees
Came three girls chattering of their sweethearts three.
And lo! Mercutio, with Byronic ease,
Out of his philosophic eye cast all
A mere flow’r’d twig of thought, whereat…
Three tears fell still as when an air dies out
‘And Venus falters lonely o’er the sea
But when within the further mist of bloom
His step and form were hid, the smooth child Ann
Saie, ‘La, and what eyes he had!’ and Lucy said,
‘How sad a gentleman!’ and Katharine,
‘I wonder, now, what mischief he was at.’
And these three also April hid away,
Leaving the spring faint with Mercutio.”
“When Susan’s work was done she’d sit,
With one fat guttering candle lit,
And window opened wide to win
The sweet night air to enter in;
There, with a thumb to keep her place
She’d read, with stern and wrinkled face,
Her mild eyes gliding very slow
Across the letters to and fro,
While wagged the guttering candle flame
In the wind that through the window came.
And sometimes in the silence she
Would mumble a sentence audibly,
Or shake her head as if to say
‘You silly souls, to act this way!’
And never a sound from night I’d hear,
Unless come far-off cock crowed clear;
Or her old shuffling thumb should turn
Another page; and rapt and stern,
Through her great glasses bent on me
She’d glance into reality;
And shake her round old silvery head,
With ‘You! I thought you was in bed!’
Only to tilt her book again
And rooted in Romance remain.”
He held no degree or even membership in a University; all he learned came from St. Paul’s Cathedral School. He was not an “old boy” a fact which left him outside the brotherhood of the then reigning great poets. And for a long time he wrote under the pen-name of Walter Ramal. But he was gifted in both prose and poetry and in 1935 he gave the Warton Lecture on English Poetry at the British Academy titled Poetry in Prose. In his poetry he gave us no surprises, not like Emerson who puts two things together that have no obvious connection like this one: “where snow falls there is freedom.” His dream poems are just that. There is nothing syrupy or sentimental of his poetry for children. His poem Nod was a favorite of school-age readers:
Softly along the road of evening,
In a twilight dim with rose,
Wrinkled with age, and drenched with dew
Old Nod, the shepherd, goes.
His drowsy flock streams on before him,
Their fleeces charged with gold,
To where the sun's last beam leans low
On Nod the shepherd's fold.
The hedge is quick and green with briar,
From their sand the conies creep;
And all the birds that fly in heaven
Flock singing home to sleep.
His lambs outnumber a noon's roses,
Yet, when night's shadows fall,
His blind old sheep-dog, Slumber-soon,
Misses not one of all.
His are the quiet steeps of dreamland,
The waters of no-more-pain,
His ram's bell rings 'neath an arch of stars,
'Rest, rest, and rest again.'
When asked what her favorite line was, a nine-year-old replied ‘the one about the ram’. When asked why the child replied “the first half of the line is full of bell sounds, and the second half is all big and quiet like the sky at night.”
His Service of All the Dead, yes there is such service revived in literature by Colin Dexter in his Inspector Morse stories, gives us the full strength of his talent for description:
Between the avenue of cypresses,
All in their scarlet capes and surplices
Of linen, go the chaunting chroisters,
The priests in gold and black, the villagers.
And all along the path to the cemetery
The round dark heads of men crowd silently;
And black-scarfed faces of women-folk wistfully
Watch at the banner of death, and the mystery.
The coming of the chaunting choristers
Between the avenue of cypresses,
The silence of the many villagers,
The candle-flames beside the surplices.
de la Mare belonged to the Georgian era of poetry. An era whose objective was to “make poetry more accessible to the public.” The words of those who wrote under the Georgian banner: Brooke, Abercrombie, Belloc, Flecker, and Graves were soon described as “diluted, middlebrow, conventional” as looking backward to lost nature for inspiration. These criticisms along with the advent of The Great War brought to a close the calmness and serenity of the Georgian effort. However it left us with the music, imagery, and mystical charm of Walter de la Mare. He was nearly thirty before his first book was published. Its success allowed him to leave his clerk’s position with the Anglo-American Oil Company and devote all of his time to writing and editing.
Just as he is regarded as the divine child of phantasy he also answers to the call of “The Scribe” of God.
“What lovely things
Thy hand hath made…
Though I should sit
By some tarn in thy hills,
Using its ink as the spirit wills,…
Flit would the ages
On soundless wings,
Ere unto Z
My pen drew nigh;
And the honey-fly;
And still would remain
My wit to try
My worn reeds broken,
The dark tarn dry,
All words forgotten
Thou, Lord, and I.”
We close with this poem of life:
“How shall I know that the end of things is coming?
The stars in their stations will shine glamorous in the black;
Emptiness, as ever, haunt the great Star Sack;
And Venus, proud and beautiful, go down to meet the day,
Pale in phosphorescence of the green sea spray
How shall I know that the end of things is coming?”
Our first characteristic is imagination, fantasy.
“Lord of the fruits of Tartary,
Her rivers silver-pale!
Lord of the hills of Tartary,
Glen, thicket, wood, and dale!
