Theresa Whistler Imagination of the Heart: The Life of Walter de la Mare.
Duckworth (London), 478 pages, £25
reviewed by Michael Glover
When Walter de la Mare turned eighty in 1953, The Times of London described him, in its caption to a large portrait photograph, as this “Genius in our Midst.” Forty years on, that genius has largely been forgotten—due, in no small part, to the vicissitudes of fashion. Long overdue, this is the first major biography of an important twentieth-century English poet, anthologist, and short-story writer.
De la Mare was born in the outer suburbs of London in 1873. His family, of French Huguenot descent, was middle-class and relatively impoverished. Poetry was the pole of his spiritual compass from early childhood, but as a young man he had precious little time to devote to his own literary interests. His first employment was as an accounts clerk with Rockefeller’s Standard Oil in the City of London, and there he remained, earning a miserable pittance of a living that barely supported his young family, for almost twenty years.
In the 1890s, he played, in dress and demeanor, at being the Nineties aesthete, wearing a foppish cravat and top hat to work. He was already beginning to write stories, though the time available—moments snatched between assignments at work or at the fag end of the very long working day—was always too brief. A gentle, private, fastidious, hypochondriacal man of medium height, he was always passionately interested in the psychology of the murderer, and these ghoulish preoccupations found an outlet in many of his earliest attempts at prose fiction.
The poetry was another matter altogether. De la Mare’s poetry, like his private self, owed its greatest debt to childhood, his own and the imagined childhoods of others. Like his great friend the short-story writer Katherine Mansfield, he placed great value on the child-self, the marvelous freshness of its perceptions, the windows it seemed capable of opening onto alternative realities. His language, from first to last, showed a penchant for “the brocaded and the arcane,” as his biographer puts it. In his pursuit of the truths of visionary worlds, he made no concessions to the twentieth-century fashion (in poetry and much else) for the language of the everyday. The impulses that coaxed him to write—make-believe, dreams, free associations—served as a kind of bridge between childhood and maturity. As for Keats before him, poetry remained for de la Mare something “divine, miraculous and essential.”
By the 1920s, literary success had arrived in plenty, and he was living in an atmosphere of crowded sociability. He numbered among his friends and acquaintances some of the most celebrated literary figures of the day —G. K. Chesterton, J. M. Barrie, Thomas Hardy, and Sir Henry Newbolt (the grandfather of de la Mare’s biographer). It was Newbolt, a life-long sponsor, who succeeded in gaining him a Civil List pension from the British Government, which enabled him to shuck the greasy harness of Standard Oil once and for all. Hardy thought de la Mare’s poem “The Listeners,” first published in book form in 1912, one of the finest of the century:
‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the
Of the forest’s ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second
‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.
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:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark
’Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:—
‘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
From the one man left awake:
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 Listeners and Other Poems was published by Constable in May 1912. It was a small production—a mere 5 ½ inches high, with square red covers—and de la Mare didn’t entirely approve of it. It resembles “a provincial Sunday School prize,” he said. De la Mare always had difficulty coming to terms with the release of his material into the public domain. Once published, it was beyond revision—and beyond redemption, perhaps. A publisher’s acceptance of a manuscript always affected him in the same way: it would be followed by profound feelings of unease and lowness. As he wrote in a letter of the time: “I think I must feel something like the little boy who sees the poor rabbit he has petted and fed brought in smoking on a dish. I didn’t want them killed & I wanted them much nicer!”
Fortunately, the reviews of the book were very favorable. Edmund Gosse, whose approval was a kind of imprimatur for a young writer, said that he was “charmed with the music and the fancy, and with the delicate, high, pure region of feeling in which your poetry moves.”
The Listeners is perhaps the most satisfying of all de la Mare’s collections of poetry. The short lyrics seem to nourish one another; the elements of the fanciful—as in Shakespeare’s songs—have a warm and humanizing aura. The human itself takes on the patina of strangeness. The experience of the poet’s own inner life seems to communicate itself on every page. He had described something similar in a letter of the previous year: “Now and again over one’s mind comes the glamour of a kind of visionary world saturating this.”
