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Mare, Walter de la

Category: Mystic

 

Walter John de la Mare OM CH ( 25 April 1873 – 22 June 1956) was an English poet, short story writer and novelist. He is probably best remembered for his works for children and for his poem "The Listeners".   He was also a mystic.

De la Mare was a significant writer of ghost stories. John Clute comments that "in his long career, de la Mare seems to have published about 100 stories, of which about eighty-five have been collected. At least forty of these have supernatural content". Many of de la Mare's ghost stories can be found in the collections Eight Tales, The Riddle and Other Stories, The Connoisseur and Other Stories, On the Edge and The Wind Blows Over. De la Mare also wrote two supernatural novels, Henry Brocken (1904) and The Return (1910). His poem The Ghost Chase appeared in Punch magazine, 26 March 1941, and was illustrated by Rowland Emett.  De la Mare's supernatural writings were a favourite of H. P. Lovecraft, who noted that de la Mare's supernatural horror fiction features "a keen potency which only a rare master can achieve".

 

His first poetry collection Songs of Childhood appeared under the pseudonym Walter Rama. His first novel, Henry Brocken, was published in 1904 and his Poems in 1906. As the years passed his books continued to appear: poems and short stories for adults and children; novels, of which Memoirs of a Midget (1921) ‘reached the greatest poetic fantasy’; a fairy play, Crossings (1921); and essays and literary studies. His anthology Come Hither (1923) is often held to be ‘one of the best and most original in the language’.

He was made a Companion of Honour in 1948 and received the Order of Merit in 1953.  His 1921 novel Memoirs of a Midget won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction, and his post-war Collected Stories for Children won the 1947 Carnegie Medal for British children's books.  He held honorary degrees of the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, St Andrews, Bristol and London. 

Obituary – The Glasgow Herald June 23rd 1956

 

Walter de la Mare occupies a singular position in the literature of his time.  He emerged into prominence among the Georgians in the second decade of the century – he was a contemporary of Masefield, Davies and Squire, but his work has no special affinities with that group. Its only contemporary contacts are with Yeats’s absorption in a semi-fabulous world.

Walter de la Mare was small in stature, spare and featured somewhat like a scholarly French priest.  …Persons interested in hereditary may find significance in the fact that de la Mare – born in Kent in 1873 – came of a Huguenot extraction and was related to Robert Browning.

 

His life was quiet and uneventful.  He was educated at St Paul’s Cathedral Choir School and worked until his middle thirties in a City Office before devoting himself wholly to literature to which he was led by his Songs of Childhood [1902] Henry Brocken [1904] and critical essays published mainly in the Times Literary Supplement.

It is wrong to classify de la Mare as an escapist.  His work is Latin not Celtic.  His preoccupation lacrimis rerum gives to the large part of his work dealing with childhood a peculiar beauty.  The thoughtless joys and incomprehensible fears of childhood become, when seen in retrospect from the solitudes of later years, islands of light and mystery.  But he never throws any doctrinal gloss upon childhood, as do Wordsworth, Vaughn and the other mystics.

His poetry and prose have a kinship with mystical literature in being unconditioned by historical time and his verse in particular belongs to that rare and timeless strain in literature that includes some of Shakespeare’s songs, the poetry of Vaughn and Traherne, Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience and Coleridge’s Kubla Khan.  The best of his verse indeed, comes nearer to Kubla Khan than to anything else.  It has the same haunting ineffable music.

He taught English literature for a number of years at a college and lived mainly in the country near London.  He had a singularly happy married life and was the father of four children.

Shy and retiring, but ever kind and helpful to friends, he took no part in public affairs.

The mystic spring

From whence did Walter de la Mare derive his inspiration?  The majority of his inspiration was derived from humility and love.  He loved his family and he greatly loved his friends.

 

De la Mare was friends with Yeats and with the poet Edward Thomas.  Edward Thomas was a fragile character and a gifted poet, he was dependent on laudanum, had thoughts of suicide, and at one time was infatuated with a schoolgirl over a decade younger than himself.  Later he became equally infatuated with a beautiful married woman – he himself was married to Helen, the daughter of his first literary mentor.  Thomas played a big part in Walter de la Mare’s life and was the first to recognise his genius and help him.  Eleanor Farjeon wrote that Thomas was ‘among other things the best talker, the best thinker, the most humorous … his power of friendship was as great as his need of it.’  Walter de la Mare dedicated one of his finest poems to Thomas.

