of Causley's poetry has been written in the ballad form. Indeed,
he is the most celebrated and accomplished living writer of
ballads in Englishan achievement many critics would consider
less a distinction than a disability. His accomplishments, however,
go far beyond the ballad; he has mastered an impressive variety
of forms and styles. The true unity of his oeuvre depends less
on a specific allegiance to any particular form than on his
fundamental commitment to certain old-fashioned virtues of English
poetrysimplicity, clarity, grace, and compassion. His
work also demonstrates a conviction that the traditional forms
of popular poetry remain living modes of expression, despite
the Modernist revolution.
has written accessibly in fixed forms in a period that prizes
originality and unpredictability. He has endorsed the importance
of narrative verse in an age which has called the very notion
of poetic narrative into question. He has consistently addressed
a common reader whom most critics maintain no longer exists.
He has been a Christian poet in an agnostic age. He has even
written poetry for children and placed some of it in his Collected
Poems without qualification or apology. No wonder Causley
goes unmentioned in critical literature. What words could
adequately describe the magnificent indifference of the au
courant to such as hima homespun regionalist writing
in discredited genres for an audience that has been declared
extinct? To a serious critic, especially an American critic,
Causley must seem in principlefor who, after all, would
actually read himthe most unfashionable poet alive.
call Causley's aesthetic conservative, however, fails to describe
its radical independence from literary trends. He deserves
some designation both more specific and singular to differentiate
him from fellow travelers of the counterrevolutionary fifties
like Larkin and Amis. They made common cause of agnosticism
in face of international Modernism's Great Awakening. They
share an intoxication with traditional meters (though all
three write superbly in free verse when occasion demands).
They recognize the efficiency of a clear narrative line, even
in their lyrical utterances. Contrarians all, they came to
maturity in the Sturm und Drang of Dylan Thomas and
The New Apocalypsea feverish milieu that confirmed
their native anti-romanticism.
for working-class Causley, however, was the ironic detachment,
emotional reserve, and guarded knowingness of his Oxonian
counterparts. Causley possesses an essential innocence that
Amis never reveals and Larkin hid under layers of ironic self-deprecation.
Although their poetic tastes often coincideand the three
conspicuously share Hardy and Auden as decisive masterstheir
personalities differ dramatically. One sees the divergences
most relevantly in their attitudes toward childhood. Amis
seems never to have been a child; his life began with adolescence
and its illicit pleasures of sex, liquor, tobacco, and literature.
Larkin saw his own affluent but loveless boyhood as an unendurable
emptiness. Causley's childhood, however, which was much harsher
and more painful, often serves as a sacramental presence in
his work. He presents no distinct adult personano cagey
university librarian or sharp-clawed literary lionseparate
from the Cornish schoolboy who has matured seamlessly into
a successful writer. And yet, if Causley's innocence is tangible
in the poetry, it has been tempered by hard experience of
death, war, and suffering.
is no better way to approach Causley's poetry than through
his life, because few modern poets have been so meaningfully
rooted in one time and place. Charles Stanley Causley was
born in 1917 in the Cornish market town of Launceston where,
except for six years of military service, he has lived ever
since. Although he was too young to have any direct memories
of World War I, it profoundly shaped his childhood. His father,
who had served as a private soldier in France, returned from
the Great War a consumptive invalid. An only child, Causley
spent his first seven years watching his father slowly die.
He also watched the terrifying behavior of the shell-shocked
soldiers who wandered through his native town. "From childhood,
then," he remarked years later, "it had been made perfectly
clear to me that war was something more than the exciting
fiction one read about in books or saw on films."
boyhood Causley intended to be an author. He began a novel
at the age of nine and continued writing in a desultory fashion
throughout his education at Launceston College. At fifteen,
however, Causley quit school to begin working. He spent seven
gloomy years first as a clerk in a builder's office and later
working for a local electrical supply company. This period
of isolation would have destroyed most aspiring young writers,
but in Causley's case, it proved decisive. Cut off from institutionalized
intellectual life, he developed in the only way availableas
an autodidact. "As far as poetry goes," Causley has commented
on these formative years, "I'm self-educated. I read very
randomly, I read absolutely everything." He also experimentedwith
poetry, fiction, and most successfully with drama. In the
late 1930s he published three one-act plays. During the same
period Causley also played piano in a four-piece dance band,
an experience which may have influenced his later predilection
for writing poems in popular lyric forms such as the ballad.
1940 Causley joined the Royal Navy in which he served for
the next six years. Having spent all of his earlier life in
tranquil Cornwall, he now saw wartime southern Europe, Africa,
and Australia. Likewise, having already felt the tragedy of
war through the early death of his father, Causley experienced
it again more directly in the deaths of friends and comrades.
