Poetry in Walter de la Mare

The Denver Quarterly 8.3 (Autumn 1973): 69-81

The birth centenary of Walter de la Mare, which occurred this year, has been proclaimed with very few trumpets. Although his first publication, Songs of Childhood, appeared as early as 1902, it was in the second and third decades of the century that he became, in England, perhaps the best known and best loved of living poets. I recall a time when the adjective “de la Marish” was fairly current coin. In literary circles, which were a relatively small part of his actual public, he figured to begin with as a member of the so-called “Georgian” group, which owed its existence as a group to Harold Monro and J. C. Squire; and this was probably misleading. Time was to show that its members had much less in common than their assemblage implied; for at least one of the annual volumes entitled Georgian Poetry included a contribution from D. H. Lawrence.

If Lawrence does not fit into the mood of unashamedly derivative romanticism, which is taken (justly, I think, though with some oversimplification) as the leading characteristic of Georgian poetry, neither for very different reasons does de la Mare. De la Mare’s poetry does not really “fit” into any of the received categories, although it has been confidently pigeonholed by a good many critics since the slaughter of the Georgian tradition was accomplished, almost overnight, by T. S. Eliot. That is why I am venturing to write about it.

Walter de la Mare was of course not only a poet. His extensive literary output between 1902 and his death in 1956 included a good deal of criticism, many careful introductions to other men’s books, the introductory sections to his own half dozen or so anthologies, in the compilation of which he created something like a new genre, and a fairly solid body of fiction in the form both of short stories and of novels, of which the best known is Memoirs of a Midget. Of all this, as well as his life, I shall say nothing, since the object I have set myself is not to present any general conspectus or evaluation of the man and his oeuvre, but to draw attention, if I can, to certain qualities in his poetry which appear to me to have been largely overlooked in the past and which are certainly overlooked in the present.

This will be difficult and, because it will involve some general and rather unorthodox observations on the nature of poetry and particularly of poetic diction, will require all the space I can reasonably expect to occupy. For the same reason I intend to be even more ruthlessly selective than I have so far admitted; to make no more than a few preliminary remarks about the poems as a whole but limit my references to such of them as seem to me to exhibit the above-mentioned qualities in an outstanding degree. If the final result turns out to be a “tribute” rather than a critical appreciation – well, let it be so. That is one proper way of marking a centenary.

He continued writing poems all his life, all of them except The Traveller and Winged Chariot fairly short lyrics. It is customary and, I think, correct, to draw a sort of wavering line between the earlier and the later ones, making the break either with the appearance of Motley in 1918, or of The Veil in 1921. The First World War had come and gone and it is said, with more dubious justification, that some of the later poems face up to evil, or come to grips with reality or something of the sort, for the first time. What is indisputable is that for the most part (I have called the line “wavering”) they have a more personal ring about them and are the properest material for that kind of critical appreciation which aims at interweaving poetic development with personal psychology.

It is an important kind, and I have nothing against it, but it is not the kind I am aiming at here. There is a difference between one’s estimate of the poetry as part of the man and one’s estimate of it as a contribution to the corpus of English literature. The standards of value may well be different, and it is only for the former that “development” is an important feature. The one approach shows how no one but X could have written this particular poem, how he came to write it, how he could not have written it ten or fifteen years earlier and so forth. The other simply asks: is there anything in X’s poetry, whether early or late, and if so where, of which one must say: this kind of poetry, this peculiar flavour, this particular tone of voice in the whole historical choir, comes from X and no one else and is his lasting gift to it? Most poets do not go on writing that kind of poetry all their lives. It may come out of them earlier or later. Wordsworth’s Ecclesiastical Sonnets are many of them of high quality and no doubt he could not have achieved them at the time of the Lyrical Ballads. They add to his stature as a poet. But they are not significant for his special contribution to English poetry. There is clearly a sense in which the poems of Yeats’s later and longer period are more “interesting,” more “contemporary,” more “original,” than his early work. From the poetico-personal point of view it was well, and very well, that he developed the one from the other. Objectively, it is much less certain that, in the many-mansioned storehouse of poesy, some of the early Celto-romantic poems will not turn out to be his peculium.

