Walter de la Mare Biography

Walter John de la Mare – British poet, writer 1873-1956

Walter de la Mare
Walter de la Mare

Walter de la Mare was the most distinguished lyric poet writing for chil­dren in the first half of the twentieth century. His fresh original voice, noted for its astute per­ception and subtle imaginative visions was ele­gantly balanced by his mastery of language and of the many melodies of rhythmic pattern. De la Mare’s apparent indifference to “writing for the market” kept his work from period limitation, and thus it has maintained a place in the canon of children’s literature. The ethereal loveliness of “Silver” in Peacock Pie (1913) still finds delighted listeners.

While poetry for both children and adults was his most natural channel of expression, de la Mare was also a master of prose. He produced retellings of traditional tales and Bible stories, original stories with folkloric elements, antholo­gies with remarkable prefaces and notes, a play, one long fantasy, criticism, collections of es­says, and award-winning novels. De la Mare maintained the same high standard of artistic integrity whether writing for children or adults; he lived by his own dictum: “Only the rarest kind of best in anything can be good enough for the young.”

peacock pie - Walter de la Mare 1913
Peacock Pie – First edition, 1913

Childhood was the primary topic for de la Mare, but never one for fond sentiment. Chil­dren as well as adults were to be considered au­thentic individuals. “The acorn is the oak… in mind and spirit we are most of us born … the age at which for the rest of our lives we are likely to remain.” He observed his own four children, but more important, he retrieved many of his own childhood memories, dreams, and fanta­sies. He often fused the imaginative and the commonplace in his poems, effecting a haunting eeriness. There are glimpses of phantom chil­dren, spellbinding dreams, or dilemmas such as that of poor Jim Jay who “got stuck fast in yes­terday”; there are unanswered questions posed in “Someone” and “The Little Green Orchard.”

The masterpiece of anthologies is Come Hither (1923). An illuminating, allegorical pref­ace introduces a collection of more than 483 po­ems by 260 poets, covering approximately 600 years of literature in English; the poems are ac­companied by 300 pages of fascinating notes that disclose the wisdom, humanity, and schol­arship of its editor. The Three Royal Monkeys (formerly The Three Mulla Mulgars, 1919) is a fantasy adventure story about the loyal and in­trepid Nod Nizzaneela Ummanodda, his broth­ers, and the wonderstone. Inventive language, a fully realized secondary fantasy world, well- crafted suspense, and numinous poetic vision combine to create an enthralling experience. Many children today find it difficult reading, but when it is read aloud by an appreciative reader, entire classrooms may be brought under its spell.

Walter De la Mare received the Carnegie Medal of the Library Association for Collected Stories for Children (1947). The British Crown made him a Companion of Honor in 1948 and awarded him the Order of Merit in 1953. In a rare tribute by the Horn Book Magazine, the June 1957 issue was devoted to an appreciation of the art of Walter de la Mare.


Source: Children’s Books and their Creators, Anita Silvey.

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