Charles Causley, Cornish Poet

Charles Causley, Cornish Poet

Charles Causley was among the most important British poets of his generation. Charles Causley was born in Launceston, Cornwall in 1917 and except for six years of military service in the Royal Navy, he lived in Launceston. He was an only child, son of a groom and gardener who died from wounds sustained in the First World War when he was seven years old.

His father had been a private soldier in France in World War I and returned from the war with Tuberculosis. He watched his father slowly die. He also saw shell-shocked soldiers wandering through Launceston. His conclusion was "that war was something more than the exciting fiction one read about in books or saw on films." This undoubted influences his poetry in later life.

Charles Causley went to school at the local Launceston College. He apparently wrote his first novel when 9 years old. He played the piano in a local four piece dance band. At fifteen he left school to start working. First as a clerk in a builder's office and then for a local electrical supply company. In the late 1930s he published three one-act plays. He was 22 when war again broke out.

In 1940 Causley joined the Royal Navy in which he served as a coder from 1940 to 1946, and the roots of his poetry are in the time he spent in the navy. Having experienced the death of his father, he again experienced the deaths of friends in war. In August 1945 the Pacific war ended. (he witnessed the Japanese Southwest Pacific Command surrender from the deck of an aircraft carrier.)

He returned to Launceston in 1946, and enrolled in Peterborough Teacher's Training College to study English and history. Once graduated he returned to the same grammar school in Launceston where he had studied as a boy. He spent the remainder of his life in Cornwall.

He also did work for the BBC and served on the poetry panel of the Arts Council (from 1962 to1966) and was "visiting fellow in poetry "at Exeter for a year. He was twice awarded travelling scholarships by the Society of Authors ( in 1954 and 1966)

As well as poetry and plays and short stories he also wrote opera librettos. In 1958 he became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and was awarded a CBE in 1986. Other awards include the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry in 1967, a Cholmondeley Award in 1971, and the Heywood Hill Literary Prize in 2000.

In 1982, on his 65th birthday, a book of poems was published in his honour that included poems from Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Philip Larkin and twenty three other poets. The British poetry community certainly respected him.

Charles Causley died on November 4, 2003, at the age of 86 and is buried next to his mother’s grave in St. Thomas’s Churchyard, Launceston, only yards from the spot where he was born.

He never married, and his private life remained private. He never wrote an autobiography, saying instead that the truth about his life was in his poems.

His Poetry

The war years changed his track from prose to poetry. "I think I became a working poet the day I joined the destroyer Eclipse at Scapa Flow in August, 1940," he later wrote. "Though I wrote only fragmentary notes for the next three years, the wartime experience was a catalytic one. I knew that at last I had found my first subject, as well as a form."

He wrote one book of short stories based on his wartime years, Hands to Dance (1951, revised and enlarged in 1979 as Hands to Dance and Skylark), but his major outlet for his wartime experiences has been poetry.

In 1951 Causley brought out his first poetry collection, Farewell, Aggie Weston, a slim volume of thirty-one poems. Most of the poems portray the things that had impressed themselves upon him in war. The ships, life aboard, the ports he visited abroad. The poem "Chief Petty Officer" has become a definitive poem of the period showing best and the worst of British military traditions:

He wrote imaginative stories and poetry for children. He also did a number of broadcasts for children.

By the time of his first Collected Poems in 1975 he had published seven collections.

Perhaps because he worked outside London, outside the system, outside conventional poetry, his work has not received the acclaim from outside the poetry world that it might have done. But he was respected by his fellow poets.

Causley's parody of John Betjeman is one of the few really funny poems written in the last century. Death of an Aircraft (to George Psychoundakis) was as spirited and was written in deadly earnest.

In 1992, Causley produced another Collected Poems, from Macmillan once again. It is unusual in these times for poets or publishers to stay loyal for so long. .

He is the master of at least five major poetic genres – the short narrative, the war poem, the religious poem, children's poetry, and the personal lyric. His admirers stretch from schoolchildren to his fellow poets. (After Betjeman's death, British poets voted Causley as their first choice to become the next Poet Laureate, but it was not to be.)

Charles Causley

 

Return to Cornwall Famous People