These events decisively shaped his literary vision, pulling
him from prose and drama into poetry. "I think I became a
working poet the day I joined the destroyer Eclipse
at Scapa Flow in August, 1940," he later wrote. "Though I
wrote only fragmentary notes for the next three years, the
wartime experience was a catalytic one. I knew that at last
I had found my first subject, as well as a form." Although
Causley wrote one book of short stories based on his years
in the Royal Navy, Hands to Dance (1951, revised and
enlarged in 1979 as Hands to Dance and Skylark), his
major medium for portraying his wartime experiences has been
August 1945 the Pacific war ended. (Causley witnessed the
Japanese Southwest Pacific Command surrender on the flight
deck of the aircraft carrier on which he was stationed.) Returning
to Launceston, he entered the Peterborough Teacher's Training
College to study English and history. Upon graduation he began
teaching at the same grammar school in Launceston where he
had studied as a boy. In 1951 Causley brought out his first
collection, Farewell, Aggie Weston, a small pamphlet
of thirty-one poems. A distillation of Causley's years in
the navy, these early poems vividly recreate the alternatingly
intoxicating and sobering experiences of a generation of young
Englishmen who in fighting World War II discovered the wider
world. Most of the poems depict the sailor's life in wartime,
both on ship and in the strange port cities he visits on leave.
In its colorful portrayal of navy life, Farewell, Aggie
Weston remains one of the representative books of English
poetry from World War II, and the poem "Chief Petty Officer"
has become a definitive poem of the period capturing a kind
of naval character who typified the best and the worst of
the British military traditions:
was probably made a Freemason in Hong Kong.
He has a son (on War Work) in the Dockyard,
And an appalling daughter
In the WRNS.
He writes on your draft-chit.
Tobacco-permit or request-form.
In a huge antique Borstal hand. . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . .
whole war later
He will still be sitting under a pusser's clock
Waiting for tot-time,
His narrow forehead ruffled by the Jutland wind.
the literary historian A. T. Tolley has noted, "Causley was
one of the few poets to see the war continuously from the
point of view of the lower ranks." Farewell, Aggie Weston
also has documentary importance since the poems incorporate
a wealth of traditional and contemporary naval slang (much
of which Causley explains in footnotes). Like Kipling fifty
years earlier, Causley demonstrated that the best way to capture
the true character of military men was to use their special
language. This small volume provides a unique poetic record
of the British navy in its last moment of imperial self-confidence.
Farewell, Aggie Weston is not Causley's best book,
it already reveals a poet with an unusual voice and perspective.
It also foreshadows the themes and techniques of his later
work. Writing in both free and formal verse, Causley uses
each technique in particular ways to which he returns repeatedly
in his subsequent career. His free verse is loose, cadenced
speech used mainly for carefully detailed descriptive poems,
whereas his metered verse, cast mainly in rhymed quatrains,
is used mostly for narrative and dramatic poems. Not surprisingly,
given Causley's later eminence as a master of traditional
forms, the best poems in Farewell, Aggie Weston are
in rhyme and meter, usually in ballad stanzas, such as his
memorable "Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience."
at the height of British Neo-romanticism, which made personal
style and individual voice the preconditions of artistic authenticity,
Causley's "Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience" revels
in its impersonality. The poem is anonymous in the sense of
the finest traditional balladsthe author's individuality
has defiantly appropriated a universal style. If Blake chose
the term song in his "Songs of Innocence and Experience"
to denote their radical simplicity and directness of expression
versus conventional eighteenth century literary poems,
then Causley's title suggests his deliberate attempt to recapture
a straightforward Blakean clarity. The poem concludes this
exchange between a returning sailor and the boy to whom he
has bought gifts:
are you the boy
Who would wait on the quay
With the silver penny
And the apricot tree?
a plum-coloured fez
And a drum for thee
a sword and a parakeet
From over the sea.'
where is the sailor
With bold red hair?
what is that volley
On the bright air?
where are the other
Girls and boys?
why have you brought me
Farewell, Aggie Weston presents the issues that will
concern him throughout his careerthe harsh reality of
war ("Son of the Dying Gunner"), the tragic deaths of the
young and promising ("A Ballad for Katharine of Aragon"),
the fascination of foreign landscapes ("HMS Glory at
Sydney"), and, most important, the fall from innocence to
experience, a sense of which pervades the entire volume. Only
Causley's restless, visionary Christianity is specifically
absent from the volume, although with the gift of hindsight
one can see the elements which nurtured it in several of the
poems about death and war.
