Monday, June 04, 2012

Classic Ghost Story Writers: Walter de la Mare

William Rothenstein: Walter de la Mare (1929)

The Green Room

"The Green Room" is a story about a young man named Alan, who is one day let in on the old bookseller Mr. Elliott's "little secret - namely, that at the far end of his shop - beyond, that is, the little table on which he kept his account books, his penny bottle of ink and his rusty pen, there was an annexe."

Beyond the annexe itself (whose paint "must once have been of a bright apple green. It had faded now"), though, there's yet another room, up through "the narrow panelled door above the three stairs on the other side of the room." Alan is lured into going through that door by the image of a young woman's face, which appears in his mind as if out of nowhere. And there he finds - well, I suspect it would spoil the story if I told you too abruptly.

The author of the story, Walter de la Mare (1873-1956), was once quite famous. Even now his poems still turn up in anthologies from time to time: "The Listeners" ("Is there anybody there?" said the Traveller, / Knocking on the moonlit door") is probably the best-known, but there's also "Tartary," "The Children of Stare" ("Winter is fallen early / On the house of Stare") and quite a number of others which have ended up in the children's section of the library.

In his time, though, children were only one part of the audience he wrote for. He was thought of as a poet for grown-ups as well, and in fact the 1940s edition of his collected poems was divided into two separate volumes: Poems (for adults) and Rhymes and Verses (for kids). Here's a list of some of the books by him I have in my collection:

    Poems & Plays
    (for Adults & Children):

  1. Peacock Pie: A Book of Rhymes. 1913. Illustrated by Edward Ardizzone. London: Faber, 1946.

  2. Crossings: A Fairy Play. Music by C. Armstrong Gibbs. London: W. Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., 1923.

  3. Collected Poems. Decorations by Berthold Wolpe. 1942. London: Faber, 1944.

  4. Collected Rhymes and Verses. Decorations by Berthold Wolpe. London: Faber, 1944.

  5. A Choice of de la Mare’s Verse. Ed. W. H. Auden. London: Faber, 1963.

  6. The Complete Poems of Walter de la Mare. Ed. Richard de la Mare. 1969. Rev. ed. London: Faber, 1975.

The Auden selection is particularly good, and has a most insightful introduction (as one might expect). De la Mare was quite an important poet for him, and he was quick to reject any simplistic distinctions between "verse" and "poetry" in discussing his work (the rather questionable dichotomy T. S. Eliot tried to introduce in his own 1941 Faber selection of Kipling's Verse).

I guess largely as a result of "The Green Room," which I first encountered in an anthology called A Century of Ghost Stories when I was a kid, it's always been de la Mare's fiction which has fascinated me most. "The Green Room" is not a particularly easy story to read. De la Mare is a self-indulgent and over-elaborate prose-writer (or he certainly seemed so to me as a child), and there were few sentences in the story which did not have to be read over twice.

Its subject matter - old books, and the strange and even disturbing discoveries that can sometimes be made in them - was enthralling to me, though, so I persevered. As you can see from the list below, I've been collecting him assiduously ever since:

    (for Adults & Children):

  1. Henry Brocken: His Travels and Adventures in the Rich, Strange, Scarce-Imaginable Regions of Romance. 1904. Illustrated by Marian Ellis. London: W. Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., [1924].

  2. The Three Royal Monkeys, or The Three Mulla-Mulgars. 1910. Illustrated by J. A. Shepherd. London: Faber, 1928.

  3. The Return. 1910. London: Penguin Books, 1935.

  4. Memoirs of a Midget. 1921. Illustrated by Mabel Lapthorn. London: Collins, n.d.

  5. The Riddle and Other Stories. London: Selwyn & Blount Limited, 1923.

  6. The Connoisseur and Other Stories. 1926. London: W. Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., 1926.

  7. On the Edge: Short Stories. 1932. London: Faber, 1947.

  8. The Walter de la Mare Omnibus: Henry Brocken; The Return; Memoirs of a Midget. 1904, 1910, 1921. London: W. Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., [1933].

  9. The Wind Blows Over. London: Faber, 1936.

  10. The Nap and Other Stories. The Nelson Classics. 1936. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd., n.d.

  11. Best Stories of Walter de la Mare. London: Faber, 1942.

  12. Collected Stories for Children. 1947. Illustrated by Robin Jacques. A Puffin Book. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984.

