About Charles Causley
Charles Causley CBE, FRSL, Hon. D.Litt. was born on 24th August 1917 in Launceston, Cornwall, and spent most of his life there until he died on 4th November 2003.
His father died a few years after the First World War of a lung condition brought on by conditions on the Western Front. Causley was brought up by his mother, to whose care he devoted himself in her later life. He worked for some years from the age of 15 as a clerk in several local firms, but also continued to develop his early literary interests and talent by reading widely and writing plays for local production and publication. His first play ‘Runaway’ was published when he was only nineteen, and was broadcast on the BBC’s West Country radio service.
After serving in the Royal Navy as an Ordinary Seaman and Petty Officer in the Second World War (experiences which stayed with him throughout his life, forming the basis for many of his poems, influencing many others, and also leading to a 1951 short story collection Hands to Dance and Skylark), Causley took advantage of a post-war scheme to train as a teacher at Peterborough.
On qualifying, he returned to his native Launceston to teach in his own childhood school and other primary schools there. He remained in that career — writing, editing and broadcasting in his spare time as well as travelling widely whenever possible in the school holidays — until taking early retirement in 1976, to become a full-time writer. He toured regularly as a British Council speaker and poetry reader, and had several stints in educational and cultural institutions overseas.
Causley’s first published collection of poems, Farewell, Aggie Weston was published by The Hand and Flower Press in 1951. This was followed by Survivor’s Leave in 1953, but his literary reputation was fully established in 1957 with the publication of Union Street by Rupert Hart-Davis, featuring an enthusiastic introduction by Edith Sitwell. Other collections of new poems by Causley regularly followed during the 1960s: Johnny Alleluia and Underneath the Water. His poetry also began to be widely anthologised, and to be share volumes with other contemporary British poets. He also cemented his reputationn as an anthologist, critic, essayist and broadcaster — especially as the host of BBC Radio 4’s Poetry Please for many years.
The final collections of new poetry — Secret Destinations (1984), Twenty-One Poems (1986) and A Field of Vision (1988) — are a prolific and impressive late flowering, with new subjects, approaches and styles alongside mature developments of his familiar ones.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, Causley started to write and publish poetry for children. Some are simple rhymes designed to delight younger readers in large measure by their very sound alone, but others employ his strengths as a careful observer of people, the world and life, and as a strong storyteller. Many of his books of verse for children have been illustrated by prominent artists. Causley always agreed with the view that “there are no good poems for children that are only for children”, and indeed there is some frequent overlap between his Collected Poems (several editions, the last of those coming out in 2001) and his Collected Poems for Children (1996).
His poetry includes many references to Cornwall and its legends, his stature being recognized by his appointment as a Bard of the Cornish Gorsedd in 1955. His scope and interests, however, stretched far beyond his native county. Many of the poems relate to fellow writers like Keats, Clare, Lorca, Day-Lewis, Clemo, Betjeman and artists whose works he admired: Van Gogh, Samuel Palmer and Maxim Gorky, as well as the sculptor of local East Cornish origin, Nevill Northey Burnard.
As well as poetry, Causley wrote plays, short stories and opera librettos — alongside being a prolific editor of poetry anthologies. In addition, he regularly contributed reviews and articles to literary magazines including The Listener, The London Magazine and Poetry Quarterly. Much of his work is now included in educational books for young children; a number of his poems have been set to music by a range of composers like Stephen McNeff and folk musicians such as Alex Attewell and his distant relative Jim Causley.
In 1958, Causley was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and he was awarded a CBE in 1986. Other awards include the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1967. He was presented with the Heywood Hill Literary Prize in 2000. Between 1962 and 1966, he was a member of the Poetry Panel of the Arts Council of Great Britain. He was a Visiting Fellow in Poetry at the University of Exeter, and was made an honorary Doctor of Letters there in 1977.
Causley was very highly regarded by his fellow poets, both across the UK and around the world. When he turned 65, many of them (including Ted Hughes, Elizabeth Jennings, Philip Larkin, Roger McGough and Seamus Heaney) contributed poems to a published collection dedicated to him. More poems and prose tributes, as well as some of Causley’s unseen writing, were published in another volume produced in honour of his 70th birthday. He was known and admired as a very quiet and modest man, and his public readings were noted for the respect he always gave to his audience.
Charles Causley died in 2003 after some years of ill-health — in a nursing home not far from his home of many decades, Cyprus Well — at the age of 86. The simply-engraved, dark Cornish slate headstone of his grave may be seen, next to that of his mother, in the lovely old churchyard of St Thomas Parish Church, only a hundred yards or so from the house where he was born.