A problem with London in winter is that the low sun leaves many streets unlit for much of the day. You get strange lozenged corridors of light, passing through the interstices of buildings, or sudden golden and blinding boulevards appearing for half an hour, then as suddenly losing their magic. Some London squares net quantities of the sun for longer, and the current Crossrail work, with its impromptu demolished areas of brick dust and rubble, has opened up some unusual angles of visibility and light in novel places. Nevertheless, on a day such as today, with the sky a glorious, ringing blue, and the sun’s clear light transmitted without impediment of warmth through the cold and crystal air, the only thing to be done is to get out of London and into the countryside.
I’ve always liked England’s winter landscape: black, green, damp and stark, even in its darkness strangely lucent. I thought I’d take some poetry with me and first of all grabbed Hardy, but he wouldn’t fit in my inner pocket, so I subb’d in Walter de la Mare, some of whose short stories I’d read at the beginning of last year and liked a lot. I’d flicked through his Collected Poems before and enjoyed what I’d read, but as I had a train journey ahead of me I thought I’d go from the beginning and work my way through.
I started with Evening:
When twilight darkens, and one by one,
The sweet birds to their nests have gone;
and went through a handful, pausing for thought after one I particularly enjoyed, The Scarecrow:
All winter through I bow my head
Beneath the driving rain;
The North Wind powders me with snow
And blows me black again;
At midnight in a maze of stars
I flame with glittering rime,
And stand, above the stubble, stiff
As mail at morning-prime.
But when that child, called Spring, and all
His host of children, come,
Scattering their buds and dew upon
These acres of my home,
Some rapture in my rags awakes;
I lift void eyes and scan
The skies for crows, those ravening foes,
Of my strange master, Man.
There were only two or three lines here that I actually wanted to quote, for their pure lyricism, but couldn’t do so in isolation (a good sign): “at midnight” to “rime”, ‘some rapture in my rags awakes’ and, not for the lyricism but for the meaning, ‘Of my strange master, Man’. Strange because like and yet not like – “striding lank behind his clashing team” – such motionful multiple purpose compared to the single watchful purpose and glorious but static transformations of the scarecrow.
I had liked every poem (apart from maybe The Three Cherry Trees – which felt rather symbolic and thus unnatural, not a tone I like generally: symbols feel stiff, and with their lack of flexibility also perhaps lack the capacity to surprise). Drifting slightly, I thought about the prose, and remembered that although I had enjoyed most of it, some stories had on occasion felt a little trite, conventional, which to my mind killed a little what I found interesting in Walter de la Mare – a sense of the… What was it now? During my pause for thought, this being the modern, I tweeted my immediate feelings on what I’d read, and got a response from a thoughtful blogger of Kipling (amongst many other things):
A sense of the uncanny! That was it! That was what I had liked about Walter de la Mare’s stories. Part of it anyway. I had forgotten the word, and the word sums him up. But the other thing that my twitter correspondant had reminded me of was that the twee and the uncanny (the one alarming, the other nauseating) were not separate things for the late Victorians and Edwardians, and as a consequence are hard to separate for the modern reader, should they wish to do so.
I decided on the basis of this to go back through the poems I’d read, and read some more, and see if I could find any twee parts, to weigh against parts which looked twee, but which I felt weren’t. Part game, part a weighing of the style.
To my surprise, I discovered that I couldn’t find any twee bits. I had some candidates, but for each example, I felt that it escaped being twee. See what you think:
‘Like lovely sea-flowers in the deep’
This is from a poem called The Sunken Garden, which has the great opening:
Speak not – whisper not;
Here bloweth thyme and bergamot;
(I love the combination of instruction, nursery/folk rhyme, the heavily split, and the breezily flowing).
Ok though, the word ‘lovely’ in the line at the top. What’s it doing there? NOT A LOT, I’d say. Mere assertion of a moral quantity. But I think we have to allow Walter de la Mare ‘lovely’. He uses it a lot, admittedly, but its sonic closeness to love, the graceful and open dip to the central point of the ‘v’ – an open-armed embrace of a single point; a grave, ingenuous willingness to accept the certainty of pain – make it a word that seduces heart and mouth, and so a hard word to deny a poet, particularly a lyrical poet like de la Mare.
This is the last stanza of three, and by itself may possibly be seen as twee:
Yet what is common as lovely may be:
The petalled daisy, a honey bell,
A pebble, a branch of moss, a gem
Of dew, or fallen rain – if we
A moment in their beauty dwell;
Entranced, alone, see only them.
How blind to wait, till, merely unique,
Some omen thus the all bespeak!
But it is the last verse of an argument. Here are the first two:
Calm was the evening, as if asleep,
But sickled on high with brooding storm,
Couched in invisible space. And, lo!
I saw in utter silence sweep
Out of that darkening starless vault
A gliding spark, as blanched as snow,
That burned the dust, and vanished in
A hay-cropped meadow, brightly green.
A meteor from the cold of space,
Lost in Earth’s wilderness of air? –
Presage of lightnings soon to shine
In splendour on this lonely place? –
I cannot tell; but only how fair
It glowed within the crystalline
Pure heavens, and of its strangeness lit
My mind to joy at sight of it.
