Walter de la Mare

The Stories of Walter de la Mare (Part 4), continued from HERE


When I read these stories, my thoughts will appear in the comment stream below…

(My previous reviews of older or classic fiction:

20 responses to “Walter de la Mare


    I can yet find no evidence of anyone else, before me today, connecting this 1936 WDLM story with the ‘Mary Poppins’ books that started in 1934, but I sense a preternatural synergy between them that is powered by the literary gestalt, rather than a simple copying by one of the other.

    “Though only one had an umberella,
    There sat Miss Miller and there stood Nella.”

    “…and as I peered up the spiral staircase – you know what a corkscrew is, my child – a twist, a wheeze and a pop?”

    “– and millions of chimney pots over the roofs of every shape and smell and size, and the wires simply humming in the breezes,…”

    The story of little Nella stumbling on Miss Miller and her umbrella sitting under the chestnut tree, a pretty park where Nella has escaped from what she describes as her odious nurse, a park that Miss M later calls a prairie!
    A tantalising tale, where we learn that Miss M will break into a rhyming couplet at nearly every moment, just as Miss Poppins did with a song, as she issues wise fantastical homilies to little Nella, but calling her Rosie and other names. Also Miss M talks of running after an inscrutable ‘it’ that runs away from her but Miss M seems afraid of it, too, so who runs after whom? — and this reminds me of Lavinia’s froward child a few days ago above. A bit of an Alice in Wonderland, too. A tower in a box-wood, and a Queen of Hearts card. And an acorn on a hat. Nursery rhyme-ish. Minxishly haunting, I feel… Philosophical, making Nella cope inscrutably better with her strict nurse who claims her in the end.
    Nella looked back and of course Miss M was no longer under the chestnut tree. Run away from herself, I guess! Or simply a ghost?

    PS (EDIT an hour later): just discovered that MISS MILLER was first published in 1930!

  2. “…like the twangling of a harp.”


    “‘It’s a queer experience, railway-travelling,’ he began abruptly, in a low, almost deprecating voice, drawing his hand across his eyes. ‘One is cast into a passing privacy with a fellow-stranger and then is gone.’”

    Half of me lost its way in this work…
This is another ‘obscure corner’-sitting stranger-being- met-on-train story, a stranger who tells his own story to the narrator whom he takes over with his even stranger garble! And this stranger’s so-called small talk is indeed a garble of incomprehensible skullduggery of the occult spirit, as well as a half dream, half real narration in itself about the man and woman, separately half human and half alien, ‘whom’ he once met in a farmyard house near the sea, and its “garden wherein cockatrice and basilisk bask”, with two ‘dwarfish’ children who appeared as if “animal and angel had connived in their creation.” From a frame of blue silk or linen on the farmhouse wall to a graveyard headstone the corner-stranger later visited is told by a pig-eyed woman in the vicinity (a woman with a sow “that yuffed and nosed in at the open door…”), about the burial of “a woman ‘from the sea’. In a blue gown’” with the gravestone’s “name bitten out of the dark rough surface, ‘Femina Creature’.”

    I felt sure osmosis is only half the means to comprehend this unique work. ‘A man too mean to be me’ being just one yuff of my own gravestone-snoozing. But here are some clues from this challenging text, to be factored into WDLM’s other themes gradually being covered by my ongoing reviews… “Don’t we make our world? Isn’t that our blessed, our betrayed responsibility?” — “…picking a fool’s journey from sensual fact to fact at the tail of that he-ass called Reason? I suggest that in that solitude the spirit within us realizes that it treads the outskirts of a region long since called the Imagination.”— “Consciousness! What restless monkeys men are.” — “…gazing from out of dream into dream, homesick, ‘forsaken’.” — “…the paths of man’s imagination, the kingdom from which thought and curiosity, vexed scrutiny and lust…” — “They stumped after me (as might yellow men after some occidental quadruped never before seen) in merry collusion of nods and wreathed smiles at this perhaps unprecedented intrusion.”

    “How shall a man find his way unless he lose it?”


    “Nevertheless destiny was spudding at his tap root.”

