I have always had arguments about Charles Causley's work. I bought an earlier Collected Poems in the mid 70's and discarded it because I felt it just did not have enough major work in it.So why have I bought this later edition of the Collected and intend to keep it?
Causley's popularity was and is based largely on the large body of neo-folk, neo-ballad poetry, which appears to be the product of his middle period as a school teacher and his consequent contact with children There is no doubt that some of this work is very fine. "Timothy Winters" or the "Ballad of the Bread Man" (with its lively modernisation of the Christmas story) are good and of their sort wear well. And there are more adult pieces in this style, such as "Lord Lovelace", which portrays a medieval knight who comes back to find his castle burnt and his wife gone and turns into a vicious marauder. However at the last moment we are told that the ballad is written by Jehan, who who seems to have run off with Lovelace's wife and the twist is very powerful.
If all middle Causley was as good as three poems I would be very much in favour of it.However an alarming amount of this folk style work has become very mediocre with age and does not wear anything like as well as say the best of de la Mare or Kipling. Poems like the "True Ballad of Sir Henry Trecarell" or the "Ballad of Jack Cornwall" just seem to go on rather. Was it too easy to write in this style, or was Causley just kept too busy in his decades as a school teacher to write well as he did in "Timothy Winters" or "Reservoir Street" all the time?
However, Causley was able to give up teaching and his later work is very different in style. It is often bleak, not least when retailing various odd rural relatives, but it has a winning humanity. This in many ways is a return to the fine early poems about Causley's WW2 naval service, which have real edginess and grief and more than a touch of surrealism. Is it co-incidence that he seems to have chatted about Lorca with Spaniards when stationed at Gibralter? Certainly there is a link in Causley's earlier work with the Romantic style of the Forties, even if that is not copied exactly. The style of the early work indeed brings him into proximity with other English Forties' poets such as John Heath Stubbs, W.S. Graham or Kathleen Raine, who made their way in despite of the School of Larkin. They were all great individuals who belonged to no particular school, but had a certain dash that is largely lacking in the poetry of 2010.And they all at their best did fresh and unusual things with rhythm.
At all events I believe I shall keep this later edition of the Causley Collected for its early and late work and a handful of pieces from its middle period.
As a book this Collected could be better presented. Picador's choice of paper is cheap and the print (if legible) rather less than elegant, which is in marked contrast say with the Penguin editions of Geoffrey Hill or Tony Harrison. However, as so often the main thing is that a lively book exists and in a Picador edition is generally available.