I know nothing interesting about the life of Walter de la Mare—other than he was a successful writer in poetry and prose for roughly half of the 20th century*. There appear to be no interesting movements or manifestos to tie him to, and though his lifetime corresponds roughly to those 20th century Modernists I often like and present here, he’s not considered one of them.
20th century British authors who got trading cards in cigarette packs level fame.
Certainly, his poetry doesn’t sound or look like Modernist verse. It’s frankly musical, and supple yet regular musical verse of his type is not that easy to write in English. Modernists took up with free verse for a number of reasons, partly because they were likewise enamored of the wider and more fanciful rhythms of Modernist music and visual arts, and because they wanted to explore new ways of relating reality, and the tight and formal clothing of metrical forms and rhyming seemed to restrict their range of movement.
There were folks with a Modernist sensibility who worked in rhyme and more regular metrical forms. Early Robert Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay did. Frost in particular is often writing Imagist poetry with fresh, plain diction that rhymes in the era when his fellow Modernists were immerging.
Today I use a short poem of de la Mare’s, “Winter,” and the first thing that struck me about it is the word-music. Every line rhymes, and with perfect, not partial rhymes. Though de la Mare uses common rhyming words, the poem seems effortless, there are no lines that seem twisted to make the rhyme. But notice something else about “Winter:” the way it treats its matter, as opposed to its music—that’s close to the Imagists credo. It directly shows a winter scene. The opening lines “And the robin flew/Into the air, the air,/The white mist through;” are solidly in the Imagist mode. That opening “and” making sure we know this is an immediate experience. The entire second stanza too is Imagist through and through. Nothing is “like” anything. This is a real, immediate scene, and we stay there. The robin** flying through white mist is a bird flying through white mist, not a mere symbol, a counter for something else. Frozen bushes waver in the slight breeze casting varying reflections from the new rising moon or last sunlight. Yes, what we are apprehending through the poet has connotations, has feelings that will be invoked, but we aren’t told by the writer what they are, he assumes we’re capable of forming those ourselves.
Only in the ending stanza does de la Mare break the rules of pure Imagism. In his last two lines he personifies a speaking star or cardinal direction which speaks the final line. For me this works largely because this contrasts with the rest of the poem. If instead, de la Mare had started with talking stars giving us messages in so many words and continued in that vein through the poem with bushes and birds telling us what the poet wants them to say, the impact of the conclusion would be lessened, and the poem would be trying to work, not just sound, in the old way.
Musically, I unabashedly say I like what I did for this one. The piece began for me with the guitar part, which I was going to play on acoustic guitar, but my family came home early and there’d be no chance to record that with an open sensitive mic, but then many acoustic guitar parts translate well to the Telecaster which I substituted. The bass guitar part is unusual in that it’s played entirely on open strings, a sound that the instrument is rarely allowed to use. But it’s the orchestral parts which really pleased me. There’s a bunch of tracks here combining “real” strings played via a virtual instrument with a somewhat overdriven Mellotron violin mixed in there which brings the string section some grit***. I gave a top line part to an English horn. Use the player just below this to hear my performance of Walter de la Mare’s “Winter.”
English robin showing its all-weather operational capabilities
*I recall reading some of de la Mare’s ghost stories decades ago, but I hadn’t really considered his poetry until I was reminded of that by Toby Darling, who does a lovely job of writing and playing music to sing many de la Mare’s poems to.
**Residents such as I who live in the Northern parts of the U.S. may be surprised that de la Mare has a robin in his winter scene. The American robin is a different species, which migrates south for the winter, and as such the robin here has a strong symbolic association with spring. English robins stay put. The same name for different North American and European species could lead one to read some promise of spring that de la Mare didn’t intend in his poem, in the same way that Robert Frost’s American winter hemlock branch may not have been a Socratic hemlock branch. Anyway, both robins have a bright red-orange breast, which even though de la Mare doesn’t state it, adds a dot of color to the white mist flight.
**The Mellotron was an early, primitive attempt to do what modern “virtual instruments” do. Typically, if a virtual instrument wants to present a “real” violin it will sample a violin playing various notes, and the notes as well with a variety of articulations which are stored and organized as digital audio files to be played later. The 1960’s Mellotron had a simple tape strip of a violin playing a note in one legato articulation assigned to each key of an organ-style keyboard. The former can sound strikingly realistic if care is taken to make use of the various articulations (vibrato, marcato, pizzicato, etc.) while the later sounds artificial despite the tape strips being conceptionally the same. Of course, “artificial” is a state of mind, and the close-but-not-quite sound of a Mellotron instrument always reads as “England” to my ear due to it use on many 1960s and ‘70s recordings by English groups.