Twilight had fallen, austere and grey,
The ashes of a wasted day,
When, tapping at the window-pane,
My visitor had come again,
To peck late supper at his ease --
A morsel of suspended cheese.
What ancient code, what Morse knew he --
This eager little mystery --
That, as I watched, from lamp-lit room,
Called on some inmate of my heart to come
Out of its shadows -- filled me then
With love, delight, grief, pining, pain,
Scarce less than had he angel been?
Suppose, such countenance as that,
Inhuman, deathless, delicate,
Had gazed this winter moment in --
Eyes of an ardour and beauty no
Star, no Sirius could show!
Well, it were best for such as I
To shun direct divinity;
Yet not stay heedless when I heard
The tip-tap nothings of a tiny bird.
Walter de la Mare, The Burning-Glass and Other Poems (Faber and Faber 1945).
Vincent Lines, "The Tithe Barn, Cherhill" (1943)
Birds and insects appear often in Walter de la Mare's poetry. He sometimes uses them as metaphors for human quiddities, but not often. Instead, as in "The Tomtit," he sees them as messengers who remind us of how little we know about the mysteries that accompany our existence. What is the tomtit trying to tell us with its tip-tapping? And what does the clucking and twittering of the robins and the sparrows in the backyard betoken?
How often, these hours, have I heard the monotonous crool of a dove --
Voice, low, insistent, obscure, since its nest it has hid in a grove --
Flowers of the linden wherethrough the hosts of the honeybees rove.
And I have been busily idle: no problems; nothing to prove;
No urgent foreboding; but only life's shallow habitual groove:
Then why, if I pause to listen, should the languageless note of a dove
So dark with disquietude seem? And what is it sorrowing of?
Walter de la Mare, Memory and Other Poems (Constable 1938).
Vincent Lines, "Church Row, Tonbridge" (1942)
In this context, an observation made by W. H. Auden, who greatly admired de la Mare's poetry, is illuminating:
"[I]mplicit in all his poetry are certain notions of what constitutes the Good Life. Goodness, they seem to say, is rooted in wonder, awe, and reverence for the beauty and strangeness of creation. Wonder itself is not goodness -- de la Mare is not an aesthete -- but it is the only, or the most favourable, soil in which goodness can grow. Those who lose the capacity for wonder may become clever but not intelligent, they may lead moral lives themselves, but they will become insensitive and moralistic towards others."
W. H. Auden, "Introduction to A Choice of de la Mare's Verse," in W. H. Auden, Prose, Volume IV: 1956-1962 (edited by Edward Mendelson) (Princeton University Press 2010), page 403.
Taking into account Auden's penchant (both in his poetry and his prose) for making sweeping cultural-psychological pronouncements, I do think that his comment gets to the heart of the appeal of de la Mare's poetry. Commentators tend to focus upon the "supernatural,""childlike," or "dreamlike" quality of many of de la Mare's poems (which in turn often leads to a devaluation of his work), but Auden is correct to place "wonder" and "goodness" at the center of de la Mare's view of the world.
Isled in the midnight air,
Musked with the dark's faint bloom,
Out into glooming and secret haunts
The flame cries, "Come!"
Lovely in dye and fan,
A-tremble in shimmering grace,
A moth from her winter swoon
Uplifts her face:
Stares from her glamorous eyes;
Wafts her on plumes like mist;
In ecstasy swirls and sways
To her strange tryst.
Walter de la Mare, The Veil and Other Poems (Constable 1921).
Vincent Lines, "Mending the Thatch: A Cottage at Little Avebury" (1942)
Some may find it odd to speak of poetry in terms of its "goodness." Not I. One of de la Mare's poems comes to mind:
Beauty, and grace, and wit are rare;
And even intelligence:
But lovelier than hawthorn seen in May,
Or mistletoe berries on Innocent's Day
The face that, open as heaven, doth wear --
With kindness for its sunshine there --
Good nature and good sense.
Walter de la Mare, Inward Companion and Other Poems (Faber and Faber 1950).
"Good nature and good sense" are hard to come by both in life and in art. De la Mare was too self-effacing to ascribe those qualities to himself, but he was aware of their scarcity. None of us are in a position to claim to have them. But, if any poet can be said to have both "good nature and good sense," it is Walter de la Mare.
However, he is no Pangloss or Pollyanna. Having a sense of wonder and aspiring to goodness does not mean that one is not fully aware of the facts of life. Hence, an abiding awareness of our transience is present in nearly every poem that de la Mare wrote. There is no shortage of deaths, graveyards, epitaphs, abandoned churches, empty echoing houses, and ghosts in his poetry.
But his "wonder, awe, and reverence for the beauty and strangeness of creation" places the fact of our mortality squarely at the heart of that "beauty and strangeness." This is, marvelously, attended by a sense of peaceful acceptance. This is where "good nature and good sense" come in. We find no despair in his poetry. Nor do we find bitter and self-regarding irony, that characteristic disease of the modern age. His essential message (as set forth in what are probably his best-known lines) is: "Look thy last on all things lovely,/Every hour."
This evening to my manuscript
Flitted a tiny fly;
At the wet ink sedately sipped,
Then seemed to put the matter by,
Mindless of him who wrote it, and
His scrutinizing eye --
That any consciousness indeed
Its actions could descry! . . .
Silence; and wavering candlelight;
Night; and a starless sky.
Walter de la Mare, Ibid. The ellipses are in the original.
Vincent Lines, "Church Porch and Manor, Avebury" (1942)