Walter de la Mare (1873-1956) is one of those writers who are pretty thin on the ground at the moment, which is to say that he was something of an accomplished all-rounder. Or to give him more traditional description that would have had more currency in his day, he was a ‘man of letters’. Poet, short story writer, novelist, writer for children and essayist among others things, de la Mare is still read today, although perhaps not as widely as he deserves.
Many British schoolchildren are familiar with de la Mare thanks to one of (or perhaps THE) most famous poem of his, ‘The Listeners’. This is a great piece of verse to give to a child if you really want him or her to engage with the words, mood, atmosphere and meaning, mainly because it’s one of those poems that pose a myriad of questions while deliberately not stating anything clearly.
Sometimes this can be very annoying, but very often (as is the case here) the fact that it so open-ended is a great spur to the imagination and to discussion.
Here it is:
‘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.
It’s a fabulous poem, right up there with a verse like Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” for simultaneously firing a listener’s imagination, while simultaneously demanding a response, by means of deliberately not stating who or where or when in time the protagonists in the poem actually are.
Subtle and memorable are two adjectives I’d apply to “The Listeners”, and the same qualities are present in a book I bought at the weekend. Published in 1942 by Faber and Faber, Best Stories of Walter de la Mare is a good book to turn to for anyone like me who knows a bit of de la Mare through his poetry and who wants to read further.
I need to sketch a little bit of personal history here. A few years ago I heard a reading on BBC Radio by Richard E Grant of de la Mare’s supernatural story “All Hallows”. It was billed by the BBC as a ‘ghost story’ so maybe for that reason i found it a little underwhelming, since de la Mare it seems didn’t really write in the ‘classic’ vein of writers like le Fanu or MR James. While they all write in the supernatural idiom, de la Mare is more of a man for mood and atmosphere, rather than the outright shock of an apparition or a demonic presence. If de la Mare’s approach is like anyone else’s, I think it’s similar to Henry James’s, in that the stories will definitely give you a chill, but it comes less from a ghostly hand tracing its finger down the spine and more from the unsettling and lingering thought that what the protagonist in the story has experienced could just as easily be explained by it being all in the mind, as much as being caused by any supernatural agency. Think of something like James’s “The Jolly Corner” where there IS an apparition, but its appearance might just be the result of a fevered imagination as much as anything emanating from an occult source. If you take the premise of the story as read, then either of these possibilities is as scary as the other.
So although I didn’t deny the strength, power and mood of “All Hallows”, I came away with the impression that this was a story that needed to be read carefully. and I resolved to try and read it whenever I got the chance. Tracking down a new copy of de la Mare’s stories wasn’t easy (though I admit I don’t really shop for new books). So, when I came across the old wartime copy of Best Stories in an Oxfam bookshop, and saw that “All Hallows” was one of the pieces it contained, that sealed the deal. Having now read it I think it really works well.
The collection also makes it clear that there’s more to de la Mare than being a master at evoking an atmosphere or a chilling mood. Though the supernatural is a key element to his work, he is not confined to this area at all, so in the short story collection are other pieces that, while they might not chill or unsettle, still get you thinking.