Her flashing stars, her scented breeze,
Her trembling lakes, like foamless seas,
Her bird-delighting citron-trees
In every purple vale!” Lord of Tartary from Songs of Childhood
“Someone is always sitting there,
In the little green orchard;
Even when the sun is high
In noon’s unclouded sky,
And faintly droning goes
The bee from rose to rose,
Some one in shadow is sitting there,
In the little green orchard.
Only its strange to be feeling there,
In the little green orchard;
Whether you paint or draw,
Dig, hammer, chop, or saw;
When you are most alone,
All but the silence is gone…
Some one is waiting and watching there,
In the little green orchard. The Little Green Orchard
“Has anyone seen my Mopser?
His tail it curls straight upwards,
His ears stand two abrest,
And he answers to the simple name of Moper,
When civilly addressed.” The Bandog
Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.
“The language moves with a music, a rhythm, beauty of image that Edgar Allen Poe never equaled at his best.” Gayley et all.
“All young people, delight in his poetry, because of its bewitching and unexpected fancy, its divination of what they thought they alone had discovered, its moving images, its unequalled music.” Phelps
“Mr. de la Mare has produced in this book [Henry Brocken: His Travels and Adventures in the Rich, Strange, Scarcely Imaginable Regions of Romance] a romance much less wildly wonderful and ‘scarce-imaginable’ than might be supposed from the somewhat wordy and pretentious title or rather sub-title.”
Our second characteristic is singing music.
“My dear Daddie bought a mansion
For to bring my Mammie to,
In a hat with a long feather,
And a trailing gown of blue;
And a company of fiddlers
And a rout of maids and men
Danced the clock round to the morning,
In a gay house-warming then.
And when all the guests were gone, and
All was still as still can be,
In from the dark ivy hopped a wee small bird:
and that was Me. The Little Bird from The Peacock Pie
“Seal and Walrus
And Polar Bear
One green icy
Alligator, Nor Hippopot-
His bath forgot.
Out of his forest
The Elephant tramps
To squirt himself
In his gloomy swamps.
On crackling fins
From the deep-sea fly,
The air to dry.
In shallows green
And all day long
Was Duck and Drake
In their duckweed pond
For washing’s sake.” A Child’s Day
Very old are the woods;
And the buds that break
Out of the brier's boughs,
When March winds wake,
So old with their beauty are--
Oh, no man knows
Through what wild centuries
Roves back the rose.
Very old are the brooks;
And the rills that rise
Where snow sleeps cold beneath
The azure skies
Sing such a history
Of come and gone,
Their every drop is as wise
Very old are we men;
Our dreams are tales
Told in dim Eden
By Eve's nightingales;
We wake and whisper awhile,
But, the day gone by,
Silence and sleep like fields
Of amaranth lie. All That’s Past
Our third characteristic is inventiveness.
“If I were Lord of Tartary,
Myself and me alone,
My bed should be of ivory,
Of beaten gold my throne;
And in my courts should peacocks flaunt,
And in my forests tigers haunt,
And in my pools great fishes slant
Their fins athwart the sun.”
Come quick as you can!
There’s a fish that talks
In the frying pan.
Out of the fat,
As clear as glass,
He put up his mouth
And moaned Alas!
Oh, most mournful,
Then turned to his sizzling,
And sank him back.” Peacock Pie
“Come, Death, I’d have a word with thee;
And thou, poor Innocency;
And Love – a lad with broken wing;
And Pity, too;
The Fool shall sing to you,
As Fools will sin.” Motley
Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.
Of Motley .Its effect on us is more poignant and direct than the most scathing of explicit condemnations of war, or the bitterest realism. It conveys the ineffable incongruity of man’s inhumanity to man, to himself; it hints the horror that is beyond sane utterance. Megroz
“The accuracy of de la Mare’s poetry of life is psychological rather than photographic.”
“He remembers the ‘poisonous slum‘ from which the prisoner has been dragged like a netted fish before the Justice which pants for carrion. The droning voices in the court are erecting a timber framework in the murderer’s darkening brain.”
“Sudden like wolf he cries; and sweats to see
When howls man’s soul, it howls inaudibly.”
Our fourth characteristic is visual imagery, dreamery.
“Wide are the meadows of night
And daisies are shining there,
Tossing their lovely dews,
Lustrous and fair;
And through these sweet fields go,
Wanderers amid the stars.” The Wanderers
“The claw of the tender bird
Finds lodgment here.”
“Walk in beauty. Vaunt thy rose,
Flaunt thy transient loveliness.
Pace for pace with thee there goes,
A shape that hath not come to bless.
I, thine enemy? Nay, nay.
I can only watch and wait,
Patient, treacherous time away,
Hold ajar the wicket gate.” The Quiet Enemy
Comments from critics, colleagues and himself.
“Thus the poetry of the epoch may be described as its unconscious night-dream turned into daydream. Not only nymphs, satire, fairies, and ghosts have been born of the unconscious mind’s dreaming but Man’s fabulous Paradises, his perception of a stable reality against which the tidal seas of change beat ever in vain. The poet as prophet derives his divine right from oracular intimacy with the environing mind of society, not the mind expressed in its Parliament or its newspaper, but in the secret reactions to experience which reveal themselves in dreaming.” F.W.H. Myers