Walter de la Mare (1873-1956) was the prolific author of many volumes of poetry, short stories and novels, including one of the most enduringly popular poems in the English language, 'The Listeners'. Born in Charlton, Kent, he was educated at St. Paul's Cathedral Choir School in London. At sixteen he started work in the statistics department of Anglo-American Oil. He married in 1899 and had four children and for many years he struggled to balance the life of the writer with the financial demands of family until, in 1908, he received a Civil List pension which enabled him to concentrate on writing. His first book, a collection of poems called Songs of Childhood appeared in 1902: the title gives us a clue to de la Mare's key poetic concerns and establishes him in a tradition which stretches back to Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience and the ideals of the Romantics. Like them he had a privileged childhood, a time of unique vision uncontaminated by adult perceptions, and he remained throughout his career a keen and successful writer of poems for children. In a lecture on Rupert Brooke, de la Mare described children as "contemplatives, solitaries, fakirs who sink again and again out of the noise and fever of existence and into a waking vision." In his own writing de la Mare is trying to re-awaken this vision which accounts for the yearning tone of much of his poetry. This preference for inward exploration has led, in some ways unfairly, to him being dismissed as an introverted poet of escape, a romantic ducking the complexities of modern life. Certainly his sometimes archaic diction, use of formal verse structures and central concerns are largely at odds with the modernist movement which came to dominate poetic discourse from the 1920s onwards. His critical reputation also suffered from his association with the Georgian movement which was later discredited by the modernists as an inadequate response to the changed circumstances of the world following the First World War. However, such criticism overlooks de la Mare's great attributes: his technical skill, uncanny ability to create atmosphere and the subtle ambiguities of his elliptical narratives. De la Mare remained popular in his lifetime and writers as respected as W H Auden, Graham Greene and Angela Carter all spoke highly of him: perhaps at the 50th Anniversary of his death a critical re-appraisal is merited.
His Archive poem, 'Thomas Hardy', celebrates a visit de la Mare made to Hardy's house, Max Gate, in Dorset in June 1921. Hardy was an important influence on de la Mare's sensibility and for his part, Hardy esteemed the younger writer, so much so that a few day before he died, Hardy asked his wife to read him 'The Listeners' and afterwards said "That is possibly the finest poem of the century." Their friendship, begun through correspondence, was deepened by their eventual meeting and subsequent encounters. This poem, published ten years after Hardy's death, shows a characteristic movement in de la Mare's poetry, away from external realities to inward vision: the birds he listens to, and which Hardy does not hear, remain hidden; it's their symbolic resonance which is important, connecting the writer to the mysterious world of the imagination. As an elegant gesture of thanks towards another writer, the poem is touching but it has a particular poignancy for the Archive in that Hardy is one of those voices which has been lost to posterity, even though he lived well into the recording era. This is as close as we come to hearing him in the Archive, though like the larks' "multitudinous singing" his voice remains ultimately un-capturable.
This recording comes from the archives of the BBC. The Poetry Archive is very grateful to the BBC for its support in enabling us to feature this important material on the