by Adam Sedia

The life of Walter de la Mare (1873-1956) spans earthshattering changes in history and art. The England into which he was born was a colonial empire stretching across the globe. Horse-drawn carriage was the only means of local transportation. Tennyson was poet laureate, and Matthew Arnold, Robert Browning, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti were at the height of their careers. In the year of his death, Britain, withered from World War II, had withdrawn from India, Burma, Palestine, and elsewhere. The automobile had long replaced the horse and carriage; indeed, air travel had become ubiquitous and the first space satellite was only a year away. And in poetry, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot were aged deans of poetry and in America Allen Ginsberg published Howl.

It is perhaps unfortunate that de la Mare lived through a time of such upheaval, particularly in the world of poetry. Because of the rapidly-changing fashions and tastes, his poetry never really had a chance to become established and “grow roots” as classics before modernism broke with the traditions to which he adhered. As a result, he saw his poetry fade into obscurity even before he died.

This was unfortunate. De la Mare’s poetry represents some of the finest, beautifully crafted, classical verse of the twentieth century. It is truly tragic that his poems remain largely neglected, forgotten as the world passed them by.

I.

Walter John de la Mare—who preferred to go by “Jack,” after his middle name—was born on April 25, 1873, in South East London, the sixth of seven children, to a family of remote Huguenot origin. In school he was a poor student and had little interest in poetry until he was fourteen. While translating a line of The Iliad as assigned, he was struck by its beauty. That spurred his lifelong love of poetry.

He did not attend university, and instead worked for the British division of Standard Oil Company for eighteen years as a bookkeeper. It was then that he began to write in his spare time. His first short story was published in 1895 and his first poetry collection in 1902. In 1908, after publication of his novel Henry Brocken and a second collection of poems he was granted a civil pension enabling him to retire from Standard Oil and write for a living.

From then he became a well-known writer—not only as a poet but also as an author of novels, short stories, and particularly children’s stories. He kept a circle of well-known literary friends, including Rupert Brooke, Katherine Mansfield, and Siegfried Sassoon.

In 1892 he married Elfride Ingpen, with whom he had two sons and two daughters. Elfie, as she was known, remained insecure throughout their marriage, as she was thirteen years her husband’s senior and de la Mare was known for his many Platonic friendships with younger women. Nevertheless, the two remained married until her death in 1943.

Twice offered a knighthood, he declined both times, and continued to write until his death on June 22, 1956. His ashes are buried in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, where he attended school as a boy.

Although he was well-known during his lifetime, de la Mare’s works declined in popularity after World War II. His poetry came to be seen as unfashionable after the modernist style of T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, and others rose to dominance. One anonymous critic offers the following view of de la Mare’s poetry:

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As a poet de la Mare is often compared with Thomas Hardy and William Blake for their respective themes of mortality and visionary illumination. His greatest concern was the creation of a dreamlike tone implying a tangible but nonspecific transcendent reality. This characteristic of the poems has drawn many admirers, though also eliciting criticism that the poet indulged in an undefined sense of mystery without systematic acceptance of any specific doctrine. Some commentators also criticize the poetry for having an archness of tone more suitable for children’s verse, while others value this playful quality. It is generally agreed, however, that de la Mare was a skillful manipulator of poetic structure, a skill that is particularly evident in the earlier collections.

. . . According to Henry Charles Duffin in his Walter de la Mare: A Study of His Poetry (1949), the “poetry of Walter de la Mare is not essentially either a criticism of life or (as some think it) an escape from life. It will fulfill both these functions for those who require them, but the primary end of de la Mare’s poetry is to heighten life.”

.

II.

In 1919, de la Mare delivered a lecture on the poetry of his friend Rupert Brooke, who had been killed in World War I four years before. Before analyzing Brooke’s poems, de la Mare offered his own views on poetry.

He begins with the inspiration for his idea, an episode recounted in James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. In responding to Oliver Goldsmith’s remark that an old friend of his had given up writing poetry, Dr. Johnson responded, “Why, sir, our tastes greatly alter. The lad does not care for the child’s rattle. . . . As we advance in the journey of life, we drop some of the things which have pleased us; whether it be that we are fatigued and don’t choose to carry so many things any farther, or that we find other things which we like better.” (de la Mare, pp. 3-4.)