    This is the now to-be-famous story of Mr Asprey as he is forced to leave his house when “The dark was turning colder.” Before he goes, he makes notes, memoranda and corrigenda about his childhood, the rooms and their memories, the guilt about his mother and father, or his f…ather (sic) almost becomes Mr Asprey himself today, and his once beloved sweetheart Frances M smiling forgiveness from a portrait, forgiveness for his having advertised for a woman today with whom to provide an heir, and this house had never had electric to be ‘mental’ in…
    “And do hearts warmed up become as indigestible as he had always feared?”

    “For a few moments he stood listening to the tardy and stentorian Now-then: Now-then of his grandfather’s clock,…”

    “Human existence, they seemed to be preaching, resembles an egg. In spite of a myriad apparent replicas it is unique, self-contained. Break the shell, you cannot repair it again. Some eggs are good, others are horrid. The stale are an affliction to God and man. And not every specimen need necessarily harbour a chick.”
His servants, all called Emily or Ada or Mrs Grosvenor, one of whom he had accused of stealing his wallet, and now they returned to show it was still full of what they had not stolen, only to vanish with it like ghosts…
    “He had never deliberately thought of Emilys or Adas as being of else than flesh and blood. He knew we are all human.”

    “…he saw for a vivid instant his old nurse sitting beside the empty grate – slippered feet, stooping head, and clicking needles all complete – she immediately vanished. And instead, he was looking at a small boy, who was now exactly as far away in time as she was; though much further away in most things else.”

    “His psychic skull must have contracted.”

    “…large visionary granite sarcophagus It was merely yet another jape of the strange jinnee of the dream world –“

    “How much was all this his father’s cumulative dark, how much his own?”
‘Phantom-thronged’, now thinning out,…
    Poe’s ‘Nevermore’ and liquid marmalade…Dean Swift’s legacy of a hat, the OCD of a missing napkin, eggs now become mere eggs, and a wooden box with a friend’s hopeful manuscript of a novel that Mr A had never read till it was too late following this friend’s death, only to find it was pure nonsense, as most friends’ novels ever tend to be, I guess.

    Then Mr A’s near ‘dying fall’ as this wondrous elbow-moment at the end before he needs to walk from this house of memories and regrets, with no vehicle’s wheels even come to collect him… whatever ‘rapture’ Nature lends to the countryside-and-sea’s landscape outside… —
    “So much for the far. And the near? From the tiniest of the leaves of the bushes at his elbow, from every two-edged blade of grass on the powdery path, to the remotest wood between his house and the calm sea, this private world of his was edged, skinned, furred with hoar-frost – hoar-frost of such a splendour that it seemed to be all the colours in earth and heaven, and eye and mind, blazing in a rapture of delight.”

  4. THE RIDDLE (1903)

    “And Vega the far-shining stood over against the window above the slate roof.”

    This brief story — as beautifully haunting as it is simple — is an ironically gratuitous tontine of seven grandchildren, all siblings, defying their grandmother to whom they have gone to live as presumed orphans, but actually fulfilling her inferred wishes by being subsumed gradually, one by one, as intrinsic to their hobbies and games of pretence and even romantic role-playing, till only the grandmother is left. ‘Vega’ originally meaning ‘falling vulture’, I note from elsewhere.


    Out on the lawn I lie in bed,
    Vega conspicuous overhead […]
    Now north and south and east and west
    Those I love lie down to rest;

    — W.H. Auden (A Summer Night 1933)


    “Though again, what a man writes may reflect himself, as in a sort of looking-glass, it does not necessasily reflect the complete self.”

