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’.

‘The Traveller’ stands almost by itself in his poetry. From youth he distrusted the intellect, put his faith in instinct and immediate apprehension. In a lecture given in his late forties he expressed the belief that the most valuable human powers are at their height in childhood, and then slowly decline. The title of Theresa Whistler’s biography is taken from a comparison he made between the imagination of the heart and of the intellect, to the benefit of the former. A still more relevant title would have been ‘Imagination of the Innocent Eye’. He tried, in life and writing, to retain what he believed to be the purity of the childhood vision. The vision was not, like Vaughan’s and Traherne’s, of Eternity, but of eternal childhood.

Walter de la Mare was born in 1873, the sixth of seven children of a clerk in the Bank of England. The family was originally a Huguenot one from Normandy. Walter’s father James married twice. The first marriage was childless, the second made ten years after his wife’s death to Lucy Browning, who was 26 years his junior. The family lived first at a modest house in Charlton, later in a more substantial one in the more convenient suburb of Forest Hill. James and his better-off clergyman brother both died when Jack (as Walter was called) was only four years old, and Lucy was left to bring up the children on an annuity of £60 a year from the Bank, plus perhaps five thousand pounds capital. On this, Theresa Whistler says, she ‘contrived somehow a life that had style and spirit’.

It is not surprising that Jack was devoted to his strong-willed, remarkable mother, nor that he eventually married a woman 11 years his senior, nor that he looked always for a spiritual rather than a physical relationship with women. Whistler suggests that although ‘birth and death were profoundly fascinating mysteries,’ sexuality may have been for him ‘a disappointing and random conjuring trick played by the glands’. Perhaps so: but he had four children, the first conceived before marriage.

The early years recounted here are ordinary enough. A choir-school place at St Paul’s Cathedral (where he was homesick, miserable, at first the subject of bullying) was succeeded by a job as junior clerk at Anglo-American Oil, marriage at 26 to Elfrida, (who was, like himself, a member of the Esperanza Amateur Dramatic Club), children. He worked at Anglo-American Oil for 18 years, leaving home each morning dressed as City gent in silk hat, tailcoat and striped trousers. When he resigned he received a standard gift of silver plate. This career is not made less Pooterish by his change from the written family name of Delamare to the French division of the words. It would be interesting to know what his mother and the rest of the family thought about this. Whistler says only that he ‘probably felt it was more romantic’. And more aristocratic? Certainly more in tune with the aesthete of the Esperanza group, and with the intense desire he felt to put down the fantasies occupying his thoughts in stories and poems.

An interest in the occult, in ghosts and the literally inexplicable, stayed with de la Mare all his life. Theresa Whistler suggests that he may have believed in the existence of fairies, and certainly the idea of their existence delighted him. In writing of such things, how ever, he shied away from the sexual suggestiveness of Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan and The Three Impostors. His innocent eye looked always for the whimsical, the curious, the charming; nothing he wrote in this kind has the creepiness of the best Machen. Whimsicality and conscious charm mark his first full-length work, Henry Broeken, a book soaked in literature from the moment that the hero saddles ‘my uncle’s old mare Rosinante’.

In Henry Brocken, as in most of the verse for children and some of the poems, de la Mare was a childish adolescent having a romp with other children, and saying: ‘Isn’t life fun, and aren’t people fanny?’ That he could do much more, that his powers of observation were remarkable, is evident in a note from 1899:

Saturday 11th ... A little man with a large round head going bald down the forehead. A pigmy waxed moustache too small for the white upper lip, a round and rather long chin. Pale and hollow between nose and cheeks, and bright, colourless, vain eyes. Those eyes he opens wide when he looks and smiles at a woman. A drawling voice and a sneer at the right [‘left’ crossed out] corner of the mouth. He exaggerates to impress his listeners with his own apathy; finds nothing to be admired, considers discontent a mark of worldy wisdom, is too cynical for self-respect and too dull-witted and purblind to be truly cynical. He could be pertinacious and merciless in revenge, brave at bay, perhaps generous on impulse. A Cornishman, a gentleman, and miserable.

Figures seen with this super-real vividness inhabit the finest of the short stories, particularly such later ones as ‘Crewe’ and ‘Missing’.

