»  Walter de la Mare's "Slim Cunning Hands"


Slim Cunning Hands

by Walter de la Mare, 1873-1956


•  Background

Walter de la Mare (though as English as it is possible to be, he was of Huguenot ancestry) is usually thought of in the context of the Georgian Poets. There is nothing unfair about that: he contributed to all five of their anthologies, and his verses conform pretty well to the Georgian ethos in both form and content.

However, de la Mare long outlived the Georgians. He produced his last book of verse in 1953, his 81st year, having published his first, Songs of childhood, in 1902 (under the pseudonym "Walter Ramal"). Still more remarkable, de la Mare's poetry shows little development across the half-century of his career. The earlier verses are more frequently playful, the later more frequently somber: but given a de la Mare poem from his vast oeuvre at random and asked to place it in one of the six decades spanned by his career, as often as not one would be reduced to blind guessing.

The two poems by which de la Mare is commonly remembered are both early ones, though. They are "The Listeners" (from The Listeners and Other Poems, 1912) and "Silver" (from Peacock Pie, 1913). The first is a sort of ghost story minus any actual story; the second a quiet, plain, rather lovely appreciation of moonlight in the English countryside, in which the word "silver" occurs ten times in fourteen lines.

"Slim Cunning Hands" appeared in the volume Inward Companions, published in 1950 when the poet was 77 years old. I don't know the identity of the lady. She may well have been perfectly imaginary: de la Mare was nothing if not a poet of imagination.

•  Notes

"cozening" — Webster's Third gives the following for "cozen":

vt   1:  to deceive by artful wheedling or tricky dishonesty.    2:  to beguile craftily: victimize by chicanery.    3:  to bring about, induce, or obtain by artful wheedling or tricky dishonesty.
vi   :  to act with artful deceit.


•  Play the reading

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•  Text of the poem

Slim cunning hands at rest, and cozening eyes —
Under this stone one loved too wildly lies;
How false she was, no granite could declare;
    Nor all earth's flowers, how fair.