Walter de la Mare's Quest
And still would remain
My wit to try...
All words forgotten - -
Thou, Lord, and I.
Walter de la Mare's writing life began in the Decadence of the 1890's, shortly after Nietzsche had announced God's death. It continued until 1956, with God still intimating that news of His death was premature. During those sixty years de la Mare persisted in what Luce Bonnerot, his best critic, calls his 'aventure spirituelle', to find 'Earth's everything, Heaven's everywhere', as he phrases it in Winged Chariot.
His output was huge, including novels, stories, poems, anthologies, essays, criticism, and reviews. He is remembered as a poet of childhood, a teller of ghost stories, or a writer whose work evokes past epochs better than it does the twentieth century. Such popularity has deflected attention from the spiritual quest which is central to his writing.
Theresa Whistler, his biographer (1993), has read all his work, and finds throughout 'the tang of authentic spiritual experience…' Some may recall from their schooldays the taste of this in his poem 'The Listeners', where the Traveller's question, 'Is there anybody there?', is answered only by the 'strangeness' and 'silence 'of the 'phantom listeners', whose physical absence makes more palpable their spiritual presence. Or, perhaps, in the similarly inconclusive encounters of his short stories, such as 'The Riddle', where existence itself remains enigmatic, as the reader decides whether the forbidden chest, into which the children venture, represents life or death. Here, childhood and old age are the closest to the mysteries of our origins and destination.
The frisson that comes from such ghostly literature, surrounded by the associations of another historical era, probably accounts for its continuing popularity. Predictably, the appetite for Gothic horrors seems to grow as the taste for more wholesome art declines. Yet Ruskin reminds us that Gothic, in another sense, is a sign of individual, spiritual vitality. He contrasts the work of the medieval craftsman with that of the Victorian machine operative, the gargoyles of the old cathedrals with the 'accurate mouldings' of his own time. De la Mare's admiration for medieval art is evident, for instance, in the poem quoted at the beginning of this article. The scribe records 'Earth's wonders' lovingly throughout his life, but remains perplexed at his relationship with God, a reaction more characteristic of a modern writer than of a medieval scribe.
The trappings of de la Mare's poems and stories are not a misguidedly nostalgic attempt to recreate the past. Nor are they exercises in the eerie and the uncanny. Rather, he employs the form of the ghost story, or the perspective of a previous age, as an oblique way of exploring some of life's most disconcerting questions. Through what they encounter, his travellers, seekers, and pilgrims force the attentive reader to look behind the present century's deification of materialistic and utilitarian values, to query its trust in a narrowly scientific rationalism, and to confront the presence of evil in a world where death is one of the most unsettling certainties. Moreover, they do so without relying upon the dogmatic certainties of institutional religious belief.
His story 'All Hallows' is set in an empty cathedral at dusk. The title may suggest a hallowe'en tale, but the accompanying quotation from Richard Hooker reminds us that 'the hallowing…must consist in the shape or countenance which we put upon the affaires that are incident in these days.' From the conversation between the naïve sightseer, awed by the presence of the cathedral, and the knowing but mysterious verger, the reader slowly realises that the story is exploring how an age without religious faith can have any hope of sanctification, in the verger's words, 'how close to the edge of things we are: and how we are drifting'.
The only hope of hallowing lies in the human link between the two men, since those responsible for the cathedral appear more interested in the preservation of the fabric than in the assault upon its values by the forces of a modern dark age. The verger explains that the decay which he sees in the church is not 'a corroding loss' but 'an awful progress'. The 'Great War is over,' but there are 'strife and juggleries and hatred and contempt and discord wherever you look.' His disillusionment with his world and the guardians of his faith is profound. Yet the story does not conclude on a bitter note but with the vision of innocence which the two men share in the shape of the verger's sleeping grandson. Faith and hope are more readily encountered in the young and old, than in the minds of a post-Christian world, or the leaders of the Christian Church.
Russell Brain records (in Tea with Walter de la Mare) a conversation when de la Mare spoke of his visit to St David's Cathedral. He was perplexed by a man in gaiters asking him: 'Are you one of us?' His own answer to this question is given in a letter to Edward Wagenknecht: '…the Christian and Catholic idea of Man and the Universe is the richest, profoundest, most imaginative and creative, beautiful and reasonable conception of any I have knowledge of… Therefore…it is…the most likely to be true.'
This appears to be a genuine tribute to the Christian faith, but sometimes the reservations implied in this remark are more evident than is the admiration for Christianity. The search for a purposeful Maker leads to anguished dismay at His absence in 'The Miracle', where nature's bounty seems no more than a 'vain quest', and the miracle is not one of resurrection, but of human persistence in a hostile world:
Rejects delight, ease, pleasure, hope;
Seeking in vain, but seeking yet,
Past earthly promise, earthly scope,
On one aim set:
As if, like Chaucer's child, he thought
All but 'O Alma!' nought.
