Writers From Cornwall: Charles Causley

Dominic looks back at the Cornish poet’s humble life, his reputation as a children’s poet and his legacy as the Cornish Laureate.

It’s possible the average literature student, or general reader of poetry even, has never come across the work of Charles Causley before. Less likely would this be the case for someone brought up in Cornwall, for his poetry has always been readily accessible to children, and his affinity to Cornish soil has solidified his reputation as a celebrated, regionalist poet.

As a newcomer to his work, it’s easy to see why: Causley’s poetry navigates complex ideas in a simple and accessible way, and the poignancy of much of his work is matched by his playfulness of verse. It is notable also, how while his contemporaries were reacting to the vast changes of the 20th century in new and significant ways, Causley remained staunchly loyal to the folklore traditions of narrative poetry, and was unmatched in his rigid affection for devices such as rhyming couplets and metered verse.

A primary school teacher for most of his life, the only time Causley moved away from his birthplace of Launceston was to fight in the navy as a young man in World War 2. He travelled a lot in his retirement, revisiting places he saw in the war, and also travelled intermittently as a performing poet and writer in residence; but there was no reason or pull strong enough ever to consider living anywhere else.

“Why should I starve in London...?" Causley wrote. "Starve emotionally, and imaginatively, as well as financially? I meet very few other poets who, secretively... haven’t wished that they’d stayed where – as we say in Cornwall – where they belong to be. And perhaps I belong to be in Launceston.”

Unsurprisingly, his experiences of war were to be a constant subject of his poetry for the rest of his career. Through the lens of war he was able to explore the pain of death and the confusion of life, as well as navigate the most widespread theme of his work: that of the loss of innocence to the gaining of experience. Fitting too for his role as schoolmaster.

Causley never shook off his reputation as a writer of children’s poetry, but he never made an attempt to. Reading through interviews and his collected work, it’s clear he saw very little difference between children and adults, and much of his poetry implies that our spiritual, cultural and social negotiations are more similar than we often think. In School at Four O’clock, he writes of the conditions children pass through on their way to adulthood, lamenting the ‘withering’ spirits of children growing up in the world:

Love, wonder, marvellous hope. All these can wither  
With crawling years like flowers on a stalk;
Or, to some Piper’s tune, vanish for ever
As creatures murdered on a morning walk.

Like his poems set at wartime, the school ground is simply a background setting, on top of which he is able to explore more complex, or adult, concerns. And from my understanding, this is where Causley’s popularity and longevity stems from. Like Blake deploying easy rhymes in The Tyger, or the directness and simplicity of The Lamb, Causley brings the world back into the small and narrow framework of the child, so we can learn as he learned from his experiences of teaching.

Causley has commented that whenever he began a new poem, he was never sure whether it was “for a child or adult”. And including his ‘children’s poems’ in a Collected Poems anthology, without qualification or remark, he also suggests he wasn’t so sure either when the poems were complete. A children’s poem, “is a poem that has to work for the adult and the child as well”, and the “difference between an adult poem and a children’s poem is the range of the audience”. The poem Who? is a good example of his blurring of the child and adult reader:

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?

The simplicity of the structure, and the image of the child, both proclaim this to be a ‘children’s’ poem. But the open-ended and unanswered questions get at something more profound about memory and identity, making it much more appropriate to adults but still relevant all.

It is unlikely that Ted Hughes (a good friend and contemporary of Causley) would have his name precede the title of ‘children’s poet’, even though many of his stories and poems were written specifically for children. Likewise with William Blake, whose Songs of Innocence collection was originally published for children, and presented alongside colourful illustrations. As the American poet Dana Gioia observes, It was posterity that reclassified it to the more respectable category of pure lyric”. So poets don’t always get to decide who their poetry is for.

Gioia also made a case – not critiquing Causley, merely observing his work in the context of the 20th century – for him being ‘the most unfashionable poet alive.’ “Causley has written accessibly in fixed forms in a period that prizes originality and unpredictability," writes Gioia. "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... No wonder [he] goes unmentioned in critical literature”.

But I’d harbour a guess that Causley would not concern himself with such labels or distinctions. The politics, trends and rituals of the literary industry were all things he remained quite coy towards. But the same things that rendered him an outsider of the literary world – his far-removed residence at the foot of the country; his persistence with traditional poetic form; his blurring of the lines between children’s and adult poetry; his full-time occupation as a teacher and the fact he dropped out of school when he was 15 – were also the same things that helped solidify his reputation as the Cornish laureate.

by Dominic Smyth

Note: The documentary The Poet Charles Causley, directed by Jane Darke, will be airing on the BBC from August 2017.