‘Is there anybody there?’ the Traveller asks in ‘The Listeners’, Walter de la Mare’s poem from 1912. It’s a question that at first seems to go unanswered, for the mysterious silent inhabitants sequestered behind the moonlit door on which he raps refuse to reveal themselves or to respond to him out loud. As often happens in the recessed, shadowy, fugitive world of de la Mare’s lyrics, we experience their presence through negatives:
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men
And yet communication between Traveller and listeners does occur; they hear his call, which leaves the air on the ‘dark stair’ and in the ‘empty hall’ of the ‘lone house’ ‘stirred and shaken’, while their failure to answer is experienced by the Traveller as a response in itself: ‘And he felt in his heart their strangeness,/Their stillness answering his cry.’ The parting command that he issues pushes still further the enigmas and paradoxes on which the poem floats, for the listeners are compelled to tell themselves that the Traveller has fulfilled his role in some quest narrative that ends with them; and his departure is into a void where success and failure, speech and silence, dream and consciousness are reconfigured according to some logic that is impossible to grasp:
‘Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,’ he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake
Yet ‘The Listeners’ is also full of properties and details that register as vivid or substantial: the Traveller’s horse champs on ‘the grasses/Of the forest’s ferny floor’, while his knocking and smiting surprise a bird that flies up from a turret above his head; we learn that his eyes are grey, and that when he remounts to leave, the listeners hear ‘his foot upon the stirrup,/And the sound of iron on stone’.
Like much of de la Mare’s best work, ‘The Listeners’ both stimulates and evades the urge to impose on it a coherent and clarifying interpretation, leaving the reader as ‘perplexed’ as its protagonist, as haunted as its ‘lone house’. Time and again he was called on to explain what his signature poem was really about, to which he would reply that ‘every poem, of course, to its last syllable is its meaning,’ or variations thereof. This comes from a 1944 letter to a Canadian reader in which de la Mare holds forth with Coleridgean eloquence on poetry’s limitless potency, which he contrasts with the factual world of science:
In the finest poems the meaning fairly fizzles and rays out in every direction. It is the primal cell capable of infinite subdivision and of innumerable potentialities. It is the expression of a sort of plastic individual truth immerged in beauty: whereas the scrap of science is for the time being a self-contained announcement of what is an ascertained fact – universally provable by those intelligent enough to comprehend it. You can’t prove a poem; it proves you.
Although an early sonnet called ‘The Happy Encounter’ depicts Science as a shaggy, myopic, squealing hog, being stroked and refreshed by Poetry until they are eventually able to peer into each other’s eyes and rejoice in all they have in common, de la Mare’s enchanted world of fairies and knights and flowers, of music and dreams and magic, of childhood and animals and ghosts, of travellers and decaying gardens and abandoned houses, is best understood as an escape from all that science would bring to our attention. While contemporaries such as Eliot or Pound yearned to attribute to the modern poet the objectivity of a professional scientist, as illustrated by Eliot’s famous comparison in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ of a poet’s mind in action with what happens ‘when a bit of finely filiated platinum is introduced into a chamber containing oxygen and sulphur dioxide’, de la Mare deliberately and exquisitely remixed the archaic codes of 19th-century lyricism and nonsense verse into an idiom that rigorously excludes most facets of modernity. As late as his 1953 collection O Lovely England (the title is wholly unironic), he makes unashamed use of ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ and ‘’twixt’ and ‘ev’n’; and when he does on occasion address public issues beyond the twilit, Rackham-ish medium that he made his own, one normally wishes he hadn’t: the title poem of his final volume, for instance, recalls Kipling’s patriotic hymns to empire and is unlikely to find favour with contemporary readers:
Earth’s ardent life incites you yet
Beyond the encircling seas;
And calls to causes else forlorn,
The children at your knees:
May their brave hearts in days to come
Dream unashamed of these!
While this is not exactly a call to take up the white man’s burden, the adjective ‘unashamed’ does push back firmly against incipient imperial guilt and the rhetoric of decolonisation.