Causley's second volume, Survivor's Leave (1953), does
not mark a broadening of his poetic concerns, it demonstrates
a liberating concentration of their treatment. Abandoning
cadenced free verse and the documentary aesthetic it embodied
for him, Causley perfected the tightly formal poems for which
he would become best known. All of the poems in Survivor's
Leave are written in rhyme and meter, a common coin which
he now uses in a distinctive way. His rhythms move with deliberate
regularity, and the diction has a timeless traditional qualityoften
consciously timeless in Causley's growing tendency
to scrub language clean of specific period references. His
full rhymes chime boisterously at the end of each line. Sometimes
deliberately unsophisticated, these poems often emulate the
texture of folk poetry or popular song, which gives them an
unusual openness and immediacy. In an age when sophisticated
poets writing in rhyme and meter often try to disguise or
underplay the acoustic patterns of their verse, Causley is
a radical traditionalist, a cunning voluntary primitive, who
takes unabashed delight in the joyful noise his forms make.
Leave also specifically demonstrates Causley's growing
mastery of the ballad and contains two of his finest poems
in that form, "Recruiting Drive" and "Ballad of the Faithless
Wife." These poems both show the influence of W. H. Auden,
whose work initially provided Causley with a model of how
to rejuvenate the traditional form with bold metaphors, slangy
diction, and unapologetic symbolism. Causley's often anthologized
poem, "On Seeing a Poet of the First World War at the Station
of Abbeville" (a composite portrait based on Edmund Blunden,
Siegfried Sasson, and the poet's father) also incorporates
techniques from Auden's lyric poetry (even as its title echoes
Betjeman's "On Seeing an Old Poet in the Café Royal").
Although Causley learned much from Auden, his work never feels
derivative. Causley's tone is less knowing and more vulnerable,
his range of allusion less cosmopolitan, his presentation
more unabashedly narrative and less overtly analytic.
the book's title suggests, Causley's major theme in Survivor's
Leave once again is war, though here the conflict has
been universalized beyond World War II into a tragic view
of life as a doomed struggle between the evil and the innocent.
The book bristles with images of violence and deception. In
"Recruiting Drive," a butcher-bird lures young men to their
deaths in battle. (A few months after the appearance of Survivor's
Leave, Auden first published a similar poem "The Willow-wren
and the Stare," in Encounter. Perhaps Causley had some
slight influence on his own mentor.)
the willow the willow
I heard the butcher-bird sing,
Come out you fine young fellow
From under your mother's wing.
show you the magic garden
That hangs in the beamy air,
way of the lynx and the angry Sphinx
And the fun of the freezing fair.
down lie down with my daughter
Beneath the Arabian tree,
on your face in the water
Forget the scribbling sea.
pillow the nine bright shiners
Your bed the spilling sand,
the terrible toy of my lily-white boy
Is the gun in his innocent hand.
"Cowboy Song," another young man, bereft of family, knows
he will be murdered before his next birthday. Even a seemingly
straightforward narrative such as the "Ballad of the Faithless
Wife" acquires a dark visionary quality when in the last stanza,
personal tragedy unexpectedly modulates into allegory:
O false was my lover
Dead on the diamond shore
White as a fleece, for her name was Peace
And the soldier's name was War.
vision in Survivor's Leave is so bleak that he even
rejects God's role as guardian and savior of humanity. In
"I Saw a Shot-down Angel," for example, a wounded Christ figure
crudely rebuffs the compassionate narrator's attempts to help
him, thereby denying the redemptive nature of his suffering.
angel spat my solace in my face
And fired my fingers with his burning shawl,
Crawling in blood and silver to a place
Where he could turn his torture to the wall.
Street (1957) secured Causley's reputation as an important
contemporary poet. Published with a preface by Edith Sitwell,
then at the height of her influence, Union Street collected
the best poems from Causley's first two volumes and added
nineteen new ones, including two of his finest poems ever,
"I Am the Great Sun" and "At the British War Cemetery, Bayeux,"
the last of which Sitwell singled out for particular praise.
In her preface, Sitwell placed Causley's work in its proper
historical perspectiveEnglish folk song and ballad.
While Sitwell praised Causley's traditional roots, she also
noted his "strange individuality." Like most of Causley's
admirers, however, Sitwell had difficulty in explaining the
particular appeal of his work. To express her approval, she
repeatedly resorted to vague exclamations of delight, such
as "beautiful," "deeply moving," and "enchanting." While these
terms describe in some general way the effect Causley's poetry
has on a sympathetic reader, they are so subjective that they
shed little light on the special nature of his literary achievement.
Unfortunately, Sitwell's response typifies Causley's critical
reception. His admirers have felt more comfortable in writing
appreciations of his work than in examining it in critical
terms. The truly "strange individuality" that makes Causley
a significant and original artist rather than a faux naif
has never been adequately explained. This situation has given
most critics the understandable but mistaken impression that
while Causley's poetry may be enjoyed, it is too simple to
bear serious analysis.
