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Walter de la Mare


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#1 Nathaniel

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Posted 18 March 2012 - 03:18 AM

Lately I've been wanting to talk to people about a short story called "The Tree."

The man who wrote it is Walter de la Mare, an English poet, novelist and short story author whose work was once highly acclaimed but has now slipped into obscurity. I've met several English professors who have never even heard of him. Some might be familiar with his most famous poem, "The Listeners." He's one of those geniuses whose work fell out of fashion as literary tastes changed. A sensibility as delicate as his simply could not survive for long in a century dominated by realism. For me, discovering him was like finding gold. To read de la Mare is to enter a dark, mysterious yet beautiful world of great beauty and deep unease. De la Mare was a Christian whose faith can be sensed in his keen sensitivity to metaphysical power struggles.

Anyway, back to "The Tree." I think Jeffrey might appreciate it because it concerns itself with the creative impulse. But it does so in a way that's practically indescribable. Think of Tolkien's "Leaf by Niggle" and then go ten shades darker and you'll come close to the tenor of this story. There is a fruit merchant, who is wealthy, and his brother, a painter, who is poor, and a tree that's somehow not of this world. The difference between the brothers is demonstrated in their contrasting attitudes toward this remarkable tree. The ending is extremely ambiguous but you'll probably feel a sense of awe just the same.

I might be so bold as to add that there's a volume in the SPU library called Collected Tales that contains "The Tree," "Seaton's Aunt," and several more sketches by de la Mare. But I will stop there. To anybody who has enjoyed J.M. Barrie, Kenneth Graham, A.A. Milne, and Edward Lear, I commend Walter de la Mare to you, although nothing can fully prepare you for the actual experience of reading him.

Edited by Nathaniel, 19 March 2012 - 12:22 AM.


#2 Ryan H.

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Posted 18 March 2012 - 02:30 PM

Sounds fascinating. I'd love to read some of his work, but I'm not quite sure where to begin, at least given what's currently in print.

#3 NBooth

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Posted 18 March 2012 - 02:33 PM

Apparently, there's an official Walter de la Mare society. His poems are also available in two different places online. EDIT: He's also on Project Gutenberg.

I've never heard of de la Mare before; looks like another for the "must investigate" list.

Edited by NBooth, 18 March 2012 - 02:54 PM.


#4 Nathaniel

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Posted 19 March 2012 - 12:12 AM

Sounds fascinating. I'd love to read some of his work, but I'm not quite sure where to begin, at least given what's currently in print.

Of his short stories, my personal favorites so far are "Seaton's Aunt," "A Recluse," "Strangers and Pilgrims," "Mr. Kempe," "All Hallows," and "The Tree." These haven't just delighted and entertained and held me in suspense; they have instructed me on how to live. De la Mare believed that what our senses perceive isn't all there is to know, and he was somehow able to convey that through words. The sum of these stories is greater than their parts.

His one enduring novel, Memoirs of a Midget, is one of the strangest books I've ever come across. It requires a great deal of patience, but there are passages of astonishing beauty and strangeness. Read the synopsis and you'll know whether or not it's for you.

But I'm fairly certain it's for his poetry that he's remembered today. I've memorized a couple of them, actually. Since I'm no expert on the subject, I defer to W.H. Auden:

"As a revelation of the wonders of the English Language, de la Mare's poems for children are unrivalled... He never prettifies experience or attempts to conceal for the young that terror and nightmare are as essential characteristics of human experience as love and sweet dreams."

#5 Ryan H.

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Posted 19 March 2012 - 07:41 AM

Of his short stories, my personal favorites so far are "Seaton's Aunt," "A Recluse," "Strangers and Pilgrims," "Mr. Kempe," "All Hallows," and "The Tree." These haven't just delighted and entertained and held me in suspense; they have instructed me on how to live. De la Mare believed that what our senses perceive isn't all there is to know, and he was somehow able to convey that through words. The sum of these stories is greater than their parts.

Is there a single volume that contains most of these?

#6 Nathaniel

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Posted 19 March 2012 - 12:17 PM

Of his short stories, my personal favorites so far are "Seaton's Aunt," "A Recluse," "Strangers and Pilgrims," "Mr. Kempe," "All Hallows," and "The Tree." These haven't just delighted and entertained and held me in suspense; they have instructed me on how to live. De la Mare believed that what our senses perceive isn't all there is to know, and he was somehow able to convey that through words. The sum of these stories is greater than their parts.

Is there a single volume that contains most of these?

Yes. His grandson Giles de la Mare published two volumes containing his complete short stories, and one volume containing his short stories for children. These are pretty scarce, however.

The next best collection is probably Collected Tales (Knopf, 1950), edited by Edward Wagenknecht. Or you could try to find his first published volume of short stories, The Riddle (1923). Ryan, you live in Philly, don't you? If you're willing to make the drive, the Free Library of Philadelphia has both of these titles, as well as his indispensable poetry anthology, Behold, This Dreamer!

But I don't want to be too pushy. There's no accounting for taste. I just wanted to share my findings with you all. :)

Edited by Nathaniel, 19 March 2012 - 12:17 PM.