“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.” —C.S. Lewis
That is from a letter written shortly after WWI. You might expect De la Mare to be mentioned in Surprised by Joy, considering Yeats is; but if De la Mare is mentioned in that book, I missed it. He is alluded to in Chapter XIII in a line: “Be not too wildly amorous of the far/Nor lure thy fantasy to its utmost scope.” In this section Lewis is talking about his withdrawing from fantasy and wonder and hunkering down, away from supernaturalism’s rigors and into strict good sense. Jane Austen would have approved. Fortunately for us romantics, it was only a corrective phase and he did not abide there continually.
Here is the whole poem, by the way:
THE IMAGINATION’S PRIDE
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.
Nectarous those flowers, yet with venom sweet.
Thick-juiced with poison hang those fruits that shine
Where sick phantasmal moonbeams brood and beat,
And dark imaginations ripe the vine.
Bethink thee: every enticing league thou wend
Beyond the mark where life its bound hath set
Will lead thee at length where human pathways end
And the dark enemy spreads his maddening net.
Comfort thee, comfort thee. Thy Father knows
How wild man’s ardent spirit, fainting, yearns
For mortal glimpse of death’s immortal rose,
The garden where the invisible blossom burns.
Humble thy trembling knees; confess thy pride;
Be weary. Oh, whithersoever thy vaunting rove,
His deepest wisdom harbours in thy side,
In thine own bosom hides His utmost love.
And one can’t help feeling De la Mare has summarized, in that last stanza, some of the lessons Lewis learned and explained in Surprised by Joy. There is a lot of Christianity in De la Mare’s earlier poems. I myself have not ventured late into his poetry because the poems were becoming less compelling.
De la Mare has fallen infinitely below himself. . . . 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? —C. S. Lewis
After this De la Mare is not really mentioned in the letters Lewis wrote to Arthur Greeves. In Mervyn Peake we can see one who followed the trail of romanticism into madness. There you have a complete Dionysian revolt and triumph of what is grotesque or Gormenghastly. Perhaps it was this that Lewis felt De la Mare wanted to avoid. But this is instructive not only when one considers the development of a poet. Life comes to us moment by moment. It is interesting with problems and limited by time to a certain amount, or scope, which is what we need. If life did not come to us as it did, we would be overwhelmed. Sometimes we get ourselves into a place that threatens to overwhelm us. At that point we can realize the situation in which we find ourselves—we sense it, and we struggle to understand it, but we need to get a certain lucid grasp on it, to understand what it is we sense—and grapple with the problem, or at least look for a retreat from the difficulty if that is what is required. Not that all of us attain even the retrospective lucidity that C.S. Lewis achieved in Surprised by Joy (partly due to his fanatically ratiocinative and introspective consciousness, one thinks), but that with properly formed character, sound bases for the mind, bases that are solid and anchored in the reality of truth, and with a proper understanding of some of the fundamental things, we can follow along our way without the utter, limp passivity of constant retreat.
Lewis is someone whose peculiar kind of vision was of a strangely piercing quality, I think you will agree. He met his problems and faced them and worried them to find solutions. And in the end he found that he was not the only active agent and that he was the most impotent and ignorant agent involved in his problems. Nevertheless beside De la Mare’s advice to be weary, which is good advice, he added the resolve to persevere in spite of weariness, as other strength beyond his was at work.