The late British author, Alice Thomas Ellis, is a bracing if improbable combination of Flannery O’Connor and Evelyn Waugh. Intimidated by nothing, satirically amused by most things, and weary of everything that her profound Catholic sensibilities found facile and false, Ellis wrote novels and essays that, sadly, too few now read. How fitting, then, that she should point to a book too little known when an interviewer asked her what volume she would wish to have, in addition to the Bible and Shakespeare, if she were stranded on an island. Ellis replied, “Come Hither, by Walter de la Mare.”
Anthologies of children’s verse usually fall into sentimentality. They reflect their editors’ attempts at indulgence in feelings that have become unreal to editors and readers both. Come Hither: A Collection of Rhymes and Poems for the Young of All Ages is markedly free of this blot as de la Mare, a Twentieth-Century British poet and author, never left behind the numinous sense of mystery that characterizes childhood. It is found even in his own works, poems and stories that move in an atmosphere—however sophisticated and subtle—of another world just out of sight, and of our own world’s final unfathomability.
It is not the novelty of things that makes a child wonder at the world, though with age familiarity breeds presumption. It is the raw being of things, the sheer sensory impressiveness of the stone, the branch, the doorknob that immerses childhood in a stream of continuous marveling. Children are natural metaphysicians, keen to the reality of existent things but keen to the “this-ness” of the particular object and everything to sense in it. A world of textures, temperatures, objects presenting themselves to the eye and ear in a gratuitous moment of “I am” move children not to abstract speculation or romanticized emotion but to hunger—hunger for more things, more apprehension, more being.
I had a very young child once who would occasionally suffer from “night terrors,” a sleeping state of screaming fear insusceptible to any consolation or awakening. The only thing I could do to penetrate that cocoon of horror was to take the child up and out of the house at whatever time of night and touch his hand against the bark of a tree. Then his cries would subside and his open, terrified eyes would begin to come out of the dream and into focus. He would grasp the bark for a few moments and then (usually because it was winter) turn quickly in my arms and hug for warmth and whatever comfort final wakefulness could provide.
Walter de la Mare never lost his susceptibility to the mysteriousness of real things, especially natural ones, and therefore his anthology tends to evoke—even to participate in—the wonders of a concrete world as experienced by unjaded, alert sensibility. The anthology is organized in “thematic” chapters unlike anything one is likely to find in conventional collections: “Morning and May,” “Feasts: Fairs: Beggars: Gypsies,” “Far,” “Evening and Dream.” But the first chapter and the last are the most remarkable, and in themselves a reason for the book and a means of reawakening the susceptibility to wonder most of us lose in our contests with abrasive necessity. “The Story of This Book” opens the anthology, and it narrates young de la Mare’s childhood rambles and discovery of an isolated cottage with its frightening, austere but hospitable elderly matron. There, he learns of a long departed “Mr. Nahum,” a boy whose upper-storey, windowed room contains still the marvels of a well-spent youth: “a hugger-mugger of strange objects—odd-shaped coloured shells, fragments of quartz, thunderbolts and fossils; skins of brilliant birds; …peculiar tools, little machines; silent clocks, instruments of music….” There he also found Mr. Nahum’s hand-made book labeled (as if a single word) “Theotherworlde,” a collection of poems painstakingly handwritten and illustrated. These poems—classics, folk rhymes, and novelties were later copied down by de la Mare and became the heart of Come Hither.
Prior to his discovery of this book, de la Mare had a boyish contempt for poetry, but something in the obvious care dedicated to the making of the volume, alongside its content and the “hugger-mugger” of its surroundings wrought a slow conversion upon him. He came to see that poetry and the world he loved to ramble in were, in truth, the same. Like an illustration that makes one see a thing for the first time, a poem is both real and an invitation to enter the real in wonder.
Surrounding many of the poems, written in the margins, were many oddments also copied by de la Mare. “About and Roundabout,” the final chapter of the anthology reproduces some of these but contains numerous, invaluable remarks and reflections of de la Mare’s, all indexed to the poems in the volume. Often, the remark is simply another poem bearing some echo or relation to the one anthologized. Sometimes it is an account of an obscure plant, childhood game, or country tradition mentioned in the poem. Never are these comments pedantic, academic or dull. They are the conversation in the room when three or four generations are reading aloud together and thought leads on to thought.
Come Hither begins and ends with the same, traditional nursery poem, “This is the Key of the Kingdom.” With all the simplicity of childhood, this poem contains—everything. Moving from the expanse of “the Kingdom” to the increasing particularity of a city, street, house, room and even particular bed, the poem then moves back out through the sequence to rest upon the “Key of the Kingdom.” In this, the poem not only encompasses all the world, but reaches toward “The Other Worlde” as well. So too does the wondering child. Abused by a sentimentalizing, romanticizing adult world of jaded discontents, childhood remains the age of wonder because it is alive to mystery, to the real being of actual things. “Unless ye become as little children,” indeed.