Dana Gioia and Charles Causley, 1984
"strange individuality" of Causley's style is easily observed
but only with some difficulty can it be discussed without
fatal simplification. It will hardly help to say that his
style explores the illuminating contrasts between the familiar
and the unexpected. That contrast, after all, is a general
principle of most art (and certainly all formal poetry). It
is, however, useful to note that few poets have pushed this
principle to such an extremeor at least have successfully
negotiated that extreme. For him, contrast and disjunction
have become not only a stylistic device but an organizing
principle and thematic obsession. One finds the principle
in both the microcosm and macrocosm of Causley's poetry. His
diction, for instance, characteristically combines the ordinary
and the odd. Notice the strange adjectives used to modify
otherwise conventional images ("Forget the scribbling
sea" or "write with loud light / the mineral
air.") Framed in the regular meters, linear narrative, and
otherwise accessible style of the traditional ballad, the
disjunctive moments acquire a mysteriously heightened effect
that they would not possess in, say, a Surrealist poem where
synesthesia, discontinuity, free association and non-naturalistic
description are expected. The disjunctions that characterize
Causley's poetry are, of course, neither so prolific or extreme
as the Surrealist method. His poems usually contrast two different
types of diction, tone, imagery, and even narrative outcomethe
domestic and military, the mundane and transcendent, the private
and public, the formal and slangy, and, in his religious verse,
the sacred and profane. The poem is almost always rooted in
one world. The narrative unfolds from a familiar base in what
should be a conventional manner, but the second world then
unpredictably interpenetrates the fabric of the poem. The
strange frisson of Causley's best poetry, that elusive quality
that Sitwell and others have registered, arises out of this
disjunction, which often feels involuntary or unconscious
on the part of the authoran innocent, visionary quality
reminiscent of Blake.
these two stanzas from Blake's "London" with the opening of
Causley's "At the British War Cemetery, Bayeux":
wander thro' each charter'd street
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
How the Chimney-sweeper's cry
Every black'ning Church appalls;
And the hapless Soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.
walked where in their talking graves
And shirts of earth five thousand lay,
When history with ten feasts of fire
Had eaten the red air away.
. . .
resemblance is not merely a matter of rhyme and meter, stanza
and tone. It is also one of spiritual genealogyof primal
sympathy and imaginative temperament. Like the Blake of Songs
of Innocence and of Experience, Causley is a demotic visionary,
a poet who finds the divineand the demonicin the
everyday world and reports it without apology in the available
forms and accessible images of one's time and place. Causley's
characteristic mode is often the short narrative (and he has
never been tempted into the epic private mythology of the
late Prophetic Books), but his decisive source is not Hardy
or Auden, as important as they were in other ways, but Blake.
His late eighteenth-century master, moreover, also provided
him a potent example of how the poetic outsider can become
a seera lesson not likely to be lost on a working-class
Cornish writer remote from the Oxbridge world of literary
London forty years ago.
visionary mode has its greatest range of expression in Causley's
religious poetry. No reader of Farewell, Aggie Weston
would have guessed that its author would become one of the
few contemporary Christian poets of genuine distinction. Yet
the new poems in Union Street confirmed Causley's transformation
from veteran to visionary. The devotional sonnet, "I Am the
Great Sun," which opens the section of new poems reveals a
more overtly compassionate side to Christianity than found
in Survivor's Leave. Here Christ speaking from the
cross (the poem was inspired by a seventeenth-century Norman
crucifix) announces his doomed love for man:
am the great sun, but you do not see me,
I am your husband, but you turn away.
I am the captive, but you do not free me,
I am the captain you will not obey.
I am the truth, but you will not believe me,
I am the city where you will not stay,
am your wife, your child, but you will leave me,
I am that God to whom you will not
poem reverses the world view of "I Saw a Shot-down Angel,"
where man shows compassion for the suffering Christ figure.
Here Christ tries to guide and protect humanity, but mankind
refuses to acknowledge him: and yet the sonnet presents some
hope. Although man lives in an evil world, salvation is at
other new poems in Union Street reflect this glimmer
of hope without obscuring the bitter realism of Causley's
earlier work. In "At the British War Cemetery, Bayeux," for
example, the grief-stricken narrator walks among the graves
of the slain soldiers and asks them what gift he can offer
beyond his tears. They reply that, since he cannot restore
them to life, he should use their deaths as an inspiration
to live more fully.
they replied, the oak and laurel.
