Poetry Survey Post 3: The Little Salamander by Walter de la Mare

To Margot

When I go free,
I think ’twill be
A night of stars and snow,
And the wild fires of frost shall light
My footsteps as I go;
Nobody – nobody will be there
With groping touch, or sight,
To see me in my bush of hair
Dance burning through the night.

Here’s a little lyrical gem that I’ve loved for a long time. It makes an immediate impression and you don’t even really need to know that a Salamander (or Salamandral) is a mythical creature with a strange relationship to fire. In some version, the salamander’s natural element is flame and volcanoes, just as our natural element is air. In other versions, more ancient, the salamander is so cold that it can put out fire. Which do you think the poet meant here? I originally thought this was the salamander of fire and heat, but “wild fires of frost” suggest that the “burning” in the last line might not be the hot kind of burning. It’s hard to imagine a beast of flame wanting to be out and about on a particularly cold night.

Somehow the Salamander in this poem has become caged or imprisoned – or perhaps it has yet to emerge from its original state. He dreams of escape, on a frosty night with no one around. His awareness of his own beauty is balanced by his utter lack of desire to have that beauty witnessed or admired. As imagined, he is a natural beast.

Did you notice the burning bush?

6 thoughts on “Poetry Survey Post 3: The Little Salamander by Walter de la Mare

  1. Without your help (about the salamander) I would have read this poem as a. . … To be honest, I don’t know if I would have spent time with it at all, even though I like it, sort of.

    Even with you comments, I still don’t know what to make of it–except that it creates a pleasingly (not scary) haunted atmosphere, and it speaks to the youthful desire for mysterious imaginary adventures far away from the daylight world of watchful adults. And, no, I wouldn’t have thought at all about Moses and THE bush.

    It seems like the beginning of a child’s version (I. E., written for a child) of a “Kubla Kahn” type poem.

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    • Exactly! Walter was known primarily as a child’s poet and a poet of childhood, and this poem was written for a child. I don’t see it as much of an object of contemplation. It’s a brief, bright gem.

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        • I used to think that good “criticism,” which is not the same as being critical, might make the beauty even more accessible, or maybe intense. For eample, I really do think the word “bush” stands out. I pictured the little guy’s hair, uncombed, standing up in excitement or just because of the head movement in a twirling dance. But then I thought about the word “in,” and wondered if the speaker (is he a child, or an adult allowing himself the imaginative freedom of a child?) is referring to hair all over his body standing up–the tingling sensation when a person is greatly excited. Then I wondered if the bush of hair meant that the speaker felt a kind of oneness with all nature, he became a bush and they (along with the snow and stars), and they were burning with the delight of sheer existence. Then I began to wonder if the speaker, or maybe the poet himself, is really talking about death (“When I go free”).

          Did I ruin the poem for myself with all this thinking?

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          • Not at all. Critcism does indeed have a very important purpose. Without it, how can we know that we truly love the good and despise the bad? And that, surely, is at least half the definition of a good man.

            I like to go back and re-read a poem in an intuitive state of mind, after doing the more critical reading.

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