There is also one other aspect of him that deserves adding.  Walter de la Mare managed to preserve the child in himself.  We have an observation which expands on this from a lecture he gave, but the gist of the talk is that he managed to avoid the effects of growing up when …..

 

“Consciousness from being chiefly subjective becomes largely objective. The steam-engine routs Faerie. Actuality breaks in upon dream. School rounds off the glistening angles. The individual is swamped awhile by the collective.”

 He had what he himself called ‘the child mind’. 

“Yet the child-mind, the child-imagination persists, and if powerful, never perishes”.

And it never perished in him.

Walter de la Mare – A Study of his Poetry by Henry Charles Duffin

There is earthly beauty and there is the ultimate beauty laid up in heaven.  Somewhere between the two is the beauty of dreams, the dreams of a poet.

The poet’s mind is perfectly receptive and flashes of magical beauty bring their revelation at any time; in the silence that comes with the planet of evening’s silver flame, with echo that trembles away, shadows coming and going in the firelight, a face of fancy in an empty house, a spectral voice that calls through the dusk, the phantom children who are always liable to appear.

A bird will approach like a messenger from out there, and with a low sweet call be gone.  And above all the music – music which dissolves the obscuring, distracting colour screen of the beauty of this world to reveal the lovelier vision of the mystic scene, rapt, ecstatic, enchanted, solemn.

The final feeling about de la Mare’s poetry of beauty is that, ineffable as is earth’s beauty, the beauty of earth is not enough.  The poet ever looks past it to the ideal beauty; his host ‘sits at his eyes’ and thirsts for snows evenmore troubled; he longs to explore ‘in soft slumber’ the charms of the unknown before waking brings him back to everyday

Life

De la Mare was born in Kent to James Edward de la Mare, a principal at the Bank of England, and Lucy Sophia Browning (James' second wife), daughter of Scottish naval surgeon and author Dr Colin Arrott Browning. He had two brothers, Francis Arthur Edward and James Herbert, and four sisters Florence Mary, Constance Eliza, Ethel (who died in infancy), and Ada Mary.

Walter and Elfrida, with Lady Ottoline

In 1892 de la Mare joined the Esperanza Amateur Dramatics Club where he met and fell in love with Elfrida Ingpen, the leading lady, who was ten years older than he. They were married on 4 August 1899 and they went on to have four children: Richard Herbert Ingpen, Colin, Florence and Lucy Elfrida de la Mare. Their house at Anerley in south London was “the scene of many parties, notable for imaginative games of charades”.

He worked in the statistics department of the London office of Standard Oil for eighteen years to support his family, but nevertheless found time to write. In 1908, through the efforts of Sir Henry Newbolt he received a Civil List pension which enabled him to concentrate on writing.

In 1940, his wife Elfrida was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and spent the rest of her life as an invalid, eventually dying in 1943. From 1940 until his death, de la Mare lived in South End House, Montpelier Row, Twickenham, the same street on which Alfred, Lord Tennyson had lived a century earlier.

De la Mare suffered from a coronary thrombosis in 1947 and spent a long time recuperating:

 

From Bailey, Letters and Diaries,  3 April 1928, Diary of John Bailey:

Bruce Richmond has just told me a lovely story about Walter de la Mare.

He is at last getting well fast after his long illness, but he was for three weeks at the very gates of death.

On one of these days his younger daughter said to him as she left him, `Is there nothing I could get for you, fruit or flowers?' On which in a weak voice he could just — so characteristically —answer:


`No, no, my dear; too late for fruit, too soon for flowers!'


 

Walter de la Mare died of another coronary thrombosis in 1956. He spent his final year mostly bed-ridden, being cared for by a nurse whom he loved, just as he had always loved.

His ashes are buried in the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral, where he had once been a choirboy.

Fare Well

When I lie where shades of darkness
Shall no more assail mine eyes,
Nor the rain make lamentation
When the wind sighs;

 

How will fare the world whose wonder
Was the very proof of me?
Memory fades, must the remembered
Perishing be?

Oh, when this my dust surrenders
Hand, foot, lip, to dust again,
May these loved and loving faces
Please other men!
May the rusting harvest hedgerow
Still the Traveller's Joy entwine,
And as happy children gather
Posies once mine.

Look thy last on all things lovely,
Every hour. Let no night
Seal thy sense in deathly slumber
Till to delight
Thou have paid thy utmost blessing;
Since that all things thou wouldst praise
Beauty took from those who loved them
In other days.

 

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