In Johnson’s remark, “The lad does not care for the child’s rattle,” de la Mare notes, “Here, surely, is one of those signposts, one more enticing invitation to explore.” (Id., p. 5.) He explains:

.

This is true, I think, of us all, whatever our gifts and graces; but in a certain direction I believe it is true in a peculiar degree of poets—of children and lads (and possibly lasses, though they, fortunately for me, lie outside my immediate inquiry) who are destined, or doomed, to become poets. Poets, that is, may be divided, for illustration and convenience, into two distinct classes: those who in their idiosyncrasies resemble children and bring to ripeness the faculties peculiar to childhood; and those who resemble lads. On the one hand is the poet who carries with him through life, in varying vigour and variety, the salient characteristics of childhood (though modified, of course, by subsequent activities and experience). On the other is the poet who carries with him the salient characteristics of boyhood (though modified by the experiences and activities of his childhood). This is little more than a theory, but it may be worth a passing scrutiny.

(Id., pp. 6-7.)

.

The childlike intellect is secluded and contemplative. Children “are not bound in by their groping senses. Facts to them are the liveliest of chameleons. Between their dream and their reality looms no impassable abyss.” And there is “no insight more exquisite and, one might even add, more comprehensive” than a child’s. (Id., pp. 7-8.) When the child grows into boyhood, “[c]onsciousness from being chiefly subjective becomes largely objective. . . . Actuality breaks in upon dream.” (Id., p. 10.) “Yet the child-mind, the child-imagination persists, and if powerful, never perishes.” (Id.)

The boyish intellect, by contrast, is adventurous and analytical. The boy’s “natural impulse is to discover the thronging, complicated, busy world, to sail out into the West, rather than to dream of a remote Orient. He is a restless, curious, untiring inquirer; though preferably on his own lines rather than on those dictated to him. He wants to test, to examine, to experiment.” (Id., p. 11.)

Although de la Mare cautions, “We must beware of theories and pigeon-holes,” he identifies childhood and boyhood as “the two phases of man’s early life” and postulates that even adults fall into “two distinct categories; those in whom the child is most evident, and those resembling the boy[.]” (Id.)

Poets, too, fall into these two categories. According to de la Mare:

This poetical imagination also is of two distinct kinds or types. The one divines, the other discovers. The one is intuitive, inductive; the other logical, deductive. The one visionary, the other intellectual. The one knows that beauty is truth, the other proves that truth is beauty. And the poet inherits, as it seems to me, the one kind from the child in him, the other from the boy in him. (Id., pp. 12-13.)

The greatest poets, among whom de la Mare identifies Shakespeare, Dante, and Goethe, “are masters of both.” (Id., p. 13.) Wordsworth and Keats “manifest in varying measure the one impulse and the other.” (Id.) But for the most part, poets fall into one of the two types. De la Mare places Plato, “the writer of the Book of Job,” Vaughan, Blake, Coleridge, and Shelley in the “childlike” category, and Lucretius, Donne, Dryden, Byron, Browning, and Meredith in the “boyish” category. (Id.)

He sums up the differences among these “two streams” of poetry thus:

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The visionaries, those whose eyes are fixed on the distance, on the beginning and end, rather than on the incident and excitement, of life’s journey, have to learn to substantiate their imaginings, to base their fantastic palaces on terra firma, to weave their dreams into the fabric of actuality. But the source and origin of their poetry is in the world within. The intellectual imagination, on the other hand, flourishes on knowledge and experience. It must first explore before it can analyse, devour before it can digest, the world in which it finds itself. It feeds and feeds upon ideas, but because it is creative, it expresses them in the terms of humanity, of the senses and the emotions, makes life of them, that is. There is less mystery, less magic in its poetry. It does not demand of its reader so profound or so complete a surrender. But if any youthfulness is left in us, we can share its courage, enthusiasm and energy, its zest and enterprise, its penetrating thought, its wit, fervour, passion, and we should not find it impossible to sympathise with its wild revulsions of faith and feeling, its creative scepticism.

