Charles Causley Critical Essays

Causley, Charles

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Causley, Charles 1917–

Causley, an English poet and teacher deeply attached to his own area of Cornwall, is considered a leading force in the revitalization of the ballad form in English poetry. He has written in a personal style of his attitudes towards war, and has also published verse for children. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

The sea-shanty, the ballad, the jaunty narrative have always been [Causley's] forms, outwardly simple, often humorous, always bright and melodious. But his range has widened and deepened…. Causley's earlier brisk ballads sometimes seem a little too resolutely jolly, but he isn't the simple old-fashioned lyrical soul some people take him for. (p. 32)

There is in fact a great deal more art in Causley's work than may appear at first sight. In immediate impact, entertaining speakability, comic attack and even in social comment, he is much superior to the 'pop' poets who use some of the same themes and who may seem to have some of the same appeal. 'Reservoir Street', 'Demolition Order', 'Devonport', and 'Hospital' have a gritty basis of realism, and 'The Visit' a persistence of observation and a finely controlled contempt, that show ambitious areas into which Causley is penetrating. A Causley poem is instantly recognizable and always fresh. (p. 33)

Anthony Thwaite, in his Poetry Today 1960–1973 (© Anthony Thwaite; Longman Group Ltd., for the British Council), British Council, 1973.

Causley, whose "Collected Poems 1951–1975" selects from his seven volumes, is a balladeer, a galloping and even galumphing rhythmicist, and a man who believes that the poeticalities of yesteryear can, by pluck and luck, be at once redeemed. Highly colored, highly blithe, his poetry embarks upon a task which is beyond its talents, true though those are, since it is beyond talent: to tap again the age-old sources which have become clogged, cracked, buried. But in Causley's poetry, the past each time becomes the pastiche time.

             I have a house with chimneys four
             I have a silver bell on the door.
             A single hearth and a single bed.
               Not enough, the hawthorn said.

It would take genius to re-create that world, as something other than a recreation. Causley has much talent and no genius. (p. 6)

Christopher Ricks, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by the New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 11, 1976.

What ever happened to ballads, poems with meter and rhyme, poems that tell stories? These are questions I am often asked, and now I can reply: but a copy of Collected Poems 1951–1975 by Charles Causley … and you'll see…. The book is a great wreath of poems about the sea, children, war, magic and spells, and princesses. He even Kipples now and then. (p. 36)

William Cole, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1976 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), February 7, 1976.

Causley writes quatrains, ballads, strong narratives about the sea and plain people. Occasionally ironic and subtle, his poetry is usually perfectly open and comprehensible. Today, when most poets try so hard to be "experimental" and coy, Causley comes as a shock and may be too quickly dismissed as "easy" and "traditional"—but he is a craftsman who writes words worth reading. (p. 80)

Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1976, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 52, No. 3 (Summer, 1976).

Much that seems strange in [Causley's Collected Poems 1951–1975], I suspect, has local origins. I don't mean the strangeness of the supernatural, of ballads about ghosts and spirits, though there is that too, but the unusual stringency of his language, a violence at times that seems to go beyond what the subject calls for. The speech he hears and makes into poetry is not quite present-day English. In directness of address, in turns of phrase and image, and in a particular quality of imagination, his work reminds me of Scots Gaelic poetry…. Much of it is a poetry of place. But it is hard to say that a Cornish tradition stands behind it, in the sense that one can speak of a Gaelic tradition in the Highlands. Causley does not speak directly about Cornish culture or cultivate the politics of Cornish separatism, as MacDiarmid has done in Scotland. Beyond the feeling that his work is nourished by something more generic than his own sensibility, which sets him somewhat apart from his English contemporaries, there are only hints. (pp. 313-14)

[He] has a poem about William the Conqueror "bringing history under," but which may just as well be an attack on all generals as on the particular general whose victory sealed the fate of Cornish culture.

There are poems in this book that I find hard to read, especially some of the ballads, though the long ballad of "Young Edgcumbe" is so close to the best of the traditional ballads that it makes me forget my own self-consciousness…. The advantage of having a collected edition is that one can read selectively; the reading will be fruitful provided the work comes from a productive system of thought; and there is no need to talk about poorly turned machine parts. What distinguishes Causley's work is its openness, its unselfconsciousness, its disdain of the precious and the overwrought, its crudeness and compression…. The solipsism of so much of contemporary writing leaves us unprepared for a poet who takes common life, that is, our life in common, as a reality outside the poem rather than as a pretext for composition—though the difference between a style and mannerism rests on that distinction. Our vague sophistication also leaves us unprepared for the almost peasant literalism of Causley's religious vision. The poem "Emblems of the Passion" contrasts one who carries emblems in his head with one who sees them in the flesh. In the last stanza, the fleshly one confronts the intellectual:

             Underneath that seamless sky
             Stripped, I met your startled eye,
             Saw your sweating lip, and I
             Whose face was Judas, felt you start
             At the rivers of the heart.

Those lines are as close to the source of Causley's poetry as any in his book. (pp. 314-15)

Richard Pevear, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1976 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXIX, No. 2, Summer, 1976.