If the early career is Pooterish, the later years fit conveniently into the literary life of the period. He was rescued from Anglo-American by Henry Newbolt, the best-selling poet who in 1900 founded the Monthly Review, in part to encourage new poets. Newbolt admired the poems de la Mare submitted under the pseudonym Walter Ramal, liked the man himself, and lobbied energetically to get government support that would enable him to give up his job. Newbolt had hoped to get him a Civil List pension, but in the end settled for an outright sum of £200 which, with reviewing assignments plus stories and poems should, he reckoned, keep the writer financially afloat. ‘Plunge and resign,’ Newbolt said, and in the end the doubting de la Mare plunged. He survived, although at first with difficulty. In 1915, he was given a Civil List pension of £100 a year through Edmund Gosse’s influence, and after Rupert Brooke’s death was one of three beneficiaries from his royalties – the other two were Wilfred Gibson and Lascelles Abercrombie. After that there were no more money worries.

Gratitude to Newbolt was natural, and it was natural, too, that de la Mare should have been drawn into what Whistler calls ‘the Newbolt circle’, which was just a little more hidebound in a literary and political sense than the Eddie Marsh circle. The effect on him as a poet was deeply damaging. De la Mare was far more sensitive to the nature of language and the use of words than his versifying friends, but he accepted their standards without question. Writing in 1913 about the Georgians, he, too, compared them with the Elizabethans and was grateful that they posed ‘no anarchic challenge of old ideals’. When he praised a contemporary poet as a ‘prodigious genius’, the genius was Ralph Hodgson, the bowler-hatted pipe-smoker among whose many poems about animals and nature was ‘The Muse and the Mastiff’. De la Mare viewed such figures at first with something like awe. He belonged with other writers to the Square Club, and another member remembered him looking round with childlike pleasure while eating his dinner. ‘Then there would sweep across his face, suddenly and for a breath, a look of bewilderment, and you could see him ask himself what the devil he was doing in that galley.’

The poetic limitations of de la Mare’s innocent vision are suggested by Whistler (though that is not her intention) in a comparison of his ‘Fare Well’ and Housman’s ‘Tell me not here, it needs not saying’, in which she contrasts what she calls Housman’s chilly pessimism with the open-armed embrace of life in phrases like ‘Look thy last on all things lovely,/Every hour.’ But the contrast is not merely philosophical. The second-hand diction in which much of ‘Fare Well’ is written makes it no more than an attractive period piece. Housman sometimes uses verbal forms not altogether up to date, but they are redeemed by a constant wit of phrasing and versification. In de la Mare’s poem, the flower Traveller’s Joy is described simply as an ornament for ‘the rusting harvest hedgerow’. He would have shuddered away from the pun involved in Housman’s comparison of it with ‘hearts that have lost their own’, as he would have avoided the marvellous harshness of Housman’s ‘shouts’ in ‘the cuckoo shouts all day at nothing/In leafy dells alone.’ There is a deliberate force in Housman’s phrasing, here and elsewhere, and an emphasis in his metres, that would have disturbed de la Mare’s constant determination to turn reality into romance.

The ability to perform this conjuring trick marked his relationship with Naomi Royde-Smith, who, when he met her in 1911, was literary editor of the Saturday Westminster Gazette. According to him, their relationship was not sexual, although she said she loved him ‘in every way a woman does love a man’. What seems certain is that the important part of the relationship for him took place in what he called ‘that other Real’. Putting it crudely, he wanted an imaginary Naomi to whom he could write letters (some seven to eight hundred) and poems, rather than the actual forceful and capable woman editor. It seems likely that she was bewildered both by the intense feeling the other Real had stirred up, and its highly literary nature. After four years the relationship faded. She married the actor Ernest Milton and wrote novels. He was left with the memory of an apple they had shared on the first evening spent together in her home. Typically, he called it the magic apple.

This was the last emotional disturbance of de la Mare’s life. His productivity, of poems, stories, anthologies, tales and verses for children, was continuous, and although Whistler says that magic was ‘never again the pitch of his inward life’, the poems show little change in style and no falling off in quality from the volume that made his reputation in 1912. Few are deeply personal, none deals directly with the First World War. In the Twenties, however, he wrote some of his finest stories, as well as the remarkable Memoirs of a Midget.