In my view de la Mare’s peculium (if, as I hope, I have justified the use of such a term) comes out of his earlier poems and it is of them that I propose to write. My primary object in doing so is not to argue but to evoke and share; but the circumstances are such that I cannot hope to achieve it without first entering argumentatively into a number of presuppositions latent in recent critical opinion, and largely determinant of current vogue and taste. These can be conveniently grouped under two headings, the first concerning the issue of “poetic diction” and its more passive sister “poetic license”: the second being those implicit in the term “escapism” and its family circle of associated passwords.

The immediately obvious thing about de la Mare’s poetry is the way in which its diction distinguishes it from that of all contemporary and subsequent English poets. It is the liberties which he allowed himself. Only these liberties are of a different kind from the sort of thing the word ordinarily implies, inasmuch as they are just the kind of liberty that is, or used to be, implied in the terms “poetic license” and “poetic diction.” If he was fettered where free verse is free (for he invariably wrote in regular meter and nearly always in rhyme), he was free where that is bound, since the liberties he took are precisely those which were quickly surrendered by free verse and are rigidly denied to contemporary verse in general. Just how rigidly is illustrated by the fairly common opinion that de la Mare somehow succeeded in being a poet in spite of those liberties. Unable together to deny his achievement, conventional criticism is obliged to present him as an exception that proves its rule: here is a poet who did not merely pay an occasional furtive visit to Wardour Street, but spent half his time there; yet somehow, and to some extent, he got away with it! Of course there are also wholly insensitive critics, like the one who was for some reason selected a few years back to review the posthumous Collected Poems in the Times Literary Supplement, but by and large the consensus of opinion has been as I have stated.

It is unsatisfactory, because a little unblinkered reflection will reveal that the liberties taken by de la Mare in the use of language were in fact a sine qua non of his achievement. What exactly is meant by liberty, or license, in this connection? We are all aware that a living language depends on use or habit, and that the habit changes in course of time; moreover, as Horace was only the first to point out, this applies to the language of literature as well as that of unthinking common speech. Poetic license consists to a large extent of the liberty to ignore those changes up to a point and for a good reason. Ideally both these factors should determine our response to it; and both of them are elusive. The movable point beyond which license becomes unacceptable depends partly on that mysterious principle which has sometimes been called the “genius” of a language and partly on fashion. It decides that some archaisms, or words, or grammatical forms no longer in general use have become unbearable, others have not. The second factor depends first on there being a good reason, and next on our being sensitive enough to divine it.

Now as to the first, it happens that during the last few decades the movable point has moved very low indeed, and I suspect that this results more from fashion than from any deep feeling for the genius of the language. It was at the beginning of that period that English Literature was first recognized as an academic school of department, and only later still that recent and even contemporary poetry became matter for examination questions, theses and dissertations. During the same period the number of critics who are also academics has increased very rapidly. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and my only point is that in Academia literary fashion is more likely to have been determined by a few dominant minds and their docile followers than by the subtle breath of genuine speech-habit blowing where it listeth.

However I am much more concerned with the second of the two factors, the good reason; for this is something of which it seems to me most contemporary judgment and contemporary response have simply ceased to be aware. Everyone is aware of the bad reason – the illusion that I must be writing poetry because I am using the sort of diction other poets (the Romantics for instance) have used in the past. But is this any reason why the good reason should be lost sight of altogether? And the good reason is that the more alternatives a poet has to choose from, the better it obviously is. “What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed” wrote Pope, and it is fairly clear that that could not have been nearly so well expressed if he had been inhibited from using oft for often and ne’er for never. Certainly a man whose main object in life is to imitate his uncle is a booby. But he ought not to be written off simply because he wears riding breeches. He may be wearing riding breeches, not because his uncle wore them, but because they are very convenient for getting about in. That was why his uncle wore them; and what decides whether the nephew is a booby or not is the way he rides and the places he goes in them.