The Complete Poems of Walter de la Mare, published in 1969, runs to almost nine hundred pages and includes more than a thousand poems. Of these William Wootten has culled 48, plus an extract from the late, long poem Winged Chariot. Each is followed by an astute and informative commentary that braids together relevant facts from de la Mare’s life, extracts from his other writings, and detailed attention to metrical subtleties and verbal effects. As Wootten ruefully acknowledges, ‘Time’s wingèd chariot’ (the phrase is from Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’) has not dealt kindly with de la Mare since his death in 1956, and this edition is premised on the notion that, to do his work justice, we need precise and careful guidance of the sort usually called for by the self-evidently ‘difficult’ modernist poets of his era. In a perceptive essay from 2011, Eric Ormsby argued that if de la Mare’s poems ‘sound stilted or quaintly vague, that may be because we no longer know how to read him’. Before reading Wootten’s careful and illuminating analyses of the poems, I would probably have concurred with F.R. Leavis who, in 1932, dismissed de la Mare’s work as a ‘belated’ last throw of the romantic dice, offering the sort of ‘insidious enchantment’ that the stern Eliot-schooled modern reader ought to resist. I.A. Richards, one of the earliest proponents of the sort of close reading that Wootten so skilfully applies to de la Mare’s lyrics, was also scathing in Science and Poetry (1926) but, some fifty years later, recanted in an essay that praised de la Mare’s rhythms as ‘haunting’ (perhaps the key term both in de la Mare’s vocabulary and in the work of those who write about him), ‘as living presences embodying what the poems are doing’.
It is not easy, however, to explain how rhythms are either ‘haunting’ or ‘living presences’, certainly within the pseudo-scientific template made popular by Richards in his early work and later appropriated by the New Critics. By and large, academic criticism has not found much to say about de la Mare, although his illustrious admirers have ranged from Virginia Woolf to Derek Walcott, from Robert Frost to W.H. Auden, from Thomas Hardy to T.S. Eliot, not to speak of confrères such as Edward Thomas, Rupert Brooke and Henry Newbolt. Ezra Pound, although savage in his denunciation of the use of idioms or phrases such as ‘dim lands of peace’ – locutions that abound in de la Mare – still found that on occasion volumes such as Peacock Pie or The Listeners truly hit the spot. This is from a review called ‘In Metre’ published in 1913:
If you try to read de la Mare he simply declines to impress you. If you keep de la Mare on your shelf until the proper time, a time when all books disgust you and when you are feeling slightly pathetic, you may open him querulously. And gradually, your over-modernised intellect being slightly in abeyance – if you are favoured of the gods – it may dawn on your more intelligent self that Mr de la Mare is to be prized above many blustering egoists.
Eliot experienced a similar conversion while attending a large charitable poetry reading in which de la Mare participated; he found himself struck by de la Mare’s ‘conversational tone’, he remarked in a letter, as if the poet, despite his manifold use of archaisms, were ‘talking to a few friends, but talking poetry’. ‘To Walter de la Mare’, commissioned for a 75th birthday tribute volume, is the penultimate poem in Eliot’s Collected from 1963 (his death-bed edition, so to speak) and pays thoughtful tribute to de la Mare’s ‘deceptive cadences/Wherewith the common measure is refined’ – a reworking of the phrase in ‘Little Gidding’ about those ‘impelled’ to ‘purify the dialect of the tribe’ (itself borrowed from Mallarmé). Indeed, while Eliot and de la Mare may seem like polar opposites, and de la Mare was wholly impervious to the delights of modernism, Eliot’s imagery in this poem suggests a kinship between de la Mare’s poetic terrain and that of Four Quartets, and in particular between the empty grounds of ‘Burnt Norton’ and de la Mare’s elegiac depictions of abandoned manors: ‘Or when the lawn’, Eliot writes,
Is pressed by unseen feet, and ghosts return
Gently at twilight, gently go at dawn,
The sad intangible who grieve and yearn;
When the familiar scene is suddenly strange
Or the well known is what we have yet to learn,
And two worlds meet, and intersect, and change
It’s as if Eliot’s and de la Mare’s poetic worlds were themselves being shown to ‘intersect’.
