On the Way to East Dene

Come Hither by Walter de la MareOne day dur­ing this drea­ry Vir­ginia win­ter, I came across a talk by Susan Coop­er, giv­en at Sim­mons Col­lege in 1980. The talk was titled, “Nahum Tarune’s Book.” To explain the title, she begins by quot­ing an aston­ish­ing pas­sage from the intro­duc­tion of Come Hith­er by Wal­ter de la Mare, an anthol­o­gy of poet­ry first pub­lished in 1923:

In my rov­ings and ram­blings as a boy I had often skirt­ed the old stone house in the hol­low. But my first clear remem­brance of it is of a hot summer’s day. I had climbed to the crest of a hill and stood look­ing down on its grey walls and chim­neys as if out of a dream. And as if out of a dream already famil­iar to me.

My real inten­tion in set­ting out from home that morn­ing had been to get to a place called East Dene. My moth­er had often spo­ken to me of East Dene — of its trees and waters and green pas­tures, and the rare birds and flow­ers to be found there. Ages ago, she told me an ances­tor of our fam­i­ly had dwelt in this place.

Susan Coop­er came to Come Hith­er when she was four­teen. She kept a copy of “this won­der for thir­ty years and must have turned to it at least as many times each year. It is my tal­is­man, my haunt­ing: a dis­til­la­tion of all the books to which I’ve respond­ed most deeply …”

I own a few de la Mare poet­ry col­lec­tions—Songs of Child­hood (1902) and Pea­cock Pie (1913). His work is mys­te­ri­ous and ethe­re­al, earn­ing him the man­tle “poet of dusk.” Coop­er hoped to cap­ture de la Mare’s mag­ic in her own work. (Her nov­el The Dark Is Ris­ing won a New­bery Hon­or, and The Grey King was a New­bery Medal­ist — I’d say she’s done fair­ly well in the mag­ic department.)

How fast did I order Come Hith­er? And when it came, this 800-page brick of a book, I leafed straight to the intro­duc­tion, sink­ing deeply into the dreamy prose. Simon, the “rov­ings and ram­blings” boy, describes the old stone house:

It was nev­er the same for two hours togeth­er. I have seen it gath­ered close up in its hol­low in the livid and cop­pery gloom of a storm; crouched like a hare in win­ter under a mask of snow; dark and silent beneath the chang­ing sparkle of the stars; and like a palace out of an Ara­bi­an tale in the milky radi­ance of the moon. Thrae was the name inscribed on its gateway.

Simon meets the old lady of the house, Miss Taroone, who tells him of Sure Vine, which Simon believed was an ances­tral man­sion. The maid men­tioned vil­lages called Ten Laps, and how he might get to East Dene: through the quar­ry, by the pits, “and then you come to a Wall. And you climb over.” Then Simon hears of the boy Nahum Tarune. Explor­ing Nahum’s room in the stone tow­er, Simon is amazed by the fos­sils, rocks, nests, clocks, mod­el ships, strange musi­cal instru­ments, and a human skele­ton. Book­cas­es cov­er the walls.

He digs out an old vol­ume with Nahum’s hand-print­ed title: Theother­worlde. Inside, Nahum had copied poems — Shake­speare, Chaucer, Blake, Poe. Simon is not impressed. “‘Poet­ry!’ I would scoff to myself, and would shut up the cov­ers of any such book with a kind of yawn inside me.” But then he begins to read.

I remem­ber see­ing Come Hith­er in my small ele­men­tary school library, the same edi­tion I have now, print­ed in 1957 with dec­o­ra­tions by War­ren Chap­pell. Hun­gry for sto­ries back then, I had no inter­est in poems. In high school, I grew slow­ly into poet­ry, falling hard for Frost, Sand­burg, and, espe­cial­ly Edgar Lee Mas­ters’ Spoon Riv­er Anthol­o­gy.

Soon Simon does what Nahum Tarune did so many years ago — he copies the poems he likes best. He vis­its Thrae many times, often stay­ing late. Once Miss Taroone warns him to leave: “There’s a heavy dew tonight, and the owls are busy.” Then comes the inevitable day when Simon must go to school and leave Thrae for good. But he keeps his book of poetry.

Susan Coop­er points out the ran­dom notes that Simon scat­ters between the poems like coins. Ben Jonson’s “The Witch­es’ Song” spurred four dense pages of notes on the folk­lore and old names of plants. The next time I pick cat mint, I’ll think “Robin-run-in-the-hedge” instead. The intro­duc­tion acts as a frame sto­ry — Simon copy­ing the poems Nahum copied which ulti­mate­ly became the book Come Hith­er. Like poet­ry, the frame sto­ry can be read on many lev­els, the mean­ing nev­er the same twice.

Simon doesn’t see Nahum because, as Coop­er clar­i­fies, “he is all of us.” Nahum Tarune is an ana­gram of human nature. Thrae is earth, Ten Laps are the plan­ets, Sure Vine is the uni­verse. Miss Taroone is prob­a­bly Moth­er Nature. And East Dene? Des­tiny.

I could see why Coop­er dipped into Come Hith­er “some­times for solace, some­times for sun­shine.” This great col­lec­tion of words that Simon learns to read “very slow­ly, so as ful­ly and qui­et­ly to fill up the time allowed for each line and to lis­ten to its music,” to see even com­mon and famil­iar things dif­fer­ent­ly from the actu­al object. That is the pow­er of poet­ry. On our way to East Dene, poet­ry helps us climb over the Wall.

April is Nation­al Poet­ry Month. Teach­ers every­where will be intro­duc­ing chil­dren to the works of Valerie Worth, David McCord, Shel Sil­ver­stein, Jack Pre­lut­sky, Nik­ki Grimes, and many oth­ers. I’ll be read­ing Spoon Riv­er Anthol­o­gy for the first time since high school, while wait­ing for a spring night when the dew is heavy, and the owls are busy.

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