Isn’t that excellent? So the strangeness of The Spark (that’s what the poem’s called) illuminates the beauty of the common. Chesterton’s chapter The Ethics of Elfland in his book arguing for religion, specifically Catholic religion, Orthodoxy has a similar sort of argument: that the world which we are surrounded by is as unusually unique as the worlds in fairy stories, which serve to remind us of this fact. (For Chesterton, they also serve to remind us of Rules, but we don’t need to go into that, thankfully). It’s an example of how the twee was found in more places than on the front of bad Christmas cards – it was part of a fully worked aesthetic, and by extension a philosophy.
Here the religious interpretation isn’t necessary. What is important is that the argument of the previous two stanzas gives meaning to the relatively bland (taken on its own) sentiment in the final.
This is from the poem Dawn
The restless robin – like a brook
Tinkling in the frozen snow –
Shakes his clear, sudden, piercing bells,
Flits elf-like to and fro.
I think this is probably twee. This is partly because of a strong urge to mock it – usually a bad sign. Tinkling in the snow! Well we’ve all been caught short. And I am looking forward to the occasion when I can describe someone interrupting with something stupid as giving forth to “his clear, sudden, piercing balls”.
‘Flits elf-like to and fro’ doesn’t bother me too much, because I don’t really know what he means. I mean, I think I do – I think he means something like this:
You probably can’t really see that clearly, but it was the only picture I could find of it. It’s a book I had when I was little about a young boy and a mischievous elf called Wigley. You used to say ‘mumalacumchuff’ or something to get him to appear – a word which has the characteristic of being more embarrassing to say as an adult than as a child. Anyway I reckon that those are the sort of elves Walter de la Mare is talking about. There’s a lot of fin-de-siecle elfin stuff of them perching on leaves or dancing on dewdrops, that sort of thing, from that period – but the notion of elves has become more various and complicated these days for the line to automatically mean too much or be offensive. (unless you’re ill-disposed to elves, in which case… MUMALACUMCHUFF <holds nose and blows>
So yeah, twee. Forgivable though, because elsewhere, robins are responsible for two of the best bits in his poetry:
The robin’s whistled stave
Is tart as half-ripened fruit.
That’s a little philopena of poetic perfection. Those two lines are so sharply clean that the words themselves both chirp and get a notional tartness in the mouth, all those p’s and t’s and sharp s’s. (From the poem Speech by the way).
And then there’s the poem The Robin, first verse:
Ghost-grey the fall of night,
Ice-bound the lane,
Lone in the dying light
Flits he again;
Lurking where shadows steal,
Perched in his coat of blood,
Man’s homestead at his heel,
Death-still the wood.
I like the versifying here! There’s the heavy drum beat of the first two lines, with their heavy double thump at the beginning. This only emphasises the way the third line fails away, the reader seems to fall without suspension, to have put their foot in a place expecting to find resistance but finding none, before the quick 1,2,3 of the robin’s appearance, in a line that stops before it’s started: the only word of note – flits – is at the beginning, unlike the previous three lines.
The first part sets up the gloomy imagery of the second part.
There’s a second stanza:
Odd restless child; it’s dark;
All wings are flown
But this one wizard’s – hark! –
Stone clapped on stone!
Changeling and solitary,
Secret and sharp and small,
Flits he from tree to tree,
Calling on all.
I don’t really understand this second stanza – in fact it’s a rum, grim poem all round. I do like the maternal affection of the first line – concerned and perplexed. I also like ‘Stone clapped on stone!’ but I don’t understand it, or the wizard characterisation really, although I might be able to make some sense of it if I could make sense of ‘changeling’ and ‘calling on all’ (death?). I like that I don’t really understand it and yet enjoy it as much as anything else in the book.
So, Twee Robins 1, Not Twee Robins 2. Away win.
Oh, between earth and sky
A wintry wind is blowing,
Scattering with its sigh
Petals from trees of silver that shine
Like invisible glass, when the moon
In the void of night on high
Paces her orchards divine.
Snowing… snowing.. snowing:
Moments of time through space
Into hours, centuries growing,
Till the world’s marred lovely face,
Wearied of change and chance,
Radiant in innocence dream –
Lulled by an infinite grace
To rest in eternal trance.
He seems to be babbling a bit in that last verse, but it’s mystical rather than twee I think. ‘Snowing… snowing… snowing’ is a bit lol. The first verse does feel a little twee – those petals from trees of silver – but might just escape it, because…
Well, you’re probably asking yourself wtf is twee anyway, is it just something where you feel it’s a bit sickly, in which case, you know, keep going, but we’re not going to learn anything here other than you and your era’s level of tolerance for this sort of thing.
I think I know it when I see it, or feel it rather (nausea/irritation/embarrassed laugh), but what is its meaning?
First of all, two examples of the definitely twee:
1) A little girl overheard by me some years ago, pointing to a dog, and exclaiming to her mother “Mummy! Mummy! Look at the ickle woggy!”
How are you feeling? Ok? Need a moment, right?