In the Forties, de la Mare made a selection of what he thought his best stories. Their range comes as a surprise, moving as it does from the subtle account of a breaking marriage in the early ‘The Almond Tree’, through ghost stones like ‘Seaton’s Aunt’ to the blend of reality and fantasy in ‘An Ideal Craftsman’. A liking for fanciful glances at idealistic philosophy is combined in some stories with the accuracy of that eye seeing the little man with the pigmy waxed moustache. A man met in a tea shop (‘Missing’) has ears ‘attached rather high and flat on either side of his conical head’ and close-set eyes that ‘gave his spruce and respectable person just a hint, a glint of the fox’.

The success of Memoirs of a Midget is owed in part to the calmness with which laborious explanations are avoided. This was perhaps the ideal prose form for de la Mare, one in which the outrageously unlikely could be taken for granted without the need of saying why and how. Supposing what seems strange to us were ‘normal’, how odd normality might look. In the Memoirs, Miss M is a midget rather than a dwarf, about two feet tall, accomplished and intelligent. She can be, and is, picked up and carried on occasion, and lives in what is in effect a doll’s house. Although her parents are full-size there is no discussion of any physiological reasons for their production of a midget, and very little of the emotional strain involved. There is no Swiftian scatology, nor is Miss M’s situation played for obvious pathos. When she is orphaned at 20 with very little to live on, our attention is not given to any possible hardships, but to her first journey in a train and the small boy who asks: ‘Mamma, is that alive? ... I want that, mamma, I want that dear little lady.’

There are moments when nastier desires enter, as Miss M is followed down a village street, and sees on some of the watching faces ‘an expression that was not solely curiosity ... a kind of hunger, a dog-like gleam’. But for the most part the melancholy tale of Miss M’s worshipful attachment to beautiful, faithless, full-size Fanny, who casually wrecks the life of the adoring curate Mr Crimble, as well as exploiting the love of ‘Midgetina’, is maintained on a level of puffball lightness, comedy mixed with a sentiment that never jars. We sympathise with Miss M the person, but never feel sorry for the midget. Theresa Whistler thinks Miss M’s passion for Fanny is based on the de la Mare/Royde-Smith relationship, and is ‘as little centred on sex’. The result, anyway, is a small miracle. It makes one eager to read Mr Cat, about a creature who is both cat and human and, we are told, is ‘involved socially in a sinister relationship with a Miss Finch’. But de la Mare must have been aware that he was both sexually and socially on slippery ground in creating such a figure (as he was in the Memoirs), and the book was left unfinished. He shied away from any serious treatment of human evil, simply did not want to know about it – he thought the Nazi concentration camps could be explained only as temporary mass possession by the devil. At Munich he supported Chamberlain, and after the war showed what Whistler calls ‘cast-iron prejudice’ against the Labour Government.

He died in 1956, loaded with honours. He had twice refused a knighthood, but was the only writer of his time to be made a CH and also receive the OM. His ashes are buried in the crypt of St Paul’s. Theresa Whistler knew, loved and admired de la Mare, and her book is written in part as an attempt to retrieve his lowered reputation. Her assessment of his character is often shrewd, as in her analysis of the Royde-Smith affair, but she too often takes his literary genius for granted. Her occasional attempts to demonstrate it leave one thinking that in his lifetime de la Mare was honoured beyond his deserts. This is especially true in relation to the poems, about which her language is often very high-flown.

Looking at the serious work, it seems impossible to regard de la Mare as anything but a writer overvalued by his contemporaries because of his fluency and charm. As a poet he does not belong with Blight, Mildew and Smut, although he had friends among them, but equally his work looks out of place among the major talents of Yeats, Graves and Auden. And although Memoirs of a Midget is a triumph of skill and sensibility, and the best of the short stories are brilliant performances, they hardly add up to a major talent. Perhaps he was aware of this. There is an unusual touch of resentment in his comment, when told that in a display honouring the greatest figures in British poetry at the 1951 Festival of Britain, Eliot was the only modern poet included. De le Mare expressed astonishment. ‘What,’ he said. ‘Our Tom?’