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:
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:
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!