Walter de la Mare

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Of French Huguenot and Scottish ancestry, Walter John de la Mare (deh-luh-MAYR) was born at Charlton, Kent, April 25, 1873, and died at Twickenham, Middlesex, June 22, 1956. He was educated at St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir School, where he founded The Choristers’ Journal. Though he never went to college, Oxford, Cambridge, and St. Andrews all gave him honorary doctorates. Declining knighthood, he accepted both the Companion of Honor (1948) and the Order of Merit (1953).

In his early days de la Mare used the pseudonym Walter Ramal. In the 1890’s he wrote for such periodicals as The Cornhill Magazine, The Sketch, and The Pall Mall Gazette. For many years he reviewed widely, especially for the London Times Literary Supplement. In 1902, Andrew Lang persuaded Longmans to publish his first book, Songs of Childhood. From 1890 to 1908, de la Mare worked as a statistician for the Anglo-American Oil Company; in later years he devoted all his time to literature. He was married to Constance Ingpen and became the father of four children.

Though friendly and accessible, de la Mare was a very independent writer. He followed his own inspiration and stood apart from literary movements. He was one of the great masters of the supernatural story; as a poet of childhood he was without a peer. His genius was as highly individualized as William Blake’s. De la Mare is best known as a poet; even his prose is essentially the product of a poet’s mind. For all that, more than one critic has called Memoirs of a Midget the greatest British novel of the twentieth century. A prolific writer, he also produced many learned and highly individualized anthologies as well as critical and ruminative works, often difficult to classify.

Memoirs of a Midget has its kinship to the work of Charles Dickens and Emily Brontë, but it is a highly original and distinctive novel. Like de la Mare’s poems, it shows great sensitivity to nature; like many of his tales, it hovers at times on the edge of the supernatural. Essentially, however, it is a serious study of human relationships, centering on the conflict between society and the individual. The reader is absorbed in the life history of Miss M., who longs passionately to share the world on equal terms with other human beings. Readers sympathize intensely with her passionate response to beauty, her consuming desire to know the meaning of life, and they shudder for her when she degrades herself. Though the novel is not didactic, its values are sound and sure, and the world in which its action is staged is a world of unimaginable terrors where the final word is love’s.

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