Nevertheless, and despite the spirited advocacy of W.H. Auden, who published several reviews of de la Mare volumes in the 1950s and edited and introduced a Selected that came out in 1963, his constituency has dwindled to a sturdy band of ‘old-fashioned lovers of poetry’, as Wootten puts it, along with the under-twelves. The ability to write effective, durable poetry for children is in fact a gift bestowed on few, and even fewer produce lyrics and rhymes that rival the composite ‘author’ that de la Mare most admired, Anon. Her/his/their works are copiously sampled in the choices that make up Come Hither (1923), a volume edited by de La Mare that played a major role in the young Auden’s poetic education and was acclaimed by Elizabeth Bishop as ‘the best anthology I know of’. ‘I wish I were Mr Anon,’ de la Mare once remarked in a letter, ‘unknown, beloved, perennial, ubiquitous, in that very wide shady hat of his and dark dwelling eyes’. While the nonsense verse of Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear or Stevie Smith is always immediately identifiable, de la Mare’s rhymes often seem both to aim at and to achieve the anonymity of a skipping song. The opening rhyme of Peacock Pie is a good example:
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.
Like Delta blues lyrics, de la Mare’s rhymes rework traditional images into new combinations without imparting to them a scintilla of his own concerns or personality. Metrically flawless, ‘The Horseman’ slides into the reader’s consciousness and incarnates the impossible romance of childhood longing, the mixture of yearning for what is ‘over the hill’ with delight in the chivalric properties of silver helm, pale knight and horse of ‘ivory’.
Much of de la Mare’s best poetry occupies a curious border territory between childhood innocence and adult regret. The incantatory metres serve to untether the poems from all that would interrupt readerly absorption, but as Wootten demonstrates, all manner of sophisticated, often disturbing themes get broached and explored. The title of Peacock Pie is taken from ‘The Song of the Mad Prince’, which reworks ‘Who Killed Cock Robin?’:
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.
Who said, ‘Ay, mum’s the word’?
Sexton to willow:
Who said, ‘Green dusk for dreams,
Moss for a pillow’?
Who said, ‘All Time’s delight
Hath she for narrow bed;
Life’s troubled bubble broken’?
That’s what I said.
This poem was included in the tribute volume presented to Thomas Hardy in 1919 by more than forty of his admirers, and in his letter of thanks Hardy confessed to de la Mare that this poem had for him ‘a meaning almost too intense to speak of’. No doubt Hardy connected the woman obliquely elegised here with his own first wife, Emma, and its elliptical suggestions of guilt with his own remorseful elegiac sequence, ‘Poems 1912-13’. Wootten suggests that marital infidelity may also lurk in the hinterland of this latter-day Hamlet’s riddling, for it was written at the height of de la Mare’s infatuation with the editor and novelist Naomi Royde-Smith, an intense but probably platonic affair that, while tolerated by de la Mare’s wife, certainly disturbed the couple’s otherwise placid family life in the London suburbs. The prince’s madness licenses an intriguing melange of dictions, from the colloquial (‘mum’s the word’) to the compressed lyricism of ‘Green dusk for dreams’ to the penultimate line’s stuttering euphemism for death that conveys dignifying pathos along with the disquieting possibility that the speaker may be somehow responsible for her life’s ‘troubled bubble’ getting ‘broken’, as Hamlet was for Ophelia’s death. It’s the sort of poem that might have found a place in André Breton’s anthology of humour noir, along with Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’ and Carroll’s ‘Lobster Quadrille’, although Surrealism didn’t appeal to de la Mare any more than The Waste Land did. The late Victorian folk music revival spearheaded by Cecil Sharp is a more germane context for de la Mare’s use of nonsense and nursery rhymes than any of the 20th-century movements ending in -ism; and ‘The Song of the Mad Prince’ illustrates how creepy and potent such rhymes could be when skilfully repurposed.
De la Mare hero-worshipped Hardy, whom he first visited at Max Gate in June 1921. As was his wont, Hardy took him to the graves of Emma and his parents and sister in Stinsford churchyard, where de la Mare watched him scrape off the moss from their tombstones with a homemade implement contrived for that purpose. They shared an interest in ghosts and graveyards, in remote rural dwellings and lost or vanishing folk traditions. Poem after poem by both takes as a theme some fundamental loss or absence:
Nought gold where your hair was;
Nought warm where your hand was;
But phantom, forlorn,
Beneath the thorn,
Your ghost where your face was.
