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  Walter John  de la Mare (1873–1956), by Howard Coster, 1934 Walter John de la Mare (1873–1956), by Howard Coster, 1934
Mare, Walter John de la (1873–1956), poet and writer, was born on 25 April 1873 at 83 Maryon Road, Charlton, near Woolwich, London, the sixth of the seven children of James Edward Delamare (1811–1877), principal of the accountant's bank note office, Bank of England, and his second wife, Lucy Sophia (1838–1920). Her father was Dr Colin Arrott Browning, fiery reformer of conditions on board convict transports and staff surgeon to the naval dockyard, Woolwich. The Delamare forebears were Huguenot silk merchants; the poet restored the French form of their name. The Arrotts and Brownings were Scottish evangelicals with a marked bent for medicine.

De la Mare (known as Jack and later WJ) was a chorister of St Paul's Cathedral choir school, founded its Choristers' Journal, and at nearly seventeen joined the statistics department of the Anglo-American Oil Company. He drudged through eighteen ill-paid years (1890–1908), adding, copying, compiling elaborate sales sheets, detesting the company's ruthlessness under Rockefeller. Staying late after hours, using office waste paper, he experimented with story and verse, struggling for publication, and pursued an isolated self-education.

On 7 August 1899 de la Mare married (Constance) Elfrida (1862–1943), eldest child of William Alfred Ingpen, clerk to the insolvent debtors' court and clerk of the rules. They had two daughters and two sons; Richard, the elder, became chairman of Faber and Faber and a prolific publisher of his father. De la Mare was passionately paternal.

In youth de la Mare had dark romantic looks, favoured aesthete fashions of the 1890s, and enjoyed amateur acting. Later he grew stocky, his head impressive for its strong, concentrated cast of feature—engaging and mobile in talk. His highly individual conversation consisted mostly of questioning—reflective, humorous, dealing in imaginative ideas rather than personalities, constantly off at a tangent. Though warm and widely sociable, he seemed inwardly essentially private. Besides books (he read omnivorously) he delighted in the English scene (travelling abroad reluctantly and seldom), especially in whatever was minute or odd, romantic or grotesque. Poetry was the ruling passion; this only increased with age.

His own output was prodigious: de la Mare published over a thousand poems and rhymes. The poems are marked by subtle and memorable rhythms, and often minor in key; many are masterly and haunting. His real career began late, when he was nearing thirty, with Songs of Childhood (1902), published under the pen-name Walter Ramal (discarded only in 1904). Some of these poems aim directly at child readers, others recreate the state of childhood itself—to him always life's summit—its pure wonder, intuitions, solitary fantasy, and above all its readiness to see this world as part of another, no less real for being magical and spiritual. Fairy-tale, ballad, incantation, make-believe, and dream provide a symbolism not escapist, but selected for more accurate penetration of this other, elusive, ‘Real’.

De la Mare's first prose book, Henry Brocken (1904), is tentative; the hero, wandering on horseback, encounters random figures from books—Jane Eyre, Gulliver, the doctor in Macbeth. It is critical appreciation in romance form, not by analysis but through a kind of oblique, original illustration. Allied experiments (in verse) on Shakespearian characters brought the eager championship of Henry Newbolt, who succeeded finally in securing for de la Mare a £200 royal bounty grant (1908)—enough to risk quitting oil to rely wholly on fiction, poetry, and reviewing (chiefly for the Saturday Westminster Gazette and Times Literary Supplement). A civil-list pension followed in 1915.

Once free, de la Mare wrote an arresting novel, The Return (1910). The hero, leading a mediocre, suburban life, becomes possessed (almost) by the evil, but much more intelligent, spirit of a long-dead Huguenot suicide. By the time the hero repels him (at the cost of all former security) he has himself changed fundamentally, aware now of a profound, enigmatic spiritual context not guessed at before. De la Mare's sense of death as an opening rather than a shutting door is sharply presented.