  13. A Beginning and Other Stories. 1955. London: Faber, 1955.

  14. Ghost Stories. Lithographs by Barnett Freedman. 1956. London: The Folio Society, 1960.

  15. Short Stories 1895-1926. Ed. Giles de la Mare. 1923, 1924/36 & 1926. London: Giles de la Mare Publishers, 1996.

  16. Short Stories 1927-1956. Ed. Giles de la Mare. 1930, 1936 & 1955. London: Giles de la Mare Publishers, 2001.

  17. Short Stories for Children. Ed. Giles de la Mare. Illustrated by ‘Bold’ & Rex Whistler. 1925 & 1933. London: Giles de la Mare Publishers, 2006.

De la Mare was fortunate in leaving behind a family of literary enthusiasts. His son Richard de la Mare edited the definitive edition of his poems in 1969, and his short stories have now been published in a sumptuous three-volume edition by his grandson Giles, who runs a firm called Giles de la Mare publishers. The ghost stories, such as "Seaton's Aunt" and "All Hallows," are probably the ones most frequently read today, but there are some strange and disconcerting pieces among the stories for children, also ("The Lord Fish" and "The Riddle," in particular).

Walter de la Mare: Short Stories 1895-1926 (1995)

Walter de la Mare: Short Stories 1927-1956 (2001)

Walter de la Mare: Short Stories for Children (2006)

The introduction to Auden's selection of de la Mare's best poems concentrates largely on his famous anthology Come Hither (1923), or rather on the allegorical introduction to the book. The narrator, Simon (Somni? Sleep, or Dream?), comes to a house called Thrae (Earth? Heart?), owned by a Miss Taroon (Nature?), whose brother Nahum (Human?) left behind a collection of writings and curiosities in his room when he left to search for East Dean (the East of Eden?). It is the study of these which led the compilation of the book, which is a strange amalgam of poems, long footnotes, and evocative pieces of prose.

None of his subsequent anthologies and collections of essays could quite repeat the magic of the first, but all of them are interesting, more to dip into than to read from cover to cover: Behold, this Dreamer! (1939) is probably the best; Love (1943) perhaps the most disappointing (one contemporary critic said that one could virtually define the subject by what did not come up - passion, eroticism, obsession - in this immense but patchy book).

    Anthologies & Essays:

  1. Come Hither: A Collection of Rhymes and Poems for the Young of All Ages. Ed. Walter de la Mare. 1923. New edition. 1928. London: Constable and Co. Ltd., 1943.

  2. Tales Told Again. 1927. Illustrated by Alan Howard. Faber Fanfares. London: Faber, 1980.

  3. Stories from the Bible. 1929. Illustrated by Edward Ardizzone. London: Faber, 1977.

  4. Desert Islands and Robinson Crusoe. Decorations by Rex Whistler. 1930. London: Faber, 1988.

  5. Tom Tiddler’s Ground: A Book of Poetry for Children. Ed. Walter de la Mare. 1931. Foreword by Leonard Clark. Illustrated by Margery Gill. 1961. London: The Bodley Head, 1975.

  6. Early One Morning in the Spring: Chapters on Children and on Childhood as it is revealed in particular in Early Memories and in Early Writings. London: Faber, 1935.

  7. Animal Stories Chosen, Arranged and in Some Part Rewritten by Walter de la Mare. London: Faber, 1939.

  8. Pleasures and Speculations. London: Faber, 1940.

  9. Behold, this Dreamer!: Of Reverie, Night, Sleep, Dream, Love-Dreams, Nightmare, Death, the Unconscious, the Imagination, Divination, the Artist, and Kindred Subjects. 1939. London: Readers’ Union, 1942.

  10. Love. London: Faber, 1943.

  11. Private View. Introduction by Lord David Cecil. London: Faber, 1953.

There are still a few anthologies - Old Rhymes and New (1932), principally, as well as various books of essays - which I don't have, but most of the rest are listed above.

The secondary literature on de la Mare is pretty sketchy: fortunately there's quite a full biography, but besides that it consists mainly of a book of table talk compiled by neurologist Russell Brain, a volume in the Twayne critical series, and a few essays and bibliographies.

Besides that, he comes up in most discussions of the twentieth century ghost story. His work falls more in the penumbra between supernatural and fantasy fiction, though.


  1. Brain, Russell. Tea with Walter de la Mare. Drawing by Andrew Freeth. London: Faber, 1957.

  2. Clark, Leonard. Walter de la Mare: A Checklist prepared on the occasion of an exhibition of his books and MSS at the National Book League, 7 Albemarle Street, London W1 (20th April to 19th May 1956). Introduction by Lord David Cecil. Cambridge: The University Press, 1956.