    “And yet, to judge by his feelings at this moment, he might almost have been a novice – a chrisom child. This was odd. The particular lecture he was engaged on – its subject the writings of Edgar Allan Poe –“

    This is WDLM’s ‘story’ about Gestalt Real-Time Reviewing, the preternatural literary gestalt versus writers sharing with each other by deliberate intention, and Wimsatt’s Intentional Fallacy, the dubious biographical self versus the occult non-self, didacticism versus magical dream or art for art’s sake, words as music, all leading to the Return or Revenance as with Lawford in WDLM’s novel and the musical, poetic, crime-story, horror-story soul of the literature that self once left behind him in his wake… the irony being that this ‘story’ itself is didactic to re-invoke the magical dream! — SPOILER ALERT, Edgar Allan Poe, I guess, returned to the then present day to hear a lecture by a professor on the Poe canon, a lecture in biographical bits and pieces versus the rapture of his work’s gestalt. “We have still a thirst unquenchable … It belongs to the immortality of man …” Then this revenant vanishing like WDLM’s Miss Miller!

    We see this ‘story’ through the eyes of the lecturer and his sight of the latecomer who stands at the back of the hall, and his reaction to the stranger’s challenge, face to face, after the lecture was finished. Round peg variously in an imp’s perversely shaped holes. Loves and variously shaped women, too. And a character to frown at and be frowned upon by! Any ‘psychic indigestion’, notwithstanding.

    “…between poetry and poverty there is only the difference of the letter V – ‘The viol, the violet, and the vine’ –“

    “…you cannot really separate words from what they say. And the highest art is the concealment of art; and, beyond that, the concealment of the concealment.”

    “‘Malign!’ cried the professor. ‘My sole aim and intention was to tell the truth.’ […] And now he felt as dead and empty as some sad carcass suspended eviscerated from a butcher’s hook. By a piece of mere legerdemain in this cold and hideous room his view of himself and even of his future had completely changed.”

    And after the foundry in the sky …
    “For an instant it seemed as though even his sense of reality had cheated him – had foundered.”


    “Fifty years ago you could have cradled an infant on that old tombstone yonder – Zadakiel Puncheon’s – and it would have slept the sun down. Now, poor creature, his ashes are jarred and desecrated a dozen times a day – by mechanisms like that!’

    And THAT were the various trains coming through the station, a sign of modern strident life to the speaker, an old man like me, sitting on a bench alongside a young lady (the narrator) awaiting her own train to stop. The old man giving out homilies and quoted lines from the ‘museum of epitaphs’ upon the gravestones nearby, themselves disrupted by the noise, as is a swallow, and as are the blind worms.

    He has an umbrella like an antiquated transgender Miss Miller! But the whole thing is rather self-indulgent on WDLM’s part, I say as if I am as in much of a ‘high dudgeon’ as the depicted curmudgeon himself! The ‘long vacation’ awaits us both, meantime.
    Yet there are some neat memorabilia from this story as a choice for its own epitaphs…

    “I despise nothing simply because the Almighty has concealed its uses. I see no virtue in mere size, or in mere rapidity of motion. Nor can I detect any particular preciousness in time ‘saved’, as you call it, merely to be wasted.” – he said.

    “My old gentleman had not noticed it. He was still gently fuming over the murdered past: still wagging his head in dudgeon in his antique high hat.”

    “Spinsters they lived, and spinsters
    Here are laid;
    Sprightly Rebecca, Anne,
    And Adelaide.”

    “But it was I who ‘passed on’ – into the security of a ‘compartment’ filled with two fat commercial-looking gentlemen asleep; a young lady in goggles smoking a cigarette;…”

  7. A Nest of Singing-Birds’

    “It’s my belief we’re here because we are put; and you might as well be a cabbage as think you have got any say about it.”

    So says chatterer girl on a train. Meantime, this story tells of a sensitive budding writer, Hilbert, and his loving mother who buys up his poetry books as if they are a token of a valued OLOGY! — and his poetry is on the cusp with prose, as the act of sleeping is on the dream cusp of waking, I guess.

    “The degradation of becoming a bestseller had never even in fancy so much as darkened his mind.”

    But he has a thesis that strangers randomly encountered in WDLM’s train journey and its corner seats, a WDLM running theme, that, as well as idyllic stations, and bird life and WDLM-rich evocations of peace before the hum of the rails betokens a train’s arrival … these strangers and their speech being tantamount to poetry and, and if their speaking to him passed his thesis’ test of intrinsic poetry, he would then give them a free copy of his book entitled PARLEYINGS, rather than leaving copies randomly in various places as he had tried before. Until he realises silence is tantamount to poetry!

