This is one of those magical books which can be read in many ways and on a number of levels. It is any and all of the following:
1. A poetry anthology for children
2. An elegant Edwardian ghost story about a strange book found in an old house owned by a mysterious author
3. An at times pagan allegory about Nature and dream
4. A book within a book within a book, being a reproduction of the book the author read as a young boy in the old house
5. Walter de la Mare's musings on a wide range of topics, from folklore to books to old Scottish and Irish ballads.
Walter de la Mare (1873-1953) may be best known for his own haunting poem, "THE LISTENERS" (1912), though his supernatural, yet lyrical, ghost stories have a small but strong following. In his own lifetime, Walter de la Mare influenced many poets, such as T. S. Eliot, and fantasists, such as Lord Dunsany, who gave the eulogy at de la Mare's funeral. Vita Sackville-West once called him a "poet of dusk," and this sense of twilight, dream, and mystery distinguishes all of de la Mare's books and stories, not least of all this one.
The book is loosely divided into three parts. The first part, titled "The Story of This Book," is actually a story somewhat reminiscent of "The Turn of the Screw," since one senses but never actually sees the ghost, yet feels his presence.
Simon, the boy who will grow up to be the man who writes this book, has heard stories from his mother about a mysterious place called East Dean, though his mother will not tell him where this magical place is (just like an adult to hint at interesting things and not answer your questions); so the boy wanders the woods searching for it. During his search, he comes upon an old house "as if out of a dream. And as if out of a dream already familiar to me."
The stone house belongs to Miss Taroon, who allows the boy to come inside. She shows him the house ("solemn, secret, strange") and the round room which belongs to Nahum, the mysterious man, who is always absent, being a great traveller. The boy, however, falls under the spell of a book which the man has written and illustrated. This book which we are reading is that book which the boy read decades before in the round room of the ancient stone house.
For many adult readers, this is the best part of the book. If one reads the discussion forum on the Walter de la Mare Society Web site, there are fans of the book who play anagrams with the many names in the story. Simon, the boy, is "Somni," or "sleep" (sleep and dreams fascinated de la Mare, and he even edited a massive anthology on the subject); "Thrae," the name of the old house, is "Earth," or perhaps, "heart."
The second part of the book contains the poems themselves, and the world's most wonderful poems, too. (If you decide to read these poems aloud to children you love, do them a favor, and don't tell them this is poetry.) Each section has an evocative title, such as "Morning and May," "Feasts, Fairs, Beggars, Gipsies," "Elphin, Ouph, and Fay," "Summer, Greenwood, Solitude," and "Autumn Leaves, Winter Snow." Thomas the Rhymer, Tamlin, Puck, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, and Shakespeare's fools are all here. There are some truly haunting obscure poems included also, such as my favorite poem about fairies, "Overheard On a Saltmarsh":
Nymph, nymph, what are your beads?
Green glass, goblin. Why do you stare at them?
Give them me.
Give them me. Give them me.
Then I will howl all night in the reeds,
Lie in the mud and howl for them.
(One of the appeals of elves and otherworldly beings is that they can subject others to temper tantrums and still be perceived as charming and magical.)
The third part of the book, titled "About and Roundabout," not only provides the best advice about reading poetry ever (particularly because it is brief and to the point), but also discusses flowers in the works of Shakespeare and Chaucer, old folk ballads from Scotland, counting rhymes and children's games, bits from Pepys' diary about going to the office, the power of iron and rowan to ward off witches and elves, collective nouns for birds, recipes for syllabub and marzipan, and remedies for the bite of a mad dog.
My only regret regarding this book is that the Internet has done away with the years of dedicated searching it used to take to locate such treasures, and that others will probably not have the magical experience I had when I happened upon it accidentally in an old used bookshop after years of trying to find it. It has even been reprinted within the past few years, making it even easier to find. Find it and read it aloud to children; younger children will love the animal poems, slightly older children will love the scary ballads, and even teenagers will enjoy the folklore and legends throughout the book. This truly is a book for children of all ages, including yourself.