Walter De La Mare (1873-1956)
Walter de la Mare lived in the Penge area for twenty-five years. Born in Charlton, and descended from a family of French Huguenots, De La Mare was very much a town person although you would think from reading his poetry with its images of nature that he was born and bred in the country. From Charlton, his family moved to Bovill Road, Forest Hill, where he spent his childhood.
London at the turn of the last century was a very different place to what it is now: quieter, more leafy and rural. A relative had moved to Beckenham and Walter (or Jack as he preferred to be called) moved too, with his wife Effie. He settled at 195 Mackenzie Road, Beckenham, where there is now a blue plaque.
A clerk with the Standard Oil company during the day, he nonetheless found time to write poetry and novels, encouraged by distinguished friends. He wrote Songs of Childhood and the novel Henry Brocken while living in Mackenzie Road. The road itself had not been fully built or populated in 1899 and his house was in a small terrace of six, 6 Lynton Terrace then, and surrounded by fields. On the annual Walter de la Mare walk we visit this house, and others, to see where de la Mare lived and wrote.
The De la Mare family was poor and moved three times while living in the area. They moved from Mackenzie Road and lived in two other houses before settling at 14 Thornsett Road, Anerley. Eighteen months during 1907/8 were spent in ‘a small, cramped, slip of a flat’ in Samos Road (house number unknown). In 1908 he was allowed a civil list pension which meant he could give up the day job and attend to his writing. The De la Mares found better accommodation at 5 Worbeck Road which had a small orchard at the back. Here he wrote The Listeners. Four years later the family, now with four children, moved to Thornsett Road where the poem was published in 1912. It was once judged Britain’s favourite poem.
14 Thornsett Road became a literary hub for many years. De la Mare had the gift of making friends and the visitors book, now in the Bodleian library, contains the signatures of some of the most brilliant writers of the era: Siegfried Sassoon, Edward Thomas, Henry Williamson, Rupert Brooke, Eleanor Farjeon. There is now a blue plaque on the house. De la Mare also has a pavement plaque as part of the Penge Heritage Trail.
Much of his best work was written while living in Anerley: The Listeners and Other Poems; Peacock Pie; Come Hither; Memoirs of a Midget. Ghost stories such as Seaton’s Aunt and All Hallows are among the best in the language. These were much admired by horror writer H. P. Lovecraft. De la Mare’s stories depend on atmosphere and suggestion rather than shock tactics but they can be very spooky and unnerving. Seaton’s Aunt was dramatised for BBC Radio in 1976 by with Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies as the mysterious aunt.
De la Mare was much admired and published during his lifetime and is an international literary figure. He was much admired by T.S. Eliot who wrote a poem for his memorial service praising the poet’s mastery of ‘the inexplicable mystery of sound’. De la Mare refused a knighthood twice but accepted the Order of Merit and the Companion of Honour, the only person to do so apart from Winston Churchill. He is buried in St Paul’s Cathedral.
Many people remember being taught poems by Walter de la Mare when they were at school. For many, Silver, John Mouldy, Old Shellover, Someone, All That’s Past and, of course, The Listeners are like milestones in childhood’s journey. The opening lines of Silver:
Slowly, silently, now the moon Walks the night in her silver shoon….
Many spectacular Walter de la Mare moons have been seen over Penge. Maybe it’s because Penge and Anerley are situated on the side of a hill that there is often a vast panorama of the night sky.
For several years the Penge Festival has celebrated Walter de la Mare’s life and work. The celebrations include a guided walk and a talk/poetry recital. Some of the talks have been published in the Walter de la Mare Society magazine.
The events have been attended and supported by the De la Mare family. On one walk four generations of the De La Mare family took part. Giles de la Mare has generously sponsored signed book prizes for the Poetry Competition. In June 2017, the Penge Poets group was inaugurated with a well-attended reading of de la Mare’s poetry in the garden of 14 Thornsett Road, Anerley. What could be more perfect than wine and poetry on a summer evening in a garden in June?
In 2015 the SE20 Art Group held an exhibition in Penge Library responding pictorially to the poetry of Walter de la Mare. Richard Lowndes opened the exhibition. Here is one response from Dom Richards, responding to de la Mare’s poem Comfort:
Walter de la Mare’s poetry went out of fashion for many years after the 1960s but is finding a new audience via the internet:
Academics too are beginning to take a renewed interest in him. Indeed, at long last, in September 2018, there is an international conference at Cambridge University entitled Reading Walter de la Mare.
With the rediscovery of Walter de la Mare, further interest has been taken in his ghost stories. Hollywood, are you listening?
The Walter de la Mare Society has frequent events in London and an annual lecture, often given at one of the houses where Walter de la Mare lived.
The Society has a seasonal magazine including the latest research and reviews of de la Mare studies along with undiscovered poems or writings.
Walter de la Mare’s Birthday Party is planned for Saturday April 25, 2020, from 7.00pm to 9.00pm in Penge Library. This will comprise of poetry readings, a talk, a floor for local poets, wine and cheese and a slice of birthday cake! The celebration anticipates a new edition of Walter de la Mare’s poetry. Further details later.
You might like to listen to Joanna Lumley discussing her favourite poetry including The Listeners by Walter de la Mare which she reads: