For half a century Charles Causley has stood apart from the mainstream of contemporary poetry. His work bears little relation to the most celebrated achievements of the Modernist movement but refers back to older, more specifically English roots. Taking his inspiration from folk songs, hymns, and especially ballads, Causley belongs–with A. E. Housman, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Walter de la Mare, Edward Thomas, Robert Graves, John Betjeman, Kingsley Amis, and Philip Larkin–to a conservative countertradition in English letters that stresses the fundamentally national character of its poetry and the essential role of popular forms in its inspiration.
Much of Causley’s poetry has been written in the ballad form. Indeed, he is the most celebrated and accomplished living writer of ballads in English–an 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 poetry–simplicity, 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.
Causley 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 him–a 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 principle–for who, after all, would actually read him–the most unfashionable poet alive.
To 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 Apocalypse–a feverish milieu that confirmed their native anti-romanticism.
Not 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 coincide–and the three conspicuously share Hardy and Auden as decisive masters–their 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 persona–no cagey university librarian or sharp-clawed literary lion–separate 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.
There 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.”
From 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 available–as 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 experimented–with 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.
In 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 poetry.
In 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:
He 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. . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
A 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.
As 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.
Although 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.”
Written 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 ballads–the 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:
Who would wait on the quay
With the silver penny
And the apricot tree?
‘I’ve a plum-coloured fez
And a drum for thee
And a sword and a parakeet
From over the sea.’
‘O where is the sailor
With bold red hair?
And what is that volley
On the bright air?
‘O where are the other
Girls and boys?
And why have you brought me
Although 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 quality–often 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.
Survivor’s 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.
As 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.)
Under the willow the willow
I heard the butcher-bird sing,
Come out you fine young fellow
From under your mother’s wing.
I’ll show you the magic garden
That hangs in the beamy air,
The way of the lynx and the angry Sphinx
And the fun of the freezing fair.
Lie down lie down with my daughter
Beneath the Arabian tree,
Gaze on your face in the water
Forget the scribbling sea.
Your pillow the nine bright shiners
Your bed the spilling sand,
But the terrible toy of my lily-white boy
Is the gun in his innocent hand.
In “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:
False 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.
Causley’s 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.
My 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.
Union 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 perspective–English 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.
The “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 extreme–or 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 outcome–the 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 author–an innocent, visionary quality reminiscent of Blake.
Compare these two stanzas from Blake’s “London” with the opening of Causley’s “At the British War Cemetery, Bayeux”:
I 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.
I 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.
. . .
The resemblance is not merely a matter of rhyme and meter, stanza and tone. It is also one of spiritual genealogy–of 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 divine–and the demonic–in 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 seer–a lesson not likely to be lost on a working-class Cornish writer remote from the Oxbridge world of literary London forty years ago.
The 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:
I 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,
I am your wife, your child, but you will leave me,
I am that God to whom you will not pray.
This 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 least offered.
The 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.
Take, 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.
Love 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 love–Sir 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.
Causley’s 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.”
Johnny 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.
Johnny 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 present–in “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:
Trees turned and talked to me,
Houses put on leaves,
Flew in, flew out
On my tongue’s thread
A speech of birds
From my hurt head.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Now river is river
And tree is tree,
My house stands still
As the northern sea.
On my hundred of parables
I heard him pray,
Seize my smashed world,
Wrap it away.
In 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.
In this volume Causley also gives several views of himself as an adult, especially as a teacher of the young–a 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.
In his first five volumes–from Farewell, Aggie Weston to Underneath the Water–Causley 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.
Causley 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 status–even 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 depth–that “strange individuality”–of Causley’s best writing.
These 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.
If 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 poem–usually an objectively verifiable reality of history or geography. Causley’s public is no ideological abstraction; his ideal readers are local and concrete–the 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 in English.
Seen 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 method–in 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.
Causley 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.
The 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:
Who 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?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Why 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?
Causley’s 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 work–the archaically stylized ballads on traditional themes–it 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 generally assumed.
Collected 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.
Most 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 death:
I 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.
Causley’s 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.
Now 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 genres–the 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:
Ah, 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.
Truth. Sense. One hopes by now everyone has found something at which to cringe. These are not respectable terms to describe–let alone praise–serious 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 done–to 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.
[Postscript: Charles Causley died on November 4, 2003, at the age of 86.]
First published in two parts in The Dark Horse (No. 5/Summer 1997 and No. 6/Spring 1998).