‘Now and again over one's mind comes the glamour of a kind of visionary world saturating this’, de la Mare wrote to (8 August 1911). This was for him life's central experience: all he wrote concerned it. Popular recognition came gradually for an outlook so unusual. He became well known only with the poems of The Listeners (1912) and, for children, Peacock Pie (1913). In these, with Motley (1918), his lyric powers reached a climax. This was in part owing to his passionate friendship with Naomi, begun in 1911, when he started reviewing for the Saturday Westminster Gazette, of which she was literary editor. Though they were never physically lovers, for four years, until war supervened and the bubble burst, Naomi was his muse. She was far from ethereal—ambitious, combative, much more in the swim of literary society than he. Yet he found in her (or invented, as they sometimes agreed he did) a secret self who lit up his. When this ended, workaday friendship survived for a while. Lyrics she inspired—often obliquely expressed—attain an ardour of longing and regret. Echoes of that infatuation later sound, at reticent remove, in the passion of the heroine of the novel Memoirs of a Midget (1921), which also explores his fascination with the uncommon angle and the very small. His knee-high midget is as acute as a Jane Austen gentlewoman, but has links with Emily Brontë's stranger universe.

De la Mare's originality stamped his anthologies, notably Come Hither (1923), framed by one of his most beautiful symbolic stories. The anthology juxtaposes official poetry with Tom O'Bedlam and counting-out rhymes, as if to prove that poetry's essence counts for everything, its categories for little. Other very personal studies, part anthology, part discursive meditation, cover most of his main preoccupations: childhood; dream, imagination, and the unconscious; love; time (this last in verse, the long, conversational Winged Chariot; 1953). His other sustained poem, The Traveller (1946), is a kind of dry-land Ancient Mariner: a quest across a huge desert, revealed as the Eye of Earth. The hero, dying, finally stares down into a dark well of truth, the pupil, and ‘It seemed to him a presence there gazed back’. Sombre, the end yet suggests that to end in defeat does not ultimately matter, to bless life being the only significant victory.

During the course of his life de la Mare wrote about a hundred short stories for both children and adults: mysterious, often sinister, nearly always poetic in effect. They can be obscure, built up as they are by fine-spun suggestion and the same embroidered, often archaic expressions he used in poetry, indifferent to modern fashion. Danger, enigma, and transience closely dog their most homely or commonplace settings. The accepted is everywhere disturbed by warnings that this universe exists unsafely to bring news of something far more important. De la Mare seems doubtful whether good or evil is the stronger, and his distrust of answers, and hatred of dogma, forbade him any creed; yet he acknowledged a divine creator, was steeped in the King James Bible, and would pray before sleep. He held the fundamental human condition, from earliest childhood on, to be homesickness, exile.

De la Mare's health was not robust, but he had basic stamina, surviving dangerous illness at least four times, and though ailing in his last years wrote constantly, inventive energy flourishing to the end. He moved house often around the south London suburbs, ending as he began, near the Thames. The main homes were 14 Thornsett Road, Anerley, south-east London (1912–25); when prosperity came, Hill House, Taplow, Buckinghamshire (1925–39); and finally, best loved, the top half of South End House, Montpelier Row, Twickenham, Middlesex (1940–56). Here he entertained multitudes of friends and fellow writers, usually to tea parties. He was awarded the OM (1953) and appointed CH (1948), and received honorary degrees from the universities of St Andrews (1924), Bristol (1929), Cambridge (1935), London (1948), and Oxford (1951). Keble College, Oxford, elected him honorary fellow (1944).

De la Mare died at home of his second coronary thrombosis (the first was in 1947) on 22 June 1956. His ashes were buried in the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral.

