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Walter de la Mare.

Walter de la Mare (1873-1956), roughly a contemporary of Robert Frost but by temperament more akin to Thomas Hardy and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was too poor to continue his education beyond St. Paul's Cathedral Choir School in London, and became a bookkeeper at an English branch of Standard Oil, at which cheerless work he continued for 18 years. By the age of 35 he had published his first collection of poems anonymously, and the first of his five novels, one of which, Memoirs of a Midget, published in 1921, is a brilliant, moving and unsettling work. He is also the compiler of that extraordinary "collection of rhymes and poems for the young of all ages" called Come Hither, one of the finest anthologies of poetry for young readers, and one that deeply enriched the youthful reading of W. H. Auden. Later Auden was to write with characteristic shrewdness of "the delicacy of his metrical fingering and the graceful architecture of his stanzas." De la Mare's poetry is richly, sometimes dreamily, melodic, and the subtlety and skill of his prosody probably derives in part from his familiarity with folk literature and traditional English nursery rhymes. Witness the rifles of some of his books: Songs of Childhood (1902), A Child's Day: A Book of Rhymes to Pictures by C. W. Cadby (1912), Peacock Pie: A Book of Rhymes (1913), Down-adown-derry: A Book of Fairy Poems (1922), and Poems for Children (1930). But readers should immediately be warned against supposing such rifles promise a poetry that is "twee" or sentimental. De la Mare was keenly aware that the imagination of a child is haunted by spirits, ghosts, crime, and danger, as well as by moods of deep sorrow and overpowering fear. And, of course, other volumes of his verse (The Listeners, Motley, The Veil, The Fleeting) are not concerned with children nor addressed to them.

Though de la Mare is not much noticed or praised these days, and his work is absent from a number of standard anthologies, it is worth remembering that he was once much honored, and his words resounded in the ears of a considerable readership. When C. K. Scott Moncrieff turned Marcel Proust into English, he transformed the tire of the whole work, A la recherche du temps perdu, into a well-known phrase from one of Shakespeare's sonnets, Remembrance of Things Past; and when he transformed the rifle of one of that work's sections, Albertine disparue, into an English phrase that also would generate literary resonance, he turned to the last line of a poem of de la Mare's for The Sweet Cheat Gone (from "The Ghost").

The British Crown made the poet a Companion of Honor in 1948, and he was named a member of the Order of Merit in 1953 and an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Perhaps more tellingly still, his fellow O.M., T. S. Eliot, in a tribute prepared for de la Mare's 75th birthday, composed the following poem:

When the nocturnal traveler can arouse No sleeper by his call; or when by chance An empty face peers from an empty house,

By whom: and by what means was this designed? The whispered incantation which allows Free passage to the phantoms of the mind?

By you: by those deceptive cadences Wherewith the common measure is refined; By conscious art practiced with natural ease;

By the delicate invisible web you wove - An inexplicable mystery of sound.

Eliot draws attention to "deceptive cadences," and truly de la Mare's prosody deserves the most careful and reverent study. But Eliot also points to "The whispered incantation which allows/Free passage to the phantoms of the mind," and which concerns the summoning up of the uncanny, some spectral world within and about us. This fascination with the darker imaginative realms has not always been looked upon with critical approval. I. A. Richards regretted that "no intimation of the contemporary situation sounds" in de la Mare's poetry, and goes on to say that "he is writing of, and from, a world which knows nothing of these difficulties, a world of pure fantasy for which the distinction between knowledge and feeling has not yet dawned," which sounds suspiciously like an accusation of emotional and mental backwardness. And even when, as sometimes happens, de la Mare allows some brutal reality to invade his poems, Richards declares that he voices "an impulse to turn away, to forget it, to seek shelter in the warmth of his own familiar thickets of dream, not to stay out in the wind. His rhythm, that indescribable personal note which clings to all his best poetry, is a lulling rhythm, an anodyne, an opiate, it gives sleep and visions, phantasmagoria; but it does not give vision, it does not awaken."

The tone here is that of a grumpy teacher, scolding some youth who has failed to concentrate on the table of logarithms. In essence, Richards is charging de la Mare with writing a sort of unmanly, escapist poetry. Indictments of the same sort were once brought against Yeats as well as Keats. And it is not easy to reconcile this charge with such a poem as "In the Dock," which is included here. In any case, the richly evocative voice, the metrical inventiveness and syntactical ingenuity, the lovely imaginative power and slightly dated locutions, the archaic charm of a world steeped in mystery, are to be encountered in the first, enchanting stanza of "All That's Past":

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.
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Title Annotation:profile of a poet
Author:Hecht, Anthony
Publication:The Wilson Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 1997
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