(Id., pp. 13-14.)

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Before discussing the poetry of Rupert Brooke, he then offers the reader one final, beautiful thought about the poetic imagination:

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Without imagination of the one kind or the other mortal existence is indeed a dreary and prosaic business. The moment we begin to live—when we meet the friend of friends, or fall in love, or think of our children, or make up our minds, or set to the work we burn to do, or make something, or vow a vow, or pause suddenly face to face with beauty—at that moment the imagination in us kindles, begins to flame. Then we actually talk in rhythm. What is genius but the possession of this supreme inward energy in a rare and intense degree? Illumined by the imagination, our life—whatever its defeats and despairs—is a never-ending, unforeseen strangeness and adventure and mystery. This is the fountain of our faith and of our hope.

(Id., p. 14.)

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III.

De la Mare was an extraordinarily prolific poet. A volume of his collected poems contains more than six hundred poems. They are mostly shorter, lyrical works, embodying the childlike, imaginative outlook he describes so well in his 1919 lecture. Choosing examples for discussion from among this plethora presents a difficult task. The four presented here are not de la Mare’s most well-known or anthologized poems (to the extent that he is well-known). Rather, they represent de la Mare at his best, with their exquisite use of language, assiduous craft, and deft use of poetic metaphor. They convey a good sense of why de la Mare is worth reading and remembering today.

De la Mare’s 1914 volume, The Listeners, takes its title from what would become one of his best-known poems. But the work contains many hidden treasures, among them this poem:

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Arabia

Far are the shades of Arabia,
Where the Princes ride at noon,
__‘Mid the verdurous vales and thickets,
Under the ghost of the moon;
And so dark is that vaulted purple
Flowers in the forest rise
__And toss into blossom ‘gainst the phantom stars
Pale in the noonday skies.

Sweet is the music of Arabia
In my heart, when out of dreams
__I still in the thin clear mirk of dawn
Descry her gliding streams;
Hear her strange lutes on the green banks
Ring loud with the grief and delight
__Of the dim-silked dark-haired Musicians
In the brooding silence of night.

They haunt me—her lutes and her forests;
No beauty on earth I see
__But shadowed with that dreams recalls
Her loveliness to me:
Still eyes look coldly upon me,
Cold voices whisper and say—
__“He is crazed with the spell of far Arabia,
They have stolen his wits away.”

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Here de la Mare addresses the “childlike” poetic imagination directly. He presents Arabia not as an actual place through the eyes of a visitor, but as a distant fantasy seen through the mind’s eye, as envisioned by a dreamer. The first two stanzas present vivid, lush imagery of the skies, land, flora, music, and inhabitants of the distant land as envisioned and fantasized by the poetic voice.

The final stanza works the metaphor, transforming the envisioning of Arabia into a representation of the poetic imagination. The visions of Arabia “haunt” the poetic voice because they are just that: visions. It says, “No beauty on earth I see / But shadowed with that dreams,” because the vision of Arabia represents an ideal, not an actual place. Against that ideal all beauty is measured. The “still eyes” and “cold voices” criticizing the poetic voice for being “crazed with the spell of far Arabia” do not share its vision of beauty, who see only the reality before them, incapable of recognizing the ideal that de la Mare embodies as Arabia. “Arabia,” therefore is a statement of what poetry and the poetic mind is: a vision of an ideal.

Another poem of striking beauty comes from his 1919 volume, Motley:

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Dust to Dust

Heavenly Archer, bend thy bow;
Now the flame of life burns low,
Youth is gone; I, too, would go.

Even Fortune leads to this:
Harsh or kind, at last she is
Murderess of all ecstasies.

Yet the spirit, dark, alone,
Bound in sense, still hearkens on
For tidings of a bliss foregone.

Sleep is well for dreamless head,
At no breath astonishèd,
From the Gardens of the Dead.

I the immortal harps hear ring,
By Babylon’s river languishing.
Heavenly Archer, loose thy string.

