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Walter de la Mare and William Golding

John Bayley

I should like to begin in a rather unexpected place, with William Golding's quite remarkable powers of perception and sympathy as a critic. The best sort of critic: a non-academic one, who losves to talk about books, and to analyse the way he enjoys them, and the way they affect him. With Golding such a discussion and analysis could be the most joyous and life-enhancing mode of social communication there was; and the one that seemed to come most naturally to him. Without trying at all, he had a way of making you feel suddenly enlightened. And the process was Shakespearean; in that he made you feel that a sudden illumination came from inside yourself, whereas he was the real initiator. Like Falstaff, he had the most humane and most wholly sympathetic kind of wit: he was the reason why wit was in others…
The thing I particular remember talking about with him was a poem of Walter de la Mare's. We had been discussing childhood and birth, and he asked if I had come across a little de la Mare poem, which he quoted. As it happened I had, and we discussed it at length. I have never enjoyed such a talk more, and it reminded me of discussing such things with an old Oxford friend, Lord David Cecil, who was also a great friend and admirer of Golding. The poem is brief enough to put down here, because our discussion of - what academics used rather grimly to call 'close analysis' - revealed so much not only about the poet and his kind of poetry, but about Golding's own modes of thought and perception and understanding. (He was of course a poet himself, and I wish Poems (1935) would be republished. I re-read them often.)

'The Birthnight'

Dearest, it was night
That in its darkness rocked Orion's stars;
Along the willows, and the cedar boughs
Laid their white hands in stealthy peace across
The starry silence of their antique moss:
No sound save rushing air
Cold, yet all sweet with Spring,
And in thy mother's arms, couched weeping there,
Thou lovely thing.

Golding said that he was very struck with this poem when he first came across it; and he thought it had influenced him in his outlook; though he said this so modestly and unpretentiously that he did not seem to be making any 'statement' about himself, and what he thought. I was fascinated none the less, and asked how and why. (By now we had found and looked up his copy of the poem and had it before us.) He said because of its rush of continuity: there is no full stop in it. And the way it articulates itself in a single breath of feeling and exclamation. He said he would like to - and tried to - do the same, in a novel, a story or a poem. He felt that even a whole novel could give the same effect: of rapid unpredictable art as feeling and impression.
We then got down to the poem itself. He compared it to another extremely moving poem, 'To My Mother', which comes close to it in de la Mare's Collected Poems, as do two other masterpieces, 'Autumn' and 'Winter'. Nevertheless, he said that when he first read the poem it repelled him in some way that he wanted the time to understand more closely. I said: 'Did you find it sentimental?' He said it was a difficult thing to be sure of what that meant; but he thought it could mean taking a received emotion from the taste and fashion of the time, without giving it true individual expression and examination. I said something to the effect that he was very unsentimental in his art about birth and childhood: that he saw childhood as a birth of cruelty and evil? He said: 'No, I don't think of it that way; but it comes through me with a rush sometimes, like that poem.' He went on to say that the art he valued most had something repellent in its first impact, because it could seem 'thought out', and taken from some assumption, or conviction, or personal prejudice on the author's part: and then, as the reader took it in, it dissolved into something so moving and immediate that all suggestion of ideas - either the author's own ideas or his received ideas - was swept away.
This is a difficult thing to convey in print because it was so alive and meaningful in talk; and because I felt so enlightened by it at the time, though I have never been able to formulate it in critical words: and perhaps that is just as well. But it meant to me what I had experienced in Lord of the Flies and The Inheritors and The Spire, and perhaps most of all in Darkness Visible. It was the sense of a subject, a donnee as Henry James would say, dissolved by its own unpredictability; ceasing to be an argument or point of view that could be stated, and becoming like a rushing mighty wind that blew through the 'idea' of the book, and made it glow with an internal incandescence that was for the reader both enormously exhilarating and rather frightening…
To return for a moment to de la Mare's poem, what interested him particulay was his own distaste at what appeared to be the banality of its subject. Children, even new-born ones, are not lovely things. However sincere it may be, there is something cloying about the opening endearment; and a father's indulgence in the aethestic rhapsodies portrayed seems to be drawing all too glibly on the literary fashions of the period. These were the points Golding made as he explained his initial reaction. And then, he said, he was struck by two things: the verbal oscillation of 'rocked' in the second line; and the invisible wind (he mentioned the 'veiwless wind' in Shakespeare) transformed in the third line into something white and perceptible to the eye. He said that he often noticed on a cloudy night how the movement of the air seemed to make objects more visible: an illusion, of course, but a remarkably compelling one. The whiteness of the wind could signify - but the notion became banal as soon as formulated - the spirit of birth. As for 'rocked', its significance was at once ominous and reassurring - a cradle and an ending: birth and dissolution. And what about 'stealthy peace' in the fifth line? Could any paradox be more magically unusual? At once eerie and homely, with finger on lip, so as not to wake someone, or something?
Our chat was actually very brief, but all this and more came into it; and then he gave a deep rumbling laugh and said that he had been talking like a critic, but that none the less the way that poem worked on him was the way he would like his books to work on the reader: first a questioning, even a rejection, and then an uncovenated feel of being carried away regardless. In fact the reverse process of what can often, even usually, happen when we read a novel. We begin by suspending disbelief, and giving ourselves to the world of the story; and only afterwards do criticisms and objection crop up, and form an integral part of our critical assessment of the book. In going the other way, from exposure to disbelief and disagreement to a sense of rising tempo that carries all before it, Golding's novels are doing something in the genre that is unusual to the point of uniqueness, although it is this transfiguring instability and unpredicibility which makes them seem so baffling to the cool-eyed critic, and so hard to discuss.
Absorbed by what he had said about a subterranean relation between the de la Mare poem and the way he wanted his books to work, I remarked that 'The Birthright' could well be the title for one of his own novels. He smiled and agreed… (Extract from 'No Full Stop: the movement of Golding's fiction' (from the publication accompanying the British Council exhibtion entitled William Golding 1911-1993, 1994: reproduced by kind permission of Professor John Bayley