Walter de la Mare - Poet of Anerley and South East London

‘Imagination of the Heart’ by Theresa Whistler (Duckworth 1993)

Review Published in #138

This book is a first-class biography of the poet Walter de la Mare by Theresa Whistler, second wife of Laurence Whistler and grand-daughter of Sir Henry Newbolt. Their families had been friends for years and she came to know the poet very well in his old age. The book is clearly and vividly written and took the author nearly 20 years to research and write. It is what is known as the “definitive” biography in the popular genre of Michael Foot’s “The History of Mr. Wells”.

Walter de la Mare was a famous writer in his lifetime and had a circle of well-known writer friends, including Rupert Brooke, Katherine Mansfield and Siegfried Sassoon. Sadly, his fame has suffered a decline since the war. His poems are familiar from schooldays to older poetry lovers (and perhaps younger ones too) and the best, such as “The Listeners”, “The Scarecrow”, “The Stranger”, “The Ghost” and the lovely epitaph about the “The Lady of the West Country” are in the anthologies of the time. “The Listeners” was chosen as one of the top favourite poems in a recent “Poetry Day” voting by the nation as second only to Kipling’s “If”.

What is not so well known about de la Mare is the fact that he was born and lived for many years in South East London. He was born on 25 April 1873, the youngest but one of 7 children, at 83 Maryon Road (demolished in 1966), a small crowded house near what was then the village of Charlton. From their windows they could see across the road the leafy tops of an old orchard. Charlton was then a village of feudal Kent with Jacobean manor house and squire, trees and green slopes. The district was poor but in easy reach of “Hilly Fields” and the Ravensbourne stream flowing through nearby meadows.

The family were of Huguenot descent with their surname spelt “Delamare” which Walter later changed back to the original French spelling. He was always known as “Jack” after his second name John, as he disliked his first name. When his father died in 1877 his mother moved the family to 5 Bovill Terrace (now 61 Bovill Road), Forest Hill, where further off there was countryside only 4 miles from London Bridge. He was educated at St. Paul’s School. He got poor reports and was not much interested in poetry until he was 14 when, while drearily translating a passage from the “Iliad”, his mind was suddenly illuminated by its beauty. On leaving school de la Mare worked for 18 years at a large oil company, compiling statistics and only able to write after office hours, using scrap paper salvaged from litter-bins.

In 1899 he married Elfride Ingpen, known as “Elfie”, a girl 13 years older than himself and they went to live in a small villa in what was then Lynton Terrace in Mackenzie Road, Beckenham. A plaque now marks the house at 195 Mackenzie Road. Four children - 2 boys and 2 girls – were born to them over the years and they were poor as he had little success with his writings at that time and presumably did not earn much in his office job. In 1906 the family moved from Mackenzie Road to a “cramped slip of a flat” in a tiny, ugly villa in Samos Road in the neighbouring suburb of Anerley.

In 1908 he was granted a civil pension through the influence of Sir Henry Newbolt and was able to retire from the oil company and concentrate on his writing. In 1911 he got a post as publisher’s reader with Heinemann.

Jack and his wife were not always happy together as she often felt insecure owing to the age gap between them, and his romantic but platonic friendships with other women. Then too, she was often exhausted with household cares and anxiety over their poverty. Yet in all their years together they kept their love for each other in spite of differences.

They were thankful to leave Samos Road after six months, to move to a “friendly little house” in Worbeck Road, Anerley, which had a narrow green garden with several fruit trees in it. Gradually throughout this time de la Mare was successful in getting and more poems and stories published, although his first two novels did not sell well.

The de la Mares were in Worbeck Road from 1907 to 1912, when they moved to a larger house in Anerley – No. 14 Thornsett Road, which is still there. Here they lived for twelve years, and many distinguished writers visited them. This house was in a pleasant road –without traffic! – with groups of little shops nearby and the Crystal Palace glinting on the crest of Anerley Hill. He was delighted to have his own little room where he could write, away from the family. 

In 1924, with increasing fame and income, they at last left Anerley and moved to Buckinghamshire. He was very glad to say farewell to cramped quarters and above all to Anerley! He had lived a curiously long time in so inappropriate a setting and had never really been happy there.

Joyfully they moved to Hill House, a Georgian house on the outskirts of Taplow village where they lived for 15 years. Then when Elfie became ill and the house was too large for her to manage they moved to a flat in South End House, Twickenham, where he loved to look at a beautiful plane tree that grew just outside his bedroom window.

Elfie died in 1943 and Jack lived alone for a time until a charming companion/nurse, always known as “N” (Nathalie) came to look after him. Now in old age with honours and money he still continued to write. He had twice been offered a knighthood but both times had refused it. He was happy – with the plane tree and “N”.

He died on 21 June 1956 at the age of 83 and his ashes were buried in the crypt at St Paul’s.

De la Mare’s poetry is of a type unfashionable today after T.S. Eliot and later Auden, Dylan Thomas and others in their different ways, revolutionized the style of poetry writing into a kind of obscure realism. De la Mare’s poetry had its own echoes and cadences, its mysteries, its subject of old houses with haunted rooms, churchyards, ghostly forests, legends and “far off things”.

The characters in his stories – sometimes children and old ladies like “Miss Doreen” were often strange, a part of the real world but also part of a visionary dimension beyond the commonplace. He was influenced in his youth by the writings of Edgar Alan Poe and later by Hardy, Henry James and even the Brothers Grimm.

De la Mare’s best novels – “The Return”, “Henry Brocken”, “The Three Mulla-Mulgars”, which recounts the picaresque adventures of the “three royal monkeys” (not for modern children perhaps) – and the enchanting “Memoirs of a Midget” maybe his masterpiece are now long out of print and great need of a revival.

He was a prolific writer, not only of novels and poems (some for children like the collection “Peacock Pie”), but of short stories of which perhaps the two most memorable are the beautiful “The Almond Tree” and “The Riddle”.

De la Mare also edited several excellent anthologies including the wonderful: “Come Hither” with its mysterious and poetic introduction. This is in the form of a short story about a little boy, Simon who, while roaming the countryside, discovers an old house called “Thrae” (anagram for “Earth”). The lady of the house, an aloof but kindly elderly spinster – Miss Taroone – welcomes him into the house and gives him refreshments. Thereafter, he often visits the house and makes friends with the lady and her old servant, Linnet Sara.

Miss Taroone shows him a round-shaped room in the tower at the top of a long, winding staircase which was once the room of a man named Nahum Tarune (“Human Nature”!), who may have been her nephew, son or brother – Simon never finds out. “Mr Nahum”, as she calls him, has long been absent and away on his travels. She invites Simon to use the room whenever he wishes. The room is crowded with books, pictures and memorabilia of every description, and to his delight the boy finds a book entitled “Theotherworlde”, compiled by Mr Nahum when he, too, was a boy, consisting of his favourite prose pieces and poems. Simon notes that Mr Nahum’s spelling was rather shaky. He even got his surname wrong – perhaps on purpose, to make an anagram. Simon often visits this room and, in his turn, copies out poems and prose from the book into his own exercise book until the dreaded time approaches when he is to be sent away to school. On the day before his departure, by permission of his father, he stays all night in the room, working hard at his copying until at last, tired and sleepy, he stumbles home in the dewy dawn, his head full of “Theotherworldie” as he calls it.

Peggy Denton

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