An Approach to the Poetics of Walter de la Mare's Short Stories
Talk given at One-Day Conference on the Short Stories of Walter de la Mare
at King's College, University of London, 7 November 1996
De la Mare has often insisted on the hard work implied in the production of a simple work of art. We all remember his remark: 'Still though a man is born a poet, he must make himself an artist.' Also we know his fondness for the word 'craftsman'. This belies the reputation he had with some critics of being the sort of poet who, like a bird, 'sings because he must.' Today we are concerned with an important part of his oeuvre in prose: his short stories -- the greatest of which have been duly celebrated for their perfection. How is perfection achieved in this particular literary form? I think an examination of the poetics of de la Mare's stories should be attempted to give him proper recognition for his mastery of the form.
One of the most fascinating lights in which to consider de la Mare's art has to me been the essay written by one of the Russian Formalists, Victor Chklovsky which I read in a French translation. The essay is called 'L'art comme procede' and is part of a book translated and edited by Torodov entitled Theorie de la Litterature. For Chklovsky every artistic expression is built upon a process of 'defamiliarization' -- an object can be in front of us, we know it but we do not see it because we rely on an automatic perception. For the Russian critic, art removes the object from the automatism of perception, and the process of art includes the lengthening of perception which is itself an aesthetic end. That is why the form must be made more obscure ('il faut obscurcir la forme,' says the French translation).
Theorists of the short story -- the short form as it is sometimes called -- have underlined the primacy of the subjective in it, the success of the story residing in the perfect fusion of the subjective and narrative support. De la Mare who perceived so much and who 'defamiliarizes' us in every page he wrote, poetry or prose, wrote out of passion: he was a spiritual adventurer conducting a ceaseless quest for an answer to the enigma of human destiny and the mystery of the world, constantly crossing the frontier between the visible and the invisible. This same passion is revealed in the unquenchable curiosity about the human psyche: he observed and measured the contents of dreams, the tricks of the unconscious, the ravages of solitude and repression, obsessions, madness and also the dangers of spiritual quests pursued to the point of dementia. His fascination with the secrets a human being harbours under the stress of living was balanced by a equal fascination with childhood which to him was an imitation of an 'ailleurs', of 'an antecedence of being', to translate one of the remarks made by Bachelard, a philosopher with whom de la Mare has many affinities. Both believed in 'la cosmicite de l' enfance' and its power of perception as fulgurant and deep as that of the poet. All these subjective elements determined de la Mare's choice of characters and subjects for his stories.
In a literary text, as has been said, it is not the author who speaks but the language -- a language born of subjectivity and the intellect of the creator. In de la Mare we have one of the most remarkable connoisseurs and lovers of words of his time. Curiously enough Chklovsky published a book in St Petersburg in 1905 called The Resurrection of the Word…I remember reading how horrified de la Mare was to learn that R.L Stevenson had called words 'bricks'. 'Bricks', he wrote, when 'words are as fluent and chameleonic in practice and effect as the hues of the humming bird'. The density of his prose answers the density of his perceptions and its diversity communicates every nuance of the subject which is being pursued: it can be almost pedantically precise, lyrical or passionate. There is a delamarian rhetoric but the poet knows how to mute it and when.
Though the short story is sometimes called fiction, it is reckoned in fact to be nearer to poetry and theatre than fiction. This can be verified in many of de la Mare texts, each story being like a poem, one singular and compact experience. Every one of us will have in mind one particular and favourite example whether it be 'The House' or 'Crewe' or 'Missing' or 'Out of the Deep' or many others… They represent one round, complete act of perception of a character in a situation in which poetic intensity and drama -- or comedy -- each play a part in the subtly interwoven texture of the whole. De la Mare's scenes are drawn with the clarity and the keenness we associate with the poet's 'regard'; as remarkable is his ear for dialogue at various levels of speech and the attention he gives to the minutiae of human exchanges in which one word can save or damn.