Take our fortune of tears and live
Like a spendthrift lover. All we ask
Is the one gift you cannot give.
in its broadest Christian sense has become for Causley the
means to redemption, but the poet has no illusions that redemption
will prove easy. Only one character in Union Street actually
achieves salvation through loveSir Henry Trecarell,
a sixteenth-century Cornish lord, who survives the sorrow
of his son's death by devoting his wealth to rebuilding the
local church at the request of St. Mary Magdalene. Most of
Causley's characters, however, lack the strength and wealth
of Trecarell, and no saints intervene miraculously to guide
them. They are tantalized by the notion of redemption but
unable to achieve it.
next volume, Johnny Alleluia (1961), continues to explore
the visionary possibilities of the demotic style. This fourth
collection presents no stylistic break with Survivor's
Leave or Union Street. The poems remain exclusively
in rhyme and meter, though he uses traditional prosodic forms
with more overt sophistication to deal with increasingly complex
material. The ballad continues to be his central form, though
one now notices a pronounced division in the kinds of ballads
Causley writes. In addition to ballads on contemporary themes
(whose effects are often primarily lyrical), each volume now
contains a group of strictly narrative ballads usually based
on historical or legendary Cornish subjects. While Causley
had from the beginning experimented with recreating the folk
ballad, this enterprise now becomes a major preoccupation.
In the introduction to his anthology Modern Ballads and
Story Poems (1965), Causley confesses the basis of his
fascination with "the ancient virtues of this particular kind
of writing." The narrative poem or ballad, he writes, allows
the poet to speak "without bias or sentimentality." It keeps
the author from moralizing, but it "allows the incidents of
his story to speak for themselves, and, as we listen, we remain
watchful for all kinds of ironic understatements."
Alleluia also marks a deepening of Causley's thematic
concerns. Many poems explore his complex vision of Christ
as humanity's redeemer. Fully half the poems in this volume
use Christ figures either explicitly, as in "Cristo de
Bristol" and "Emblems of the Passion," or by implication,
in strange transformations such as those in "For an Ex-Far
East Prisoner of War" and "Guy Fawkes' Day," where the effigy
burning in the holiday fire becomes a redemptive sacrificial
victim. Likewise Causley alternates scurrilous parodies of
the Christ story, such as "Sonnet to the Holy Vine" and the
more disturbing "Master and Pupil" with his most devout meditations.
Reading his many treatments of the Christian drama, one sees
that Causley believes in the redemptive nature of Christ's
sacrifice, but that he doubts man's ability to accept Christ's
love without betraying it.
Alleluia is also Causley's first volume that does not
deal specifically with the War. While his concerns remain
basically the same, they are now reflected in civilian themes,
especially in such vignettes of urban delinquents as "My Friend
Maloney" and "Johnny Alleluia." Only once does World War II
literally come to haunt the presentin "Mother, Get Up,
Unbar the Door," where a woman's lover, killed nearly twenty
years before at Alamein, returns from the grave to claim her
daughter in a ghostly union. Here Causley shows remarkable
skill at transposing a traditional ghost ballad into convincing
contemporary terms. Causley also pursues his concern with
the fall from innocence in "Healing a Lunatic Boy," possibly
his most vivid presentation of this central theme. Here a
lunatic boy, who originally experiences the world in a direct
way reminiscent of Adam's in the Garden of Eden, is brought
back to a mundane sense of reality by his cure. Causley contrasts
the brilliant and metaphorical world of madness with the prosaic
and literal world of sanity:
turned and talked to me,
Houses put on leaves,
in, flew out
On my tongue's thread
speech of birds
From my hurt head.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
river is river
And tree is tree,
house stands still
As the northern sea.
my hundred of parables
I heard him pray,
my smashed world,
Wrap it away.
Underneath the Water (1968), Causley's most personal
book of poems, he speaks frankly of both his childhood and
adulthood. The poems about his boyhood are especially important
in understanding his work. Although he had written a great
deal about childhood earlier in his career, until his fifth
collection of poems he rarely discussed his own. The childhood
poems in Underneath the Water, therefore, illuminate
the personal background of his most central themes. The volume
opens with "By St Thomas Water," Causley's most complex view
of the fall from innocence to experience. Two children (one
of them seemingly a version of the author), looking for a
jar to fish with, steal one holding withered flowers on a
tombstone. Before they go, they playfully decide to listen
for the dead man's voice in the grave. Much to their horror,
they think they hear him murmuring indistinctly underground.
Noticing the tombstone's legend, "He is not dead but sleeping,"
they flee in terror. The narrator then spends the rest of
his life wondering what the dead man tried to tell him.
this volume Causley also gives several views of himself as
an adult, especially as a teacher of the younga vocation
he finds problematic and even at times frightening in poems
such as "School at Four O'Clock" and "Conducting a Children's
Choir." But the most disturbing view of his adult life comes
in "Trusham," in which he revisits the village where his father
and grandfather were born. He reads his dead father's name
on the local war memorial, and even meets an old family acquaintance,
who rebukes him for failing to carry on the family name by
marrying. These experiences set off a crisis in the poet's
mind which ends in a vision of his own cold and barren future.
