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«  Reed Reviews de la Mare  »

Reeding Lessons: the Henry Reed research blog

18.6.2021


Reed Reviews de la Mare

While I was tracking down two references to book reviews Henry Reed had written for The Sunday Times, I unexpectedly discovered this critique of The Complete Poems of Walter de la Mare (Faber and Faber, 1969), "Solacing Music," from January 25, 1970. In a happy coincidence, it happened to appear in the first month of the first of many, many reels of microfilm I was whizzing through.

This particular review is especially interesting because not only does it outline Reed's personal feelings about de la Mare's poetry, but it also lets slip two personal anecdotes. The first is related to Reed's shared affinity for, and indebtedness to, Thomas Hardy and his poetry. Reed mentions having visited Hardy's second wife in 1936. Indeed, Florence Hardy wrote to Reed in December of that year, in an attempt to dispell his delusions about penning a biography of her late husband.

Reed goes on to describe his only meeting with de la Mare, which occurred 'after some rather fractious gathering convened to decide which verses in our language might not be too tedious or indecent for the young ears of the Royal Family.' This being in reference to a poetry recital which was held at Wigmore Hall in May of 1946 in honor of the Queen, Princesses Elizabeth, and Princess Margaret. Incidentally, it was the meetings for this poetry reading which would inadvertently cause Vita Sackville-West to swear she would never write poetry, again (more on that, later)!

Sunday Times

Solacing music

THE COLLECTED POEMS OF WALTER DE LA MARE/Faber £5 pp984

HENRY REED
He could no longer listen to the reading of prose, though a short poem now and again interested him. In the middle of one night he asked his wife to read aloud to him "The Listeners," by Walter de la Mare.
Thus Thomas Hardy on his deathbed: a tribute to both poets, for it is by no means easy—as I think Wordsworth was first honest enough to say—for a poet to make much of a poet a good deal younger than himself; and there was a difference of over thirty years between these two. What was it in de la Mare's great poem of desolation, disappointment and unresponse that Hardy wanted to hear said to him at that moment? Perhaps:
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:—
"Tell them that I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word," he said.
I have never, myself, wanted to know who the traveller or the listeners are in this poem, and have rather averted the gaze from any exegesis of it. But is this not in itself rather a despicable critical evasion of a kind which we have resigned ourselves to in the case of de la Mare?

Let me revert to Hardy. Though Hardy was kindly and hospitable to the many young poets who sought him out, de la Mare was the only one he was genuinely curious to meet. I am sorry I cannot "document" this statement: it was either told me by the second Mrs Hardy in 1936, or it is remarked on in one of the several thousand unpublished Hardy letters now being edited by Professor Purdy.

On the one occasion I had the honour of meeting de la Mare—after some rather fractious gathering convened to decide which verses in our language might not be too tedious or indecent for the young ears of the Royal Family—I fervently recorded this fact to him. He was too modest to believe it; but eagerly, in a damp, dark Chelsea street, he told me of the barely credible circumstances of his first meeting with Hardy, in 1921. I did not know that a retrospective poem on the subject was already in print. And his deeper feelings, expressed in the poem, he did not repeat: but they are worth repeating now:
And there peered from his eyes, as I listened,
          a concourse of women and men,
Whom his words had made living, long-suffering—
          they flocked to remembrance again;
"O Master," I cried in my heart, "lorn thy tidings,
          grievous thy song;
Yet thine, too, this solacing music, as we earthfolk
          stumble along."
The deliberate touch of pastiche in these lines, written round about 1938, is of course a kind of homage and does not make the poem less moving. It is very different from the real help he had sought from Hardy's poetry in 1921, or just before when, as Dr Leavis has acutely remarked, de la Mare seems to have recognised "the vanity of his poetic evasions . . . It is as if, in his straights, he had gone for help to the poet most unlike himself, strong where he is weak" [New Bearings in English Poetry. London: Chatto & Windus, 1950].

It is doubtful if he found this help. For some reason, after the publication of "The Veil" in 1921, de la Mare stopped publishing serious poetry (at least in England) and devoted himself to prose, and to comic verse. When I was an undergraduate, on the rare occasions when twentieth-century poetry was admitted to exist, de la Mare was occasionally mentioned, sadly withal, as one who had not fulfilled his promise.

This was quite agreeable to us: it meant we did not have to go and find out exactly what the promise had been. In any case we had, by then, Eliot and Pound, and they provided quite enough matter for thought, if thought was what it was we directed at them.

There was, however, a genuine feeling that de la Mare had ceased to exist. Then, in 1933, appeared "The Fleeting." But by this time we had Auden to cope with. And "The Fleeting" was much the same mixture as before, though longer poems like "The Owl," and "Dreams" (which mentions, not with much respect, the Id) had begun to appear and to threaten a boredom later to display itself more expansively. Other volumes, light or serious, followed. Towards the end there were efforts at the long "great" poem. "The Traveller" is often exciting and terrifying, but only in its last pages really impressive. As for "Winged Chariot," I have to confess to what may be a personal blackout. It is a long poem about time, chronometers, etc., and is often in its early pages humorous and engaging; the trouble is that though it is at no point unbeautiful, it is largely unreadable.

I am pedantic enough to wonder why the charming marginal glosses (like those of Hakluyt and Coleridge) of its first edition should have been inserted in this Collected Poems into the poem itself as though they were epigraphs to various sections of it—thereby rendering what is difficult enough virtually unintelligible.

Mr Auden does the same with it in his "Choice of de la Mare's Verse" and tells us, a little uneasily, that the poem "is better read, perhaps, like 'In Memoriam,' as a series of lyrics with a metre and theme in common." But surely for God's sake please, Tennyson's poem is a moving poem? We don't come out of it quite as we went into it; and we do not fall asleep during it.

In 1913, reviewing a "collected" Robert Bridges, de la Mare remarks: "The writing of verse easily becomes a dangerous habit." This is distressingly true of himself: there is simply and blankly and monotonously too much of him. In the same essay, he remarks: "Complete editions serve too often merely for an imposing monument" ["The Poetry of Robert Bridges." Review of The Poetical Works of Robert Bridges, Excluding the Eight Dramas. Saturday Westminster Gazette, August 30, 1913. Reprinted in Private View. London: Faber and Faber, 1953. 108-113.]. In the present volume his poems occupy, in fairly small print, pages 3 to 888. This is a lot of reading-matter. I cannot think its gentle author can have wished it all at once upon anybody.
(p. 57)


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1532. Vallette, Jacques. "Grand-Bretagne," Mercure de France, no. 1001 (1 January 1947): 157-158.
A contemporary French language review of Reed's A Map of Verona.



1st lesson:

Reed, Henry (1914-1986). Born: Birmingham, England, 22 February 1914; died: London, 8 December 1986.

Education: MA, University of Birmingham, 1936. Served: RAOC, 1941-42; Foreign Office, Bletchley Park, 1942-1945. Freelance writer: BBC Features Department, 1945-1980.

Author of: A Map of Verona: Poems (1946)
The Novel Since 1939 (1946)
Moby Dick: A Play for Radio from Herman Melville's Novel (1947)
Lessons of the War (1970)
Hilda Tablet and Others: Four Pieces for Radio (1971)
The Streets of Pompeii and Other Plays for Radio (1971)
Collected Poems (1991, 2007)
The Auction Sale (2006)


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