Tuesday, March 8, 2016

An apple, a child, dust - Walter de la Mare's The Listeners and Other Poems

The poetry book for today is The Listeners and Other Poems (1912) by Walter de la Mare.  Simpler Pastimes is throwing a Classic Children’s Lit party in April – we had so much fun with Pinocchio last year – and I was thinking of reading more of de la Mare’s poetry for children, likely the 1914 Pigeon Pie.  But it is not always clear to me what de la Mare’s distinction is between poetry for children and for adults.  The Listeners is full of flowers and dreams.


Be gentle, O hands of a child;
Be true: like a shadowy sea
In the starry darkness of night
        Are your eyes to me.

But words are shallow, and soon
Dreams fade that the heart once knew;
And youth fades out in the mind,
        In the dark eyes too.

What can a tired heart say,
Which the wise of the world have made dumb?
Save to the lonely dreams of a child,
        “Return again, come!”

This is clear enough – one set of poems is for children, another for former children, yearning for their childhood, or parts of it.

The Listeners is like An Adult’s Garden of Verse.  There are even weeds.

from The Bindweed

The bindweed roots pierce down
  Deeper than men do lie.
Laid in their dark-shut graves
  Their slumbering kinsmen by.

Yet what frail thin-spun flowers
  She casts into the air,
To breathe the sunshine, and
  To leave her fragrance there.

Which is exactly my dilemma when fighting bindweed.  For the sake of the flowers I would love to keep them, although I will note that the blossoms are not fragrant.  Maybe English bindweed flowers are fragrant.

“Winter” is on the next page.  Its last stanza:

  Thick draws the dark,
  And spark by spark,
The frost-fires kindle, and soon
Over that sea of frozen foam
  Floats the white moon.

Adult poems are perhaps a matter of attitude, or melancholy beauty.  These lines are delightful in the shift of sounds, “ah”s and “k”s shifting into “f”s, “oh”s and “ooh”s.  The image is pretty enough, but it is almost swallowed by the vowels.

There are people in The Listeners, too, not just flowers and moods.  Old Susan is a childhood servant – always back to childhood – who sets a good example by reading when not working.

And sometimes in the silence she
Would mumble a sentence audibly,
Or shake her head as if to say,
“You silly souls, to act this way!”

Some characters are more like fairies, or spirits.  Look at this sequence of titles near the end of the book: “Haunted,” “Silence,” “Winter Dusk,” “The Ghost,” “An Epitaph.”  Yep, that’s The Listeners.  The final poem brings in another melancholy, fragrant flower.

“The Hawthorn Hath a Deathly Smell”

The flowers of the field
  have a sweet smell;
Meadowsweet, tansy, thyme,
  And faint-heart pimpernel;
But sweeter even than these,
  The silver of the may
Wreathed is with incense for
  The Judgment Day.

An apple, a child, dust,
  When falls the evening rain,
Wild brier’s spicèd leaves,
  Breathe memoires again;
With further memory fraught,
The silver of the may
Wreathed is with incense for
  the Judgment Day.

Eyes of all loveliness –
  Shadow of strange delight,
Even as a flower fades
  Must thou from sight;
But oh, o’er thy grave’s mound,
  Till comes the Judgment Day,
Wreathed shall with incense be
  Thy sharp-thorned may.

The poems for adult have thorns.


  1. lovely verses, with a touch of ethereality; tx.

  2. "Ethereality" is a good word. A lot of dream-stuff in de la Mare.

  3. Quite a few plants are called bindweed in England and quite a few have scents. I'd guess de la Mare meant hedge bindweed because that has the largest and most fragile flowers.
    De la Mare must be one of the most literary poets there's ever been: his anthologies contain vast amounts of forgotten semirelevant stuff - like a random search on google!

  4. I knew, reading this poem, that I needed a botany lesson. My enemy, however much I like its flowers, is Convolvulus arvensis. You are likely right that de la Mare means Calystegia sepium.

    The comparison to the Google search. I need to try some of de la Mare's fiction.

  5. No discussion of the bindweed in poetry can be complete without the song "Misalliance," by Flanders and Swann, one of my favorites. I'm too lazy to link, but you can find it on YouTube.

  6. Yes, a tragic and timely story of true love thwarted.

    Thanks, I had never heard that.

  7. I wouldn't have thought of reading poems for children, but then again, I'm not a good poetry reader. I suppose I'll be reading some though, as it looks like Kipling includes poetry in The Jungle Book.

  8. The Kipling poems in The Jungle Book serve the stories well. I'll just say that.

    I hope to read Oscar Wilde's fairy tales soon, too, so that will be a couple of books for children. I doubt I will get to (and then through) Huckleberry Finn, but maybe.

  9. I'd considered reading the Wilde, but ended up opting for books I already have on hand (mostly) instead. Tempting, though.

  10. Tempting, and short. Very short. I will be reading a scan of the original book from Google Books or archive.org or something like that.

    Books, actually. They're so short I hope to read A House of Pomegranates, too.