Charles Causley

b. 1917 – d. 2003

Charles Causley was a Cornish poet, schoolmaster and writer. His work is noted for its simplicity and directness and for its associations with folklore, especially when linked to his native Cornwall. In 1958, Causley was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and was awarded a CBE in 1986. When he was 83 years old he was made a Companion of Literature by the Royal Society of Literature: he greeted this award with the words, ‘My goodness, what an encouragement!’


Charles Causley remembered – by Kevin Crossley-Holland

When I first visited Charles Causley in 1967, I took a small engraving depicting Launceston’s hilltop Norman castle and two figures walking along a winding track towards the town. Charles inspected it, unbidden inscribed it in his lapidary hand ‘Charles Causley walks with his muse’, and gravely gave it back to me.

Home in his beloved ‘Lanson’ after staying with me the following year, he wrote, ‘Howling wind and rain arose as I approached the Cornish border.  Solemn were my thoughts as I drove by T. Hughes’s village just outside Okehampton. Now don’t miss that Seneca.’ Response to place and weather, literary reference, and slightly owlish observation in just three brief, faintly archaic sentences: that was absolutely typical of the man.

For all their rivalries and alignments, writers tend to be convivial and collegiate. Charles Causley certainly was. ‘Fitzgerald says in one his letters,’ he wrote, ‘how important it is to kick around ideas with one’s friends; that the curse of the solitary life is the way ideas (some good, some dud) can lie on the chest and curdle like undigested food.’ He appreciated and supported the work of many contemporaries, often behind scenes; and he conducted a lively correspondence with a large number of people. The editor of his letters will have a prodigious job on his hands.

During a full writing life, Charles wrote poems, stories, libretti and reviews, and edited anthologies. He was also a natural broadcaster – ebullient, trenchant, speaking with a Cornish accent. Introducing his Union Street (1957), Edith Sitwell appropriated a phrase used by Arthur Symons of John Clare: she said Charles’s poems were ‘made out of bright laughing sound’ but also pointed to the way some his work was strange, deeply moving and contains depths of tragedy. True, much of Causley’s work is buoyant, even bubbly; it’s assertive and often witty (Betjeman, 1984 is a marvellously funny and affectionate send-up); but Sitwell was right and, as years passed, more of Charles’s poems were haunted by time and the dark, and informed by the memorable paradox, articulated while visiting the ‘Sphinx at Saqqara’, that ‘the price of love is love’.

Charles Causley was born in Launceston in Cornwall, the only child of a gardener and groom (who died of wounds sustained during the First World War when his son was just seven) and a domestic servant. He was educated at Launceston College, left school at fifteen and, excepting the war years and later long visits to serve as writer-in-residence in Australia and Canada, remained in Launceston all his life. He lived with his mother Laura and nursed her for six years after she had a stroke, and taught in a primary school until he took early retirement in 1976 (already aged 59). He did not marry.

The greatest driving force behind Charles’s work was his deep feeling for Cornwall and his wartime experience. Apart from George Mackay Brown, I cannot think of an important poet writing during the last 50 years who has drawn greater strength from place. This finds expression in the way he dovetails Cornish past and present, explores backwaters, celebrates the lives of well-known and little known Cornishmen (among them W.S. Graham and Jack Clemo), and rollicks with a whole tribe of uncles, aunts, grandparents, cousins.

Causley enlisted in the navy in autumn 1939, and served first as a coder, then as an acting petty officer. But he had neither a comfortable nor particularly demanding war, and discovered he was a bad sailor, ‘bouncing about off-shore,’ as he later told me of his time in Scapa Flow, ‘in a destroyer so light, bent and fragile that I was even sick in harbour’. Yet the thrust-and-tug of salt tides is everywhere present in Causley’s work, not only in the subject matter (comradeship, drowning, offshore leave, the sea herself as magnet and mistress) but in its breeziness and imagery.

A poem by Causley is immediately recognisable. It has about it a freshness and untaintedness rare for its time; it is always the poetry of a celebrant, not a cynic or ironist; and it grows in the same garden as hymn, ballad, nursery rhyme and folk-song. It calls out to be heard, not read. D.M. Thomas noted that ‘The surface simplicity of his style is deceptive. Many poets are simple, while appearing to be profound; Causley, like Robert Frost, is the opposite.’

This lucidity and his love of narrative, taken with an innate understanding of children and liking for their company, also made Causley an outstanding children’s writer. In 1967 I invited him to contribute to a children’s anthology, and almost by return received By St Thomas Water:

By St Thomas Water

Where the river is thin

We looked for a jam-jar

To catch the quick fish in.
Through St Thomas Church-yard

Jessie and I ran

The day we took the jam-pot

Off the dead man…

Charles told me this was actually the first poem he had written with children in mind. But, significantly, he also led off his next adult collection, Underneath the Water, with the same poem. One of the most accessible and loved poets of his time, he won the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1967 and was appointed CBE in 1986, while the Royal Society of Literature elected him Companion of Literature in 2001.

Charles often ended a telephone call or letter with the exhortation ‘ON!’  On, anyhow… On, despite… He was a poet of the first water, and a spirited and curious, generous and upright man.