I have a special place in my heart for ‘minor figures,’ the characters some feet back from stardom in their chosen artistic enterprise. (Perhaps that comes from my realized contentment in being a second violin in the orchestra of life.)
The British poet, children’s author and novelist Walter De La Mare is one such second violin. Al contemporary of T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden and Ezra Pound, he harkened back to a 19th century literary life, with well-crafted poems, and stories and novels that shaded to the twee.
I had a book of his stories, which I adored, in my earliest days. And of course he turned his hand to some ghost stories and books of rhymes (Victorian pleasures all). James Campbell has a wonderful run down on him in The Guardian a few years back,
“The repeating elements of his work are the times of day and their domestic rituals, the seasons and their fruits, the symbolic death and rebirth inherent in sleeping and waking, autumn and spring. A dozen poems employ “Winter” in the title; half-a-dozen more, “Snow”. He likes the things that children like, as well as those that children like to fear: scarecrows and shepherds, ghosts and fairies, knights and huntsmen, “bumpity rides”, a lost shoe which is sought from “Spain, and Africa, / Hindustan, / Java, China, / And lamped Japan”; phrases like “Alas, alack”, “do diddle di do” and “riddle-cum-ree”; sailors – mariners, rather – either coasting “sweet o’er the rainbow foam” or fated to be “flotsam on the seas”. Numerous De la Mare poems are simple and delightful nonsense: “Three jolly farmers / Once bet a pound / Each dance the others would / Off the ground”, but many are tinged with subtle melancholy, the effect of a sensitivity attuned to high-pitched notes of grief even at times of contentment.”
Here is his best known poem,
By Walter De La Mare
‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
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.