That’s de la Mare, but the symmetries and rhymes and diction, along with its evocation of a phantom standing in for a bitterly missed beloved, were also Hardy’s stock in trade. Both, it’s also worth pointing out, left school at sixteen, but while Hardy’s years as an architectural draftsman were hugely important to both his fiction and his poetry, de la Mare’s eighteen years on the payroll of Anglo-American Oil, owned by J.D. Rockefeller, were a gruelling drudge. A minor clerk in the Statistics Department, he spent his days copying documents and adding up figures, and his nights reading and writing into the small hours. At first Walter Ramal, his early pen name, found literary London a hard nut to crack; it was not until 1908, four years after his debut as a novelist and two years after the publication of his first book of poetry under his own name, that, buoyed by the receipt of a grant of £200 secured for him by Newbolt, he finally determined to resign and provide for his wife and family of four on what he could earn as a freelance writer and publisher’s reader.
Eliot’s stint in the Colonial and Foreign Department of Lloyds Bank provided him with many of the characters, sights and sounds that he transposed into The Waste Land, but de la Mare found nothing poetic in the ‘endless Sahara’ of his days as a city oil man. Nor does London as a whole feature much in his work, although he was a South Londoner born and bred, growing up in Charlton and Forest Hill, and then renting terraced houses in Beckenham, Anerley and Penge. When London place names do crop up, they tend to have their origins in nursery rhymes:
Down the Hill of Ludgate,
Up the Hill of Fleet,
To and fro and East and West
With people flows the street;
Even the King of England
On Temple Bar must beat
For leave to ride to Ludgate
Down the Hill of Fleet.
Wren’s arched gateway had in fact been pulled down in 1878, some 35 years before this poem was published in Peacock Pie. As the notes to Come Hither illustrate, de la Mare was something of an antiquary who sought out odds and ends from the past, and in their quirky way his collections can feel as obsessed with the strata of history as the great masterpieces of modernism.
The elegiac strain in de la Mare’s lyrics is often in tension with the urge to celebrate the passing on or sharing of experience or pleasure. His silences and stillnesses and solitudes shimmer and ripple with the after waves of some exchange, like that between Traveller and listeners. At the end of that poem he invites us to hear the return of the silence that the Traveller’s cry and knocking and galloping horse have broken:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.
The fragility of the Victorian belief-system bequeathed to early 20th-century writers found expression in any number of wistful Edwardian quests for a ‘lost England’, somehow lurking in Howards End or the haunted garden of Kipling’s ‘They’ or the Neverland of Peter Pan. De la Mare inhabited that wistfulness not only because he was poetically averse to embracing modernity, but because it suited his technical gifts, and because his exquisite attention to detail and rhythm allowed him to invest wistfulness itself with a refreshing energy. The opening stanza of ‘All That’s Past’, with its breaking buds and waking winds, illustrates how the act of lament could itself galvanise the old into something living:
Very old are the woods;
And the buds that break
Out of the brier’s boughs,
When March winds wake,
So old with their beauty are –
Oh, no man knows
Through what wild centuries
Roves back the rose.
De la Mare tried out ‘roams’, ‘roots’ and ‘climbs’ before settling on ‘roves’ in the final line; and the word effectively twins his own roving back through Tennyson and centuries of lyric nature poetry to ‘the wild rose shoots tangling back across time to the primal hip’, as he put it in a letter explaining what he wanted this last line to mean. As in explicitly valedictory pieces such as ‘Fare Well’ and ‘Good-Bye’, the archaic inversions evoke a past that the intricacies of de la Mare’s syntax juggle into an invigorating dialogue with the present.
The Edwardian fantasy of a ‘lost England’ and its offshoot, the rural idyll of the Georgian poets, inevitably fed into the military rhetoric committing John Bull to ending once and for all the Kaiser’s overweening ambitions. Volunteers marched off to war with a copy of A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad in their kitbags, and the nation’s hearts were stirred by Brooke’s patriotic sonnets, particularly the proleptic self-elegy ‘The Soldier’, in which he imbues his own body with pastoral nationalism:
There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam
Edward Thomas, when asked by Eleanor Farjeon what he was fighting for, stooped, gathered a pinch of earth and replied: ‘Literally, for this.’
