In this week’s tribute to National Poetry Month, I took a little detour into the past. Unlike the other poets who generously agreed to share their work with my readers, Walter de la Mare is not a personal acquaintance, having died four years before I was born. I’m not very familiar with his work and suspect most people today would say the same, as he is rather out of fashion, though at one time he was one of his country’s most popular writers.
But for many years I have loved the sole poem of his I could recall reading, in a long-ago anthology . . . a poem not considered his best, that also appears to be largely forgotten, though an illustrated copy was deemed by some admirer to be Pinterest-worthy (and what would de la Mare have made of that?). A poem that never fails to choke me up just a little with its sweet note of hope at the end, no matter how many times I read it.
Walter John Delamare’s early life was prosaic enough. Born in 1873 in Charlton, Kent, in the south of England, one of seven siblings and left fatherless before he was five, Jack, as he was familiarly known, became a statistics clerk at seventeen, lacking funds for a university education, and remained in that position for eighteen years. While the fortunate bestowal of two Civil List pensions, in 1908 and 1915, respectively, freed him to concentrate on his craft, authors ranging from aspiring to despairing to successful can relate to the hopes he must have entertained throughout the writing and submission of hundreds of poems and short stories, as well as five novels, not to mention the fact that while Henry Brocken sold a mere 250 copies and netted only a bill for excess proof corrections, Memoirs of a Midget and Collected Stories for Children earned two of Britain’s oldest literary awards.
Several of de la Mare’s recurrent themes in all the above genres—death, dreams, and commonplace objects—appear in this week’s poem, along with the “undercurrent of melancholy” that runs through much of his work. But who was the eponymous fiddler, the wizard of notes that surely sparked an uncontrollable urge to dance in feet of all ages or moved listeners from laughter to tears in a single melody? A real-life acquaintance, a figment of the author’s imagination, or perhaps a sort of alter-ego? Was he loved for more than his music? Did he have a voice outside that music, or did it end when his instrument was broken?
None of that really matters. What does matter is how, in thirteen short lines, de la Mare channels the flame of a personality without name or physical description (aside from the slightly ambiguous “stooping”), who discovered and lived his richest, interior self through the expression of his gift.
Much as, I suspect, de la Mare did himself. As all artists long to do. And in the end the art, the music, cannot be silenced, emerging from branches symbolic since ancient times of the promise of new life.
* * *
Once was a fiddler. Play could he
Sweet as a bird in an almond tree.
Fingers and strings—they seemed to be
Matched, in a secret conspiracy.
Up slid his bow, paused lingeringly;
Music’s self was its witchery.
In his stooping face it was plain to see
How close to dream is a soul set free—
A half-found world;
His fiddle is broken.
Mute is he.
But a bird sings on in the almond tree.
For more on the life and work of Walter de la Mare, visit The Walter de la Mare Society.