    Here, the separate chatting strangers include a railway porter, two gossiping amazon girls, and an old man like me, and a socialist who looks like a junior archdeacon with cherry lips, and the latter’s silent sister whose sexuality perhaps wishfully overpowers Hilbert…

    Just get a gist of its gestalt …

    “Why did cabinet ministers so seldom resort in their speeches to blank verse? Simply because their hearts were not in their work.”

    “Why, thought Hilbert, watching him, is a green-glassed lantern so magical an object in full daylight? Was it because, like poetry itself, it is of no immediate use? And why, in a dear mediaeval little wayside station like this, where heavy luggage must be scarce, had the porter bow legs?”

    “…he detested the thought of talking to strangers; particularly strangers engaged in really practical occupations…”

    A railway bridge as a changing picture frame. And a train with a female gender…
    “‘She,’ then, was probably not more than a mile away now. Yes, here she came, puffing out delirious clots of wool and advancing on the toy railway station as meditatively as a gigantic snail.”

    Time’s tic tac of a septuagenarian like me…
    “…the wagtail – nimble Sallie Dishwasher – and had never himself even noticed her shadow; no, nor the tic-tac either.”

    “…as far away from the rocking clatter of his surroundings as a sleeping infant would be during a performance of Götterdämmerung.”

    A basket woven from WDLM’s ‘bast’. A word I discovered earlier in his stories above.

    Then, one of the amazons…
    “What I say is, trewth’s trewth; and I don’t care what eavesdroppers perking their ears up in corners unbeknown and shamming doggo may have heard me.”

    The archdeacon’s sister…
    “…an oval face with highish cheekbones, and eyes and mouth from which a remote smile was now vanishing as softly and secretly as a bird enters and vanishes into its nest.”

    A story that satirises creative writers but makes them spiritual, too. This story puts every reader in one of WDLM’s trains as a carriage corner sitter.

    “…you see what is called poetry is merely a trying to put into words what can, of course, never, never be really said.”


    “Nights of summer-time remain warm with day, and are seldom more than veiled with a crystalline shadowiness which is not darkness, but only the withdrawal of light. Even at this midnight there was a radiance as of pale blue glass in the north, though east to west stretched the powdery myriads of the Milky Way. Honeysuckle, bracken, a hint of hay, and the faint, aromatic scent of summer lanes saturated the air. The very darkness was intoxicating.”

    A perfect paragraph to envelop our loving or simply courting couple out at night, now lost, and in a graveyard. And we know of dreams in eyes, and other blandishments of night, as they enter a graveyard, and one has 21 matches to use to light the gravestone epitaphs, another WDLM graveyard epitaph story like LICHEN above, one that somehow also aligns itself with his THE RETURN and the transfer to the woman of what lay under this* epitaph, I guess…instead of THE RETURN’s ‘man too mean to be me.’

    *”Be very quiet now:
    A child’s asleep
    In this small cradle,
    In this shadow deep!”

    But what was MORS etched on the gravestone that was lit up earlier? A foreshortened code or something cryptic that will nag at me now forever. If I ever solve it I will come back here and put the solution in the sub-comment below…


    “To me, who find,
    Reviewing my past way, much to condemn,
    Little to praise,…”

    A Wordsworth at the start of this story, as well as of my review, part of my own pilgrimage into WDLM…
    A kindred or reciprocal story (full of haunting evocations of the churchly and its genius loci) with ALL HALLOWS.
    It is the old verger’s point of view (“I can detect the presence of a stranger in it even before I’ve either seen or heard him.”), a view of a new stranger pilgrim, talking to each other about the strangers who were once pilgrims on the earth now under inscribed gravestones, and within the earth itself, some of which discussed inscriptions are wandered through here in this story as before in LICHEN and BENIGHTED above. This pilgrim to a sea-begirt church, “never before had he [the Verger] encountered a human being so eloquent of mourning. His black was almost dazzling in its intensity –“ seems as if he is looking for a grave containing a felo-de-se called Ambrose Manning, and this leads to some clue., viz. N.F.
    Making this seem as real as Non-Fiction, and thus haunting the reader and making their dreams actual — in that cusp between life and death in parallel with between waking and sleeping. An infection between death and life, like an inscribed gravestone and Arthur Lawford in THE RETURN.
    Which brings us to this review and this story’s words as personalised for me: “Still, you cannot put an old man back into his youth again, however much he may covet it.” The ultimate ‘gaucherie’.

