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Monday, December 20, 2010

Number 17: Walter de la Mare "Mistletoe"


Sitting under the mistletoe

(Pale green, fairy mistletoe),

One last candle burning low,

All the sleepy dancers gone,

Just one candle burning on,

Shadows lurking everywhere:

Someone came, and kissed me there.

Tired I was; my head would go

Nodding under the mistletoe

(Pale green, fairy mistletoe)

No footsteps came, no voice, but only,

Just as I sat there, sleepy, lonely,

Stooped in the still and shadowy air

Lips unseen - and kissed me there.

-- Walter de la Mare

Hap Notes: Walter de la Mare (1873-1956) is often relegated to that dismissive term "children's poetry," which wouldn't be a particularly bad designation if it didn't carry with it connotations that it's not "serious" poetry which is, of course, marlarky, balderdash and blather. (kind of sounds like a law firm, huh?)

Sheesh, even Thomas Hardy thought de la Mare's "The Listeners" one of the best poems of the 20th century and it was one of the last things he requested his wife to read aloud to him before he died. Hardy and de la Mare were friends although Hardy was much the older of the two.

De la mare spent 18 years working in the statistics department of Standard Oil in London as he kept on writing. He wrote many books and stories but Songs of Childhood established him as a romantic and imaginative poet. Most British schoolchildren, by the way, know "The Listeners," too, although it's hardly a children's poem. I'll post it some day. We've got plenty of time.

I've always loved this mistletoe poem. I can see the scene of a post-party, lonely, pensive, drowsy person who gets a mysterious kiss under the "pale green, fairy mistletoe." It always somewhat puts me in mind of that Chekhov story "The Kiss" where the soldier gets a peppermint-y kiss in the dark (mistakenly) and wonders which of the girls at the party it was- you know that one? Good and very sad story --which really has nothing to do with the poem at all- it just starts me up on the Chekhov. De la Mare's kiss hints ("pale green, fairy mistletoe") of the bestower of the kiss, I think- he was a very fanciful sort of fella.

De la Mare's poetry is traditionally structured and yet still often remains magical- like incantations. I admit I selected this because it was one of the few poems of the season that I remembered by heart outside of the somewhat stirring but lugubrious "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow- you know that one, right? (Just as another aside, traditional Christmas carols are loaded with fine poetry- "O Little Town of Bethlehem" (written by Rev, Philip Brooks) is quite wonderful and so is "Good King Wenceslas," (John Mason Neale) just to name a couple.) I suppose, being raised Lutheran, I should give a shout out to Martin Luther for his "Away in a Manger" too- it's easy to forget that he wrote it- such a standard.)

Anyway, I thought this poem was a little more fun for the season.

Here's a good de la Mare quote:
“All day long the door of the sub-conscious remains just ajar; we slip through to the other side, and return again, as easily and secretly as a cat.”

And here's a sweet short bonus poem by De la Mare as a Christmas poetry present:

A heart to be at peace with,

Wisdom at peace to be;

To love no less though loved no more

Be all the hope in me.

You can find more de la Mare here:
Or here:

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