Monday, April 4, 2016

And quiet did quiet remain - Walter de la Mare's Peacock Pie at the edge of All the Ages

Another children’s book, Walter de la Mare’s Peacock Pie (1913), once a famous book, more in England than in America.  It’s a beauty, mysterious and evocative (but evoking what?).  Rarely twee.  Enjoyably odd.  An exemplar, complete:

The Horseman

I heard a horseman
    Ride over the hill;
The moon shone clear,
    The night was still;
His helm was silver,
    And pale was he;
And the horse he rode
    Was of ivory.

Either that gets me asking questions and wanting to know more, or it’s nothing.  And I have to be willing to accept, I suppose, that this is it, that the rest of the story has to come from my own imagination.  The poet’s job is to catch that one sublime moment.

A few poems do tell more complete stories – one, “Sam’s Three Wishes,” seems to borrow Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence – but more often something has just happened, or is about to happen, or should happen but does not.  “So I know not who came knocking, / At all, at all, at all” (“Some One”).

Maybe a kid and the moon stare at each other:

Full Moon

One night as Dick lay half asleep,
    Into his drowsy eyes
A great still light began to creep
    From out the silent skies.

It was the lovely moon's, for when
    He raised his dreamy head,
Her surge of silver filled the pane
    And streamed across his bed.

So, for awhile, each gazed at each —
    Dick and the solemn moon —
Till, climbing slowly on her way,
    She vanished, and was gone.

An ordinary event becomes like a supernatural visitation.  The very next poem inverts the idea.  “’I’m tired – Oh, tired of books’” says “The Bookworm.”  He wants Nature, unmediated, but his reason is mysterious.  “’Something has gone, and ink and print / Will never bring it back.’”  The poems are built on these gaps.

“The Bookworm” has one of my favorite lines:

To hear the hoarse sea-waters drive
   Their billows ‘gainst the shore;

Or favorite phrases – “hear the hoarse sea-waters.”  De la Mare is good with sounds, colors, animals, like the miller’s rat-hunting cats:

 Then up he climbs to his creaking mill,
Out come his cats all grey with meal –
Jekkel, and Jessup, and one-eyed Jill.  (from “Five Eyes”)

Peacock Pie ends with a section titled “Songs” that is the strangest in the book, building to a weird climax.  The songs are of “Secrets,” “Shadows,” “Enchantments” and “Dreams.”  The title phrase finally appears, but in “The Song of the Mad Prince”:

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.

The next stanza is even weirder.  This song is worthy of Hamlet, assuming we take him as genuinely mad.

The last song  is like the first I quoted, but bolder.  The imagination leaps past the poem, while within it all is still.

The Song of Finis

At the edge of All the Ages
     A Knight sate on his steed,
His armour red and thin with rust,
    His soul from sorrow freed;
And he lifted up his visor
    From a face of skin and bone,
And his horse turned head and whinnied
   As the twain stood there alone.

No bird above that steep of time
    Sang of a livelong quest;
No wind breathed,
“Lone for an end !” cried Knight to steed,
    Loosed an eager rein —
Charged with his challenge into Space:
   And quiet did quiet remain.

If you have read Michael Moorcock – honestly, is it not like a compressed Moorcock novel?  He loved de la Mare.  A livelong quest at the edge of All the Ages!  Let’s go!


  1. it is VERY like moorcock-good comparison. "hoarse seacry"=horsy cry? is that Synge who wrote the one comparing crashing waves to horses emerging from the ocean? de la mare is wonderful, many supra-oneiric fragments of speculation emanating from his poetry...

  2. I haven't read Synge - I was just thinking I oughtta.

    The dreamy absences in these de la Mare poems are outstanding. Fragments of speculation, that's good.

  3. Would it be a fair statement to suggest this? Children's rhymes need not contain any "meaning" at all -- not in the way literary critics would seek out such things -- and sometimes nonsense is better than any sense, but the rhymes must be easily remembered and recited, and that requires meter, rhyme, diction, and other "mechanical" qualities rather than any profound meanings. Consider, for example, Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" as well as his other offerings and those by Lear and Nash et al.

  4. Adult poetry need not contain any more meaning than poetry for children.

    None of Walter de la Mare's children's poetry is nonsense. Much of it is as profound as his other poetry, although profound in different ways.

    "Sometimes nonsense is better than any sense" - now I do agree with that.

    1. A lot of de la Mare's children's poetry refers to other poetry - you cite “The Song of the Mad Prince” with its echo of Hamlet, but many of his other poems are about other poems. Having read or been read de la Mare as a small child I found it hard to realise that he was quoting other poets, not them him when I came across the "originals".
      How do we decide what is nonsense and what supersense? There's a lot of debate about what Shakespeare actually meant and the modernists inspired a clash between their admirers who said they were doing something new and transformative in poetry and their opponents who said they were pretentious bluffers.

  5. I would need a guide to help me with the references. If I am hearing them, it is only as echoes. The Hamlet poem seemed obvious, but that only means that I am more familiar with Hamlet than with (you name it).

    I like nonsense to much to be a good judge of what is not nonsense. Fine with me if it's all nonsense.

  6. Wonderfully strange. I remember living that moon poem at least once when I was a child.

  7. There are still plenty of kids who could find their way into the mood of these poems.

  8. These (at least the excerpts you have posted) are what I think of when I think of children's poems--the rhythms of them, at least. And they are charming excerpts, even if I don't know quite what to make of them.

  9. De la Mare's children's poems - plenty of his adult poems, too - are essentially fairy tales, but picking out that one sublime moment, the one point that matters most.

    So you make of them what you want. Your imagination does the rest in some vague way.

  10. Not telling a story but I liked this one but probably won't whem I'm a Grannie:

    'I know a little cupboard,
    With a teeny tiny key,
    And there's a jar of Lollypops
    For me, me, me...

    I have a small fat grandmamma,
    With a very slippery knee,
    And she's the Keeper of the Cupboard
    With the key, key, key.'