BOOK REVIEW / Fond memories of a sweet forgotten cheat: 'Imagination of the Heart' - Theresa Whistler: Duckworth, 25 pounds

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MY generation, passing through childhood during the 1950s, was almost certainly the last to be weaned on poetry through the verses of Walter de la Mare. Products of that literate bourgeoisie that fostered its young on the BBC's Children's Hour and Puffin Books we could have told you why the three black cats in 'Hans' Old Mill' had five eyes rather than six, and discoursed knowledgeably on Old Sallie Worm, the fish that talks in the frying-pan and the fairy mimbling- mambling in the garden.

Since then, De la Mare, if not absolutely sinking without trace, is a writer most of us remember having once enjoyed, without any special feeling that he is indispensable to the canon. Memoirs of A Midget has been a Radio 4 Book At Bedtime, the ghost story 'Seaton's Aunt' is regularly anthologised, and the children's anthology, Come Hither,is still in print. But if De la Mare remains a marginal figure, a 19th-century creative spirit criss-crossed by disturbing veins of modernism, this is because in a sense he meant to be. An infant's spiritual realities were more palpable to him than anything offered by the adult world, and as an ageless child he went on recreating an imaginative mise-en-scene based on his earliest Victorian years in

semi-rural Forest Hill, south London.

His widowed mother, coping heroically on half-yearly payments of pounds 29 11s 2 1/2 d, sent her son to St Paul's Choir School, whence a school benefactor catapulted him into dreary clerking job with an American oil company. Marriage to Elfrida Ingpen, fellow member of a Wandsworth amateur theatrical club, offered a temporary consolation. It requires no great partiality to feel a certain compassion for Elfie de la Mare. Expected to be a kind of Faustian Eternal Woman, idealised as wife and mother, she found it, understandably, difficult to realise this to perfection in a context of child-rearing, importunate tradesmen and a sequence of poky suburban villas.

It was hardly the stuff of DelaMarean dreams, and the marriage, which appears to have started under shotgun conditions, received a further jolt when Walter identified a genuine muse in Naomi Royde- Smith, the personable literary editor of the Westminster Gazette. Introduced to each other in a Fleet Street tearoom by Edward Thomas, the pair rapidly retreated into what De la Mare called 'that other Real', the fantasy substratum through which the actualities of not yet quite succeeding as a poet could be held at a decent arm's length.

While Naomi and Elfie locked themselves into their respective roles of inspirational Other Woman and bravely teeth-gritting Homemaker, De la Mare's critical fortunes changed with the appearance of Peacock Pie in 1913, to plaudits from a literary establishment led by Edmund Gosse and the ubiquitous Eddie Marsh. Three years later the author of 'Has anyone seen my Mopser?' had acquired a Royal Society of Literature professorship, a Civil List pension, and, balmiest comfort of all, one third of the immense royalties accruing from the posthumous sales of Rupert Brooke's poems.

As one of the Golden Boy's destined torchbearers for English poetry - the other two being Lascelles Abercrombie and Wilfrid Wilson Gibson: enough said - De la Mare stayed stylistically suspended in a curious self-designed space shaped by fey Jacobean archaisms and his inalienably 20th-century sense of the flesh-creeping menace inherent in ordinary life. Theresa Whistler, who knew him well and whose deeply-etched portrait is all the better for its no-nonsense assessment of poems and personalities, acutely suggests the degree to which his contacts with fellow writers left the obstinate singularity of his voice untouched. Lawrence grudgingly took his advice on the first draft of Sons and Lovers, Katherine Mansfield impressed him by the way she held a spoon, and Hardy took him tombstone-scraping; but his work still refuses to 'belong'.

Consistent in its integrity and affection, this book closes with the aged poet telling Joyce Grenfell: 'My days are getting shorter. But there is more and more magic. More than in all poetry. Everything is increasingly wonderful and beautiful.'