Under a Needling Star

In my library I have two first editions of Walter de la Mare’s 1921 collection, The Veil, and Other Poems, one signed and numbered, both published by Constable and Company.

This is my favorite of de la Mare’s many volumes of poetry, full of uncanny imagery and imagination. Nowhere do these two themes converge more elegantly than they do in “The Imagination’s Pride,” which begins:

Be not too wildly amorous of the far,
Nor lure thy fantasy to its utmost scope.
Read by a taper when the needling star
Burns red with menace in heaven’s midnight cope.
Friendly thy body: guard its solitude.
Sure shelter is thy heart. It once had rest
Where founts miraculous thy lips endewed,
Yet nought loomed further than thy mother’s breast.

O brave adventure! Ay, at danger slake
Thy thirst, lest life in thee should, sickening, quail;
But not toward nightmare goad a mind awake,
Nor to forbidden horizons bend thy sail—
Seductive outskirts whence in trance prolonged
Thy gaze, at stretch of what is sane-secure,
Dreams out on steeps by shapes demoniac thronged
And vales wherein alone the dead endure.

C. S. Lewis regarded this as de la Mare’s best poem, and the chronological high point of his career. In a 1927 letter to Arthur Greeves, Lewis wrote, “De la Mare’s poems I have had for a long time and I read them more often than any other book. I put him above Yeats and all the other moderns, and in spite of his fantasy find him nearer than any one else to the essential truth of life.” But three years later he expressed disappointment in de la Mare’s volumes Desert Islands and The Connoisseur, which he thought lacked “the real spirituality” found in The Veil.

In 1930, Lewis wrote to Greeves,

My idea is he really bade good bye to the best part of himself in the lovely poem ‘Be not too wildly amorous of the far.’ The peculiar kind of vision he had was of a strangely piercing quality and probably almost unbearable to the possessor: only a man of great solidity, of real character, sound at the bases of his mind & braced with philosophy, could have carried it safely. But De la Mare was not such a man. It was quite likely really leading him to madness, & he knew it. Hardly knowing what he did, and yet just knowing, he sent it away. I am told he lives in the midst of the silly London literary sets. His read day is over. Do you think this a possible theory?

Like Lewis himself, de la Mare was an Anglican Christian. He was educated at St Paul’s Cathedral School and buried in the crypt of St Paul’s, where he had been a choirboy.

By the 1960s Lewis was able to look back at de la Mare’s body of work with a more rounded perspective. In his 1966 collection On Stories he wrote of de la Mare’s “intensely sophisticated art,” comparing him insightfully to friend and fellow-Inkling Charles Williams.


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