his first five volumesfrom Farewell, Aggie Weston
to Underneath the WaterCausley may have appeared
unconcerned with literary trends but not necessarily contrarian
or reactionary. His aesthetic posture seemed not only natural
but almost inevitable since he displayed such an easy and
authentic link to older traditions. With the publication of
Figure of 8 (1969), however, the contrarian Causley
emerges. It would be hard to overstate how uniquely odd this
volume seems compared to the influential poets of the late
sixties and early seventies. Free verse and the lyric mode
had become de rigeur even in England, and bitterly
confessional poetry was in full vogue. Robert Lowell, Sylvia
Plath, John Berryman, and the Beats had reached the height
of their influence. It was the era of Crow, The
Maximus Poems, The Lice, and Ariel. Serious
poets were expected to "grow"that is, change their styles
in accordance with the times. For formal poets, like Donald
Hall, James Wright, Donald Davie, and Anne Stevenson, "growth"
inevitably meant exploring free verse. In such a milieu, Figure
of 8, a collection of eight, mostly lengthy rhymed narratives,
stands as Causley's one ostentatiously reactionary volume.
Not only did it flaunt fashion by offering long, impersonal
stories in rocking rhyme and meter; it broke a primal taboo
of contemporary literature by offering the same poems to a
mixed audience of children and adults.
has stated iconoclastically that "the only difference between
an adult poem and a children's poem is the range of
the audience." A children's poem "is a poem that has to work
for the adult and the child as well." Cogent though it may
be, Causley's aesthetic hardly reflects mainstream literary
opinion, which relegates children's poetry to subliterary
statuseven lower, if such a stygian level exists, than
that of rhymed narrative poetry. Figure of 8 is not
only Causley's most contrarian volume in form but also in
content. All but one of his poems eschew contemporary subjects
for those of traditional balladry (Bible stories, legends
of the saints, war tales). The poems' tone and diction remain
stylized, and although written with consummate skill, they
imitate traditional folk balladry so closely that they border
on pastiche and too often betray the predictability and tameness
of imitative writing. However enjoyable, the poems lack the
quirky resonance and psychological depththat "strange
individuality"of Causley's best writing.
historical ballads seem to have answered a deep need in Causley's
imagination for impersonal, public subject matter. If one
compares his early work with that of his contemporaries, one
notices immediately how seldom he wrote overt autobiography.
The subjects (like the Navy) or locations (like Gibraltar)
might be openly drawn from the poet's personal experience,
but their treatment almost always reflects some conscious
objectification. Causley's first published works were plays,
and his early poetry displays a dramatist's instinct for the
expressive possibilities of impersonality. The poems may speak
in the first-person, but the "I" is almost always a fictive
character. World War II had initially provided him with accessible
public subjects, but as he exhausted that material, he moved
increasingly back into Cornish history. Like the war, local
history grew naturally out of his personal experience, and
it invited impersonal narrative treatment.
Causley's loyalty to the ballad form appears a conspicuous
anachronism, so, too, does his reliance on public subjects,
historical material, and the narrative mode. He has been in
almost every sense an outsider to the mainstream of contemporary
poetry. His historical ballads in particular not only reject
the metrical conventions of mid-century poetry (a tuneful
stanza too simple for sophisticated formalists and too traditional
for progressives), they also reject the notion that a poet
creates a private reality in the context of his or her own
poems. No private mythologies now for Causley. His work makes
its appeal to a common reality outside the poemusually
an objectively verifiable reality of history or geography.
Causley's public is no ideological abstraction; his ideal
readers are local and concretethe Cornish. His regionalism
grows naturally out of his aesthetic. The public nature of
this imaginative gesture is also reinforced by Causley's habitual
measure, the ballad, the most popular and accessible form
from this perspective, even Causley's often idiosyncratic
religious poems take on a public aspect since they grow out
of the shared Christian faith of Cornwall. If the bizarre
turns of "Bible Story," "Cristo de Bristol," and
"I Saw a Shot-down Angel" seem distinctly unorthodox in their
treatment of the Christian mythos, that is a traditional freedom
of the regional artist. Being so deeply rooted in one place
and culture allows a genuine writer to experiment wildly with
the material without ever losing touch with its essence. Causley's
religious poems recall the work of another regional writer,
Flannery O'Connor, who also understood the transfiguring violence
at the center of Christian redemption. Religion is not a literary
subject matter to either writer; it is part of the daily texture
of their lives in a specific time and place. If Causley's
religious poems often unfold like private visions, those visions
grow recognizably from a common, public mythos. If they often
present images and situations which seem extravagant or oddly
proportioned, these poems are not so much surreal as primitive
and symbolic in their methodin much the same way that
an early Renaissance painting might present a blue-robed Madonna
holding a diminutive moon or a castle in her hand and standing
in a strange, unearthly landscape. While such art may not
be realistic in a strict sense, it deals intelligibly with
a widely understood set of symbols.