__

Here, the poetic voice addresses the “Heavenly Archer”—presumably the constellation Sagittarius, the Zodiac sign immediately preceding the winter solstice, the final sign of the calendar year, at its darkest and coldest season (at least in the Northern Hemisphere, where de la Mare wrote). The poem frames its discourse within two commands to this “Heaenly Archer:” at the beginning to draw the string, bending his bow; and at the end to loose the string, releasing the arrow.

De la Mare, now forty-six years old, laments the loss of youth and impending old age. Mirroring the winter time of Sagittarius, “the flame of life burns low.” Age has sapped life of the energy and joy it once knew, yet even that has not destroyed hope: “the spirit . . . still hearkens on,” waiting for the dreams dreamt in youth—the “bliss foregone”—to materialize somehow.

Yet the poem does not treat this hope as vain or foolish. “Sleep”—the giving up of all hope, or even death—is for the “dreamless.” For the poetic voice, however, it still hears “the immortal harps . . . ring.” Those harps might be “languishing” by “Babylon’s river”—a Biblical allusion to the captivity of the Jewish people in Babylon, exiled from their native land – but he still hears them, and they are “immortal.” The command at the end, “loose thy string” —drawn at the beginning of the poem—subtly implies that the poetic voice itself is the arrow. The Heavenly Archer of winter is thrusting him forward into the coming springtime. After being drawn back, suspended in the dark of winter, the poet’s reflection on his role as a poet spurs him onward, thrust forward by his hope.

In the end, the poem is less about the weariness of age than about the immortality of the ideal of beauty. Despite the slowing and deadening of the senses that comes with age, the poet is still able to hear the “immortal harps” of beauty, which provide both hope and joy in contrast to the “dreamless” who only “sleep.” In subtle, veiled language, de la Mare makes this dreamy address his artistic credo as a poet whose youth has fled.

The following short but gorgeous poem appears in de la Mare’s 1921 volume, The Veil and Other Poems:

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The Spirit of Air

Coral and clear emerald,
And amber from the sea,
Lilac-coloured amethyst,
Chalcedony;
The lovely Spirit of Air
Floats on a cloud and doth ride,
Clad in the beauties of earth
__Like a bride.

So doth she haunt me; and words
Tell but a tithe of the tale.
Sings all the sweetness of Spring
Even in the nightingale?
Nay, but with echoes she cries
Of the valley of love;
Dews on the thorns at her feet,
__And darkness above.

.

The first stanza engages the reader immediately with a vivid description of the air-spirit the poetic voice envisions, likened to precious stones—coral, emerald, amber, amethyst, chalcedony. Yet she “[f]loats on a cloud,” wearing “the beauties of earth / Like a bride.” The combination of exquisiteness and lightness presents an enticing combination of how “lovely” the air-spirit is without ever needing a detailed description of her features.

Then in the second stanza de la Mare presents his turn. As with “Arabia,” the air-spirit “haunt[s]” the narrative voice. Indeed, his words—vivid as they are—cannot adequately describe her. And for all her loveliness, she is in anguish: she “cries / Of the valley of love” with “thorns at her feet, / And darkness above.” She suffers, and above her only the dark abyss stretches for her to grasp.

What is this spirit, described at first so enticingly and at the end so hauntingly? She resembles Saint Paul’s description of a fallen spirit, the “the prince of the power of this air,” that “worketh . . . in the desires of our flesh.” (Ephesians 2:2-3.) Or she resembles the Sylphs of Paracelsus, air-spirits who resemble humans. Either way, she is not human and longs for the human sensation of love.

This poem, then, is about the uniquely human feeling of love. The spirit, moving through the air, incorporeal and therefore deathless, yet longs to know love. The “thorns at her feet” is the stabbing regret of never having known love, and the “darkness above” is the knowledge that she never will know it. Humanity, therefore, occupies a unique place in the universe. Mortal it is, but it has the capacity to love and know love, which even the lovely air-spirits lack.

