The Poet of Songs: An Introduction to the Poetry of Charles Causley (1917-2003)

I am the clay that shapes the hand.
I am the word that speaks the man.

~ Last lines of Causley’s great poem, “I am the Great Sun” (more below)

Charles Causley is a poet that even many poetry lovers have forgotten. But in my opinion, he deserves to be more widely read. Causley is a ‘modern poet’ (he died only in 2003) but there is nothing avant-garde about his poetry. Rather than follow the path of the Modernist movement, Causley’s work harks back to an older, more English roots, taking his inspiration from folk songs, hymns and especially ballads. Indeed, he is the most famous English poet of songs, an achievement many critics would consider less a distinction than a disability. Yet, his accomplishments go far beyond the ballad, for Causley mastered an impressive variety of forms and styles, and the true unity of his body of work depends less on a specific allegiance to any single form than on his commitment to certain old-fashioned virtues of English poetry such as simplicity, clarity, grace, and compassion. In this, he is on common ground with the likes of Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis, who share a passion for the lyricism of traditional meters, though all three could write superbly in free verse when the occasion demands.

There is no better way to approach Causley’s poetry than through his life, because few modern poets have been so meaningfully rooted in one time and place. Causley was born in 1917 in the Cornish market town of Launceston where, except for six years of military service, he has lived ever since. Although he was too young to have any direct memories of World War I, it profoundly shaped his childhood. His father, who had served as a private soldier in France, returned from the Great War a consumptive invalid. An only child, Causley spent his first seven years watching his father slowly die. He also watched the terrifying behavior of the shell-shocked soldiers who wandered through his native town. “From childhood, then,” he remarked years later, “it had been made perfectly clear to me that war was something more than the exciting fiction one read about in books or saw on films.” And the memories of war would be seared in many of his poems, which combine innocence with the hard experience of war, suffering, and death. In “Recruiting Drive,” for example, Causley uses the imagery of a bird that lures young men to their deaths in battle.


Under the willow
I heard the butcher-bird sing,
Come out you fine young fellow
From under your mother’s wing.
I’ll show you the magic garden

That hangs in the beamy air,
The way of the lynx and the angry Sphinx

And the fun of the freezing fair.
Lie down lie down with my daughter

Beneath the Arabian tree,
Gaze on your face in the water

Forget the scribbling sea.
Your pillow the nine bright shiners

Your bed the spilling sand,
But the terrible toy of my lily-white boy

Is the gun in his innocent hand.

In “Cowboy Song,” another young man, bereft of family knows he will be murdered before his next birthday. Even a seemingly straightforward narrative such as the “Ballad of the Faithless Wife” acquires a dark visionary quality when in the last stanza, personal tragedy unexpectedly modulates into allegory.

False O false was my lover
Dead on the diamond shore
White as a fleece, for her name was Peace
And the soldier’s name was War.

~ Last stanza of “Cowboy Song”

Causley’s 1957 collection, Union Street secured his reputation as an important contemporary poet. The book collected the best poems from Causley’s first two volumes and added nineteen new ones, including two of his finest poems ever, “I Am the Great Sun” and “At the British War Cemetery, Bayeux.”.


I am the great sun, but you do not see me,
I am your husband, but you turn away.
I am the captive, but you do not free me,
I am the captain you will not obey.
I am the truth, but you will not believe me,
I am the city where you will not stay,
I am your wife, your child, but you will leave me,
I am that God to whom you will not pray.

This poem reveals an overtly more spiritual side than in Causley’s previous work. Here, he imagines himself to be the spokesman for Christ, who is portrayed speaking from the cross, trying to guide and protect humanity. Although mankind refuses to acknowledge him, the sonnet presents some hope in that salvation is at least offered.

A similar inclination towards a compassionate view of Christianity is found in the next poem, “I am the Song”, in which causation is turned on its head, and so, as the first line goes, “I am the song that sings the bird”, a playful reference to the notion that the Creator does not need to follow the laws of nature, for He is the great “I Am,” hinted by Causley at the beginning of every line.


I am the song that sings the bird.
I am the leaf that grows the land.
I am the tide that moves the moon.
I am the stream that halts the sand.
I am the cloud that drives the storm.
I am the earth that lights the sun.
I am the fire that strikes the stone.
I am the clay that shapes the hand.
I am the word that speaks the man.

~ From ‘Collected Poems 1951-2000, published by Picador.

Causley’s most recent work before his death in 2003 continued to explore new modes of expression, yet never losing mastery over the forms he earlier excelled, with autobiographical lyrics meeting on equal terms with narrative ballads, war poems, free verse travelogues, religious meditations, and translations. No single style predominates. All are handled with assurance.

Leave a Reply