De la Mare and Thomas first met in 1907, in a Mecca café near de la Mare’s Anglo-American Oil office: ‘Gulliver himself,’ de la Mare recalled in his foreword to Thomas’s Collected Poems,
could hardly have looked a stranger phenomenon in Lilliput than he appeared in Real-Turtle-Soup-Land – his clothes, his gait, his face, his bearing. We sat and talked, the dams down, in a stale underground city café, until the tactful waitresses piled chairs on the marble-topped tables around us as a tacit hint that we should soon be outstaying our welcome.
Over the next decade, their friendship matured into the most important literary relationship of de la Mare’s life. A sentence from a prose tribute to Thomas published the year after his death in April 1917 suggests the extent to which de la Mare believed the two shared similar compositional processes: ‘Mere observation will detect the salient sharply enough; only a passive, half-conscious reverie will at last win to and share in the life itself.’ Melancholy was undoubtedly a major element in the ‘passive, half-conscious reverie’ that generated their poems, and in the first of his two elegies for Thomas, ‘To E.T.: 1917’, de la Mare implies that it was also the dominant factor in Thomas’s decision, at the age of 37, to enlist. The depression-prone soldier-poet’s quest for a ‘longed-for peace’ is juxtaposed with the response of de la Mare’s young son to the loss of his godfather:
You sleep too well – too far away,
For sorrowing word to soothe or wound;
Your very quiet seems to say
How longed-for a peace you have found.
Else, had not death so lured you on,
You would have grieved – ’twixt joy and fear –
To know how my small loving son
Had wept for you, my dear.
The poem’s conceit is somewhat more complex than it looks; the second quatrain develops a comforting, if peculiar, fantasy: if Thomas could see the effect of his death on de la Mare’s small loving son, he himself would grieve, but in a richly oscillating way, ‘’twixt joy and fear’. This particular ‘half-conscious reverie’ achieves the familiar de la Marean equilibrium of obliquely imagined exchange – an equilibrium that is wholly at odds with the death-drive so in evidence in late Thomas poems such as ‘Rain’ or ‘Out in the Dark’. De la Mare had in fact just returned from the first of his lecture tours of America, where he had also collected a posthumous award for Brooke, when he learned of Thomas’s death, which he experienced as an overwhelming catastrophe. ‘Nobody in this world closely resembling him have I ever had the happiness to meet,’ he reflected in his foreword; ‘So, when he died, a ghost of one’s self went away with him.’
It was Brooke’s death in Greece two years earlier, however, that had the greater impact on de la Mare’s own circumstances. Brooke made de la Mare, along with Wilfrid Gibson and Lascelles Abercrombie, a beneficiary of all future royalties from his publications, which, when added to the Civil List pension of £100 that he began receiving in 1915, considerably eased his financial worries. Of the postwar volumes Wootten is most drawn to Memory (1938), published on the eve of another war, and in a decade that saw the Auden generation rise to prominence. One might have thought that de la Mare represented much that Auden’s cohort despised and felt had to be swept away for the nation to be reborn, both poetically and politically, but Auden was to emerge as one of his staunchest champions. In his inaugural lecture as Professor of Poetry at Oxford in 1956 (the year de la Mare died) he praised Come Hither as a glorious repository of ‘unofficial poetry’ and as enabling him to realise that ‘poetry does not need to be great or even serious to be good.’ And the technician in Auden admired ‘the delicacy of his metrical fingering and the graceful architecture of his stanzas’, a quote featured on the back of this edition. One hopes that Wootten’s judicious selection of de la Mare’s poems – and the eloquent case that he makes for each of them – will raise his dismal ranking in current poetry hierarchies. A conference on his work held at Cambridge in 2018, with proceedings to be published next year, suggests that even academic critics are now inclined to get entangled in what Eliot called in the last lines of his poetic tribute to de la Mare ‘the delicate, invisible web you wove –/The inexplicable mystery of sound’.