Saturday, June 4, 2011

Forrest Reid on Walter de la Mare

The subtitle of Forrest Reid's 1929 book on Walter de la Mare is A Critical Study, but that's exactly what the book fails to be.  Its problem is not so much what might be expected, that as a friend of de la Mare Reid would be unable to summon negativity where appropriate.  He is perfectly willing to denigrate works that fail to meet his standards.  The trouble is that those standards are poorly defined.  Reid makes a few attempts to lay out his principles, but does so mostly with a couple dubious dichotomies that leave substantial excluded middles.  By and large he simply quotes or describes stories, poems, and novels, then rhapsodizes over them or complains about small perceived defects.  The total effect (and I say this with full awareness of the inherent irony) is of a series of casual blog posts rather than a critical volume; or perhaps of Harold Bloom's later work, where the idea of scholarly rigor has been cast aside in favor of superlatives, disjointed philosophical remarks, and flights of fancy.

The book is short (250 pages of large print) and discursive, as Reid wanders down the garden path to quote Henry James or talk about some Catholics he met one morning.  The intention is that these digressions should illuminate whatever point is being made about de la Mare, but mostly they don't.  It feels instead like Reid is following his own imagination, and trying, in his poetic descriptions of de la Mare's work, to write a book that is stylish in itself, a forgivable desire except that it interferes with his critical intentions.

Nonetheless the book is quite readable, and provides a good basic overview of de la Mare's work up to the time of its publication, with enough extracts that readers can determine for themselves whether they're interested in seeking out the books in question.  And there are nuggets of true insight scattered throughout.  Walter de la Mare: A Critical Study cannot be recommended for its intellectual merit, but as a curiosity, one writer of fantastic and supernatural fiction commenting on another, it has its charm.

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