Collected Poems Critical Evaluation
by Walter De la Mare

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Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

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Walter de la Mare published his first book of poems, SONGS OF CHILDHOOD, in 1902, his last, O LOVELY ENGLAND, in 1953, three years before his death; and his career, spanning more than half a century, was productive to the end. Since five books of new lyrics and a supplementary volume of earlier verse followed the 1941 edition of his COLLECTED POEMS, this collection cannot in any sense be regarded as complete. Rather, it marks an interval stage of revision and regrouping of work which de la Mare wished to preserve and present in its final form. A number of the poems have been slightly altered from their original versions; others have been regrouped by subject matter, and some have been omitted from earlier single volumes. Most of these have been reprinted in a second series, COLLECTED RHYMES AND VERSES (1944). In the light of these changes it seems certain that at the time the poet considered this volume the definitive edition of his most serious work.

“Delamarian” has come to stand for that blending of supernal beauty and the supernatural, nature and mankind tinged delicately with “theotherworlde,” as Henry C. Duffin, friend and critic of the poet, has styled it. POEMS: 1906 opens on this note in “Shadow”:

Even the beauty of the rose doth cast,When its bright, fervid noon is past,A still and lengthening shadow in thedust,Till darkness comeAnd take its strange dream home.

The poem concludes with recognition of the “dark and livelong hint of death” which is the shadow of life haunting us into eternity. In this first group is another poem, “England,” which presents the other side of his brightest coin:

No lovelier hills than thine have laidMy tired thoughts to rest:No peace of lovelier valleys madeLike peace within my breast.

The poem continues with a celebration of the woods, “a refuge green and cool,” and seas that “like trumpets peal,” and concludes:

Thine be the grave whereto I come,And thine my darkness be.

Neither the sonnets nor the attempts to re-create characters from Shakespeare are equal to de la Mare’s lyric or descriptive poems, though the selections which are recalled from childhood display his unique ability to “become as a little child,” often with startling results, as in “Fear” or “Echo,” in which phantasms arise and will not be put down. Then, too, the lovely idyl which is childhood takes shape in “The Mermaids” and “Myself,” but always with a touch of strangeness, a shadow.

THE LISTENERS (1912) contains the title poem, too well-known to be repeated but beloved by all, and many others which exhibit the same masterly blending of clear, singing music and the twilight atmosphere of a world of fantasy and dreams, qualities that made his poetry popular. “All That’s Past” suggests in modern runes the wonder and antiquity of winds, brooks, minerals, the rose, and immemorial man:

Very old are we men;Our dreams are talesTold in dim EdenBy Eve’s nightingales;We wake and whisper awhile,But the day gone by,Silence and sleep like fieldsOf amaranth lie.

From this past, against the background of “Arabia” or other romantic, distant lands, Walter de la Mare takes his reader on a pilgrimage from light to shadow, from the real to the unreal. “Martha,” one of the unreal, tells stories “in the hazel glen” of fairies and gnomes that the poet makes real. For those who believe that de la Mare is limited in subject and mood, “The Keys of Morning” presents the poignant wisdom of a child, Louisa, who faces death with an understanding beyond that of adults.

MOTLEY (1918) and THE VEIL (1922) mark the maturation of the delamarian style: the most exact and exacting words in the most carefully chosen places, the rhythmic cadences more syllabic than metered, the rhymes more individually and unmistakably set in a perfection of sentiment. Here, too, the poet’s themes match the times, for de la Mare was against the Philistines, “Mrs. Grundy,” and all those who gloat in righteousness. Here is one of the most perfect poems, “Music,” which takes one away from this earth to the place where “all her lovely things even lovelier grow.” The antique though rememberable past comes forth and the poet reaches a synthesis with time.

As critics have remarked, a newer realism is discernible in the later poems. “The Old Angler,” obviously a stylized person, fishes in eternity though he himself, his boat, and his surroundings are often naturalistically displayed. “Titmouse” is an exercise of the physical senses with symbolic overtones:

This tiny son of life; this spright,By momentary Human sought,Plume will his wing in the dapplinglight,Clash timbrel shrill and gay—And into time’s enormous nought,Sweet-fed, will flit away.

In this section great love lyrics appear, and also humor—that most difficult element to place in lyric poetry—as in “Maerchen”:

Soundless the moth-flit, crisp the death-watch tick;Crazed in her shaken arbour bird didsing;Slow wreathed the grease adown fromsoot-clogged wick:The Cat looked long and softly atthe King.

The section closes with “An Epitaph” (de la Mare wrote many such, all wonderful):

Last, Stone, a little yet;And then this dust forget.But thou, fair Rose, bloom on.For she who is goneWas lovely too; nor would she grieve tobeSharing in solitude her dreams withthee.MR0-

THE FLEETING (1933) is full of surprises, new cadences, startling themes, odd forms. “The Feckless Dinner-Party,” for example, contains all these and satiric thrusts against an inane society madly orbiting to death, and led by a butler, Toomes. Here, too, is “Slum Child,” de la Mare’s bitterest criticism of a society which allows a child to go frightened and unloved into “evil, filth, and poverty” as “epitome of man’s disgrace”; yet there is hope of finding “living bread in stones” and “a self beyond surmise.” Echoes of an early note, however, sound with the same chill magic in such a fine though macabre poem as “The House”:

“Mother, it’s such a lonely house,”The child cried; and the wind sighed.“A narrow but a lovely house,”The mother replied.“Child, it is such a narrow house,”The ghost cried; and the wind sighed.“A narrow and a lonely house,”The withering grass replied.

If the poet could not pass a graveyard without stopping, neither can the reader overlook the resulting poems, especially the epitaph of “Isaac Meek” who “inherited the earth” or that of “J-——-H——: Aged 34” who sleeps “Beneath a Motionless Yew,” remembered faintly by his ancient widow.

MEMORY (1938), containing as it does echoes from earlier poems, even a reworking of earlier themes under similar titles, returns to the essential de la Mare of childhood, of ancient ways, of shadows extended backward in time, all expressed in the short lyric, the close-cropped line, the sentient rhyme, the evocative symbol. The title poem suggests that memory is a “strange deceiver” who brings back the relevant and irrelevant, “poor and trivial, rich and rare,” but refuses to yield “grave fact and loveliest fantasy.” The poet then cites, autobiographically though symbolically, instances of memory’s caprices.

The loss of a child, “Sallie’s Musical Box,” is as poignant a short lyric as exists in the language:

Once it made music, tiny, frail, yetsweet—Bead-note of bird where earth and elf-land meet.Now its thin tinkling stirs no more,since sheWhose toy it was, has gone; and takenthe key.MR0-

Here, again, is the earlier theme of lost rapture, but now without the Blakian quality noted in the earlier SONGS OF CHILDHOOD.

Walter de la Mare may have considered this his last volume of poems, published as it was when he was sixty-eight. Fortunately, some of his loveliest writing, like the beautiful and moving “Winged Chariot,” came later. In this book, however, the last lines of the last poem, “Snow,” appropriately epitomize his unique poetry:

A marvel of light,Whose verge of radiance seemsFrontier of paradise,The bourne of dreams.O tranquil, silent, cold—Such loveliness to see:The heart sighs answer,Benedicite!