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.