Walter de la Mare was born on April 25th 1873 at 83 Maryon Road, Charlton (then in Kent but now part of the London Borough of Greenwich), England.
His father, James Edward de la Mare, was descended from French Huguenots, and worked for the Bank of England. His mother, Lucy Sophia Browning (James' second wife), was the daughter of the Scottish naval surgeon and author Dr Colin Arrott Browning.
Walter was one of seven siblings; two brothers, Francis Arthur Edward and James Herbert, and four sisters; Florence Mary, Constance Eliza, Ethel (who was to die in infancy), and Ada Mary. Disliking his given name Walter he asked to be called ‘Jack’ by his family.
In what looked like such a well to do family his education was excellent - St Paul's Cathedral School but for Walter his education would end there. A career would now be needed.
In 1892 Walter took his interest in drama further by joining the Esperanza Amateur Dramatics Club. It was here that he met and fell in love with Elfrida Ingpen, who in the old theatre cliché, was his leading lady.
They were to marry seven years later on August 4th, 1899 and go on to have four children; Richard Herbert Ingpen, Colin, Florence and Lucy Elfrida de la Mare after settling into their house at Anerley in south London.
A keen writer Walter had to also work in order to support both his family and his writing.
Indeed it was only in 1902 that he was able to first publish with Songs of Childhood using the name Walter Ramal.
By day his work was that of a statistician for Standard Oil, a huge behemoth of a company that dominated the oil industry via its shareholder John D. Rockefeller. He was to work there for eighteen years.
However by 1908 through the efforts of that much admired poet Sir Henry Newbolt (Vitaï Lampada – ‘Play up, Play up and Play the game!) he received a Civil List pension which facilitated his switch to full time writing.
Up until the 1920’s this work mostly involved Poetry though did include two supernatural novels Henry Brocken in 1904 and The Return in 1910. In 1913 perhaps his most famous poetical work ‘Peacock Pie’ was published. It is work much beloved and in its early years was regularly reprinted with usually with new illustrations including one by the legendary W Heath Robinson.
In the 1920’s his published work tended to include less poetry and instead expanded to include both further novels and short stories. His imagination continued to broaden into his writing and he created some marvellous materials.
Walter felt imagination as falling into two areas – the childlike and the boylike. It was were these two met that he believed that the great poets ie Shakespeare, Dante, produced their greatest works.
He believed that all children begin fairly obviously with the childlike imagination, which is usually develops and is replaced at some point in their lives. In his lecture "Rupert Brooke and the Intellectual Imagination" he explained that children "are not bound in by their groping senses. Facts to them are the liveliest of chameleons. ... They are contemplatives, solitaries, fakirs, who sink again and again out of the noise and fever of existence and into a waking vision." His biographer Doris Ross McCrosson was to further summarise this as, "Children are, in short, visionaries." This visionary view of life can be seen as either vital creativity and ingenuity, or fatal disconnection from reality (or, in a limited sense, both).
The increasing intrusions of the external world upon the mind, however, frighten the childlike imagination, which "retires like a shocked snail into its shell". From then onward the boyish imagination flourishes, the "intellectual, analytical type".
Walter felt that by adulthood the childlike imagination has either retreated forever or grown bold enough to face the real world. Thus emerge the two extremes of the spectrum of adult minds: the mind moulded by the boylike is "logical" and "deductive". That shaped by the childlike becomes "intuitive, inductive". For Walter, "The one knows that beauty is truth, the other reveals that truth is beauty." Yet another way he puts it is that the visionary's source of poetry is within, while the intellectual's sources are without – external – in "action, knowledge of things, and experience".
Walter, as can be seen from the bibliography below, was a significant writer of ghost stories perhaps 100 in all. Almost half have a significant supernatural element.
One of the masters of horror, H.P. Lovecraft himself was a great admirer of these works. In his superb work ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’ he took particular time to praise such of Walter’s works as his novel ‘The Return’ and the short stories such as "Seaton's Aunt", "The Tree", "Out of the Deep", "Mr Kempe" and "All Hallows".
Of course Walter de la Mare is widely acknowledged for his works for children. His 1910 fairy tale ‘The Three Mulla Mulgars’ (aka ‘The Three Royal Monkeys’), was praised by literary historian Julia Briggs as a "neglected masterpiece" and by critic Brian Stableford as a "classic animal fantasy".
Walter was widely respected by the industry. Among his prestigious prizes were; In 1921 his novel Memoirs of a Midget won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction and in 1947 his post-war Collected Stories for Children won the Carnegie Medal for British children's books.
We take particular pleasure in re-publishing much of Walter de la Mare’s works in most digital and online stores.
From the mid-1930s Walter but focused on poetry. He never felt the need to experiment, he used the old forms, the sonnet, the quatrain. Graham Greene has argued that de la Mare was more interesting as a prose writer than a poet. Dylan Thomas was also a noted admirer of his fiction.
Walter also wrote some excellent essays including studies on Rupert Brooke in 1919, an edition of Christina Georgina Rossetti in 1930 and in 1932 on Lewis Carroll-L.C. Dodgson and again in that same year an essay on ‘The Early Novels of Wilkie Collins’.
Among his other talents was that of editor and in 1923 he published Come Hither, which is over 800 pages long and covers in scope 600 years of literature in English. The poet W.H. Auden said of it, "I remember very well the appearance, when I was a schoolboy, of Come Hither, a collection which, more than any book I have read before or since, taught me what poetry is"
Rather than open with an introduction Walter chose a piece of autobiographical fiction, 'The Story of This Book'. The contents are placed in sixteen sections; the titles illustrating their treasured contents: "Morning and May", "Feasts: Fairs: Beggars: Gypsies", "Summer: Greenwood: Solitude", "Dance, Music and Bells", and so on. The final section, "About and Roundabout" consists of 300 pages of notes on the poems.
In 1940, his wife Elfrida was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and spent the rest of her life as an invalid in their home at South End House in Montpelier Row in Twickenham (this was the self-same street where Alfred Lord Tennyson had lived a century earlier).
Elfrida sadly died in 1943.
In 1947 Walter’s own health suffered due to a coronary thrombosis.
Walter De la Mare was made a companion of honour in 1948, and received the Order of Merit on 1953. He was also an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
The poet T.S. Eliot prepared a poem for Walter’s 75th birthday.
When the nocturnal traveler can arouse
No sleeper by his call; or when by chance
An empty face peers from an empty house,
By whom: and by what means was this designed?
The whispered incantation which allows
Free passage to the phantoms of the mind?
By you: by those deceptive cadences
Wherewith the common measure is refined;
By conscious art practiced with natural ease;
By the delicate invisible web you wove—
An inexplicable mystery of sound.
On June 22nd 1956 at the age of 83 Walter de la Mare died of another coronary thrombosis.
His ashes are buried in the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral, where he had once been a choirboy.