  3. Whistler, Theresa. Imagination of the Heart: The Life of Walter de la Mare. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd., 1993.

Barnett Freedman: Walter de la Mare: Ghost Stories (1956)

If one set out to psychoanalyse Walter de la Mare, I guess one of the first things that would stand out would be the threatening nature of the feminine in most of his work. "Seaton's Aunt" is the classic case: a sensitive small boy is psychically consumed by his predatory aunt for undisclosed reasons. The narrator of the story abandons him to his fate with the reflection, "he had never been much better than 'buried' in my mind".

There's a particularly strange story ("At First Sight") about a man who is unable to lift his eyes from the ground, and who tries (unsuccessfully) to court a young girl without being able to look at her. Then there's "The Riddle," with its mysterious chest that swallows the children one by one, and its strange last line:
And gossiping fitfully, inarticulately, with herself, the old lady went down again to her window-seat.
Old ladies tend to be survivors in Walter de la Mare - but often (as in this case) they seem to survive the loss of their own faculties as well.

"The Green Room" is, to my mind, one of the most fully realised of all these stories. The backroom of Mr. Elliott's shop seems to be haunted by its former occupant, a young lady who was left on her own there by her lover, and who confided her doubts and fears to a notebook of poems and thoughts, before (eventually) committing suicide there.

Alan finds the notebook (fully and lovingly described, with transcriptions of many Emily Brontë-ish verses in de la Mare's very best manner), and determines to publish it. He decides that this is what she wants, on the evidence of her appearance to him, but it seems he is wrong. The story ends with the ceiling of the room falling in on his privately-printed edition of her verses, destroying all of the copies, and utterly confounding his desire to make it all up to her, somehow, even after her death:
It was too late now - and in any case it hadn't occurred to him - to add to the title page that well-worn legend, 'The heart knoweth his own bitterness, and a stranger doth not intermeddle with his joy.' But it might at least have served for his own brief apologia. He had meant well - it would have suggested. You never can tell.
The citation is from Proverbs 14: 10. More to the point, though, it's also the title of a poem by Christina Rossetti:
When all the over-work of life
Is finished once, and fast asleep
We swerve no more beneath the knife
But taste that silence cool and deep;
Forgetful of the highways rough,
Forgetful of the thorny scourge,
Forgetful of the tossing surge,
Then shall we find it is enough?
Alan has fallen in love with the ghostly face that appears to him; but he hasn't really earned that love. It isn't enough to make up for the betrayal she suffered while she was alive - all she can share with him is bitterness. Her scorn for his presumption outlasts her own death.

I suspect that this - and possibly others of de la Mare's stories - are anchored in events from his own life. Any suggestion that his work is "tame" or "childish" is belied by the dark and hope-denying imagery of the poetry in the story, though. Above all the one that begins:
Last evening, as I sat alone -
Thimble on finger, needle and thread -
Light dimming as the dusk drew on,
I dreamed that I was dead.
It ends:
And you I loved, who once loved me,
And shook with pangs this mortal frame,
Were sunk to such an infamy
That when I called your name,

Its knell so racked that sentient clay
That my lost spirit lurking near
Wailed, like the damned, and fled away -
and awoke me, stark with Fear.
I've never been quite able to decide what exactly "The Green Room" means, but it's a story whose influence I've been unable to escape since I first read it. It's taken on new shades and complexities in every rereading since. Its final effect is the reverse of comforting, but perhaps that's of a piece with de la Mare's stoic view of life as something to be endured rather than enjoyed - evaded rather than embraced. Brrrr ...

Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)

1 comment:

Richard said...

Fascinating stuff! I have never paid much attention to de la Mare. Must have read some of his poems.

I ordered a couple of children's books (stories) via the library. You are using your collection well.
I have only one book by de la Mare - it's The Traveller (FE 1956, illustrated, no d/w, gd.) although I have some of his poems in 'Georgian Poetry'

Some trivia though! I have dentist near here and one time I went and was talking to a dentist (who was filling in I think) and when I said I was interested in poetry etc, he said, my grandfather was Walter de la Mare...then I realized, his name was in fact Delamare. He was an older a roughly my age. From images of W d LM he looked somewhat like him indeed!

So you are in book by King and I had a dentist who had the poetic ghost of de la Mare in him working on my teeth!