is one of today's preeminent writers of children's poetry,
and his children's verse bears an illuminating relation to
his work for adults. "When I write a poem," Causley has commented,
"I don't know whether it's for a child or adult." His children's
book, Figgie Hobbin (1970), for instance, reveals the
continuity of his work. Although the poems in Figgie Hobbin
are simple in structure and often written from a child's perspective,
they are almost indistinguishable from his adult verse. (It
is instructive to remember that Blake published his Songs
of Innocence as an illustrated children's book. It was
posterity that reclassified it to the more respectable category
of pure lyric.) In these children's poems he explores his
major themes in a fully characteristic way. Indeed they fit
seamlessly into the Collected Poems (1975), where they
are presented without comment among his adult poems. Moreover,
as a group, these tight and polished poems rank high among
Causley's published work, and validate his theory that a truly
successful children's poem is also a genuine adult poem. "What
Has Happened to Lulu?," "Tell, Me, Tell Me, Sarah Jane," and
"If You Should Go to Caistor Town" are among Causley's most
accomplished ballads; "I Saw a Jolly Hunter" is among his
best humorous poems. "I Am the Song" has an epigrammatic perfection
that eludes classification, and and "Who?" may be the finest
lyric he has ever written.
simplicity of the poems in Figgie Hobbin reveals his
method more clearly. Their clarity and grace epitomize the
transparent style that he has striven for throughout his career.
As he has reminded readers, "The mere fact of a poem appearing
simple in language and construction bears no relation whatsoever
to the profundity of ideas it may contain." The meaning of
many apparently simple poems is rich and complex, just as
the underlying meaning of an overtly difficult poem may be
crude and banal. The direct and uncomplicated voice that speaks
in Causley's children's verse is traditional in the most radical
sense. Causley has so thoroughly assimilated certain traditions
of English verse that he uses them naturally to translate
personal experiences into a common utterance. There is no
gap between the demands of private sensibility and the resources
of a public style. His work achieves the lucid impersonality
of folk song or ballad. In "Who?" for example, Causley's vision
of his lost childhood remains equally authentic on either
a personal or universal level:
is that child I see wandering, wandering
Down by the side of the quivering stream?
Why does he seem not to hear, though I call to him?
Where does he come from, and what is his name?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . .
does he move like a wraith by the water,
Soft as the thistledown on the breeze blown?
When I draw near him so that I may hear him,
Why does he say that his name is my own?
unabashed traditionalism has left him open to attack from
critics. Christopher Ricks, for example, has dismissed Causley's
commitment to revive the ballad as a quixotic pursuit of an
almost impossible ideal. Writing in the New York Times
Book Review, Ricks declared that Causley's poetry "embarks
upon a task which is beyond its talents; true though those
are, since it is beyond talent: to tap again the age-old sources
which have become clogged, cracked, buried. . . . It would
take genius to re-create the world, as something other than
a recreation. Causley has much talent and no genius." There
is much truth in Ricks's assumption; skill alone cannot revive
a dead literary form. While Ricks's criticism may describe
the dilute nature of Causley's most narrowly derivative workthe
archaically stylized ballads on traditional themesit
does not adequately account for the persuasive authenticity
of his finest poems. Causley's oeuvre is too diverse to be
so narrowly characterized. As for genius, it is a word
not to be used lightly. But if poems like "At the British
War Cemetery, Bayeux," "I Am the Great Sun," "Recruiting Drive,"
"Innocent's Song," and "Who?" show only talent, then
talent is a far rarer commodity in contemporary poetry than
Poems (1975) solidified Causley's reputation in England
and broadened his audience in America. The volume was widely
reviewed on both sides of the Atlantic almost entirely in
a positive light, but most critics presented Causley's achievement
in a reductive manner. While they admired the ease and openness
of his work and praised his old-fashioned commitment to narrative
poetry, they did not generally find the resonance of language
that distinguishes the finest contemporary poetry. By implication,
therefore, they classified Causley as an accomplished minor
poet, an engagingly eccentric antimodernist, who had mastered
the traditional ballad at the expense of more experimental
work. Only Edward Levy's essay on the Collected Poems
in Manchester's PN Review made a serious attempt to
demonstrate the diversity of Causley's achievement and his
importance as a lyric poet. Fortunately, subsequent critics
such as Robert McDowell, D. M. Thomas, Michael Schmidt, and
Samuel Maio have followed Levy's lead to make broader claims
for Causley's work.
critics also missed the unexpected direction signaled by the
twenty-three new poems in the collection. While continuing
to employ rhyme and meter, Causley returned to free verse
for the first time since Farewell, Aggie Weston. This
shift opened his work to new effects while liberating his
talent for description. In "Ten Types of Hospital Visitor,"
which opens the "New Poems" section of his Collected Poems,
Causley creates a detailed panorama of hospital life which
unexpectedly modulates from realism to visionary fancy. In
"Ward 14" Causley uses free verse to achieve painful directness
in his description of a man visiting his old, brain-damaged
mother in the hospital. These poems demonstrate a richness
of depiction and high degree of psychological naturalism not
often found in Causley's earlier work. They also reveal the
increasingly autobiographic interests that will characterize
his later work. While mastering new techniques, however, Causley
did not jettison traditional form. He ends the Collected
Poems with several formal poems, most notably "A Wedding
Portrait," one of his most important poems of self-definition.
