Saturday, August 22, 2015

A dark and livelong hint of death - Walter de la Mare poems, for children and others

Now Walter de la Mare, a writer who like G. K. Chesterton wrote an enormous number and variety of books, but who unlike Chesterton seems to have disintegrated.  At one point his poems for children were quite popular.  I wonder how many of them I might have read as a child.

None from Songs of Childhood (1902), de la Mare’s first book, rang any bells.  Too bad for young me.  The book is comparable to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses or Christina Rossetti’s Sing-Song (1872).   Better than Rossetti’s book, actually, although similarly, to use current parlance, dark.  The first poem of de la Mare’s first book of poems for adults (Poems, 1906) declares that

The loveliest thing earth hath, a shadow hath,
A dark and livelong hint of death  (from “A Shadow”)

That hint runs through de la Mare’s early verse, whomever it might have been written for.

Songs of Childhood moves through a child’s day.  The child has trouble arising from bed but is enticed by the gnomes to arise (“Sleepyhead”).  What the gnomes want with the child – well, be suspicious, but perhaps it is all a dream.  The child’s play, encounters with fairies and witches and so on is light and charming, but darkens with the sky.  Soon, the subjects of the poem are ogres and wolves and a dying raven.  The child, with little comprehension, attends a funeral, depicted with great skill:

They took us to the graves,
    Susan and Tom and me,
Where the long grasses grow
    And the funeral tree:
We stood and watched; and the wind
    Came softly out of the sky
And blew in Susan’s hair,
  As  I stood close by.  (“The Funeral”)

Lest one think, as I did, that the funeral was for the children, as these lines strongly suggest, in the next stanza they are having their tea in the nursery, and “Tom fell asleep in his chair, \ He was so tired, poor thing.”

At this point in the sequence, sleep returns again and again, as the day comes to an end and bedtime nears for the young reader.

Sleep, sleep, lovely white soul;
Time comes to keep night-watch with thee,
Nodding with roses; and the sea
Saith “Peace! Peace!” amid his foam.
“O be still!”
The wind cries up the whispering hill –
    Sleep, sleep, lovely white soul.  (from “Lullaby”)

I find it easy to imagine something stronger than sleep behind these gentle poems.

The adult poems are more explicitly attuned to “Death’s stretching sea,” to use the last line of “Sorcery,” one of two poems about Pan in Poems.  Sleep, or the poet’s imagination, offers an entry to a dream-world of gods, fairies and Shakespeare character.  “Who, now, put dreams into thy slumbering mind?” (a question never answered from “The Death-Dream”).

Umbrageous cedars murmuring symphonies
Stooped in late twilight o’er dark Denmark’s Prince:
He sat, his eyes companioned with dream –
Lustrous large eyes that held the world in view
As some entrancèd child’s a puppet show.
Darkness gave birth to the all-trembling stars,
And a far  roar of long-drawn cataracts,
Flooding immeasurable night with sound.  (from “Hamlet”)

There is a hint that Hamlet, in his old age, would become Prospero.  Much more than a hint, since Ariel in mentioned directly.  The strange thing to me was now un-Shakespearian the ten poems about Shakespeare characters were.  De la Mare had converted them into de la Mare characters.

A section titled “Memories of Childhood” most clearly pulls the poems for children and adults together.  De la Mare’s childhood is a sad, lonely place.  This is from “The Echo,” so the first speaker is the poet, , the second the echo.

“Who cares?” I bawled through my tears;
    The wind fell low:
In the silence, “Who cares? who cares?”
   Wailed to and fro.

In this situation you receive the answer you ask for.

Lovely, gloomy things, these early Walter de la Mare poems.


  1. Lovely! Perfect Sunday Read. I haven't considered him in decades. It's "The Listeners" I remember best, of course, but I'm sure one or two of others appeared in my children's poetry anthologies.



    Who said, 'Peacock Pie?'
    The old King to the sparrow:
    Who said, 'Crops are ripe?'
    Rust to the harrow:
    Who said, 'Where sleeps she now?'
    Where rests she now her head,
    Bathed in eve's loveliness'? ---
    That's what I said.