Availability of the greatest possible number of words, forms of the same word, and grammatical modes of combining them is important for melodic as well as semantic reasons and I shall come to that in a moment. Meanwhile poetic diction, as distinct from license, is the selection of the abnormal for semantic reasons only: and good poetic diction is the selection of it for good reasons. Of course the two may coincide. The introduction of an archaism, for instance, may be significant on both counts, and the same applies to inversions of the natural word order, as well as to such devices1 as pointed discord between sentence structure and metrical base. There is a striking example of both the last two in “The Willow,” which appeared in 1921 in The Veil:

Leans now the fair willow, dreaming
Amid her locks of green.
In the driving snow she was parched and cold,
And in midnight hath been
Swept by blasts of the void night,
Lashed by the rains.
Now of that wintry dark and bleak
No memory remains.

In mute desire she sways softly;
Thrilling sap up-flows;
She praises God in her beauty and grace,
Whispers delight. And there flows
A delicate wind from the Southern seas,
Kissing her leaves. She sighs.
While the birds in her tresses make merry;
Burns the Sun in the skies.

If, as I feel, there is a rare quality in this lyric, a something that the Germans call Schwung, but for which we have only some such duller term as “dynamism,” so that it not merely expresses but positively embodies a kind of transference from potential to kinetic of the energy latent in all living and growing things, analytical reflection reveals that to be inseparable from such details as the inversions in the first and last lines of the poem and in the second line of the second stanza (“up-flows” in the context means something quite different from “flows up”), the placing of the three full-stops in that stanza, and the enjambement between lines 4 and 5 and lines 12 and 13. It would perhaps be unkind to compare with these the license run to seed, the wholesale and wholly insensitive practice of both stopping and enjambement which has since become fashionable; as in a poem entitled The Fire appearing in the New York Times a few years ago:

Bells ringing an alarm
had a gentle Sunday
sound. But soon there were
other bells, factory whistles,
a tumult all around. Looking
westward then, we saw great clouds (etc.)

In de la Mare’s poem by the way there is only one example of mere “license,” hath instead of has, and its justification is purely melodic. Where Schwung is at stake, a milligram’s difference in consonantal weight – sounded instead of unsounded , quicker instead of slower – may be enough to make or mar the whole. Note too, in this connection, the concealed hold-up from the anti-metrical accent on “merry” in line 15.

Throughout the poems as a whole however de la Mare’s forte was not so much energy as the subtle evocation of qualities. And it is here I think that the two presuppositions I began by mentioning have become inextricably and unfortunately mixed. His choice of diction and his choice of subject matter are often lumped together in a general charge of “escapism.” It would take too long to go deeply into this. It is true that his subject, especially in the earlier poems on which I am concentrating, is more likely to be something pleasant – children, beautiful women, the face of nature, England, and even fairies – than something unpleasant like the condemned murderer in In the Dock. And the presumption is that all poetry which does not express revolt against, or ironical acceptance of, ugliness and brutality, is an attempt to escape from, instead of recognizing and facing up to “reality”. This was of course the gravamen of Leavis’s charge, for whom de la Mare was “the belated last poet of the Romantic tradition,” and already as remote as Poe from the present of poetry; unlike Thomas Hardy, who is commended because “His verse has no incantation: it does what it says, and presents barely the fact recognized by a mind more than commonly and responsibly awake.”

If that were in fact true of Hardy, as I do not think it is, one might be moved to inquire how exactly his verse differs from prose. But on all this I have only space for a few brief observations. All good poetry is a revolt against the opposite of poetry. To affirm the opposite of what is formidable may be the clearest way of recognizing it, and if it is formidable enough, it may be the only way. It was the late J. R. R. Tolkien who pointed out in an Essay on Fairy Stories that the parrot-cry of escapism rests on a dull incapacity to distinguish between a prisoner of war and a deserter. It is the business of a “responsible” prisoner to escape, since that is the stark precondition of his exerting his latent ability to fight back. This however is not realized and it is widely held that the really manly thing to do is suck up to the jailer and decorate the prison walls with ironical graffiti.