The title poem became so popular an anthology piece that, after a time, de la Mare refused to grant permission for it to be reprinted any longer. It had become a tour de force; he wished not to be wholly characterized by a single poem. And he had grown weary of the many requests to explain what it meant. How it is said is what it means, he would expostulate; or, he would patiently explain that each new encounter with a poem is that particular experience and no other. On one occasion, however, in response to a letter from an old blind friend in Canada, he wrote in surprising detail on the subject:
As to “The Listeners”—I have frequently been asked to expound its meaning and in reply have usually suggested that the very kind enquirer should keep to any meaning he may himself have been able to find in it. As Lewis Carroll once said, in a letter in connection with something in the Alices, I fancy, “Since words mean more than one means when one An Index to The New Criterion, volumes 1–10, September 1982–June 1992, is available from the Office Manager. $12.50 postpaid. uses them, I shall be very pleased to accept whatever meanings you may have discovered” in mine, something to that effect. This, I know, is not much better than a getaway. Moreover (quite between ourselves, of course!), I am now a little vague concerning what was the intended meaning of those particular lines. Its rudiments, I think, were that the Traveller is a reincarnation revisiting this world beneath the glimpses of the moon, and there asking the same old unanswerable questions of the Listeners—only conceived but never embodied —who forever frequent, it would seem, this earthly existence, but then are even these rudiments definable—from the poem? Every poem, of course, to its last syllable is its meaning; to attempt any paraphrase of the poem is in some degree to change that meaning and its effect on the imagination, —and often disastrously. What the poem (or even a letter for that matter) means is inherent in its terms and (however wide their implications may be) that meaning is nothing less and nothing different. 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 a 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.
Well, well, I didn’t intend to make such a fuss as all this.
Questions relating to obscurity and elusiveness of meaning are ones that are being posed perpetually by readers of poetry; but the obscurity of a de la Mare is of a wholly other order from the obscurity of an Ezra Pound. In the case of Pound, the poet has deliberately, willfully concealed his sources in order to tantalize the reader; in order to prove that the poet’s own intellectual credentials are as far removed from the poor reader’s as God’s wisdom is from man’s. With de la Mare, the elusiveness has nothing to do with unseemly flourishes of recondite learning—it is part and parcel of that aura of mystery that it is the poem’s intention to evoke. There is an open-endedness here— but no sense of cultural exclusivity.
Though he traveled far in his imagination, throughout his long life de la Mare lived a relatively sedentary existence in relatively small houses. He disliked—even feared— the notion of Abroad, though he had a great love for the railways, seeing them as a symbol of man’s transience, perpetually thrown amongst strangers. Smallness itself intrigued him—in fact, he liked nothing better than to store grains of detail in his notebook for future use. “Nothing much happens outside,” he once wrote, “but a good deal inside: more at times than I can manage to get even with.” He didn’t require sublimity—merely a world seen through a keyhole into a suburban garden. He was a free-thinker, but never outwardly rebellious. And so he continued, steady as one of his beloved steam engines, weaving sinister tales in prose, writing poems of childhood and enchantment, without much perceptible change, from late-Victorian times until the 1950s.
And when, back in 1912, Ezra Pound, tirelessly rambunctious as ever, was urging his fellow writers to “make it new” by throwing off the shackles of the recent past, its arcane language, its outmoded psychologies, Walter de la Mare, that gentle heir to the Romantic tradition, was just coming into his own. They represent two entirely opposing worlds that, somehow, managed to co-exist without violence.
This biography is an unusual one insofar as it has been written by a woman who knew de la Mare and his family very well over a considerable number of years. Unlike the majority of biographies written in our times, it is not the product of two years’ research; it has not been dashed off in haste against some importunate publisher’s deadline. Theresa Whistler has thought long and hard about her subject. She has stared at him, listened to him, read him, and, above all, reflected upon him—and, in consequence, she has produced a work of profound and sympathetic rehabilitation.
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