An only child, Causley was born on August 24 1917 in Launceston, Cornwall, and lived most of his life in the town, with absences for extensive travel. His first home was his grandmother’s cottage by the little river Kensey, which was inclined to flood. This worried his mother and, when she saw a rat in the house, she decided to move; and so for the next 10 years Causley lived higher up in the town in a tenement house hung with Cornish slates. The tap was outside and they shared the lavatory with three other families.
He drew inspiration from his native area. A visit to Teignmouth, Devon, where his parents met, led him to write the moving ‘Keats At Teignmouth’, which was published in The West Country Magazine, edited by another Cornishman, JC Trewin, who found the poem “much the most exciting I received,” and published several more in the magazine and, when he was literary editor, in the Observer.
Although he was too young to remember the first world war, it was a constant shadow during his early days. His father, a private serving on the western front and invalided out in 1919, never recovered his health, and died of tuberculosis in 1924. He had worked as a groom and gardener for a doctor in Teignmouth. His mother, a Cornishwoman, worked as a domestic servant next door to the doctor’s.
While at elementary school, Causley began to write a story influenced by the romantic novels his mother read; but a love of poetry was beginning to burgeon. He liked the sight of a few lines of verse standing out “like a little island in a sea of prose”. At grammar school (to which he gained a scholarship) he was given 10 out of 10 for a sonnet, and on his first visit to London he found a copy of the war poems of Siegfried Sassoon in a Charing Cross Road bookshop. These helped him to gain an insight into his father’s war.
He was 16 and had just taken school certificate when his mother announced that she had got him a good job in a builder’s office. He felt trapped; it was, he wrote later, the end of the world. Gloomy years of working in offices followed; all the time he was struggling, unfruitfully, to write.
When he registered for war service in the autumn of 1939 he chose the navy. Memories of his father’s pitiful condition and, while on holidays spent near a barracks, the sight of endless drilling and marching put him off the army. By this time, the poetry of Sassoon, Robert Graves, Edmund Blunden and Wilfred Owen had made a strong impression. For almost six years the navy was his life; he became a coder and was promoted eventually to acting petty officer. He caught a glimpse of the enemy – a small group of captured Germans landing on Gibraltar – only once until he witnessed the official surrender of the Japanese in New Guinea.
Causley always regarded his life after 1946 as survivor’s leave; the phrase became the title of a volume of poetry, published in 1953, and the war experience is also evident in other titles: his first collection Farewell, Aggie Weston (1951) and Union Street. In her preface to Union Street, Edith Sitwell describes Causley’s “poems of the morning in which one sees the objects with a morning clearness and freshness, some contain depths of tragedy”.
In his books and plays for children he knew instinctively what they liked, and he became one of the leading children’s poets, including his work for younger readers in his Collected Poems alongside his adult verse.
I rather like his view in the introduction to The Puffin Book Of Magic Verse (1974):
“All poetry is magic. It is a spell against insensitivity, failure of imagination, ignorance and barbarism.”
He taught in a primary school until 1976, when he took early retirement.
Retirement from teaching meant that he could accept invitations to be writer-in-residence at the University of Western Australia, the Footscray Institute of Technology, Victoria, and the School of Fine Arts, Banff, Alberta. A legacy of his stay in Canada, In The Dome Car, is a perfect example of his talent for detail. The journey is all there in a short poem. The many strange and exotic places he visited while serving in the navy also became settings for his short stories and poems. In his book of short stories, Hands To Dance there is little about the sea; the sailors’ adventures (or, chiefly, misadventures) happen on shore: in Gibraltar, Malta, “Alex” and Australia.
He retained his native Cornish accent, which added a special flavour to the poetry readings he gave all over the world; at an Edinburgh Festival he shared the bill with WH Auden and Stevie Smith.
Causley was awarded the Queen’s Medal for Poetry in 1967, and the CBE in 1986. He died November 4 2003.
(Note some interesting poetic connections: Charles Causley was influenced by Wilfred Owen who died a year after Causley was born. Wilfred Owen was influenced in his early years by Keats. All three were connected with Teignmouth and Causley also wrote a poem about Keats at Teignmouth).
The above biographical information has been extracted from an obituary in the Guardian in 2003.
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