Charles Causley: The Cornish Balladeer

December 30 1997 / The Times

The life and work of Charles Causley have a remarkable rootedness. With the exception of his six years in the Navy during the Second World War, he has lived all his life in Launceston, the quiet market town in north Cornwall that provides the rural landscape and setting of many of his best poems. Reading Causley is a bit like listening to the long, withdrawing roar of the sea: his poetry has a sad music. He works in neglected forms: ballads, song, fable. He is, truly, the last balladeer in England, drawing on the earth mysterious and the folklore of his native Celtic Cornwall.

He didn’t plan it this way. As an adolescent Causley, whose Collected Poems have just been published, wanted to escape village life and the isolation of Cornwall and pursue his interest in poetry and left-wing politics in a distant, romanticised metropolis: London, Paris, New York. Launceston seemed closed and provincial, “not the kind of place for a writer”.

But he never left; instead, after the war, he became a teacher in the village school, living with his widowed mother about whom he writes with tenderness and comedy and whose stories of her impoverished childhood were sustenance for his verse. “When I was young,” he says, with soft Cornish vowels, “I used to think that you had to travel to find a subject. But my subject was right under my nose all the time. It took me so long to realise this.”

We are driving around Launceston in a hired car, and Causley is lost in reminiscence. His eyes water a little as he recalls the “soldier-father” he scarcely knew. Charles Causley Senior fought in the trenches of the Western Front, and died of a lung disease when his son was seven. In his later poetry Causley returns, again and again, to those brief, flickering years with his father, so that writing about him becomes, as it were, an act of reification.

But remembrance is hard: “I had not thought that it would be like this,” he writes at the end of Eden Rock, a meditation on his parents’ relationship. To My Father, about his father’s joy as he listened to his gifted son reading the morning newspaper, is less successful, its last lines - “I know that one day he must stop and turn/His face to me. Wait for me, father. Wait” - collapsing into what can be a danger for Causley, sentimentality.

“Turn left here,” Causley says abruptly as we drive out of town. “That’s the school where I used to teach. It’s strange how things can change and yet remain the same. When I returned from the war everything, from the fields around us to the town itself, appeared exactly as I had left it. But, of course, it wasn’t - because my experiences had changed the way I looked at the world, changed what I saw.”

This loss of innocence - or, more accurately, this fall into experience - is a constant preoccupation. Many of his poems, from ballads of Celtic lore to children’s verse, turn on moments of revelation when the world is seen with startling clarity, as when a veil is lifted or mist clears. One poem, about a sailor returning home after years at sea with gifts of children’s toys for a boy who has grown too old to appreciate them, is even called Nursery Rhyme of Innocence of Experience .

Causley has been rightly called a religious poet but his is an inchoate theology, in which redemption appears endlessly deferred, transcendence out of reach. So his narrators - dying infantrymen, lonely fishermen, disappointed lovers, solitary wanderers - turn away from present complexities, floating freely in memory.

At the age of 80, Charles Causley is frail, dreamy but intellectually alert. He walks shakily with the aid of a stick. His recollection of his father as a thin, bony man, “long-faced and large-eyed”, will do as a self-description. His conversation, punctuated by lines of half-remembered verse, swings between camp humour and nostalgia. He is prone to tears, and is shyly evasive about himself.

Yet ask him about his mother or about A.L. Rowse, the celebrated Cornish scholar from whom he received encouragement as a young man, and he becomes immediately animated. “I sent Rowse some poems after I got back from the war. He wrote back, saying: ‘You’ve definitely got it, boy. The important thing now is to keep going at it.’ This was tremendous advice. You see, if I’d gone to London, I wouldn’t have done any work. Rowse had a strong work ethic. Like me, he was from a working-class Cornish home but unlike me he managed to win a scholarship to Oxford. My mother respected education but was not an intellectual. I grew up thinking that university was not for me.”

His mother viewed her son’s work, even as he became established, with wry suspicion. “She tolerated my poetry, but never really asked me why I wrote.”

For all his modest reticence, Causley has a strong sense of his own worth. He bristles when I mention that another poet describes him as an “important local poet”, objecting to the pejorative use of the word “local”. So does he think his work will have a future readership? Trusham , a poem of raw self-accusation, offers a clue. Commenting on the fact that Causley never married and has no children (“I don’t know what your Dad would say”), an old man mocks him: “It seems to me/That when you’ve gone, the name will just go scat.”

To which the poet replies: “Useless to say that this particular flesh/Won’t scrape off, dry off, like the mud, the wet.” What Causley means, I think, is that his words, his particular flesh, are his gamble against death and will carry the family name into the future. It’s not hard to guess what his Dad would say about that.