Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Mine was not news for child to know - Walter de la Mare's Motley

The difference between a Walter de la Mare children’s poem and one not so labeled can be slight.  Motley (1918), the book that followed Peacock Pie, begins with “The Little Salamander” and “The Linnet,” with language and subject little different than in the children’s book.  Following the one book, with the other, I saw the traces of the children everywhere:

Perchance upon its darkening air,
The unseen ghosts of children fare,
Faintly swinging, sway and sweep,
Like lovely sea-flowers in its deep…   (“The Sunken Garden”)

The scene is of course “Latticed from the moon’s beams” – the moon is ever-present.  Soon enough, the language thickens, and becomes more grammatically complex, with more poetic inversions, for example, and two new subjects appear.  The first is the love poem, “The Tryst,” for example:

Flee into some forgotten night and be
Of all dark long my moon-bright company…
Or “The Ghost,” about a lost love, or its illusion:
A face peered.  All the grey night
    In chaos of vacancy shone;
Nought but vast sorrow was there –
    The sweet cheat gone.

The last line, borrowed by Scott Moncrieff, now turns the narrator into Proust’s Marcel and the ghost into Albertine, in which case she’s better off without him.

The other new subject can be guessed from the 1918 date of publication.

They are all at war! –
Yes, yes, their bodies go
‘Neath burning sun and icy star
To chaunted songs of woe,
Dragging cold cannon through a mire
Of rain and blood and spouting fire,
The new moon glinting hard on eyes
Wide with insanities!  (from “Motley”)

The speaker is a Fool, left behind as usual.

Mine was not news for child to know,
And Death – no ears hath.

After the three pages of “Motley” – long for de la Mare – it was hard not to think that every poem in the book was a war poem of some kind, if I could only grasp the metaphor.   In “The Marionettes” the European theater is converted into a puppet theater – “’Tis sawdust that they bleed” – that one is easy enough.  The Fool returns with a melancholy “Fool’s Song” – “’Tis sad in sooth to lie under the grass.”  De la Mare blends two stories, portraying Alexander the Great enthralled by the song of the Sirens, hoping that poetry will end war, not now, certainly, but “Come the calm, infinite night” (“Alexander”).

Although there are plenty of cryptic metaphors and lines, Motley is more often direct in its statements than was The Listeners.  The last few poems are a call to Beauty that would likely have made no sense before the war.  Pure aestheticism then; something else now.

Look thy last on all things lovely,
Every hour.  Let no night
Seal they sense in deathly slumber
     Till to delight
Thou have paid they utmost blessing;
Since that all things thou wouldst praise
Beauty took from those who loved them
     In other days.  (from “Fare Well”)


  1. Kingsley Amis's response to "Fare Well":

    Look thy last on all things lovely
    Every hour, an old shag said,
    Meaning they turn lovelier if thou
    Thinkst about soon being dead.

    Do they? When that "soon" means business
    They might lose their eye-appeal,
    Go a bit like things unlovely,
    Get upstaged by how you feel.

    The best time to see things lovely
    Is in youth's primordial bliss,
    Which is also when you rather
    Go for old shags talking piss.

  2. In truth, my temperament is closer to Amis's.

  3. As the poem says, our temperaments do get closer to Amis's as we get older, but we do lose something as it happens.