    “‘What is Truth?’ said Pontius Pilate – it’s as if each and every one of us had his own private compass. From birth, sir. The needle pointing not due north, mark you, never that, but a few hairsbreadths or more short of it. As life goes on, now this way it veers, now that; and the most we can do as it seems to me, is to see that it doesn’t jam.”


    “Not a sound, within or without, disturbed its stony quiet – except only the insect-like rapid ticking of a clock in the vestry, and the low pulsating thump of a revolving cogwheel in the tower above the roof.”

    This is possibly the most frightening, suspenseful narration in the whole of WDLM. The story of Philip, a boy with lantern and protective stone in his hand daring the late darkness of the church where his father gives sermons. And later we learn Philip had dared his ‘friend’ Dick to come here, too, a boy who is a chapel goer and thus not a believer in angels as the people like Philip going to this church do believe, and with a backstory connecting both these boys’ parents. And what of Dick’s eventual fate, being dared to climb up to the angel and blow its trumpet, an angel of stone or weakened wood, to blow it as the deepest dare of all. What does Dick’s eventual fate portend? Which of these boys wore a green silk dressing gown under his clothes?

    I will now give samples below from this unmissable work, that hopefully will not spoil the suspense and the innuendo, and the ‘ghosts’ and ‘germs’ whether by this work’s long writerly ‘harangues’ on Angels and Last Judgement Trumpets (harangues cast in the mouth of Philip) or by our own patient readerly microscopes. Dare the two boys dare each other with crazy scarecrows or with real wraiths in WDLM’s words?
    I.H.S., a monogram for Jesus. Or a hundred daydreams.

    “It’s the people who are going to die soon – next year – who come: their ghosts. Wouldn’t they look white and awful, Philip, coming in under the yew tree … I expect its roots go down all among the coffins.”

    “…if any more light comes in, the walls will burst. I love the moon; I love the light …”

    “…like a writer of books, he could not wholly trust his faculties, as though words and ideas were stubborn things to set in order and be made even so much as to hint at what was pent up in his mind.”

    “‘The moon’s gone, Dick,’ he whispered across. ‘What’s the good? Come down!’”

    And two elbow moments as ‘easter eggs’ for the likes of me — i.e. the cook Mrs Sullivan who often replaces Philip’s mother as his companion to hear his father’s sermons in the church, when his mother has a migraine…
    “Here, in this darker quiet, under the thick-leaved ilexes, Philip always drew a little nearer to his stout and panting companion; and sometimes for reassurance slipped a hand under her elbow.”
    …ironically presaging the later effigy that provides the first footing of Dick’s dared and daring climb to blow the angel’s trumpet above it…
    “…the effigy in alabaster of a worthy knight who, as its inscription declared, had long ago surrendered the joys and sorrows of this world. He reposed, rather uneasily, on his left elbow;…”

  11. WINTER

    One only remembers the unusual…

    “I have sometimes laughed out. And queer the echo sounds in a barrel roof. And perhaps an old skimpy verger looks at you, round a pillar. Like a bat.”

Just like the story ‘Strangers and Pilgrims’, or ‘All Hallows’, but also it is another like LICHEN or BENIGHTED, and THE RETURN, with gravestone epitaphs in a symphony of words, alongside the WDLM-archetypal richness of landscape and spirituality, here possibly at its most powerful of soul pain as self seems to meet self in death, each the ghost of the other, spotted across this cruel winter scene.

    “Stranger, a light I pray!
    Not that I pine for day:
    Only one beam of light
    — To show me Night!”

    Alice Rodd, as just one of the many examples of those buried here. Rodd a name that recurs in WDLM.