A poet must be “adult,” it is said, if he is to be taken seriously, and that means, we soon discover, that he is to accept what is sometimes called “modern consciousness” and sometimes, more euphemistically, “the finer consciousness of the age” as a given absolute – rather as Dr. Johnson accepted London. “No, Sir, when a man is tired of London,” he said, “he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” On closer inspection, however, we find that “modern consciousness” means, not all that life can afford, but a certain constricted outlook on life which is shared in common by those among us who have swallowed hook, line and sinker, the Locke-Newton-Darwin-Freud-H. G. Wells mélange and are still striving to digest it. Constricted speech best fits constricted mind; and perhaps the substitution of wasp-waist for singing robes in poetic fashion would never have occurred if the dominant minds in the humanities had not been quite such meekly sequacious intellects. Here I fancy lies the hidden link between de la Mare’s poetry and his prose. His was pre-eminently a questioning intellect. Article, introduction, letter or conversation, no matter where, his favourite sentence form was the interrogative. He questioned everything, including – or rather above all – the things that everyone round him had become quite sure about. But he rarely or never stayed for an answer. He just went on writing with an unfettered mind unfettered poetry. It is hardly surprising then that, as has often been remarked, in that poetry the presence of some large unanswered question not infrequently makes itself felt as an obscure and even “sinister” background. What is perhaps surprising is that the poem in question is as likely as not to be one of those professedly for children.

I have suggested that one of the principal advantages of poetic license is melodic. This is particularly apparent in the case of de la Mare, if I am right in my feeling that his peculium is his strange mastery in the manipulation of verbal sound as such. I would emphasize the “as such.” Sound and meaning are not lightly separable. But if it is best of all when they are felt as inseparable, quality in the sounds as such is most noticeable when the two fall apart. That is the case with some of Shakespeare’s songs; but it is still more the case with de la Mare, especially in many of these earlier poems. For them we almost feel that the sounds are the poem. The melodic interaction and interpenetration of vowel-qualities and the shifting shapes and heavinesses and lightnesses of the consonants are the poem. The medium is the message in a sense that Marshall McLuhan couldn’t dream of, for the sounds as such are somehow a spiritually solid object, a thing-in-itself. It is difficult to write about. One might adduce the gulf between music and libretto in a Mozart opera. If the “unheard” melodies of language are properly to be contrasted with the “heard” melodies of actual music, still they are both melodies, and not unconnected with one another; but then the verbal ones, being, as Keats hinted, “of no tone,” are also so faint as to be scarcely even detectable at first, and only ring out increasingly loud and authoritative as the spirit becomes accustomed to them. So it is with many of the poems in The Listeners and with still more perhaps of the ostensibly trivial lyrics in Peacock Pie. It may be somewhat disconcerting to find a faint reverberation from the music of the spheres in a poem about a small boy having his hair cut, or a boys’ quartet at a village concert, or a snail and a slug, or a mocking fairy, but that does not stop its being a fact. After all we are not entirely unacquainted with that echo; we have heard something like it before, and not usually in minor poets; we have heard it here and there in Virgil, in Shakespeare, in Milton; occasionally; it comes and goes.

I have had to conclude that it would be a mistake to select illustrative examples in order to “prove” what I have just been saying. At that level of intimacy different people hear the essential most markedly in different particular poems. Nor will I seek to locate and indicate it with comment on one or more of my own preferring. It would come too near to breaking the proverbial butterfly on a wheel. I prefer to select, for quotation and comment, two poems illustrating a less prominently audial ingredient in de la Mare’s genius and one to which I have already referred as “the subtle evocation of qualities.” As this time I do not propose to shirk going into details, it will be best to select one particular quality among the many which his verse succeeded in evoking, and to which he returned in different ways on many occasions during his life. It is not a simple matter to find a name for it and indeed, if it were so, it would not be particularly subtle or require specially delicate evocation. Under that caveat then let me call it “the Englishness of England.” Both poems are early, having appeared in volumes dated 1902 and 1906 respectively. Of the first, entitled England, I need not say very much:

No lovelier hills than thine have laid
My tired thoughts to rest:
No peace of lovelier valleys made
Like peace within my heart.

Thine are the woods whereto my soul,
Out of the noontide beam,
Flees for a refuge green and cool
And tranquil as a dream.

Thy breaking seas like trumpets peal;
Thy clouds — how oft have I
Watched their bright towers of silence steal
Into Infinity!

My heart within me faints to roam
In thought even far from thee:
Thine be the grave whereto I come,
And thine my darkness be.

