04/25/01
Walter de la Mare
    by Kevin Shortsleeve

Walter De la Mare was born in England in 1873. He was raised in a Victorian landscape of childhood that presented a dichotomy of poetic views. On the one side, there were the irreverent and humorous authors like Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, while on the other, poets of a more traditional approach, like Christina Rosetti and Robert Louis Stevenson were also firmly planted on the shelves of the nurseries of England.

Perhaps this varied vista shaped De la Mare's talents and ambitions. Like A. A. Milne, who would follow in his footsteps, De La Mare could perform the many tasks of the virtuoso children's author with equal grace. Nonsense, serious poetry, fairy tales, short stories and longer novels for children were all a part of his cannon.

His first major release, Songs of Childhood, was published in 1902. It included popular poems such as Tartery, and Bunches of Grapes. Like Stevenson, De la Mare could speak in his poetry with an authentic child's voice - and, also like Stevenson, his works demonstrated a veneration for playfulness and childish flights of imagination.

If I were Lord of Tartery,
Myself and me alone,
My bed should be of ivory,
Of beaten gold my throne;

His best known collection of poetry for children is Peacock Pie, from 1913. This jumble of rhymes included one that became famous, Alas! Alack! about a fish that calls out melodramatically from the confines of a frying pan. My personal favorite De la Mare poem is Bones, in which a Mr. Smith goes to a Doctor Jones to complain about his bones.

Said Dr. Jones, "Oh Mr. Smith,
That's nothing, Without doubt
We have a simple cure for that:
It is to take them out."
After a succesful opperation, The poem ends --
And Smith said "Thank you,
Thank you, thank you"
And wished him a good day;
And with his parcel 'neath his arm
He slowly moved away.
While De la Mare loved to write nonsense, he was also capable of works of great seriousness and beauty such as his "most beautiful lady that ever was in the West Country". Before his death in 1956 he would be honored by his Queen with both the Companion of Honour in 1948 and Order of Merit in 1953. Pouring through a volume of De la Mare's light verse and rhymes is an uncommon pleasure. He is Ogden Nash meets William Blake. And the reader of his volumes can easily get lost in the books, much like De la Mare's character, "Poor Jim Jay" who "got stuck fast in yesterday".

Copyright 2001 by Kevin Shortsleeve

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Wednesday, 04-Sep-2002 22:24:01 EDT


"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for the Study of Children's Literature and Media and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."