People say that Walter de la Mare is the last of the romantics, and it is easy to see what they mean in a general and imprecise sense, but it is so misleading as to be quite unacceptable as a description. He is nothing like a romantic. There is none of the aggressive foregrounding of the poetic personality, or the asserted identity between that construction and the actual author. De la Mare fades away into the distance behind his fables, behind his observations even. This cultivation of impersonality is very notable in itself, and even more so because it is strikingly successful and extreme in character. Think what another impersonal poet, T. S. Eliot, made of this attempt when working within a position authentically descended from that of the romantics. He hides or rather shows himself in a multiplicity of assumed identities. For all this evasiveness, the self is paramount, is always firmly present, whereas De la Mare is just nowhere to be found, and in this respect he is certainly not a typical romantic poet, if we define that poet by describing the area thus, Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth. De la Mare is more like Keats if anything, but with an even stronger negátive capability (accent supplied; the capability is not negative, but negative).
It is true that some of the romantics, as defined above, have mysticism in common with De la mare, but this equivalence teaches us little, so vague is the term. De la Mare’s mysticism is elusive and undemonstrative, it intimates without describing the presence of a parallel world, but says nothing about the transcendence of this further realm. It is simply additional. From the other side of the filmy layer separating us from this strange land, our everyday earth perhaps seems as curious and dreamlike; we are imaginative fantasies for them. The romantics, on the other hand, are nothing if not transcendentalists. They see in a vision, or inhabit through imagination and their own incantations a layer of existence that is not only higher but is asserted to be infinitely superior in every way to the present world, though this can only be gestured towards rather than fully communicated, since the reader is neither welcome nor invited to be anything else than a spectator, a member of the congregation supervised by the initiated priest. Again the contrast with De la Mare is obvious; the reader is complicit and drawn into the vacuum left by the deliberate withdrawal of the authorial personality.
Indeed, there is nothing definite in his writing except the style, a fact that explains his fading reputation at the present time, and would in other cases make him only a writer’s writer, but De la Mare is certainly a reader’s writer too, a view that can be verified, I think, by cutting his work at any random point. No study is required, a page will serve.