Here the poet's past and present, innocence and experience,
are literally embodied in the scene of his middle-aged self
looking at his parents' wedding photograph. His doomed father
and mother appear innocently hopeful in the portrait while
the adult poet knows the subsequent pain they will undergo.
His present knowledge cannot help them escape their plight,
and he remains cut off from them now by time and death as
absolutely as he was nonexistent to them on their wedding
day. In a visionary moment Causley looks to his art to bridge
the gap to time and restore his dead parents to him and his
lost childhood self to them. The 1975 Collected Poems
ends with the affirmation of poetry's power to triumph over
am a child again, and move
Sunwards these images of clay,
Listening for their first birth-cry.
And with the breath my parents gave
I warm the cold words with my day:
Will the dead weight to fly. To fly.
later work has continued to show remarkable range and development.
The older Causley has not merely changed but grown: he has
explored new modes of expression without losing mastery over
the forms at which he earlier excelled. The section of new
poems that conclude the 1992 British Collected Poems
(or the American edition of Secret Destinations in
1989) show an impressive diversity of forms, genres, and styles.
Autobiographical lyrics like "Eden Rock" and children's poems
like "I Am the Song" meet on equal terms with narrative ballads,
war poems, free verse travelogues, religious meditations,
and translations. No single style predominates, and all are
handled with assurance. Few poets in their seventh and eight
decades have written so much or so consistently well. Changes
in his life may have helped broaden Causley's perspective.
Retiring from full-time teaching in 1976, for the first time
he devoted himself entirely to writing. His international
reputation also earned him opportunities to travel abroad.
Just as his wartime travel provided poetic inspiration, these
recent journeys have spurred him to unexpected work. While
still writing about his native Cornwall in such characteristic
poems as "Seven Houses" and "On Launceston Castle," he has
turned his attention to foreign landscapes, especially Australia.
He has also sharpened his gift for psychological portraiture
in poems such as "Grandmother," which describes a wise and
resilient old German woman who has survived World War II.
eighty, Charles Causley stands as one of Britain's three or
four finest living poets. He is the master of at least five
major poetic modes or genresthe short narrative, the
war poem, the religious poem, children's poetry, and the personal
lyric. The historical accident that none of these categories,
except the last, is currently fashionable among literary critics
will not concern posterity. Nor does it greatly concern most
contemporary readers. No other living British poet of Causley's
distinction rivals his general popularity or commands so diverse
a readership. His admirers stretch from schoolchildren to
his fellow poets. (After Betjeman's death, British poets voted
Causley as their first choice to become the next Poet Laureate.)
The special quality of this esteem is evident in the comments
of the current Laureate, Ted Hughes:
the English poetry of the last half century, Charles Causley's
could well turn out to be the best loved and most needed
. . . Before I was made Poet Laureate, I was asked to
name my choice of the best poet for the job. Without hesitation
I named Charles Causleythis marvellously resourceful,
original poet, yet among all known poets the only one
who could be called a man of the people, in the old, best
sense. A poet for whom the title might have been invented
afresh. I was pleased to hear that in an unpublished letter
Philip Larkin thought the same and chose him too.
Loved. Most needed. Man of the people. These are not phrases
one is accustomed to hear concerning a contemporary poet.
Surely some Dark Horse readers find them embarrassing.
Add to this list Sitwell's compliment that "these poems are
among the natural growths of our soil, like our sweet and
exquisite folk-songs, and our strange ballads." Is there a
literary theorist listening who isn't by now reaching for
his or her revolver? To be consummately offensive to what
James Fenton called "ghastly good taste," why not quote some
rhymed compliments? In one of his last published poems, Philip
CHARLES, be reassured! For you
Make lasting friends with all you do,
And all you write; your truth and sense
We count on as a sure defense
Against the trendy and the mad
The feeble and the downright bad.
Sense. One hopes by now everyone has found something at which
to cringe. These are not respectable terms to describelet
alone praiseserious poetry at the end of the twentieth century.
But what if Hughes, Sitwell, and Larkin are right in the criteria
they use?not right for every poet in every period but for
the particular case of Causley? What if he is indeed a poet who
has found an authentic, inventive and powerful way to do what poets
have traditionally doneto give their own people unforgettable
and truthful words, images, and stories by which to apprehend their
lives and time? Some readers think so. Count me as one of them.
Charles Causley died on November 4, 2003, at the age of 86.]