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This article is taken from PN Review 128, Volume 25 Number 6, July - August 1999.

Shelf Lives: 6: Walter de la Mare Peter Scupham

Haunted by questions no man answered yet;
Pining to leap from A clean on to Z;
Absorbed by problems which the wise forget,
Avid for fantasy - yet how staid a head!

The stanza comes from 'A Portrait', the seventy-two-yearold author's circuitous version of 'How pleasant to know Mr Lear', and its untroubled pace, yet troubled questioning is staked out by parenthesis, exclamation, query, the drag back into little silences given by a host of semi-colons and that diction - loveliness, fickle, twilight, heaven, frail - words which also come with my Romantic Poetry Kit's '400 magnetic words from the works of Shelly (sic), Wordsworth, Keats, Coleridge and others'. The performance is, one might say, quintessentially de la Mareish. One could also say that the historical period covered by de la Mare's life-span, from 1873 to 1956, was not exactly devoid of change and event, but those rumours from what is called the 'real world' make up little of substance in de la Mare's prodigious output, both in prose and poetry. All is at a tangent. So, in 1924, when the fields of France were paraded with the dead and the country still in shock, who but de la Mare could have produced that intense and wayward book, Ding Dong Bell (Selwyn and Blount), full of ruminations over imaginary epitaphs discovered in an imaginary churchyard. Who, though, wouldn't stop and stare if one of de la Mare's inscriptions met them on an actual ...


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