Story type: Essay
Once a year or so one is permitted to find some book which brings a real tingle to that ribbon of the spinal marrow which responds to the vibrations of literature. Not a bad way to calendar the years is by the really good books they bring one. Each twelve month the gnomon on the literary sundial is likely to cast some shadow one will not willingly forget. Thus I mark 1916 as the year that introduced me to William McFee’s “Casuals of the Sea” and Butler’s “Way of All Flesh”; 1915 most of us remember as Rupert Brooke’s year, or the year of the Spoon River Anthology, if you prefer that kind of thing; 1914 I notch as the season when I first got the hang of Bourget and Conrad. But perhaps best of all, in 1913 I read “Peacock Pie” and “Songs of Childhood,” by Walter de la Mare.
“Peacock Pie” having now been published in this country it is seasonable to kindle an altar fire for this most fanciful and delightful of present-day poets. It is curious that his work is so little known over here, for his first book, “Songs of Childhood,” was published in England in 1902. Besides, poetry he has written novels and essays, all shot through with a phosphorescent sparkle of imagination and charm. He has the knack of “words set in delightful proportion”; and “Peacock Pie” is the most authentic knapsack of fairy gold since the “Child’s Garden of Verses.”
I am tempted to think that Mr. de la Mare is the kind of poet more likely to grow in England than America. The gracious and fine-spun fabric of his verse, so delicate in music, so quaint and haunting in imaginative simplicity, is the gift of a land and life where rewards and fames are not wholly passed away. Emily Dickinson and Vachel Lindsay are among our contributors to the songs of gramarye: but one has only to open “The Congo” side by side with “Peacock Pie” to see how the seductions of ragtime and the clashing crockery of the Poetry Society’s dinners are coarsening the fibres of Mr. Lindsay’s marvellous talent as compared with the dainty horns of elfin that echo in Mr. de la Mare. And it is a long Pullman ride from Spoon River to the bee-droned gardens where De la Mare’s old women sit and sew. Over here we have to wait for Barrie or Yeats or Padraic Colum to tell us about the fairies, and Cecil Sharp to drill us in their dances and songs. The gentry are not native in our hearts, and we might as well admit it.
To say that Mr. de la Mare’s verse is distilled in fairyland suggests perhaps a delicate and absent-minded figure, at a loss in the hurly burly of this world; the kind of poet who loses his rubbers in the subway, drops his glasses in the trolley car, and is found wandering blithely in Central Park while the Women’s Athenaeum of the Tenderloin is waiting four hundred strong for him to lecture. But Mr. de la Mare is the more modern figure who might readily (I hope I speak without offense) be mistaken for a New York stock broker, or a member of the Boston Chamber of Commerce. Perhaps he even belongs to the newer order of poets who do not wear rubbers.
One’s first thought (if one begins at the beginning, but who reads a book of poetry that way?) is that “Peacock Pie” is a collection of poems for children. But it is not that, any more than “The Masses” is a paper for the proletariat. Before you have gone very far you will find that the imaginary child you set out with has been magicked into a changeling. The wee folk have been at work and bewitched the pudding–the pie rather. The fire dies on the hearth, the candle channels in its socket, but still you read on. Some of the poems bring you the cauld grue of Thrawn Janet. When at last you go up to bed, it will be with the shuddering sigh of one thrilled through and through with the sad little beauties of the world. You will want to put out a bowl of fresh milk on the doorstep to appease the banshee–did you not know that the janitor of your Belshazzar Court would get it in the morning.
One of the secrets of Mr. de la Mare’s singular charm is his utter simplicity, linked with a delicately tripping music that intrigues the memory unawares and plays high jinks with you forever after. Who can read “Off the Ground” and not strum the dainty jig over and over in his head whenever he takes a bath, whenever he shaves, whenever the moon is young? I challenge you to resist the jolly madness of its infection:
Three jolly Farmers
Once bet a pound
Each dance the others would
Off the ground.
Out of their coats
They slipped right soon,
And neat and nicesome,
Put each his shoon.
And away they go,
Not too fast,
And not too slow;
Out from the elm-tree’s
Into the sun
And across the meadow.
Past the schoolroom,
With knees well bent
They dancing went….
Are you not already out of breath in the hilarious escapade?
The sensible map’s quarrel with the proponents of free verse is not that they write such good prose; not that they espouse the natural rhythms of the rain, the brook, the wind-grieved tree; this is all to the best, even if as old as Solomon. It is that they affect to disdain the superlative harmonies of artificed and ordered rhythms; that knowing not a spondee from a tribrach they vapour about prosody, of which they know nothing, and imagine to be new what antedates the Upanishads. The haunting beauty of Mr. de la Mare’s delicate art springs from an ear of superlative tenderness and sophistication. The daintiest alternation of iambus and trochee is joined to the serpent’s cunning in swiftly tripping dactyls. Probably this artifice is greatly unconscious, the meed of the trained musician; but let no singer think to upraise his voice before the Lord ere he master the axioms of prosody. Imagist journals please copy.
One may well despair of conveying in a few rough paragraphs the gist of this quaint, fanciful, brooding charm. There is something fey about much of the book: it peers behind the curtains of twilight and sees strange things. In its love of children, its inspired simplicity, its sparkle of whim and AEsopian brevity, I know nothing finer. Let me just cut for you one more slice of this rarely seasoned pastry.
THE LITTLE BIRD
My dear Daddie bought a mansion
For to bring my Mammie to,
In a hat with a long feather,
And a trailing gown of blue;
And a company of fiddlers
And a rout of maids and men
Danced the clock round to the morning,
In a gay house-warming then.
And when all the guests were gone, and
All was still as still can be,
In from the dark ivy hopped a
Wee small bird: and that was Me.
“Peacock Pie” is immortal diet indeed, as Sir Walter said of his scrip of joy. Annealed as we are, I think it will discompose the most callous. It is a sweet feverfew for the heats of the spirit, It is full of outlets of sky.
As for Mr. de la Mare himself, he is a modest man and keeps behind his songs. Recently he paid his first visit to America, and we may hope that even on Fifth Avenue he saw some fairies. He lectured at some of our universities and endured the grotesque plaudits of dowagers and professors who doubtless pretended to have read his work. Although he is forty-four, and has been publishing for nearly sixteen years, he has evaded “Who’s Who.” He lives in London, is married, and has four children. For a number of years he worked for the Anglo-American Oil Company. Truly the Muse sometimes lends to her favourites a merciful hardiness.