These three poems date from the height of de la Mare’s career, but his later poems are just as much worth exploring. His final collection, O Lovely England and Other Poems, published in 1953, is a dark, brooding, even cynical collection. It contains the final musings of the weary eighty-year-old poet who had seen the world change and in many ways leave him behind. The entire collection is worth examining as a study in retrospection and musings on death. Yet for their darkness, the poems are no less lovely. One of the finest examples from this collection also captures the tenor of the poems as a whole:

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Tarbury Steep

The moon in her gold over Tarbury Steep
Wheeled full, in the hush of the night,
To rabbit and hare she gave her still beams
And to me on that silvery height.

From the dusk of its glens thrilled the nightjar’s strange cry,
A peewit wailed over the wheat,
Else still was the air, though the stars in the sky
Seemed with music in beauty to beat.

O many a mortal has sat there before,
Since its chalk lay in shells in the sea,
And the ghosts that looked out of the eyes of them all
Shared Tarbury’s moonlight with me.

And many, as transient, when I have gone down,
To the shades and the silence of sleep,
Will gaze, lost in dream, on the loveliness seen
In the moonshine of Tarbury Steep.

.

Here we come full circle. As with “Arabia,” de la Mare uses the experience of place as the subject for his metaphor. But unlike “Arabia,” this poem discusses an actual place very familiar to the poetic voice, rather than an idealized conception of a far-off land.

As with “Arabia,” too—and “The Spirit of Air”—de la Mare begins with a sensuous description of his favorite haunt: the stillness of night beneath the moon and stars, punctuated only by the whispers of nocturnal wildlife. Then in the second half of the poem he presents the metaphor: “many a mortal,” now “ghosts,” have “[s]hared Tarbury’s moonlight” with the poet, and “many, as transient” after his death will “gaze, lost in dream, on the loveliness”—the same loveliness he now beholds.

The moonlit cliffs of Tarbury stand for eternal beauty. Those long gone before and those to come after the present have recognized and will recognize the same beauty. One human life is fleeting, and its individual tastes are inconsequential. But the human mind across generations recognizes beauty that transcends the fashions of a moment—the sort of beauty beheld in nature, as glimpsed in a moment at Tarbury in the night. An eternal ideal of beauty becomes manifest in a single moment.

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IV.

In de la Mare’s poetry we see clearly that he falls among the “childlike” category he postulates in his essay on Rupert Brooke. This should come as no surprise, as he considers the “childlike” outlook the “purer” of the two, dwelling on its own inward reality rather than exploring the external—and an outlook that is lost in boyhood unless it is particularly strong.

But de la Mare’s childlikeness should not be confused with childishness or immaturity. His poems—short, frank musings on single subjects—though straightforward in their language and traditional in their conception, present an exquisitely subtle and sophisticated poetical conception of the world. Their simple and orthodox presentation belies the rich layers of analysis that truly render them a delight to read.

All of the poems examined in this essay masterfully use poetic metaphor to transform the poetic subject—a far-off place, growing older, a mythological air-spirit, or a favorite haunt—into a reflection of a transcendent reality, an eternal truth that allows the reader to find meaning in what de la Mare the poet describes. This is the true function of poetry as Horace observed, both “teaching” by revealing an eternal truth and “delighting” with the sheer luxuriance of its descriptions.

Walter de la Mare ranks among the best poets for this reason. It is an indictment of our age that his poetry is not better known and more widely read. In a sense, he was cursed to live when he did, during the great upheavals of the World Wars, and to live to see his poetry eclipsed by novel trends. But we are his heirs as both poets and readers, and it remains our task to ensure that his legacy not only remains unforgotten, but is accorded its proper place in our literary heritage.

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11 Responses

  1. DONALD PETER McCRORY

    I was so delighted to “rediscover” a poet I had read when at school but then, as Adam, so rightly tells us, many of us nowadays seem to have overlooked or forgotten.
    A really worthwhile essay, very well-written, crystal clear and a timely reminder not to forget the greats of the recent past.

    Reply
  2. Sally Cook

    Thank you for introducing me to this poet. I have already learnt some things.

    Reply
  3. Joseph S. Salemi

    Walter de la Mare was a very gifted and talented poet, though with a low-key style that had a limited range. He had the misfortune to be writing within an “in-between” period, when the lushness of late Victorian poetry was about to give way to the more hard-bitten approaches of modernism.

