From C.H. Sisson, that’s high praise. Poetry ought to resemble the ordinary speech of the era in which it is written – a suggestion Swift would happily have endorsed. Sisson doesn’t mean slangy, obscene, jargon-hobbled or careless. His own poetry is none of those things. He speaks of rhythm, the musicality of language, what distinguishes poetry from prose and conversational drone. Today’s lazy chatter and tech talk would have appalled him. In English Poetry, 1900-1950: An Assessment (1971) he goes on: “This is because there is a general, completely inartificial conversation among contemporaries of which what remains as the literature is, in some sense, the finest expression.” The quotation at the top refers to a poet about whom Sisson, surprisingly, has good things to say: Walter de la Mare (1873-1956).
Do Americans still read de la Mare? Do the English? I grew up thinking him strictly a writer of whimsical verse for children – safe, gauzy stuff, unfit for adult consumption. That’s a fair but incomplete verdict. His poems can be quite wonderful, though he was long-lived and enormously prolific, and winnowing his best from the merely good and the strictly awful takes time. Think of Tolstoy when reading de la Mare’s “Napoleon” (Poems, 1906):
“`What is the world, O soldiers?
It is I:
I, this incessant snow,
This northern sky;
Soldiers, this solitude
Through which we go
Murderous monomania rendered in twenty-five words that deftly echo Sisson’s call for “the rhythms of speech.” Among the Modernists, Ford Madox Ford, Pound and W.H. Auden wrote admiringly of de la Mare’s poems. So did Philip Larkin, hardly a creampuff in matters of critical judgment. In 1970, he reviewed the Complete Poems of an unlikely pair – de la Mare and the greatest of American poets, Emily Dickinson. (“Big Victims” is collected in Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982, 1983.) Of the former he writes: “A great deal of his work is musical, practised, well-burnished and affecting: he is much more readable than Emily Dickinson, though incapable of her isolated `dozen or two’ peaks.” Larkin devotes most of his space to Dickinson, and concludes his review with these sentences: “Poetry is an affair of sanity, of seeing things as they are. The less a writer’s work approximates to this maxim, the less claim he has on the attention of his contemporaries and of posterity.” De la Mare, if sometimes fey, is never less than sane. (Read his novel Memoirs of a Midget, published in 1921, in which feyness and sanity war, and sanity triumphs.) The poem Sisson speaks of at the top of this post is “An Epitaph” (The Listeners and Other Poems, 1912):
“Here lies a most beautiful lady,
Light of heart and step was she;
I think she was the most beautiful lady
That ever was in the West Country.
“But beauty passes; beauty vanishes;
However rare--rare it be;
And when I die, who will remember
That lady of the West Country.”
And here is the complete paragraph that follows after Sisson cites this poem: “There is a purity of language beyond the reach of the nineties. Grave and a little precious, the lines none the less have the intimate rhythm of speech. De la Mare catches it again and again. They are rather hushed, twilight accents, but of those accents no one is so much a master as he.”