Monday, November 25, 2013

Walter de la Mare: The English Expressionist

Reading Theresa Whistler's sympathetic and beautifully written biography of Walter de la Mare, I was reminded of the fickleness of literary reputation. Walter de la Mare's is ripe for reassessment. After a perilously slow start, it was only 'political intervention' and a civil list grant that rescued him from servitude at the offices of Standard Oil (working in the statistics department) to become a major literary figure (and able to make his living at it), only now to have his star obscured: surviving in his much anthologised poetry for children and the periodic reprints of novels, stories and poems for the dedicated camp followers (of which I am one).

This is not wholly surprising as de la Mare's poetry and prose tends towards the archaic in tone and language (and he had a debilitating fondness for obscure words or word forms). He was a master of atmosphere and haunting observation rather than of plot and realism. He was almost entirely uninterested in sex (or in the accompanying relational complexities). In reading de la Mare, you step into an alternate universe, strangely similar to ordinary day to day reality, yet curved through a revealing, distorting prism as if a child, with adult powers of description, was continually seeing the world anew, as he was - a master of curiosity and wonder.

He is deserving of revival not least because his world of off centred, magical realism is the world of our subterranean imagined lives. We may have lost an anchoring belief in an omnipresent deity but we have not lost a fascination with the fantastic borderlands of our own unconscious, that the world may appear different than its mundane showing apparently suggests. We slip into worlds transformed whether outright in the shape of fantasy or implicitly dreaming that others, more interesting others, dwell amongst us - vampires or aliens or the genetically transformed - out of which we weave our compensatory entertainments.

At heart de la Mare is an expressionist genius and rightly should stand alongside Kafka, offering parables of a world whose meaning is sensed to be there, even as it may elude us. If Kafka converted an ordinary man into a beetle with horror comic effects, de la Mare had a man waking from a dream by a grave side, subtly possessed so that no one would recognise him, even as they doubted their own failure in the face of his protestations. But unlike Kafka, de la Mare's hero wakes from his possession with a renewed and deepened spiritual conviction. His is an encounter with evil, purposeful, and ultimately redemptive.

It is a space captured beautifully in this, probably, his most famous poem where all is beautifully revealed yet left unsaid, inviting a wondering forward.

Is there anybody there?" said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grass
Of the forest's ferny floor;
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller's head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
"Is there anybody there?" he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller's call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
'Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:--
"Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word," he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone." 


The Listeners by Walter de la Mare

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