Phantoms of the Mind: T.S. Eliot's "To Walter De la Mere."

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At a time when "degrees of reality" engaged his studies, T. S. Eliot maintained that "The I who saw the ghost is not the I who had the attack of indigestion" (Knowledge and Experience 121). While this partly explains Eliot's familiar compounding of ghosts, it also suggests how an illusion prompts further, if more complicated, reflections on the allusion it makes. For the self that "sees" the ghost and the self that "suffers" indigestion are both yet distinct from the writer who alludes to them. An allusion for Eliot is by no means only an apparition of one text glimpsed in another, and a reader's customary nod upon its recognition. Rather, it doubles a reader's perspective by its very performance; that is, of reading and writing at once, of a poet's history of reading being shaped now by the process of his writing. Our memory of course helps make some ghostly demarcations of textual entries and exits, but a poem may be read by consulting its author's memory as it were. I have followed this method in reading Eliot's "To Walter de la Mare."

An occasional poem with a difference, "To Walter de la Mare" puts us unmistakably in the ambience of work of a poet whose seventy-fifth birthday occasions the tribute. Eliot salutes, in other words, not so much the poet as his "conscious art," "those deceptive cadences / Wherewith the common measure is refined" (lines 31, 29-30), "The inexplicable mystery of sound" his poems create (Eliot, Collected Poems 233). There is indeed a nice irony in Eliot's tribute to a poet whose Georgian clan he had once derided. "[T] he Georgians," demurred Eliot in 1918, "caress everything they touch" (qtd. in Robert H. Ross 181-82). Thirty years later, and within a decade of his own Practical Cats, Eliot finds it only proper that he make amends. He would now seek kinship with another writer for children, and even go on to admire the latter's talent for affording "Free passage to the phantoms of the mind" (Eliot, CP 233).

"To Walter de la Mare" opens with a scene familiar enough in children's fiction, one that describes children's explorations into wild and dangerous terrains. De la Mare has portrayed such scenes with easy aplomb in his stories like "Miss Jemima," "Visitors," and "The Riddle," to name only three from Collected Stories for Children. Eliot's opening has a rather general, too open, air about it:

The children who explored the brook and found

A desert island with a sandy cove

(A hiding place, but very dangerous ground,)

For here the water buffalo may rove,

The kinkajou, the mangabey, abound

In the dark jungle of a mango grove,

And shadowy lemurs glide from tree to tree--

The guardians of some long-lost treasure-trove) ....

(Eliot, CP 1-8)

De la Mare was so good at evoking such anticipated dread or anxiety; Eliot's parenthetical portrait of the "desert island" is both imitation and tribute. Here, for example, is one stanza from de la Mare's "Forests:"

--in the forest of the mind

Lurk beasts as fierce as those that tread

Earth's rock-strown wilds, to night resigned,

There stars of heaven no radiance shed--

Black-eyed Remorse, Despair becowled in lead.

(De la Mare, Complete Poems 26-30)

Add to these some specific details from a poem like "Ah, Momotombo! " De la Mare's scene there comprises such nonplaces as "Momotombo," "Managua" and "Solentiname's Isle" and such noncreatures as "Agguapadalpo," "Yali," "Catacoluca," "Paundma," etc. Eliot's strange creatures, "the Kinkajou" and "the mangabey" make a mango grove their home. Imagination blurs the poet's memory here; de la Mare's "Managua's groves" thus enter Eliot's poem compounded as "the mangabey... of a mango grove" (CP 232).

More often than not, Eliot's uncanny makes little sense out of the literary context it harnesses by a curious logic. …