Considered one of the most important British poets of his generation, Charles Causley was born, lived and died in the small Cornish town of Launceston. But despite initial appearances his was anything but an inactive or uneventful life.
At first glance Charles Causley’s life may seem quiet, ordinary, perhaps even hum drum. A private man, he became a schoolteacher in the same school that he himself attended and he lived in a cottage just a few metres from the one in which he was born. An only child, who never married, he spent many years nursing his elderly mother and left his Cornish home only rarely. Yet through the prism of his poetry there emerges a vibrant world vividly observed and a life keenly felt.
In his own words
Causley famously never wrote an autobiography, he said that the truth about his life was there already for everyone to see in his poetry. From his childhood remembrances to his dramatic experiences in the Second World War Causley shared it all. He wrote poems about his parents’ marriage and the life of his grandfather Richard Bartlett, he wrote about his friends and his views on religion. Causley’s poetry is simple, some say naïve, and yet it is often a movingly direct expression of his life, his feelings, laid out on the page.
First and foremost Causley was a poet of place. He called Cornwall ‘the granite kingdom’ and always recognised and revelled in its unique qualities. Much of his work has a Cornish flavour, sometimes nostalgic, sometimes wistful, whimsical even but always celebrating Cornwall’s history, legends and its elemental landscape.
The Seasons in North Cornwall
O Spring has set off her green fuses
Down by the Tamar today,
And careless, like tide-marks, the hedges,
Are bursting with almond and may.
Here lie I waiting for old summer,
A red face and straw-coloured hair has he:
I shall meet him on the road from Marazion
And the Mediterranean Sea.
September has flung a spray of rooks
On the sea-chart of the sky,
The tall shipmasts crack in the forest
And the banners of autumn fly.
My room is a bright glass cabin,
All Cornwall thunders at my door,
And the white ships of winter lie
In the sea-roads of the moor.
(You can hear more of Causley’s poetry HERE )
Causley’s work doesn’t focus exclusively on the county of his birth however. His time spent with the Royal Navy during the 1940s gave him some opportunity to see the world beyond the Cornish coast and to spend time with his other great love – the sea.
Where do you come from, sea,
To the sharp Cornish shore,
Leaping up to the raven’s crag?
Do you grow tired sea?
Are you weary ever
When the storms burst over your head?
Are you hard as a diamond, sea,
As iron, as oak?
Are you stronger than flint or steel?
And the lightning stroke.
Ten thousand years and more, sea,
You have gobbled your fill,
Swallowing stone and slate!
I am hungry still.
When will you rest, sea?
When moon and sun
Ride only fields of salt water
And the land is gone.
His early life in Launceston was far from idyllic. Cornwall, like the rest of the country, was struggling with the repercussions of the First World War. It was a time of poverty and grief. Causley’s own childhood was tainted by the death of his father, also called Charles, who had never recovered from the effects of fighting in the trenches. Although just seven year old when he died, one of Causley’s few memories of his father was reading aloud to him while he was unwell.
A bright and bookish child, he devoured the written word wherever he found it – including the romantic novels his mother, Laura, regularly borrowed from Launceston library.
One of Causley’s most famous poems, By St Thomas Water, conjures up his childhood self playing in the churchyard in Launceston where both he and his mother now rest side by side. The poem, dreamy and nostalgic, has Charles and his playmate Jessie fishing with jam-jars but also refers to a local superstition. There is a stone outside the church door that the children would put their ears against to hear the dead talking.
As well as words Causley loved music and was able to play both the fiddle and the piano. In his youth he was the pianist of a local band called the Rhythm Boys and provided the music for village dances around Cornwall. He once said ‘I think I have frightened more woodworm out of more pianos than anyone in the west of England.’
War & Teaching
However his quiet rural existence came to an end, as it did for many others, with the outbreak of the Second World War. Charles served as a coder in the Navy and his decision to go to sea was a direct reaction to his father’s terrible experiences in the trenches. Much of Causley’s early writing is infused with echoes of conflict, comradeship and loss. And it was after he left the navy that he began to write in earnest.
Speaking to the BBC in 1979 Causley confessed that he had decided that if he survived the fighting he would devote his life to only doing the things he enjoyed. After completing his teacher training at Peterborough he returned to Launceston and remained at the school there until he retired in 1976.
He spent his evenings writing and his first collection of poems about his war time experiences, ‘Farewell Aggie Weston’ was published in 1951. In perhaps one of the most striking poems ‘Convoy’ Causley’s vividly laments the death of a sailor in the North Sea, perhaps an expression of the guilt he felt returning home when so many others didn’t.
Writing because you must . . .
Do you know, if I didn’t write poetry, I think I’d explode. All poetry is magic. It is a spell against insensitivity, failure of imagination, ignorance and barbarism. – Charles Causley.
With the collections of poetry that followed ‘Survivor’s Leave’ and ‘Union Street’ his reputation was firmly established and in 1958 he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. His close friend the poet Ted Hughes said:
‘Among the English poetry of the last half century, Charles Causley’s could well turn out to be the best loved and most needed.’
Causley went on to publish numerous other books for adults and children as well as plays and essays. The awards came rolling in including the prestigious Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry and a CBE. Causley was unfazed and deferential about the attention. When at 83 years old he was made a Companion of Literature by the Royal Society he drolly greeted the award with the words, ‘My goodness, what an encouragement!’
Perhaps because of his years spent teaching Charles always had a special affinity with children and some of his best loved poetry was written for them. His book of poems for children ‘Figgie Hobbin’ named after a traditional raisin-filled Cornish pastry, was published in 1970 and I remember having it read to me as a child. Crammed with witty, satirical rhymes, many with a nod to Cornish legends, it became a firm family favourite.
In the collection’s final poem ‘Who’ Causley writes of seeing the ghostly figure of himself as a child haunting the places around Launceston he has known his whole life. He sees his younger self wandering beside the River Kensey in old fashioned clothes and has a vision of the fields where he once played, now covered by houses.
From the Other Bank . . .
Similarly in what is for me perhaps his most moving and beautiful poem ‘Eden Rock’, written towards the end of his life, Charles describes seeing the ghosts of his parents. Young, happy and bathed in warm sunlight, they stand waiting for him on the other side of the river, beckoning him to cross.
Charles Causley died in 2003 and the inscription on his headstone reads simply ‘Poet’.
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