So, staring out of the train window and thinking in a roundabout unthinking way about Walter de la Mare, I came up with a statement:
The correct companion of the uncanny is death, without death, the effect is merely mysterious, the contemplation of an enigma or riddle.
(In fact de la Mare does this quite a lot, not necessarily to bad effect. “Riddle” is one of de la Mare’s favourite words – the late Victorians and Edwardians do love their parlour games. Many of his stories can be seen as riddles without solutions, allegories without a key – the excellent Lispet, Lispett and Vaine for example. However I think there is usually? always? an element of death and horror to them in de la Mare.)
OK, I thought, let’s see if we can jig this equation to unpick the other side of the coin:
The correct companion of the pretty or beautiful in poetry is ?. Without ?, the effect is merely twee.
Curiously perhaps, I came to a conclusion that ?=Reason.
***WARNING VERY RAMBLY RAMBLY BIT***
Go 7 paras down to get back to de la Mare.
Reason is the thorn on the rose, without which the rose is twee. Why? Because for a thing to be pretty, without the reason for its prettiness, is for it to be twee, gratuitous, designed to evoke a response of thoughtless admiration. It is there for no reason, other than to satisfy our desire for it to be there. No internal logic governs its appearance. We are rightly suspicious of such desires. This is not even the desire of the dream, where what is desired is combined with other elements, apparently uncalled for. This is the desire of the contrived fantasy, gratifying only to ourselves, and that only fleetingly. The fantasy is an apple conjured out of air by hunger, and consists only of the elements from which it has been conjured.
It is the reason I called out ‘lovely’ for its mere assertion, above.
We may not call a thing lovely without showing it is lovely. We may not give a thing a beautiful aspect without showing the mundane elements that allow the metaphorical transfiguration.
I say ‘we’. Of course by that I also mean ‘now’. Because this late Victorian, early 20th C manner did not mind doing such things, and as a consequence they often did it well. In fact there was an excellent novel, from the same period, all about this complicated relationship rational and the fairy, called Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees. I was reading it at the same time as de la Mare. It’s a curious novel, difficult to interpret, and might stand as an allegory of many things. One of those things is the relationship between now and then esp wrt to twee. Why do we feel so differently about twee now to how they felt about it then? I mean it’s interesting that I feel most able to define twee by visceral sensation rather than definition.
First World War? Yes, the multitudes of young dead from the Boer war on seemed to foster a desire for the ornamental supernatural – benign and prettified, readily available, both domestically and via rural immanence. But this did not outlast the parents of the dead. The childlike had to grow up. Faith in all sorts of authority, from religious faith to parents, to landowning Tories to Victorian greybeard patriarchs was failing, under attack.
I’m getting ahead of myself! Projecting the twee onto the supernatural, which = the fairy. Let’s try this – twee is an extension of fin-de-siecle aestheticism: Beauty without Reason = f-d-s a, beauty without reason = twee.
But yeah, not too far ahead of myself – twee, and fairy was all part of a pov that must have seemed nauseatingly self-indulgent, irresponsible and purblind past the First World War and the General Strike. Massive simplification of course – this stuff didn’t disappear and was still popular, but I’m happy with that as a working generalisation. Perhaps the visceral response to twee is in itself a reaction to dire necessity, hunger and barely surviving – nausea the physical corollary to a moral repugnance at surfeit (the twee itself cannot die, since if it doesn’t have a reason for its coming into being, the components for its demise are not present – in this respect it represents surfeit. It is not surprising it is associated with chocolate and Christmas – Lud-in-the-Mist also good at this).
*** BACK TO DE LA MARE***
De la Mare’s poetry of nature is rarely twee because reason is provided by his perceptive eye for nature, its processes and participants. This from A Queen Wasp:
Why rouse from thy long winter sleep?
And sound that witchcraft drone in air?
The frost-bound hours of darkness creep
The night is cold and bare.
or, from Memory:
When summer heat has drowsed the day
With blaze of noontide overhead,
And hidden greenfinch can but say
What but a moment since it said;
or The Snail:
But when to ashes in the west
Those sun-fires die; and, silver, slim,
Eve, with the moon upon her breast,
Smiles on the uplands dim;
Then, all your wreathèd house astir,
Horns reared, grim mouth, deliberate pace,
You glide in silken silence where
The feast awaits your grace.
That ‘Horns reared, grim mouth, deliberate pace’ is one of my favourite lines, I think. And those lines from Memory perfectly convey lying in a field on a still summer’s day, when there is a single bar of birdsong, a longish still pause, and then, just as you are about to forget, there is the same brief snatch of song again. It perfectly evokes the tempo of rural high summer.
My walk is another story, because beyond this door, from which I started, lies everything that is me – it is the only place where my inner can communicate with my outer, clearly, like the cold sun through the winter air (tho that conversation is often very dull and refractory, I’m afraid to say). It is, in a very fairy-tale sense, the door unto my soul, and no you may not come through.
But I can tell you that while I was rambling, literally and mentally, I felt pleased that I had selected Walter de la Mare as my mental companion for the day, and, perhaps rather partially, described him to myself as one of the best poets of nature I had read.
Also, the RÔLE of the SAUSAGE in early 20th poetry, discuss: