Victoria Neumark on Walter de la Mare, Come Hither: A Collection of Rhymes and Poems for the Young of All Ages

Written on the Heart

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My mother used to read to us on the battered old couch. As the light faded, we would snuggle up and read along with her pointing finger. It was magic; it was spells; it was home. Her glasses slightly askew on her thin, eager face, ‘Come hither,’ she would urge. Come Hither was the title of the orange-covered anthology from which she read. Sometimes she might break off to impress on us: ‘A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master-spirit. Milton.’ We always got quotations in that form. ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day. Shakespeare,’ she would pronounce, crossly plugging in the Hoover. Or ‘If at first you don’t succeed, Try, try again. Proverb’ – tartly, when we complained about homework.

This habit of quotation had been passed down from her own father, a notably grumpy old man who, after having had three horses shot under him at the Battle of Passchendaele, went to Cambridge to study English literature, worked as a teacher in the East End and knew a lot of poetry.

Come Hither was one of many poetry books with which my father courted my mother. Whisper poetry to her, take her to the opera and dazzle her with dark Charles-Boyer-style good looks – and her romantic heart, already primed by a childhood soaked in poetry by Grandpa, was won for life. Our copy of the anthology is inscribed ‘Come hither! From Ernst’ – my father’s name.

So it was that I encountered poetry through this selection scooped and skimmed from the treasury (as he would put it) of English verse by Walter de la Mare in 1923. Until I went to secondary school, I was scarcely aware the poems existed outside those orange covers, so that I was surprised to encounter the same pieces in the Oxford Book of English Verse and Palgrave’s Golden Treasury.

Walter de la Mare (1873–1956), though celebrated in his day for his whimsical, outré imagination and tremendous facility

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About the contributor

Victoria Neumark has just become a grandmother. She is looking forward to reading some of these poems to little Erin Iris, to link her to her great-grandmother and learn the magic of poetry.

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