Theresa Whistler

Sources  

Bodl. Oxf., MSS W. de la Mare · W. de la Mare correspondence, priv. coll. · personal knowledge (2004) · private information (2004) · T. Whistler, Imagination of the heart: the life of Walter de la Mare (1993) · L. Clark, ed., Walter de la Mare: a checklist prepared on the occasion of an exhibition of his books and MSS at the National Book League, April 20–May 1956 (1956) [bibliography] · L. Bonnerot, L'Œuvre de Walter de la Mare: une aventure spirituelle (1969), 475–517 [incl. bibliography] · DNB

Archives  

Bodl. Oxf., corresp. and papers · Hunt. L., letters · NYPL, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg collection of English and American literature · Plymouth and West Devon Area RO, Plymouth, letters to the Plymouth branch of the English Association · Ransom HRC, letters and literary MSS · Syracuse University, New York, corresp. and literary MSS · Temple University, Philadelphia, corresp. and literary MSS · U. Edin. L., special collections division, letters and papers; letters · U. Reading L., letters · University of Bristol Library, special collections, letters to N. L. Bright |  BL, corresp. with G. K. Chesterton and F. A. Chesterton, Add. MS 73195, fols. 1–40, passim · BL, corresp. with Sir Sydney Cockerell, Add. MS 52712 · BL, letters to Emily Jones, Add. MS 53788 · BL, corresp. with Macmillans, Add. MS 55010 · BL, corresp. with Marie Stopes, Add. MS 58501 · BL, letters to Vera Stacy Wainwright, Add. MS 54329 · BL OIOC, letters to E. F. Younghusband, Eur. MS F 197 · Bodl. Oxf., letters to John Freeman and his wife · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with E. J. Thompson · CUL, letters to Geoffrey Keynes · Gloucester Public Library, letters to Marion Scott · Harvard U., Houghton L., letters to Sir William Rothenstein · Herts. ALS, letters to Lady Desborough, D/ERV · JRL, letters to Katherine Tynan · JRL, letters to Alison Uttley · King's AC Cam., letters to W. J. H. Sprott · Morgan L., letters to Tom Turner · NL Scot., letters to Marion Lochhead · NL Scot., letters to Alice V. Stuart · NL Scot., corresp. with John Dover Wilson · Northants. RO, corresp. with Elsie Taylor · NRA, priv. coll., letters to Lady Rosalie Mander · NYPL, letters and MSS to Edward Marsh · Somerville College, Oxford, letters to Percy Withers and his family · Temple University, Philadelphia, letters to Edward Meyerstein · U. Aberdeen L., special libraries and archives, letters to J. B. Chapman · U. Birm. L., special collections department, letters to Francis Brett Young · U. Edin. L., special collections division, letters to Gerald Bullett · U. Edin. L., special collections division, letters to J. M. Dent · U. Edin. L., special collections division, letters to Joan Hassall · U. Edin. L., special collections division, letters to J. G. Sime and F. C. Nicholson · U. Edin. L., special collections division, letters to C. V. Wedgwood · U. Reading L., letters to R. L. Mégroz

 

SOUND

 

BL NSA, performance recordings


Likenesses  

W. Rothenstein, portrait, 1921, Lockwood Memorial Library, Buffalo, New York · W. Tittle, lithograph, 1922, NPG · H. Coster, two photographs, c.1928–1934, NPG [see illus.] · W. Rothenstein, chalk drawing, c.1929, NPG; repro. in Whistler, Imagination of the heart · H. Murchison, photograph, 1930–39, NPG · H. Lambert, photograph, 1937, NPG · W. Stoneman, photograph, 1939, NPG · J. Gay, photograph, 1948, NPG · A. John, chalk drawing, 1950, NPG · M. Gerson, photograph, 1953, NPG · P. George, pencil, 1956, NPG · J. Ward, watercolour, 1956, NPG · death mask, 1956, NPG · D. Low, pencil caricature, NPG · R. S. Sherriffs, ink-and-charcoal caricature, NPG · T. Spicer-Simson, plasticine medallion, NPG · four drawings

Wealth at death  

£14,872 14s. 7d.: probate, 15 Oct 1956, CGPLA Eng. & Wales