A theatrical element in a short story is really something to be expected as it is a form constructed precisely around or for a crises -- or, as it is often called, an epiphany. John Bayley has remarked that of course the epiphany can be found in other literary forms -- but, and I quote him, 'the short story itself affords it complete and conscious existence.' An examination of de la Mare's epiphanies would keep us here for a week, as each story offers a different treatment of the crises. Not only do they vary in nature but also in numbers, and all the readers would not necessarily find them in the same place. On the other hand, a story like 'The Vats' seems to me to be entirely epiphanic.
A short story is a story with a past of which the reader knows nothing. For him, before…there was silence, and suddenly, when reading the first page, he is plunged in medias res. Hence the importance of beginnings. In his best stories, de la Mare shows a rare mastery in irrigating his first pages with prefigurations, images, metonymies, wisps of description which look innocent but are not, and symbolic hints. The writer knows he has limited space in which a main character and secondary ones have to be convincingly portrayed, situations stated, seeds of action sown and an atmosphere created. Atmosphere is, I think, de la Mare's triumph: he relies on atmosphere because, like Henry James, he refuses to specify the nature of the uncanny, the abnormal, or the horror or evil he is concerned with. He only suggests and works within a web of signals, multiplying the subtlest of hints which pull at our certitudes even when we are reluctant to follow him.
The endings of de la Mare's stories also require a close study. Frank Kermode in The Sense of an Ending speaks of 'a pregnant conflation of crises and an end immanent in it.' Endings or closures as they are also called have a capital importance because of the retrospective light they shed on the crises. It can happen that the crises/epiphany is the end of the story but very often they do not coincide. The short story can have an open ending or a closed ending in which, as a French critic said, the writer chooses to 'bolt and padlock' his text. De la Mare often prefers open endings; he likes to end if not on a real aporia, at least on a gentle suspension of the pressure he had put on us before, knowing only too well that once free of the text, so to speak, we shall want to return to his dark and mysterious questionings more surely than if we had been imprisoned.
Consider for instance 'Seaton's Aunt' -- and its double ending. First we have an open one of a very ordinary type: the parting of friends and a promise to meet again, with just a hint of sadness in Arthur. At that point the reader may wonder: to have been worked to such a pitch of anguish in that dreadful house and garden…and to come to this anticlimax. We have what really is a clever pause in the narration, and a pause in narrative time. The story rebounds as Withers pays a third visit to the aunt's house to have news of his friend. The new encounter with the aunt subtly modifies the perceptions we had had of her character and of the nature of her malevolence: it is made more complex, more obscure. And then comes the closed ending… with Arthur Seaton in his grave. The reader whose alertness had been lulled is suddenly jerked into the realisation that the deed has been done. The shock is greater than if the death had happened at the end of Wither's second visit. How powerful is this double ending which leaves intact the mystery of a violent end achieved without violence in the text.
I would like to end this approach to de la Mare's poetics of the short story by briefly considering his titles. Titles are the first element in a literary text, but paradoxically it is only at the end of the story that one can appreciate them. My impression is that de la Mare did not expect much from his titles: they seem essentially functional. They can be eponymous, toponymic, objective: they often simply refer to inanimate objects or plants or animals ('The Tree', 'The Bowl', 'The House', 'The Trumpet', 'The Vats', ect.) though a title like 'Maria-Fly' is more sophisticated, and some refers to events ('An Anniversary', 'Missing'). The poet did not often go for intertextual titles, although one remembers 'Out of the Deep' and 'What Dreams may Come', among others.
I have tried to give an indication of the general lines along which a study of de la Mare's poetics of the short might be conducted. A study which, to serve its purpose, would necessarily be long and detailed. The enterprise would not, of course, explain the mystery of the creative act, but it would be an acknowledgement of de la Mare's craftsmanship and a way of keeping the 'tryst' (to use the delamarian word) that a text always invites between writer and reader, when two desires meet.
* This essay appeared in issue no 1 of The Walter de la Mare Society Magazine, 1998. It is reproduced here by kind permission of the author.