Charles Causley

Popular poet with a primal insight
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The Independent Online

Charles Stanley Causley, poet: born Launceston, Cornwall 24 August 1917; FRSL 1959; Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry 1967; CBE 1986; CLit 2001; died Launceston 4 November 2003.

Charles Causley was one of the best-loved and most widely anthologised poets of the 20th century. He was also one of the most underrated and marginalised when it came to the literary pecking order.

Too easily characterised as a salty balladeer by critics mistrustful of his appeal, not least to children for and about whom he wrote with an uncannily primal insight, he saw his reputation suffer in some quarters from the circumstances which made him popular in others. He was seen as the temperate, bachelor "schoolmaster poet" who, apart from wartime service in the Royal Navy, spent most of his writing life among the scenes of his childhood in and around the small Cornish town of Launceston where he was born, and where he enjoyed a local eminence which amounted to the freedom of the parish.

Up to a point this was certainly true, but it is no bad thing for a poet to be so fortunately grounded, to have such a home to start from, and Causley was fully aware of his luck and of the risk it entailed.

Writing in The Listener in 1977, a year after he had resigned from teaching to become a full-time author, Causley described a conversation he had with a Canadian expatriate writer he was showing round Launceston, and who suggested that the difference between the two of them was that his host knew where he would be buried. "He may well be right," observed Causley, "but what concerns me more is that I should never fall into the trap of thinking life in my parish unchanging."

Only his most superficial readers, those who themselves have fallen into the trap of regarding him as a nostalgic traditionalist, would ever see him in this light. Where the imagination is concerned, a true parish knows no boundaries. Or, as the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh put it, "Parochialism is universal; it deals with the fundamentals." And perhaps, above all, with the continuities to which a poet with Causley's profound sense of place and inheritance both witnesses and contributes.

Asked, as he sometimes was, to comment on the importance of poetry in education, Causley tended to give answers which asserted that there is no cut-off point between childhood and adulthood, and no end to the complex interplay of innocence and experience - a theme to which he returned again and again in poems of a haunting and deceptive simplicity in his adult and children's collections, often publishing the same poem in both. He summed up his working method as

a venture along a knife-edge towards that exact degree of simplification . . . If, say, 80 per cent of a poem comes across, let us be satisfied. The remainder, with luck, will unfold during the rest of our lives.

That 80 per cent was what he always aimed for and the record of his achievement has become, for adults and children alike, the measure of his popularity. When his 1968 collection Underneath the Water (which contains several of what have become his best-known anthology pieces) was made a choice of the Poetry Book Society, he began his accompanying personal statement in the society's bulletin with a characteristically resolute credo:

For me, the central problem is the age-old one of communication. There's not much point in talking on a deadline.

For the many readers who have grown up with his poems from their own schooldays to find that other 20 per cent unfolding, and to discover a body of work which addresses with an equally memorable directness their adult concerns, the line has stayed open and even become, for some who would not otherwise read much of it, a lifeline to contemporary poetry.

Charles Causley was born in 1917 on, as he noted with wry precision, "the 1,117th day of the 'Great War' ". His mother, an important influence on his life and career, played her part in the timeliness of the occasion:

Her maiden name was Bartlett ("little Bartholomew") and I have always delighted at the marvellously unconscious prescience with which she produced me on St Bartholomew's Day.

His father, who, as he wrote in one of several poignant late poems about members of the family, "brought home / The war stowed in his body's luggage", died in 1924 from the effects of German gas; and, although Causley was probably not much aware of this at the time, it was to impact upon his own experience of conflict in the Second World War and heighten the sense of grim apprehension and imminent loss which often interrupts the effusive lower-decks jauntiness of his more companionable work written while in service, and informs the darker moments of his recollection: "We hold, in our pockets, no comfortable return tickets: / Only the future, gaping like some hideous fable."

Educated first at the local elementary school, which he described as a "a huge granite and slate Noah's ark of a building" beached only 500 yards from his home, and then at Launceston College, Causley afterwards worked for a while in a builder's office. Though, while at school, he had enjoyed reading and writing poetry (a teacher "notably chary of awarding high marks gave me 10 out of 10 for a sonnet") it was later in his teens, on a first visit to London, that he bought a copy of Siegfried Sassoon's 1919 War Poems and this - giving him that first clear view of his father's world - led him on to read Robert Graves, Edmund Blunden and Wilfred Owen. He published plays in the late 1930s (Runaway, 1936, and The Conquering Hero, 1937). However it was upon enlistment in the Royal Navy for his own war that his career as a poet began:

I think I became a working poet the day I joined the destroyer Eclipse at Scapa Flow in August 1940. I knew that at last I had found my first subject as well as a form. Living and working on the lower deck meant that, if I was to write anything at all, then it would have to be in the kind of shorthand of experience (to use a horrible phrase) poetry happens to be.