    Who said, 'Ay, mum's the word'?
    Sexton to willow:
    Who said, 'Green dusk for dreams,
    Moss for a pillow'?
    Who said, 'All Time's delight
    Hath she for narrow bed;
    Life's troubled bubble broken'? ---
    That's what I said.

    More Hamlet-inspired de la Mare. De la Mare was a fine poet, but you feel he could have been a great one, but something happened. Too much literature, perhaps, going by his extra-ordinary anthologies. He also wrote superb ghost stories - another genre where not being too close to reality often helps.

    The thing which makes it difficult for me to read Chesterton is his anti-Semitism. Racism was a given among many writers of that time, an unquestioned part of their background which they referred to without thinking, but Chesterton's anti-Semitism is deliberate and obsessive. There's a Father Brown story, The Duel of Dr Hirsch - - that was his response to the revelation of Dreyfus's innocence and how he was fitted up. It is almost pathological.

  3. hamlet? "far roar of long drawn cataracts" suggests "dover beach" to me... maybe de la mare was edward gorey's favorite muse?

  4. "Dover Beach," that's good. Certainly the right poetic tradition for de la Mare.

    What helpful comments. The Listeners and Peacock Pie are likely not too far off in my future. It was a pleasure to spend some time with his poems. I'll have to try his fiction, too.

    I'll keep going with Chesterton as well but I expect plenty of resistance, let's call it.

  5. I had a number of fat anthologies of poetry as a child, and I do remember de la Mare being in at least one of them (the big Untermeyer?) I shall have to go rummage around and see if I can find what I have done with those.

  6. Maybe as I move on to Peacock Pie I'll find a poem that stirs a childhood memory.

  7. Auden, on his Appreciation of the Lyrical Verse of Walter De La Mare, complained about the laziness of anthologists always choosing the same handful of old workhorses, like The Listeners, from De La Mare's poems. He suggested a dozen alternatives, such as:

    The Bottle
    And, musing amid them, there moves
    A stranger, named Man,
    Who of their ichor distils
    What virtue he can;

    Plucks them ere seed-time to blazon
    His house with their radiant dyes;
    Prisons their attar in wax;
    Candies their petals; denies
    Them freedom to breed in their wont;
    Buds, fecundates, grafts them at will;
    And with cunningest leechcraft compels
    Their good to his ill.

    Intrigue fantastic as this
    Where shall we find?
    Mute in their beauty they serve him,
    Body and mind.

    The last of last words spoken is, Good-bye -
    The last dismantled flower in the weed-grown hedge,
    The last thin rumour of a feeble bell far ringing,
    The last blind rat to spurn the mildewed rye.

    A hardening darkness glasses the haunted eye,
    Shines into nothing the watcher's burnt-out candle,
    Wreathes into scentless nothing the wasting incense,
    Faints in the outer silence the hunting-cry.

    Love of its muted music breathes no sigh,
    Thought in her ivory tower gropes in her spinning,
    Toss on in vain the whispering trees of Eden,
    Last of all last words spoken is, Good-bye.

  8. I guess he must have had good taste, after all he was the main book reviewer for the New Yorker at the time he wrote that piece about De La Mare; it can be found on page 6 of the fourth volume of his Complete Works published by the Princeton University Press.

    The whole list of De La Mare's poems recommended by Auden, in case anybody is interested: Winged Chariot, Good-bye, The Quiet Enemy, The Last Coachload, The Fat Woman, The Bottle, The Railway Junction, A Robin, She Said, Lost World, Forests, and Outcasts.

  9. Thanks - although at some point I should read the essay for myself.

  10. Napoleon

    ‘What is the world, O soldiers?
    It is I:
    I, this incessant snow,
    This northern sky;
    Soldiers, this solitude
    Through which we go
    Is I.’

    I'm surprised Auden didn't mention this, except that it's de la Mare moving so far from his core area as to be unrecognisable as de la Mare.

  11. It does not sound like de la Mare, but somehow it fits the tone of the other poems in that first "adult" book of his. Great poem.