Our Jack

Julian Symons

  • Imagination of the Heart: The Life of Walter de la Mare by Theresa Whistler
    Duckworth, 478 pp, £25.00, May 1993, ISBN 0 7156 2430 X

The year is 1920. Young Denis in Crome Yellow is asked by persistent Mary Bracegirdle which contemporary poets he likes best. The reply comes instantly: ‘Blight, Mildew and Smut’. Mary is taken aback, disbelieving, tries desperately to change what she has heard. Perhaps Denis had really said: ‘Squire, Binyon and Shanks’, ‘Childe, Blunden and Earp’, even ‘Abercrombie, Drink-water and Rabindranath Tagore’? But she knows it is not so: Blight, Mildew and Smut were for Denis the poets of the decade.

Aldous Huxley’s joke against Georgian poetry has lost none of its effectiveness seventy-odd years on. That tireless promoter of the third-rate, Edward Marsh, who edited five Georgian anthologies, thought the period would rank with the great poetic ages of the past, and J.C. Squire invoked the Elizabethans as the only possible comparison. But the prototypical Georgians whose names sprang to Mary Bracegirdle’s mind are neglected or forgotten now because they were unaware of the revolutions in language and vision that marked the beginning of the 20th century. As Wordsworth and Coleridge found it necessary to discard Augustan formality (Wordsworth used for odious comparison a sonnet in which Gray wrote that ‘reddening Phoebus lifts his golden fire’), so the rejection of a decayed Palgravian romanticism, and the stale or weakened language in which it found expression, were prerequisites of writing serious poems a century later. Eliot’s praise of John Davidson’s ‘Thirty Bob a Week’ as ‘the only poem in which Davidson freed himself completely from the poetic diction of English verse of his time’, so that ‘the poem is to me a great poem for ever’ may seem excessive. When one compares Davidson’s colloquial language with the artificial fancifulness of Georgian verse which, in Eliot’s words, caressed everything it touched, it is easy to understand his reaction.

Not all the contributors to the Georgian anthologies were blighted by Marsh’s blessing. Lawrence and Graves seem to have realised from the beginning that poems about bulldogs, naiads and country life (‘Out in the country everyone is wise’: Harold Monro), written with Tennysonian fluency in deliberately ‘poetic’ language, wouldn’t do. Brooke, a poet still not properly appreciated, never wholly succumbed to Georgianism – it was Marsh who gave the title ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’ to the poem originally called ‘The Sentimental Exile’. Walter de la Mare, however, had a less rebellious personality. His biographer says rightly that he was associated with the Georgians but not concerned as they were with the delights of country weekends or ‘bedded violets that fill/March woods with dusky passion’. The dominant notes in his poetry are fantasy and mystery, as expressed in what is probably his most famous poem, ‘The Listeners’. De la Mare’s diction, however, is characteristically Victorian, with some 20th-century overtones. He does not flinch from the most awkward inversions (‘So that her small unconscious face/Looked half unreal to be’), and often drops into the most dismal diction: ‘The far moon maketh lovers wise.’

That is the down side of de la Mare as poet, and there is a good deal of it. The up side is the uneasy thrill given by his poems, like ‘The Listeners’, that outline a situation, describe a place in exact detail, propose a mystery and offer no explanation. Often such poems contain dialogue, sometimes passages of conversation all the more impressive because we do not know who is speaking. It is essential to the poems’ effects that an element of mystery should remain. When asked in old age to explain ‘The Listeners’ de la Mare was evasive; the poem calls for no explanation. Its origins lie in the childlike sense of awe and fearful wonder at the heart of his best work.

This sense of wonder, and of pleasure in the very fact of existence, is apparent, too, in the many enjoyable pieces in his Collected Rhymes and Verses written explicitly for children. As a poet, de la Mare never condescends to the reader, but is more often a participant in what he is describing. The best poems express exaltation, an attempt to reach out beyond the common details of living. Most often he does so instinctively, as in ‘The Listeners’. In later life he sometimes tried to achieve similar effects intellectually, as in the ambitious, continually interesting but finally unsuccessful ‘The Traveller’ of 1945, a poem about the individual psyche and the world outside that might be called his ‘Ancient Mariner’.

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