Now that the turkey and haggis have all been consumed let’s try some –
All together; see if we can do it better than yesterday:
Slowly, silently, now the moon
Walks the night in her silver shoon …
Oh, gawd, miss
not again – can’t we do the one about the red-faced farmer? And what’s with ‘shoon’? What’s ‘shoon’? – He keeps going on about ’em: farmers putting on ‘each his shoon’, fairies dancing in ‘acorn shoon’, and a horse with ‘galloping shoon’. I suppose that’s what happens when you’re stuck for a rhyme; you won’t catch ’em doing it in poems with attitude.
So – is Peacock Pie down in the bottom of the freezer,
never to be disinterred? Poor old de la Mare received his coup de grace long years ago when Alan Tucker impugned him for his Georgian whimsy in the very first number of Signal (January, 1970) – an article which was harbinger of the intelligence and authority which that journal has sustained to the end. For – ‘alas, alack’ as the fish said in the frying-pan – the arrival of number 100 later this year will see the end of that irreplaceable enterprise.
against de la Mare’s oeuvre, its fatal lack of energy, is not easy to rebut. (Incidentally, why did his telling arguments about ‘poetry for children’, here and in Signal 12, gain no reference in Morag Styles’s From the Garden to the Street – where also Peacock Pie does not figure as an independent volume?) But Messrs Faber, who took the collection over from its first publisher, Constable, in 1941, have kept faith with it, and only a year ago reissued it in their series of ‘Children’s Classics’ with the indispensable pen-drawings by Edward Ardizzone.
Was it, though, intended as a book for children?
Its first appearance in 1913 is not clear on the matter. Sub-titled, as it continued to be, ‘a book of rhymes’, and with an epigraph from Isaac Watts: ‘He told me his dreams’ (which was abandoned in 1941) it does not really commit itself, and its dress was severe. There were no illustrations, no blurb on the dust-jacket – only two puffs for previous books by the poet. The 82 poems were divided into eight ‘chapters’ roughly according to subject (eg. Beasts) or form (eg. Songs), but their gist was enigmatic. Many rhymes owed much in structure to nursery rhymes – which de la Mare loved; many belonged to a tradition of Victorian pastorale; and between these were quirky essays in reflective mystery which were echt de la Mare.
Thus the presentation continued
until 1916 when the balance shifted at the arrival of a square octave edition with a colour frontispiece and line-drawings on almost every page-opening by none other than W Heath Robinson. Peacock Pie was thereby declared a children’s book and, although a posh edition appeared in 1924 with colour plates by Lovat Fraser and ten poems added to the canon, all subsequent editions, illustrated seriatim by Jocelyn Crowe, F R Emett, Edward Ardizzone and Louise Brierley, have clearly assumed that the child reader, or listener, is the intended audience.
The fussing over this matter
by some critics and anthologists often centres upon individual oddities (Miss T’s digestive system), or vapidities (some dreadful verses in the ‘Fairies’ section), or antique verbal contrivances (‘dree’, ‘glamourie’, those ‘shoon’). But to do that is to read Peacock Pie as so many bits and pieces collected up from magazines – as indeed it was – rather than as a poem-sequence whose sum is greater than its parts.
it stands alongside Songs of Innocence and Sing-Song and A Child’s Garden as a work which deserves to be lived with whole and which – whole – has its own peculiar plangency. From the pale horse, pale rider standing at each end of the sequence the book constitutes an exploration of human quiddity and of the submerged, inexplicable awareness of loss to which human kind is subject. ‘Where’s the bloody horse?’ quotes Alan Tucker, but de la Mare is not in the business of such specifics – the bloody horse materialises from whatever interpretations readers may find for themselves in the verses.
The sense of the numinous
which lies behind the book owes much to its rhetoric. Even Alan Tucker acknowledges the poet’s technical command and this is exploited in all its virtuosity – not just rhythmic structures but also subtle sound-patterns – to create correspondences with the narratives, the descriptions, the questionings that are the book’s substance. With the removal of the ‘chapters’ the integrity of the work was enhanced – especially with the unifying atmosphere imparted by Ardizzone’s drawings. Cut through the copy where you will – that fish in the frying-pan, Farmer Turvey among the mermaids, the gargantuan thief at Robin’s Castle, the old king and the sparrow … everything is of a piece and sounds almost like a song-cycle: Kümmellieder perhaps – the songs of Old King Caraway – with a new/old epigraph: et mentem mortalis tangunt.
Brian Alderson has compiled an account of the publishing and illustration of Peacock Pie for his study of the graphic work of Ardizzone which the British Library will publish later this year.
The illustrations, by Edward Ardizzone, are taken from the Faber ‘Children’s Classics’ edition (0 571 20751 0, £4.99 pbk).
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and children’s book consultant for The Times.