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Nobody ever knew quite what to make of Charles Causley.
He wrote poems that rhymed and sounded a bit like John Betjeman’s, except that Betjeman’s were easy to understand and Causley’s weren’t. He was quite unlike any other poet of his generation. It was easy to say what kind of poets his contemporaries were, but almost impossible to say what kind of poet he was. Ted Hughes wrote about nature in the tradition of Keats and Hopkins. Philip Larkin wrote about England in the tradition of Marvell and Browning. What did Charles Causley write about? What tradition did he belong to?
He wrote mainly about Cornwall and World War II. From the former came his fondness for old songs and stories, from the latter his preoccupation with death. Both explain why he was thought of as a charming but slightly dotty old uncle, who entertained the children whenever he dropped in, but made the grown-ups feel slightly nervous. (Whatever is he going to say next?) There is more than a little of the Ancient Mariner about him. He was a mariner after all, if not an ancient one. A mariner during the war, then a teacher. He taught at the village school he had attended as a boy, until he retired at the age of 59, by which time he was deputy headmaster.
Edith Sitwell, in her introduction to Union Street, the first slim volume of Causley’s poetry, made up of poems published previously in pamphlets and periodicals, writes that ‘Mr Causley is completely individual’ and that his ‘poems are among the natural growths of our soil, like our sweet and exquisite folk-songs, and our strange ballads’. Sitwell’s own work and reputation made her a natural admirer of someone who might have seemed to belong as much to her generation as to the next. She wrote in conclusion that ‘these poems … are delightful in these days when so much of the verse written is completely without flavour, so that when reading it one feels one’s mouth is full of sawdust’. The eccentric aunt speaks up for the dotty uncle.
And that is still how Causley is spoken of. Those who do so make too much of Cornwall and not enough of World War II. They confuse the form of the poems (exquisite folk-songs and strange ballads) with their subject (death).
He was born in 1917, four years after my father, and served in the Royal Navy during the war. Like my father, who was in the Royal Engineers, he joined up early and did a full six years before he was demobbed. His poem Demobilisation Leave recalls what I have often heard my mother say about my father’s restless mood when he returned from Italy. In Causley’s case, it was Ceylon.
I have seen the white tiger,
In the Douanier Rousseau forest:
Isosceles leaves and a waterfall of compasses.
And although I am writing in Cornwall, in winter,
And the rain is coming in from the moor,
Trincomali, ah, Trincomali!
When he has done with his mariner’s memories of Ceylon, he comes back down to earth in Cornwall with a bump.
And they say:
‘You must be fed up with your leave,
Fifty-six days is a long time,
You’ll start work before it’s over –
You’ll be tired of nothing to do,
Nothing to think of,
Nothing to write about.
Yes: you’ll go back to the office
The title of his second pamphlet sums up the post-war experience even more succinctly: Survivor’s Leave. What a survivor feels more than anything, they say, is guilt. Causley’s best known poem, Timothy Winters, strikes a pose which has led people to mistake it for a children’s poem, instead of a poem about the aftermath of war. Timothy Winters might be a boy or a ghost or an angel or just peace in ruins.
Timothy Winters has bloody feet
And he lives in a house on Suez Street,
He sleeps in a sack on the kitchen floor
And they say there aren’t boys like him any more.
Peace ruined by war is a familiar trope in Causley’s work, as in Ballad of the Faithless Wife:
Carry her down to the river
Carry her down to the sea
Let the bully-boys stare at her braided hair
But never a glance from me.
Only in the last verse do we find out that the wife’s name is Peace and the soldier who ruined her is War.
What we learn more than anything from these early poems is how the survivor’s return brings only isolation. We begin to hear in the old verse forms with their chirpy rhymes and rhythms a kind of self-mockery. In the presence of people who don’t understand, better to make fun of yourself, to play the part of the dotty uncle.
On my winter walk I hear my friends talk
Of dogs and babies and gardens…
Autobiography, a sonnet from his first pamphlet, Farewell, Aggie Weston, which came out in 1951, puts it very plainly and rather shockingly:
Now that my sea-going self-possession wavers
I sit and write the letter you will not answer.
The razor at my wrist patiently severs
Passion from thought, of which the flesh is censor.
The next eight lines draw out the appalling contrast between his experience of war and the ruined peace to which he has returned. The sonnet ends with a couplet that, in its resignation and its ambivalence, anticipated the next fifty years of his life as a poet:
The wet fields blot the bitterness of the cry,
And I turn from the tactful friend to the candid sky.
His contemporaries’ best poems were their early ones, neither Ted Hughes nor Philip Larkin wrote anything better than October Dawn or Wedding Wind, quintessential Hughes and Larkin. Causley on the other hand got better and better. His poetry is a continuum, but his last poems are as different from his first as, say, The Tempest is from A Comedy of Errors.
A poem about one of Stanley Spencer’s paintings, which comes very near the end of the Collected Poems, seems to echo the final couplet of the much earlier sonnet. The painting is A Village in Heaven.
What is possessing
These women, these children,
Lazing and loving,
Outside the Park?
He goes on to draw attention to the absence of men from the picture.
Where are the men?
Are they stilled on some battlefield,
Was it for them
That these few Flanders’ poppies
Silent? Undead? Surely him, as becomes clear in the last verse.
There goes the painter
(The pudding-hat painter)
Turning his back
On the women, the children,
Keeping his answers
Tight-close to his chest.
But perhaps that is best.
The poem that comes immediately before this in the Collected Poems, To My Father, is written in conversational style, a mode that Causley adopted more and more in his later work, when his control of all the technicalities of verse – form, rhyme, rhythm, pace – was so perfect as to seem effortless (and perhaps was).
‘It was the First War brought your father down,’
My aunts would say. ‘Nobody in our clan
Fell foul of that t.b. Lungs clear and strong
As Trusham church bell, every single one.’
Over the next five verses, half-rhyming as unobtrusively as he does in the first, he paints a picture of the father he does not remember but knows only from what he has been told. In the last verse, with heart-breaking simplicity, he speaks first of him and then to him.
I speak his name. He never seems to hear.
I know that one day he must stop and turn
His face to me. Wait for me, father. Wait.
Death is never far away in the poems of Charles Causley. Read for example his Ten Types of Hospital Visitor, first published in The Listener in 1973. It is what they have most in common with folk songs and ballads. Those forms served him well in the years immediately after the war, but later on he found others that better suited his mature voice, a process which can best be summed up in his own words as ‘turning from the tactful friend to the candid sky’.
Edith Sitwell might have been surprised by his later work, but I think she would have been pleased.