BOOK REVIEW / Knocking on a moonlit door: 'Imagination of the Heart: The Life of Walter de la Mare' - Theresa Whistler: Duckworth, 25 pounds

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HARDY, on his deathbed in 1928, asked his wife to read him Walter de la Mare's 'The Listeners'. The poem's famous opening - ' 'Is there anybody there?' said the Traveller, / Knocking on the moonlit door' - spoke for thousands of early 20th-century readers about their metaphysical questionings, in a way less bleak than Hardy's own writing. Whatever uncertainties de la Mare leaves you with, one thing is certain: that although the Traveller gets no answer, the ghostly Listeners hear him. So the poem, steering between doubt and hope, has its cake and eats it, in a way that Theresa Whistler's long-researched, sympathetic and readable biography shows was typical of de la Mare the man.

'Always right down the middle of the road' was the (admiring) verdict of one of his many patrons, Bruce Richmond. The editor of the Times Literary Supplement was talking about him as a reviewer - one whose encouragement of much of D H Lawrence's early poetry and fiction, for example, helped Lawrence to gain acceptance (even though the TLS cravenly suppressed de la Mare's review of The Rainbow when the book was banned). But too often walking down the middle of the road meant that de la Mare was blind to the oncoming traffic. He couldn't stand Ezra Pound, was unduly cautious about Robert Frost's work, and felt lukewarm - until it was too late to matter - towards the poetry of his friend and admirer, Edward Thomas. On the other hand, he championed talents as feeble as that of Lascelles Abercrombie.

His own imaginative writing fled from modern life and adulthood. Most of his best verses were written for children, generations of whom - Auden, among them - he helped introduce to poetry, particularly with his anthology Come Hither. But he wrote far too much, joking that his epitaph should be: 'Too many a quarto / That he hadn't ought to.' Almost all his 1,000 or so poems are now back in print. A selection of 40 or 50, together with some of the fiction, would serve him better. It would include 'The Almond Tree', his story in which a child coolly watches the disintegration of his parents' marriage; and lyrics such as 'The Ghost', about a vision of a lost lover, and 'Self to Self', with its measured existentialism:

Heart-near or fancy-far

All's thine to make or mar . . .

Be it for better or worse,

Thou art thy universe.

In the newly reissued Collected Rhymes and Verses (for children, Faber pounds 8.99), and in the Collected Poems (Faber pounds 12.99), work of this simple resonance is buried by pastiche-Jacobean doggerel, the only challenge of which lies in its tortured word order: 'Pictured once her image I', 'Come in the dark did I', and so on. There is next to no change between the early poems and the late. Ms Whistler tells us that during the Second World War, de la Mare - blocked, for once - found a forgotten notebook dating back to 1905-6 and had no trouble turning the contents into a new volume.

His unevenness was always admitted by the most supportive of his critics, but English society rewarded him extravagantly for being everything that the Modern Movement wasn't. The bank clerk's son from Woolwich became a favourite at London salons and country- house weekends, twice turned down a knighthood and was buried in St Paul's Cathedral.

A choral scholarship at St Paul's had been the first step in his transformation, and Ms Whistler vividly contrasts his low-church, middle-class home with this new ritualistic haven of moral intensity and aesthetic beauty. When his voice broke, he was banished. He joined the Anglo-American Oil Company as a clerk and spent almost 20 years adding up ledgers. Writing at night, under a pseudonym, he poured out compensatory stories, poems and plays, and persuaded his friends and future wife, Elfie (an amateur actress 11 years older than himself) to send them out. When, in the mid-1890s, acceptances began to come, his mixture of talent, garrulous charm and respectable poverty won over some powerful literary brokers. One of these was Sir Henry ('play up and play the game]') Newbolt - Theresa Whistler's grandfather. The ill-paid de la Mare was by now married to Elfie, and they had four children. Newbolt recommended him everywhere, browbeat committees into giving him prizes and finally got him a Civil List pension.

Another supporter was the beautiful Naomi Royde-Smith, literary editor of the Saturday Westminster Gazette - the only woman who held such a position at the time. They fell in love. De la Mare wouldn't leave his family and wasn't much interested in sex, although he was exasperatingly jealous of Royde-Smith's other friendships. She continued to read, heavily edit and publish his stuff, and in other ways helped along the possessive and increasingly hypochondriacal author. It is clear, although Whistler is tactful about this, that there was a good deal of tough, instinctive calculation behind de la Mare's Skimpole-like infantilism. Devoted to his own children (he was a pioneer of male nappy-changing), he was sulky and obstructive when his daughters came to marry. A generous man when he could afford to be, the balance sheet always remained in his favour. Even his famously natural 'ear' was hard trained: night after night, the young clerk worked on a minute technical analysis of the sound effects in early English poetry.

Theresa Whistler repeats of de la Mare what was said of Cowper, that he 'attracted presents as a buddleia attracts butterflies'. The biggest butterfly was Rupert Brooke, who left de la Mare a third of his royalties. The grateful heir warmly reviewed Brooke's posthumous 1914 and Other Poems in the TLS, and pocketed his share of the thus-increased proceeds. It was insider-trading like this that fed F R Leavis's contempt for the morals of literary London. Ms Whistler doesn't draw attention to it in those terms, and her book plainly couldn't have been written without her affection for its subject, whom she knew when she was a girl (he lived until 1956). But she is far from uncritical. While she makes a good case for de la Mare's work, she sees its weaknesses, and has a sharp sense of how he made some of the people close to him suffer.

Half-lost among the Collected Poems is a dramatic monologue almost as short as a haiku, which shows how well he understood narcissism. The poem appeared in 1906, when he was still in his twenties, and is called 'Napoleon':

What is the world, O soldiers?

It is I:

I, this incessant snow,

This northern sky;

Soldiers, this solitude

Through which we go

Is I.

The poet plainly knew his man, and Theresa Whistler knows hers. She could have told us more about his experiments in verse analysis, and I wish she had quoted from the unpublished (and hard to imagine) de la Mare poem on the atom bomb which she mentions. But we're unlikely to need another life of him, and this one is a useful addition to our understanding of a literary establishment long changed, yet in many ways still the same.

(Photograph omitted)