It is a simple personal statement. We notice at once the uninhibited use of “poeticisms” like lovely, tranquil, peace and dream. But we notice also a certain perfection in the whole, which is not at all characteristic of reliance on poeticisms, and we shall feel, unless we are rather insensitive, how admirably the third stanza succeeds in evoking, not just any summer sky, but a particular sky with a particular quality which is not found everywhere. I need not, after what has already been said, comment on thy and thine for your and yours. Try substituting the latter throughout and see what you do to the poem.

Some of de la Mare’s poems have been extensively anthologized, and he is reported to have said on one occasion that the anthology rights alone in the title poem of The Listeners earned enough to pay for his son’s education. But there is one very early poem, to be found in Songs of Childhood (1902), which I have never seen reproduced in any anthology or referred to by any critic, though it is to my mind one of his most characteristic and one of his most perfect achievements. This is the second of the two poems I have selected. It is in ballad form and is, in other ways too, markedly different from the first. Since it is also perhaps the most striking instance of all of his genius in evoking subtle qualities and since, as I have said, my main object is not to argue but to share, I will conclude this article by quoting it in full in spite of its length, and this time with the interpolation of such comments as occur to me:

The Englishman

I met a sailor in the woods,
A sailor ring wore he,
His hair hung black, his eyes shone blue,
And this he said to me: —

Silver ring, straight (for it “hung”) black hair, and bright blue eyes are all we are told about him, and yet, or rather for that very reason, how vivid and at the same time faintly outlandish is the picture! There is already in its crudity the least possible hint of a ship’s figurehead, a hint which is to become outspoken only as the poem concludes.

‘What country, say, of this round earth,
What shore of what salt sea,
Be this, my son, I wander in,
And looks so strange to me?’

Says I, ‘O foreign sailorman,
In England now you be,
This is her wood, and there her sky,
And that her roaring sea.’

The shipwrecked English sailor, with his silver ring, looks “foreign” to the boy who is the “I” of the poem. And the choice of epithet is a good example of de la Mare’s evocative mastery. Qualities, unlike quantities, are not timeless. We commonly savor them most fully by realizing something of their past in their present. (That incidentally is why a delicate resort to archaism may contribute so aptly to their embodiment in verse.) Whatever England qualitatively is, for good or ill, her common sailors had a big hand in making her so. They went far afield and, if the old pictures are to be believed, they often came back looking “foreign” enough, and retained that foreignness – large rings, pigtails, perhaps parrot, etc. – as part of their everyday gear. Somewhere in the aura conjured up by the first three stanzas there hovers a cloud of merchant seamen, privateersmen, not infrequently pirates, of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and pigtailed naval ratings of the eighteenth.

He lifts his voice yet louder,
‘What smell be this,’ says he,
‘My nose on the sharp morning air
Snuffs up so greedily?’

It is the first tentative step in the anagnorisis which is to occupy the next seven stanzas, an anagnorisis, a recognition or discovery, effected in this case, not through outward facts or events but by the dawning apprehension of quality itself.

Says I, ‘It is wild roses
Do smell so winsomely,
And winy briar too,’ says I,
‘That in the thickets be.’

‘And oh!’ says he, ‘what leetle bird
Is singing in yon high tree,
So every shrill and long-drawn note
Like bubbles breaks in me?’

Says I, ‘It is the mavis
That perches in the tree,
And sings so shrill, and sings so sweet,
When dawn comes up the sea.’

Winsomely? yon? mavis? But I have failed altogether if the reader still feels that these archaisms require an apology, or fails to sense the positive part they play in uttering quality. But how then about that leetle? G. K. Chesterton once remarked a certain coarse and at present very common mental process which consists in “creating a false classification to swamp a unique thing.” This is just what is happening when we hear, as we have been doing in this centenary year, much of de la Mare’s characteristic diction dismissed out of hand as “whimsy.”  Whimsy is sentimental, it is arch, it is coy, it is merely embarrassing to adult minds. No doubt, only in that case good poetic diction is not whimsy. You can do one of two things, when you come across what these critics call whimsy in de la Mare. Either (applying instanter the Eliot-Pound-Leavis-Chicago-and-after canon that you took in though your pores in the English Department) you can clap it into the ash can and pop the lid on before the aroma has time to distill; or you can take your time and stop and look and listen for yourself. If you are still able to do that, you will very soon stop being seduced into classifying his Mocking Fairy with, say, the drawing-room ballad “There are fairies at the bottom of our garden,” and you will also perceive that the spelling “leetle” here does a number of important things, quite apart from the rallentando from the longer vowel. It reminds us, for instance, that the sailor is only a common sailor but even so cannot escape his emphatic feeling for the Englishness of England; perhaps it adds another faint touch of foreignness; perhaps also it suggests a slight movement of affection towards his interlocutor as the anagnorisis proceeds:

At which he fell a-musing,
And fixed his eye on me,
As one alone ‘twixt light and dark
A spirit thinks to see.

It is nearing its culmination; and we have a pause of silence, and of speechless tension between the sailor and the boy, while all the richness of the immaterial and as-yet-unnamed quality gathers itself secretly in the former’s mind and heart.

And then out it comes; reflectively and hesitatingly at first, but at last with something like a rush, so that all the rest of the poem, except the final stanza, is the sailor’s:

‘England!’ he whispers soft and harsh,
‘England!’ repeated he,
‘And briar, and rose, and mavis,
A-singing in yon high tree.

‘Ye speak to me true, my leetle son,
So — so it came to me,
A-drifting landwards on a spar,
And grey dawn on the sea.

‘Ay, ay, I could not be mistook;
I knew them leafy trees,
I knew that land so witcherie sweet,
And that old noise of seas.

Qualities, unlike quantities and solids, are interpenetrating; and now there begins to awaken within the sailor the recognition of another quality, which also bears something of its past within its present:

‘Though here I’ve sailed a score of years,
And heard ’em, dream or wake,
Lap small and hollow ’gainst my cheek,
On sand and coral break;

‘ “Yet now,” my leetle son, says I,
A-drifting on the wave,
“That land I see so safe and green
Is England, I believe.

(Believe is of course not just an “imperfect rhyme.” We are to take it as a perfect one and just hear the soft west-country voice broadening the vowel.)

‘ “And that there wood is English wood,
And this here cruel sea,
The selfsame old blue ocean
Years gone remembers me,

It is the recognition of his own individuality, time-linked with the Englishness of England, that is dawning in him now, as the light was lately dawning on the sea. And it takes him back about as far as memory will run:

‘ “A-sitting with my bread and butter
Down behind yon chitterin’ mill;
And this same Marinere” — (that’s me),
“Is that same Leetle Will! —

This is the one stanza in the poem in which I find anything unsatisfactory, and then only in one line. I am inclined to guess that chitterin’ was the best he could find after trying a good many alternative epithets, and I doubt if he was altogether happy with it. Much more evocative is the sailor’s parenthesis, with its faintly wafted reminder of the laborious logic of some of Shakespeare’s rustic clowns. Slow and solemn minds are never afraid of repeating themselves. The sailor continues:

‘ “That very same wee leetle Will
Eating his bread and butter there,
A-looking on the broad blue sea
Betwixt his yaller hair!”

With this the second anagnorisis is completed and confirmed; remotest past and sundered present unite; and the sailor makes again, at a rather different level, the child’s discovery that “I am I”:

‘And here be I, my son, throwed up
Like corpses from the sea,
Ships, stars, winds, tempests, pirates past,
Yet leetle Will I be!’

Finally, as the awe inspired by that discovery reduces him once more to silence, the initial hint at a ship’s figurehead finds its justification and embodiment; and the reader is left with a clear little picture of some bright, silent, and fantastic bust forging ahead over desolate water. I will only add, before transcribing it, that, if anyone were to compile a list of multum-in-parvo epithets in poetry, the word painted in this concluding stanza would surely deserve an honourable place in it:

He said no more, that sailorman,
But in a reverie
Stared like the figure of a ship
With painted eyes to sea.

Owen Barfield


1 The vocabulary of the critic should not of course be taken as a pointer to the psychology of the poet. In his later life, when I had become acquainted with him, I recall complimenting de la Mare in a letter on his remarkable use of inversions – and receiving the disconcerting reply: “Aren’t inversions natural?” Return.

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