- The Voice of Solitude:The Children's Verse of Walter de la Mare
One of the most widely held assumptions about children's literature is that if it is not overtly didactic or moralistic, it is in some way Utopian. Written by adults for a class of readers that (theoretically) does not include adults, children's literature must somehow be serving the escapist needs of its writers. In many cases the guise of children's literature appears to provide the writer with the freedom to express what he or she otherwise might not—either because the writer feels a special affinity with the child as distinct from an insensitive society (Edward Lear is a good example) or, more commonly, because childhood is seen as a safe haven in which to indulge fantasy urges, an amoral love for adventure, or even, in the case of someone like Lewis Carroll, slightly dangerous or subversive ideas. At the furthest extreme there is even literature that so exploits the world childhood is thought to represent that it loses sight of its supposed audience and distorts the original nature of the subject that inspired it: J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan is the most obvious example. The critic Jacqueline Rose, pointing to the blatant expression of adult longing behind both Barrie's creation of a boy who would "never grow up" and the huge commercial success of subsequent editions and imitations (eagerly purchased, of course, by adults), makes the powerful statement that "children are not the cause of this literature. They are not the group for which it was created" (102).
But even that literature which is considered nonexploitative is nonetheless regarded as embracing, in some way, an adult ideal—because the author is reaching out to a world that no longer exists for him or her. The writers who first responded to a blossoming market in (nondidactic) children's literature in the mid- to late nineteenth century were, overtly or not, celebrating the notion of a child's uninhibited imagination by borrowing it for inspiration and so were elevating what was considered to be the child's uncorrupted nature and capacity for pure happiness. Of course, such ideas about [End Page 66] the child's enviable qualities go further back in English literary history than the Victorian period and concern more than just works written for children. But without a doubt, the accepted norm has come to be that children's books represent the "Arcadia" of literature. As Humphrey Carpenter, defending this notion, claims, "All children's books are about ideals. Adult fiction sets out to portray and explain the world as it really is; books for children present it as it should be" (1).
Walter de la Mare, perhaps the most underrated children's poet of the twentieth century, departs from this Arcadian view in a radical way. He is a poet who uses highly conventional verse forms and whose work is full of literary echoes, and thus he may seem the last person imaginable to challenge accepted ideas. In many ways a misplaced Romantic, de la Mare wholeheartedly embraces Romantic critical philosophies and approaches the child with the idealism of early nineteenth-century celebrations of childhood's nature. Equally, his inheritance of Victorian values is far from critical. But in eerie, almost undetectable ways, a darker vision asserts itself in de la Mare's poetry both for and about children and suggests a view of the child that is the complete antithesis to the notion of blissful ignorance. It is to that side of de la Mare's work that I turn here, considering de la Mare's relation to certain important predecessors and defining his ultimate departure from their influence to a world disturbingly unlike Arcadia.
Of course, the question of "poetic influence" is difficult, even controversial; in thus considering the idea of an altered or revised tradition, it may seem inevitable to apply a particular theory of influence, such as Harold Bloom's. Certainly it is helpful to keep in mind the idea, as Bloom puts it, that "poetic influence . . . always proceeds by a misreading of the prior poet, an act of creative correction that is actually...