A friend in accidental and solitary exile in that desert where there is likely to be no abiding city recently asked me for recommendations of up-to-date literature to while away the hours, but I had nothing to say since I engage very little with contemporary writing at present. I try hard periodically, buying anthologies, reading reviews and so on, and have so far been badly disappointed. The sentences are as hackneyed as the opinions, the diction as limited as the viewpoint, the technique ignorant and crass. I give up and go back to rummaging around in the past, which is so much more skilful, varied and surprising.
So I suggested De la Mare, observing that though hugely unfashionable he repays attention both in prose and verse, provided you can take an abstract interest in words and sounds and the art of their arrangement as a mutual accompaniment. He is also a truly remarkable anthologist. I am not so keen on the later collections, on dreams, on love, on childhood, but the early Come Hither (1923) is stunning, with a mysteriously beautiful introductory story acting as a framing narrative, and full of startling finds, not least in the footnotes. I am on the verge of asserting it to be the best collection of verse in English, with hardly any of the disappointments that result from the commonly felt and timid anxiety to quarter the ground of canon and history. De la Mare's criteria for selection seem to have been very narrowly defined, and this emphasis on quality, for that is what it is, means that he has space for the unusual. I would not have come across so large and so persuasive a selection of Mary E. Coleridge elsewhere, and she is simply wonderful:
We were young, we were merry, we were very very wise,
And the door stood open at our feast,
When there passed us a woman with the West in her eyes,
And a man with his back to the East.
O, still grew the hearts that were beating so fast,
The loudest voice was still.
The jest died away on our lips as thy passed,
And the rays of July struck chill.
The cups of red wine turned pale on the board,
The white bread black as soot.
The hound forgot the hand of her lord,
She fell down at his foot.
Low let me lie, where the dead dog lies,
Ere I sit me again at a feast,
When there passes a woman with the West in her eyes,
And a man with his back to the East.
A little melodramatic I grant, but the piece avoids sentimentality, on my naturalistic definition, by never being quite clear about the significance of its matter, so leaving you unable to weigh it up and declare it unbalanced. Very elegant.
Incidentally, in the version above I have emended the second line of the last stanza. All texts of this poem that I have seen, from the somewhat scarce first edition of Poems (1908) edited by Henry Newbolt, through de la Mare's own reprinting in Come Hither, and up to Theresa Whistler's edition, Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge (1954), read:
"Ere I sit me down again at a feast".
I dislike it for two reasons; firstly because it awkwardly repeats "fell down at his foot" in the previous stanza, and while it is true that there are already several repetitions in this stanza those seem to me incremental, whereas down is merely redundant. Secondly, the word offers an intrusive candidate for a fourth beat where three is all that is required by the pattern established in previous stanzas. Rejecting that beat, as you can, causes the line to falter in a way to me unpleasant, and I think uncharacteristic of Coleridge's usually meticulous composition. As it happens, the insertion of "down" is an extremely plausible copyist's error, indeed an author themselves might fall into such a mistake; "sit" and "down" are strongly linked in most minds, so that if you write the first then the other follows automatically.