Cornwall's "Poet Laureate": Charles Causley
Closing lines of I Saw a Jolly Hunter by Charles
Causley (Illustration by Pat Marriott)
Foraging through a used bookshop in Cornwall many autumns ago, I discovered Cornish legends and magic, folklore and history, and love and war, all in one native son: Charles Causley.
His close friend, Ted Hughes (Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, 1984-1998), said of Charles Causley:
“Among the English poetry of the last half century, Charles Causley’s could well turn out to be the best loved and most needed. . . .
"Before I was made Poet Laureate, I was asked to name my choice of the best poet for the job. Without hesitation, I named Charles Causley – this marvelously resourceful, original poet, yet among all known poets the only one who could be called a man of the people, in the old, best sense. A poet for whom the title might have been invented afresh. I was pleased to hear that in an unpublished letter, Philip Larkin thought the same and chose him too,” according to “Barrier of a Common Language: An American Looks at Contemporary British Poetry” (2003).
Causley never gained the post of Poet Laureate. However, the people of Launceston often referred to him as “the greatest poet laureate we never had”.
The themes of the work of Charles Causley CBE FRSL (24 August 1917 – 4 November 2003), though often linked to Cornwall, were universal. His writing is often noted for its simplicity and directness.
On Friday, December 9, the Charles Causley Trust is hosting A Causley Christmas evening in Launceston at St. Thomas’ Church, where the writer is buried and 100 yards from his birthplace. The event promises Christmas cheer, Causley’s poems as folk music, performances of local schools, and memories and stories of Causley from friends and former pupils.
The poet from the Southwest knew and corresponded with many writers such as Siegfried Sassoon, A. L. Rowse, Susan Hill and Jack Clemo – and a host of figures from the literary, publishing and wider cultural spheres of the world.
On his 65th birthday in 1982, a book of poems was published in his honor, which included contributions from Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Philip Larkin and 23 other poets, according to the Charles Causley Trust.
Causley, who taught at his own childhood primary school for more than 35 years, wrote poems for a wide audience, including children, such as I Saw a Jolly Hunter:
I saw a jolly hunter
With a jolly gun
Walking in the country
In the jolly sun.
In the jolly meadow
Sat a jolly hare.
Saw the jolly hunter.
Took jolly care.
Hunter jolly eager-
Sight of jolly prey.
Forgot gun pointing
Wrong jolly way.
Jolly hunter jolly head
Over heels gone.
Jolly old safety catch
Not jolly on.
Bang went the jolly gun.
Hunter jolly dead.
Jolly hare got clean away.
Jolly good, I said.
Causley used to say that he could have lived comfortably on the fees paid for the reproduction of 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.
His belly is white, his neck is dark,
And his hair is an exclamation mark.
His clothes are enough to scare a crow
And through his britches the blue winds blow.
When teacher talks he won’t hear a word
And he shoots down dead the arithmetic-bird,
He licks the patterns off his plate
And he’s not even heard of the Welfare State.
Timothy Winters has bloody feet
And he lives in a house on Suez Street,
He sleeps in a sack on the kitchen floor
And they say there aren’t boys like him anymore.
Old Man Winters likes his beer
And his missus ran off with a bombardier,
Grandma sits in the grate with a gin
And Timothy’s does with an aspirin.
The Welfare Worker lies awake
But the law’s as tricky as a ten-foot snake,
So Timothy Winters drinks his cup
And slowly goes on growing up.
At Morning Prayers the Master helves
For children less fortunate than ourselves,
And the loudest response in the room is when
Timothy Winters roars ‘Amen!’
So come one angel, come on ten:
Timothy Winters says “Amen
Amen amen amen amen.”
Timothy Winters, Lord.
Mr. Causley, who served in the Royal Navy during World War II, sometimes reflected upon his experiences in his poetry. His first collection of poems, “Farewell, Aggie Weston” (1951) contained his “Song of the Dying Gunner A.A.1”:
Oh mother my mouth is full of stars
As cartridges in the tray
My blood is a twin-branched scarlet tree
And it runs all runs away
Oh ‘Cooks to the galley’ is sounded off
And the lads are down in the mess
But I lie down by the forrard gun
With a bullet in my breast.
Don’t send me a parcel at Christmas time
Of socks and nutty and wine
And don’t depend on a long weekend
By the Great Western Railway line.
Farewell, Aggie Weston, the Barracks at Guz,
Hang my tiddley suit on the door.
I’m sewn up neat in a canvas sheet
And I shan’t be home no more.
Another popular poem is Eden Rock:
They are waiting for me somewhere beyond Eden Rock:
My father, twenty-five, in the same suit
Of Genuine Irish Tweed, his terrier Jack
Still two years and trembling at his feet.
My mother, twenty-three, in a sprigged dress
Drawn at the waist, ribbon in her straw hat,
Has spread the stiff white cloth over the grass.
Her hair, the colour of wheat, takes on the light.
She pours tea from a Thermos, the milk straight
From an old H.P. sauce-bottle, a screw
Of paper for a cork; slowly sets out
The same three plates, the tin cups painted blue.
The sky whitens as if lit by three suns.
My mother shades her eyes and looks my way
Over the drifted stream. My father spins
A stone along the water. Leisurely,
They beckon to me from the other bank.
I hear them call, ‘See where the stream-path is!
Crossing is not as hard as you might think.’
I had not thought that it would be like this.
To celebrate his life and work as well as promote literary endeavors, the Charles Causley Trust was created as a charity.
In June 2010, the first annual Charles Causley Festival was held in Launceston. Subsequent festivals have featured poets such as Sir Andrew Motion, former Poet Laureate and patron of the Trust, Dame Carol Ann Duffy and Lemn Sissay.
When Causley was 83 years old, the Royal Society of Literature appointed him a Companion of Literature. He accepted this honor with the words:
“My goodness, what an encouragement!”