Charles Causley, who died on Tuesday aged 86, was among the most important British poets of his generation. Though popular - no other living British poet of his distinction commanded so diverse a readership - he was resolutely untrendy. He belonged to a conservative countertradition that stressed the national character of its poetry and the vital inspiration of popular forms such as folk songs, hymns and, especially, ballads - he was, in his day, probably the finest writer of ballads in English.
Causley's ballads were often rebellious or displayed a lower-deck feeling (he had served in the Navy during the war). There is sometimes a touch of Housman about them, but they are always set with startling effect against dead-pan wartime phrases, as in Chief Petty Officer:
He was probably made a Freemason in Hong Kong. / He has a son (on War Work) in the Dockyard, / And an appalling daughter / In the W.R.N.S.
John Betjeman claimed that Causley derived from nobody. By the time of his first Collected Poems in 1975 he had published seven collections, all of them with the same diamond clarity; he had also won the Queen's Medal for Poetry (1967) and become a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (1958), but he was still a teacher living at Launceston.
It is possible that faint traces of a similar style may be discovered in well-known wartime poets, and in poetry magazines such as Poetry and Poverty; but Causley was stronger and more sinuous, and fuller of brilliant natural images, than the others, and alone among them he had staying power; also, his thoughtfulness was stronger.
He paid homage to John Clare, who in those days was not well known, and to the blind Cornish poet of the clay mines, his contemporary Jack Clemo. Some of Causley's most famous and most memorable poems came comparatively early: Timothy Winters (Timothy Winters comes to school / With eyes as wide as a football pool, / Ears like bombs and teeth like splinters: / A blitz of a boy is Timothy Winters); King's College Chapel; and On Seeing a Poet of the First World War on the Station at Abbeville.
His minor poems, which did not cut so deep, always showed the same genuineness, the same tone of voice. He never pretended to be less well educated or less intelligent than he was. There are early poems to E M Forster and about Faure, poems about legend and about history, and in 1943, in Conversation in Gibraltar, he wrote, "We sit here, talking of Barea and Lorca. . ."
One of the finest poems is translated from a Breton crucifix; before he had finished he had translated poetry from German, Spanish and Serbo-Croat. It would be fair to say that, for all its suffering, its cramped quarters and the deep scars it left on him, the war was his university and did better by him than most colleges do for most poets.
An only child, Charles Stanley Causley was born on August 24 1917 at Launceston, between Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor, and was brought up there under the ragged shadow of a Norman castle overlooking the Tamar. The only formal education he had, beyond the obviously excellent one he got at Launceston College, was after the war at Peterborough Training College. He taught children at Launceston for most of his life and spent his retirement there.
His father, a groom and gardener, died in 1924, when Charles was scarcely seven, from wounds sustained in the First World War, and Charles had to become an office boy at 16. He was just 22 when war again broke out.
Causley served in the Navy as a coder from 1940 to 1946, and the roots of his poetry are there. He was a wonderful and highly original writer from his first appearance in 1951 with the short stories of Hands to Dance, and the poems of Farewell, Aggie Weston (Agnes Weston was a founder of sailors' hostels).
The school where Causley taught all his life was a primary school, and after his mother had a stroke, he chose to nurse her at home for six years until her death. It is probably lucky that he was in no position to pursue a middle-class career after the war.
He did work for his region of the radio, he served on the poetry panel of the Arts Council and was visiting fellow "in poetry" at Exeter for a year; he later acquired an honorary doctorate from the same university. He was twice, in 1954 and 1966, awarded travelling scholarships by the Society of Authors, and in 1986 he was appointed CBE.
Causley did not call himself a Christian poet, though his family had been Christian: his grandmother and then his mother cleaned the church and baked the Communion bread. He himself still prayed in later life, but rather in the manner of Alice in Wonderland telling herself to pull herself together.
Causley came to Westminster Abbey - once - for a ceremony, with appropriate music and readings, to unveil a stone to Edward Lear. "That was very nice," he remarked. "If church were always like that, I might come more often." He was the most compassionate and least sectarian of poets, and much loved by his fellow practitioners. Philip Larkin respected him, and John Wain would speak of him with affectionate wonder.
Although in no sense spiritually or intellectually isolated, Causley did not frequent London. He was as near to being a purely provincial and regional poet as anyone of his time. When he travelled, it was to Europe or (twice) to Australia, and once to Canada; there were numerous poets with whom he corresponded but whom he never met.
There is a certain relief in his later poems, as if the pressure had been lifted or the demons had departed. He had always written brilliantly about ghosts and horrors and murders, though they were never at the centre of his work. That developed in range, and diversified with time. He wrote two verse plays, one on Aucassin and Nicolette, which was an unexpected subject for him, and a libretto for Jonah by William Mathias.
He wrote stories too, and books for children, and put together excellent anthologies. Few editors who knew half as much about poetry knew children as he did. But his main work was his own lyric poems and ballads, which never dried up and never disappointed. His inspiration came from somewhere very deep and pure; he wrote swiftly under pressure, as he had learnt to do at sea.
Yet his I love the laurel green, after Etienne Jodelle, was a sparkling tribute to the renaissance, which showed how close he was or had become to the great poets of the past. In A field of vision (1988) there was a handful of poems about his own past; the last one in the book is about his parents and the most moving. They had gone on a picnic together to Eden Rock, his father with a terrier "still two years old and trembling at his feet", his mother with tea in a Thermos and milk in an old HP Sauce bottle. They summoned him to cross the stream.
The life of any genuine poet contains paradoxes, and almost everything about Charles Causley was surprising. He was a unique man. He wrote that the poet W S Graham was "A spring that has not failed me in forty years"; many thought the same of Causley.
CornishHis poems were Cornish in their vivid light and intense colour and powerfully evocative, if only of "the three spoilt bells my grandmother had christened Crock, Kettle and Pan; the cider-sharp Devon voices . . ." Yet within one or two pages of that wonderfully topographic observation comes the legend of the Raven, first to spot the Nativity (in Arcadia it would be Pan), and a remarkable study of a picture by Palmer.
It could be that precision of significant detail was Causley's speciality. Of European poets the one he was most like was Pasternak, because they shared a sense of wonder that was constantly surprising to the reader. In other ways they were quite different, but they both renewed the spirit.
Causley's parody of John Betjeman is one of the few really funny poems written in the last century, and hit its victim exactly in the centre, but it would be hard if either of them should be remembered by it. Death of an Aircraft (to George Psychoundakis) was as spirited and was written in deadly earnest.
In 1992, Causley produced another Collected Poems, from Macmillan once again. It is unusual in these times for poets or publishers to stay loyal for so long. All the same, some poems had been weeded out and can be found only in slim volumes. There were over 400 pages, some going back to the days of the Hand and Flower press, and new poems were inserted here and there into the old patterns. He continued to dwell on times so long past that they had come to seem mythic.
As an only child, he was the sole witness left to his parents' lives and to their traditional goodness. He never married, and his private life remained private. He refused to write an autobiography, since he said the truth about his life was available in his poems. In this, as in all other matters, he was a typical, old-fashioned Cornishman.
The Telegraph, 6th November 2003
An eloquent critique