The poetry of Walter de la Mare falls superficially into two groups: poetry for children and poetry for adults. This obvious and misleading division is unfortunate, however, because many readers have come to think of de la Mare as principally an author for children. Much of his poetry is intended for an adult readership; that which is meant for children is complex enough in theme to satisfy demanding adult readers. Much misunderstanding of the nature of de la Mare’s poetry comes from its childlike response to the world. De la Mare distinguishes between the typically childlike and adult imaginations. Children, he contends, view the world subjectively, making and remaking reality according to their egocentric desires. Adults are more analytical and tend to dissociate themselves from reality; they try to observe reality objectively. De la Mare prefers the childlike view, an inductive rather than deductive understanding of the world. Reality, he believes, is revealed through inspiration, an essentially subjective aspect of human imagination. The modern vogue of discussions of “higher planes of reality” would have had little meaning for de la Mare, but he would approve the notion that there is a reality beyond that which can be objectively observed. Time and nature are tyrants who rule humankind. Their effects can be observed, but they in themselves cannot. To understand the reality of time and nature, the poet uses his imaginative insight. In pursuit of such insight, de la Mare studied dreams; as a poet he strove to describe the world as if observing it while in a walking dream. He attempted to observe as he imagined a child might observe, and because childhood involves a continual discovery of both the physical reality and the spiritual reality of nature, de la Mare’s poetry is alive with discovery, wonder, and—as discovery often brings—disappointment with the imperfections of the world.
De la Mare wrote more than a thousand poems over more than half a century. In any such body of work, written during a long lifetime, one can rightly expect to find much diversity in subject and tone. De la Mare’s work is no exception. Although he was a lyric poet all his life, his work shifted from short poems to long ones, and his prosody increased in complexity. To read the body of de la Mare’s poetry is to experience a mind of diverse and passionate interests, with some of those interests unifying the whole of the poet’s verse. De la Mare was a careful craftsman whose verse rhythms can disturb and delight wherever the content of a poem dictates. He loved children and strove to experience the world like a child, inductively. He saw the world of everyday experience as only part of a greater universe; he believed in spirits and a supernatural world. He saw great value in nature, even if it could be indifferent to human suffering.
These beliefs and passions enliven de la Mare’s work, forming a background that colors all his poems. If his poetry may be said to deliver a particular message, it is one that is at once simple and complex in its implications, like his verse: People are partly spiritual and thus should never be indifferent to evil, should love innocence, and should understand that each person is greater than he or she appears.
De la Mare’s interest in childlike inspiration led him to write poetry for children. His respect for childlike imagination is reflected in the absence of condescension in his children’s verse. In fact, most of it resembles that which he wrote for adults, although his diction is at a level that children can understand. All the major concerns of de la Mare’s intellectual life are expressed in his children’s verse; in “The Old King” (1922), for example, he discusses death. The “old King of Cumberland” awakens in surprise and looks about his room for what had disturbed him, but all seems normal until he touches his chest “where now no surging restless beat/ Its long tale told.” The King’s heart has stopped and he is terrified. The whole of the poem is expressed in a manner that children can comprehend, and de la Mare makes three important points: that death is a fact, that there is a reality beyond death, and that death is dreamlike. He never means to frighten his young readers; rather, he means for them to understand. For example, in “Now, Dear Me!” (1912), he describes a fearsome ghost: “A-glowering with/ A chalk-white face/ Out of some dim/ And dismal place.” The ghost turns out to be Elizabeth Ann, a child very much alive, done up to frighten her nurse. Children are invited to laugh at the very real fears that their imaginations can create.
A child is unlikely to miss the implied respect for his mind when he reads poetry that clearly states de la Mare’s point of view on a subject of moral substance. “Hi!” (1930) is a lyric that presents a hunter’s killing of an animal: “Nevermore to peep again, creep again, leap again,/ Eat or sleep or drink again, Oh, what fun!” De la Mare’s dismay at the killing of wildlife is clear, as is his effort to speak of an important matter to his young readership. Wildlife plays an important role in his poetry. Bears and elephants and other animals are shown as friendly to children. When Elizabeth Ann takes a bath in “Little Birds Bathe” (1912), her tub is invaded by a “Seal and Walrus/ And Polar Bear.” A host of other animals join them, from alligators to swans to pumas. Her bath sounds fun, and the poem is as cheerful a depiction of bathing and imagination as one could hope to read. In “Who Really?” (1930), bears and bees share a natural antagonism and similarity—they are both thieves. In “The Holly” (1930), the poet describes the natural beauty of the holly tree. Repeatedly, he depicts nature as other than frightening; it can be awesome, but a child’s imagination can render it knowable.
Dreams and the supernatural
The supernatural and dreams are significant aspects of de la Mare’s poetry for youngsters. His verse spans topics from Christianity to pagan mysticism. In “Eden” (1930), he discusses the Fall of Man from God’s grace and its effect on all nature. When the sin of humanity leads to the Great Flood, trees and animals suffer the consequences. Thus, the banishment of Adam and Eve is bewailed by the nightingale.
The notion that the fates of Humanity and Nature are linked is unmistakable. Pagan mysticism in the forms of fairies and elves is common children’s fare. Typical of de la Mare’s respect for his young audience, he offers uncommon fairies. In “The Double” (1922), a fairy child joins a young dancer in a garden. The fairy is at once a reflection of the dancer and a part of the plants in the garden; it is at once substantial and incapable of leaving the faintest marks of its footsteps. The poem is a sad evocation of childlike imagination; the fairy child disappears beyond recalling. Fairies and their kin are evocations of the natural world; they respond to people when people respond to nature. They are ephemeral, as much the products of imagination and dreams as of tradition and myth.
“The World of Dream” (1912) takes poetic tradition and uses it to portray a child’s view of sleep. When dreaming, one often seems to be floating on air or water; death is often described similarly. De la Mare takes his sleeping child on a ride in a boat equipped with “elphin lanterns,” a boat with “hundreds of passengers.” The misty world of sleep sounds peaceful and much like death.
Death and evil
The connecting of sleep and death is common in literature, yet death is not a customary topic intended for children. Although de la Mare writes for children, he spares them none of the...
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