Reading Walter de la Mare, 1873-1956:
‘a voice which has no fellow’
By whom, and by what means, was this designed?
The whispered incantation which allows____l____
Free passage to the phantoms of the mind?_____l_
. . .____llllllllllll____
By the delicate, invisible web you wove —________
The inexplicable mystery of sound._________l____
— From T. S. Eliot, ‘To Walter de la Mare’
Walter de la Mare’s ‘whispered incantation’ echoes on in the memories of countless readers from the late nineteenth century onwards, many of them having memorised his poems by heart as children. It ‘sticks like a splinter in the mind’ was how Angela Carter described his novel Memoirs of a Midget (1921): ‘lucid, enigmatic, and violent with the terrible violence that leaves behind no physical trace’. Elizabeth Bowen claimed that there was ‘something perfectly distinctive and different about the de la Mare sentence, written or said’. As for de la Mare’s poetry, it gave Virginia Woolf a ‘shock of surprise’ when she encountered it by chance; his was ‘a voice which has no fellow’. Deemed ‘one of the best of the best’ by Robert Frost, de la Mare initiated W. H. Auden and a throng of others into poetry through his inimitable anthology, Come Hither (1923); and Auden never ceased to admire ‘the delicacy of his metrical fingering and the graceful architecture of his stanzas’. J. H. Prynne, in an apparently impromptu poetry reading on Chinese national television in 2014, chose de la Mare’s ‘The Listeners’ for his text — a poem which, on his deathbed in 1928, Thomas Hardy exclaimed to be ‘possibly the finest poem of this century!’ De la Mare remains a noteworthy presence for scholars of writers as diverse as Edward Thomas, Katherine Mansfield, and Vladimir Nabokov. ‘One of the masters of whispering’, as George Steiner calls him, de la Mare is also an important figure in scholarly accounts of supernatural and fantasy literature. Especially in the last decade, there has been increasing critical appreciation for the breadth and significance of his oeuvre.
During the ‘revolutionary decade between 1912 and 1922’, writes Peter Howarth, ‘British poetry has been irrevocably changed’ by the ‘poetic styles and cultural values’ introduced by modernism. Pointing out the false dichotomies that this generated, he argues for the need to ‘give the non-modernist poets a place on their own terms’. This two-day conference aims to re-evaluate de la Mare’s place in literary history; to read his work on its own terms; to consider what it meant for him to write as he did during this turbulent decade and on into the mid-twentieth century; and to explore the ways in which the legacy of de la Mare’s writing might challenge current conceptions of literary ‘modernism(s)’.
Discussions of all aspects of his work are invited: poetry, prose fiction, plays, essays, anthologies, and archives. Fresh consideration by scholars in diverse fields will be encouraged, including, but by no means limited to, literary studies, sound studies and musicology, theology, philosophy, and cognitive science.
Our Call for Papers is open until 31st March 2018. Anyone who wishes to participate as a member of the audience are welcome get in touch with the conference organisers at email@example.com to register your interest and/or to make a pre-booking. You can also head over to Contact for a form.
Dates: 20th – 21st September 2018
Location: Sidgwick Site, 5 West Road, Cambridge CB3 9DP (daytime events)
Newnham College, Cambridge (musical concert and dinner)
Registration: This will be open in July 2018.
It is anticipated that the main programme, including lunch and refreshments, will be free for all.
There will be a booking fee for those who wish to attend the dinner at Newnham College on the first day of the conference.
Yui Kajita and Anna Nickerson
(Ph.D. Candidates in English, University of Cambridge)
Confirmed Keynote Speakers
Professor Angela Leighton (University of Cambridge)
Angela Leighton is a Senior Research Fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge. She has worked mainly on nineteenth and twentieth-century literature, on women’s writing, on aestheticism and the aesthetic, and on poetry generally. She has published many articles and various critical books – including On Form: Poetry, Aestheticism and the Legacy of a Word (Oxford UP, 2007) – as well as four volumes of poetry, most recently Spills (Carcanet, 2016). Her current projects include Hearing Things: The Work of Sound in Literature (Harvard UP, forthcoming in 2018). A book about listening in literature, its scope covers poetry, novels, letters, and philosophical writings; and it includes a chapter that focuses on Walter de la Mare, Robert Frost, and Edward Thomas.
Dr William Wootten (University of Bristol)
William Wootten is a Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Bristol, a literary journalist, and a poet. His writings on modern and contemporary poetry in English include The Alvarez Generation: Thom Gunn, Geoffrey Hill, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and Peter Porter (Liverpool UP, 2015). He has published the poetry collection You Have a Visitor (Worple, 2016). He also writes for newspapers and magazines including the Guardian, the London Review of Books, Poetry Review, and the Times Literary Supplement. An active member of the Walter de la Mare Society, William Wootten is currently preparing several publications on de la Mare’s work and is editing an annotated edition of de la Mare’s Selected Poems for Faber and Faber.
The Lancashire Hustlers are a musical duo made up of Brent Thorley (vocals, guitars, keyboards) and Ian Pakes (drums, vocals, other instruments), originally from Southport but now based in London. Musical magpies, they borrow from a variety of genres including soul, pop, folk, jazz, old musicals, psychedelia, bossa nova, film soundtracks and blues. Their critically acclaimed Sing Walter de la Mare (2013) sets to music four poems by Walter de la Mare: ‘Autumn’, ‘Comfort’, ‘John Mouldy’, and ‘Some One’.
Tracks from the EP have been featured on BBC Radio Shropshire, BBC Radio Ulster, and Phonic FM, amongst others, but will be performed live in front of Walter de la Mare enthusiasts for the first time, with additional new music especially made for this conference.
‘The Lancashire Hustlers offer thoughtful, elusive harmonies built around sensitively constructed, mystical melodies . . . these songs will definitely leave a mark.’ (Tim Carroll, FolkWords.com)
‘Attractively moulded close harmony sound with echoes of Simon & Garfunkel . . . this enigmatic twosome deserve to be heard more widely.’ (David Kidman, FATEA Magazine)
‘Noted for his children’s poems in particular, de la Mare’s words are very adaptable, having been used in musical compositions by Benjamin Britten. Here though, we’re once more looking at the sound of those great British songwriters, and once more the word “idiosyncratic” could be used. Think Kevin Ayres, think Ray Davis, The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band and Syd Barrett, but also think of progressive folk and prog groups such as Fairport Convention. The adaptations are handled lightly so as not to take away from the words . . . The timing of this autumnal and sometimes wintry collection is perfect.’ (The Sound of Confusion.com)
Featured image: Pocket and appointment diaries, D15-16, Walter de la Mare Papers, Special Collections, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. (Photograph taken by Yui Kajita.)