The Riddle and Other Tales

by Walter de la Mare. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1923. 12mo. 290 pp. $2.50.
THE next to the last story in this collection gives its title to the volume. The volume might just as logically give its title to the fourteen other tales. For they have a peculiar centrality, an intense, sometimes obscure, insistence on the enigma at the base of experience. Like one of his characters, Mr. de la Mare finds ‘a secret, a magic, a mystery in everything.’
And what a strange company he invites us to meet — the Count’s ‘dear lady,’Nicholas’s doubt-tortured mother, the last Lispet, poor mad Miss Duveen, Seaton’s aunt with her monstrous head and ‘barbarously massed hair,’ P. P. in his nightcap! Eccentrics, ‘out-of-the-world’ people, for the chief part, whom solitude or illness or both have turned in upon themselves. Their business in life has little relation to outside affairs— it is largely, like the work of the artist in that unique firm of Lispet, Lispett & Vaine, between themselves ‘and the infinite, so to speak’—just that. These are tales to tease the imagination, and were doubtless so intended.
In less sure hands matter such as this would produce an effect of morbidity; in Mr. de la Mare’s, never. The sanity of his humor, his keen delight in sensuous beauty, and his loyalty to the mysteries of the spirit exempt him from the charge made against some of his contemporaries of describing the abnormal solely for the sake of its abnormality.
Then why these weird, baffling themes, this array of ‘queer,’unforgettable figures? Well, it is the prerogative of genius to choose its own ground; and the reader of these stories cannot but see that this particular ground suits Mr. de la Mare’s genius, and suits his purpose (or what I take to be his purpose) of bringing reality with its beauty, terror, and inscrutability freshly to the notice of a civilization dulled in thought and mood by the endless whirring of machines. It is to the people — and who to-day is not among them? — of whom an earlier poet wrote: ‘The world is too much with us; late and soon,’ that Mr. de la Mare’s souls are commended.
Not all the tales in the volume are to me equally pleasing to read or suggestive to remember. ‘The Riddle’ itself is for my taste too close to allegory; and ‘Selina’s Parable,’charming idyll as it is, seems too heavily freighted for so frail a craft. But ‘Seaton’s Aunt,’ ‘The Tree,’and that delectable fantasy, ‘Lispet, Lispett & Vaine,’are easily among the modern classics — they are the ‘captain jewels in the carcanet.’ It is hardly necessary to add that this whole remarkable volume is written in the concentrated and eclectic prose style we have learned to expect from Mr. de la Mare, with the rare beauty which can come to us only through a sensuous ear attuned to ‘the stir of the frost,’ and an imagination that hears the faintest tap ‘on the walls of the mind.’ HELEN MCAFEE.