The reference to Chaucer expresses a wish for belief in the miraculous Creator, rather than a committed faith in him. The certainties of medieval Christianity are no longer shared by the modern traveller.
His writing stems from a dialectic between what he observes as an awesomely absorbing world enclosed by mortality, and what his intuition and imagination tell him is a presence that suggests survival and continuity beyond death. His description of the impulse behind lyric poetry captures the interplay of these opposites:
An insatiable delight in life haunts it, and the keen mortal regret that stalks
in life's shadow. It springs from a height of living, however transitory, a
tension of spirit, a sense of wonder and mystery, a faith in all that is held
most dear, a hope and hunger for an unknown that transcends the known.
(from his introduction to Behold, This Dreamer)
This results in poems which probe experience with repeated questions in their
search for an answer. Echoing the question of the horseman in 'The Listeners',
'Who's there?' cries one of the lost revellers in the hilarious black comedy
of 'The Feckless Dinner Party', as the ominously named butler, Toomes, leads
them from their revelry to oblivion: 'My God! We've lost our way!' cries one.
Those dedicated to a life of pleasure find death is something which destroys
Even at their most bleak, however, his best poems leave open other possibilities, refusing to surrender to dissolution and death as the answers to probing questions:
1st Stranger: Who walks with us on the hills?
2nd Stranger: I cannot see for the mist.
3rd Stranger: Running water I hear,
Keeping lugubrious tryst
With its cresses and grasses and weeds,
In the white obscure light from the sky.
2nd Stranger: Who walks with us on the hills?
Wild Bird: Ay!...Aye!...Ay!...
The bird's (spirit's?) cry could be an expression of grief, but it could also be an affirmation of a meaningful presence. Readers may recall whom the third person, the stranger, turns out to be on the road to Emmaus in St Luke's Gospel. The poem was published a year before The Waste Land, where the same episode is invoked:
Who is the third who walks always beside you?
Searching for what endures beyond death led him, in his seventies, to explore ideas of a redemptive love. 'All that we are is in our love', he wrote in the introduction to his last anthology, Love (1943). It is this theme which dominates The Traveller (1945) and Winged Chariot (1951), his longest poems. They are an astonishing demonstration of his creative courage in affirming his belief in the power of a loving God within life.
The former is a narrative poem in which another traveller seeks 'Impassioned love, its goal beyond the grave.' Near the end of the journey he senses 'a presence' in the world,
Past human understanding to conceive;
Of virgin innocence, yet source of all
That matter had the power to achieve
Ere man created was, ere Adam's fall.
At the point of death, he is described as 'A son of God', 'From whose clear gaze a flame divine burned through'. His final word is 'Alas'…
And then the night-tide of the all-welcoming grave...
Inn at the cross roads and the traveller's rest...
The 'cross' here is no more than a parting of the ways between body and soul, with the grave a temporary resting place from the soul's recurrent journey. Survival is Hindu or Buddhist not Christian, reincarnation not resurrection.
Winged Chariot is a meditative poem in which time drive the poet, as it did Marvell, to realize his love. The poem has a marginal commentary of quotations, such as the two from the medieval English lyric, 'Quia Amore Langueo', in which Christ seeks to convince the errant human soul of His enduring love. These frame the final ten sections, where de la Mare comes closest to an acceptance of the Christian vision. He recalls how 'Scripture tells' of the incarnate Christ in the stable, mentions the 'carking Cross', and quotes finally, from 'Quia Amore Langueo', Christ's words:
...'Long thou for love never so high,
My love is more than thine may be'...
Ours is that wine; that water clear and cool;
That very vineyard; and the troubled pool;
Wherewith to fill the thirsting spirit full.
His spiritual odyssey leads him to accept Christian love in revelation, in poetry, and above all, in the joys and tribulations of ordinary life.
Although we should still remember his earlier caution, in the introduction to Bells and Grass, that the 'I in a rhyme is not necessarily me', the personality of the poet is much more obvious in these later poems than in the scribe and travellers of his earlier ones. The phantoms of the historical past are less in evidence, as the poet engages more directly with his themes. This shift is also evident in the less archaic and more colloquial language and style of these poems. They indicate that he is a major poet still not given his rightful place among his peers.
* This essay appeared in issue no 1 of The Walter de la Mare Society Magazine, 1998, and was originally published in the Fairacres Chronicle, 1997. It is reproduced here by kind permission of the author.