On demobilisation Causley trained as a teacher, returning to Launceston to begin "thirty years in chalk Siberias". He discovered early on how a classroom of unruly children could be enchanted by hearing ballads read aloud, and in 1951 his own first collection, Farewell, Aggie Weston (Aggie Weston was the familiar term used by sailors to describe the hostels founded in seaports by Dame Agnes Weston), established his reputation as a poet who made vivid use of the traditional ballad form, dealing with wartime experience in imagery that brought together nursery rhyme, folksong and mess-room vernacular often spoken by or on behalf of the Christ-like figure of a wounded innocent. It was like a collaboration between Walter de la Mare and Rudyard Kipling, as for example in "Able Seaman Hodge Remembers Ceylon":

O the blackthorn and the wild cherry

And the owl in the rotting oak tree

Are part of the Cornish landscape

Which is more than can be said for me.

O the drum and the coconut fiddle

And the taste of Arabian tea

The Vimto on the veranda

And the arrack shops on the quay . . .

Causley had also clearly been influenced by Neo-Romantics such as Dylan Thomas, and his descriptions of landscape and of the moods of nature, especially in this early work, co-opt their vivid colourings for his own methods. Spring "has set off her green fuses" or "fired her fusilladoes" and so on, and there are also echoes of W.H. Auden in lines like "O splintered were all the windows / And broken all the chairs / War like a knife ran through my life / And the blood ran down the stairs". However the distinctiveness of Causley's verse in this and the three collections which followed (Survivor's Leave, 1953, Union Street, 1957, and Johnny Alleluia, 1961) lies in the way he develops that central theme of innocence and experience: "Over my head, the springing birds, / Under my feet, the drop".

In 1966, two years before Causley was to publish what may be regarded as a transitional collection, Underneath the Water, and certainly his finest up to that time, containing as it did several of the poems for which he is best known, including "Timothy Winters", "Ballad of the Bread Man" and "By St Thomas Water", his mother suffered a stroke. Spending much time with her, talking about her youth, he found himself "through the simple, clear glass she held up . . . able to observe, as if with new eyes, my own childhood; and I wrote about it in poem after poem".

Some of these poems, like the beautiful "My Mother Saw a Dancing Bear", continued the simple pattern of rhyming quatrains but others heralded the arrival of a more discursive, anecdotal vein in Causley's poetry as well as series of moving family vignettes such as "A Wedding Portrait", which closed his first Collected Poems, published in 1975:

Serene, my mother wears a white

And Sunday look, and at her throat

The vague smudge of a brooch, a mute

Pale wound of coral, The smooth weight

Of hair curves from her brow; gold chain

Circles a wrist to mark the day,

And on the other is the grey

Twist of a bandage for the flame

That tongued her flesh as if to say

"I am those days that are to come."

For Causley, the days to come brought retirement from teaching in 1976, new collections (Secret Destinations, 1984, A Field of Vision, 1988, and updated Collected Poems in 1992, 1997 and 2000) which reflected a life of travelling and of literary appointments in Australia - about which he wrote with particular relish and freshness - Canada and the United States.

His work as a poet for children - paralleled by the very different but complementary verse of Ted Hughes - increasingly achieved classic status, appearing in collections amongst which Figgie Hobbin (1970) and The Young Man of Cury (1991), are outstanding. In 1996, to celebrate his 80th birthday, a handsome Collected Poems for Children appeared, illustrated by John Lawrence. Needless to say there were children at the birthday party that Causley described in a letter to me:

The Cornish flag was flown from the Castle on the day, and the local Civic Society put on a giant birthday party. A bit daunting to me, but the day was made for me by the arrival of Carol and Ted Hughes. The three children next-door (5, 10, 12) came along. "This is Ted Hughes," I said. "He's the Poet Laureate of our country, and he's a much better poet than I am." The five-year-old boy, a Tough Egg, fixed his eyes on Ted's shoes and allowed his gaze to travel slowly up Ted's considerable height, and growled, "No he isn't." Collapse of poets.

Causley's gift for the telling anecdote, his wonderfully sly sense of fun, makes one wish that he had written more prose, but his fragmentary memoirs - some of which are included in the celebratory Causley at 70 (1987) and Hands to Dance (1951; and Hands to Dance and Skylark, 1979) - are an illuminating accompaniment to his poetry. Among the many anthologies he edited and for which he wrote perceptive introductions is the delightful The Puffin Book of Magic Verse (1974).

Charles Causley received many honours. He was awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry in 1967, given an honorary doctorate at Exeter University in 1977, appointed CBE in 1986 and, in 2001, elected one of the 10 Companions of Literature by the Royal Society of Literature.

John Mole

Eden Rock

They are waiting for me somewhere beyond Eden Rock:

My father, twenty-five, in the same suit

Of Genuine Irish Tweed, his terrier Jack

Still two years old and trembling at his feet.

My mother, twenty-three, in a sprigged dress

Drawn at the waist, ribbon in her straw hat,

Has spread the stiff white cloth over the grass.

Her hair, the colour of wheat, takes on the light.

She pours tea from a Thermos, the milk straight

From an old H.P. sauce-bottle, a screw

Of paper for a cork; slowly sets out

The same three plates, the tin cups painted blue.

The sky whitens as if lit by three suns.

My mother shades her eyes and looks my way

Over the drifted stream. My father spins

A stone along the water. Leisurely,

They beckon to me from the other bank.

I hear them call, "See where the stream-path is!

Crossing is not as hard as you might think."

I had not thought that it would be like this.

Charles Causley