    And this perhaps a summary of this WDLM ethos…
    “I turned to go – wearied a little even of the unwearying. Epitaphs in any case are only ‘marginal’ reading. There is rarely anything unusual or original in such sentiments as theirs. Up to that moment (apart from the increasing cold) this episode – this experience – had been merely that of a visitor ordinarily curious, vulgarly intrusive, perhaps, and one accustomed to potter about among the antiquated and forgotten.”

    Till the even richer, more rarified prose during the later more monumental momentousness, as self meets self in such a setting, even if one does not fully recognise the other.

  12. ODD SHOP

    “I deal, I mean, solely in sounds; but chiefly in minute sounds.”

    How have I ever not read this short work before? A landmark read, even at this late stage in my life. The story of someone almost stumbling down two wooden steps to a shop, and triggering a bell, to ask the way to the railway station. Do they buy something, do they take something away? I certainly found myself with a magical experience from this theatrical dialogue between ‘Customer’ and an old man like me called ‘Shopkeeper’, about the cages the latter sold with coloured knobs to trigger the sound that each contained. Sounds that mean what they mean to the listener. The equivalent to what was evoked by taste in Proust. I will not here itemise each sound, or its tentative description, because they are the story, but each is a multi-evocation in itself… and disarmingly goes in one ear and in the other, too. Never exiting but ever entrancing, whatever its bandwidth. And each transcends whatever else the story is about…

    “The whole world has changed in these last few years including ‘the sun’.”

    “There is a good deal of rasping on rough surfaces, nowadays. Fingers scratching their way out.”

  13. And the next story is fortuitously a theme and variation on the previous one I read (‘Odd Shop’)…

    “But then he could tell you the name of any bird – land-bird or sea-bird – you might have heard warbling, or screeching, why, half a mile off. He can hear a fly crawl over the wall. He can watch even a trace of a lie in your mouth before a syllable comes out of it, as easy as a cat catches mice.”


    “It’s this music-stuff that’s on his mind. He thinks of nothing else; he broods on it. And so, I suppose, he can’t die easy.”

    Another discovery for me; they keep on coming! This the music of my own lifelong interests in ‘classical’ music, old as well as contemporary, and indeed avant garde, (“He says that even this criss-cross  hullabaloo that’s all around us has a meaning to it, if one could give it a name.”) (“And I shouldn’t wonder if it has got into those music books of his, either. All lines and squiggles – “)
    Such ‘music’ is here invoked by WDLM, regarding an old composer (called Dr Brandt) and his rough-spoken and fright-expressing factotum (or so we assume him to be), the latter taking a medical doctor in a precarious gig along the sea cliffs and wave strewn sounds, to the maroonable house where they both live with Fanny the cat. The factotum seems relieved the old man is dying so he, the supposed factotum, can leave the place, and he is bringing the doctor to ease the composer’s ending, if not coda!
    With added WDLM-archetypal references to “these lying cheapjacknewspapers”, and the sounds of mermaids, angels, not-angels and a sunken church.
    The factotum refers, too, to the composer’s “music mind you, that may snap your backbone and stun you for good and all. That’s what he says.”

    “The whistling and siffling of wind and sand over the dunes, the tide washing and ruckling in the shingle. Is that Dr Brandt’s trouble?” asks the medical doctor, evoking, for me, a coded reference to MR James’ Oh Whistle (see my earlier review of it here).

    Music as “a gabble, or, rather a remote yet vaguely harmonical babble of voices, either high up or in the interstices of the hiss and clutter of the sea.”
    Yet, I begin to wonder whether the factotum has his own bats in the belfry when he lets slip: “You may think, if you want to, that it’s my tiles that are loose. Who cares?” And the composer does not exist at all? The factotum is Dr Brandt himself?

    “…there followed a music – a music drawing nearer until the whole canopy of the heavens enveloping the world seemed to be welling with a vast strangely beautiful and terrifying strain of harmony. It died away like a falling rumour of itself into the wail of a rising wind and the incessant din of the breakers …”

    The perfectly musical dying-fall of a story.

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