    The same thing happened to the American George Sylvester Viereck, whose lovely early twentieth-century lyrics were all of a sudden out of fashion after World War I. The only notable poet who managed to navigate this tectonic plate shift was W.B. Yeats, whose early work is very like that of de la Mare. The strong influence of Ezra Pound was what gave Yeats the push towards a more modernistic style, though he never actually became full-fledged modernist, and he never neglected meter.

    Reply
  4. Paul Freeman

    Walter de la Mare is one of those writers whose name everyone’s heard, but isn’t necessarily familiar with.

    Thanks for raising the flag to such a talented writer, Adam.

    Reply
  5. Sultana RAZA

    Am so glad you’ve written this essay, and have brought some well-deserved attention to this ‘lost’ poet. But I think since his style and themes relate to the broader picture of humanity, his poems will continue to swim against the modernist current, and survive in the long run. I just adore The Listeners. He leaves so much to the imagination, and it’s so intriguing, atmospheric, and evocative, all at the same time.

    Reply
  6. Allegra Silberstein

    Thank you for sharing your words along with the poems of De La Mare

    Reply
  7. C.B. Anderson

    He must have better poems than the ones you copied out in full. If so, then I would like to see them. The ones you included were run-of-the-mill, and not something I would want to write home about.

    Reply
  8. Cynthia Erlandson

    I’m so glad you have reminded me of de la Mare, whose poetry I hadn’t read for many years. I’ve just re-read a few of his, including “The Listeners” and “Thomas Hardy”; their rhythms indeed echoed strongly with Hardy’s (who has long been one of my favorites), especially “The Darkling Thrush” and “In Tenebris.” Thank you for your fascinating essay, Adam.

    Reply
  9. BDW

    What is excellent about Mr. Sedia’s forays into Modernist English poetry is he presses hard against writers, like Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Crane, and Realist Whitman, if not so much against writers, like Frost or De la Mare. It is hard to deeply criticize those with whom we welcome most into our minds. For me, my bugbear is Shakespeare, the English writer I admire most, but fight continually. Of all the writers here @ SCP, I appreciate Mr. Sedia’s essays most, because of his attempt at “resurrecting the classical tradition…” Where I disagree with Mr. Sedia is in his definition of the classical tradition in English poetry. My central poetic problem is this: I do not think English has attained, what I consider, the classical tradition. Among the Modernists, I admire Pound’s and Eliot’s failures, which, if not as profound as Milton’s grand failure, they at least fought through the storm of Modernism.

    Here is Eliot’s attempt at touching upon those qualities of De la Mare he appreciated most.

    To Walter de la Mare
    by T. S. Eliot

    The children who explored the brook and found
    A desert island with a sandy cove
    (A hiding place but very dangerous ground,

    For here the water buffalo may rove,
    The kinkajou, the mungabey, abound
    In the dark jungle of a mango grove,

    And shadowy lemurs glide from tree to tree—
    the guardians of some long-lost treasure-trove)
    Recount their exploits at the nursery tea

    And when the lamps are lit and curtains drawn
    Demand some poetry please. Whose shall it be,
    At not quite time for bed?…

    Or when the lawn
    Is pressed by unseen feet, and ghosts return
    Gently at twilight, gently go at dawn,
    The sad intangible who grieve and yearn

    When the familiar is suddenly strange
    Or the well known is what we yet have to learn,
    And two worlds meet, and intersect, and change;

    When cats are maddened in the moonlight dance,
    Dogs cower, flitter bats, and owls range
    At witches’ sabbath of the maiden aunts;

    When the nocturnal traveller can arouse
    No sleeper by his call; or when by chance
    An empty face peers from an empty house;

    By whom, and by what means, was this designed”
    The whispered incantation which allows
    Free passage to the phantoms of the mind?

    By you, by those deceptive cadences
    Where with the common measure is refined;
    By conscious art practised with natural ease;

    By the delicate invisible web you wove—
    The inexplicable mystery of sound.

    Reply
  10. Al Ream

    An excellent, informative piece with fine examples of Walter de la Mare’s work; it causes me to appreciate the trans-generational relation of The Lyric and The Society of Classical Poets Journals.

    Reply

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