About Charles Causley
Charles Causley, the Man: his Life, his Writing and his Achievements
Charles Causley CBE, FRSL, Hon. D.Litt. was born on 24th August 1917 in a small rented cottage standing just by the River Kensey and its mediaeval packhorse bridge in the St. Thomas district of Launceston, Cornwall. The site is marked by a blue plaque installed by the Town Council.
He spent most of his life living in the same town (apart from his years of war-time service, a period of teacher-training, and a number of spells as a touring or residential speaker/tutor/writer). He died in the town, at the age of 86, 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, when his only son Charles was only 7, a loss that featured regularly in his later writing. Causley was brought up by his mother, to whose care he devoted himself in her later life.
After leaving school at the age of 15 , Causley worked for some years as a clerk in several local firms. At the same time, he continued to develop his early literary interests and talent by reading widely, and writing plays for local production and publication. His first published play, ‘Runaway’, appeared when he was only 19; several others were published soon afterwards. ‘Runaway’ was broadcast on the BBC’s Home/West Country (radio) service, shortly before the outbreak of World War Two, when Causley was in his early 20s.
After serving in the Royal Navy In the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, in northwest England and the Pacific as an Ordinary Seaman (later. Petty Officer) in World War Two. These experiences stayed with him throughout his life, and formed the basis for many poems, as well as influencing many others; they also led to a 1951 short story collection Hands to Dance and Skylark), Causley took advantage of a British Government post-war scheme to train as a teacher at Peterborough.
On qualifying as a teacher, Causley returned to his native Launceston to take up a teaching post in his own childhood school, and later in other primary schools in the town. He remained in that career — writing, editing and broadcasting in his spare time, as well as travelling widely whenever possible during the school holidays, and caring for his elderly and infirm mother — until taking early retirement in 1976, to become a full-time writer.
Causley toured regularly as a speaker and poetry reader, including around the world for the British Council, and also had several stints attached to a variety of educational and cultural institutions overseas.
Causley toured the U.K. regularly as a speaker and poetry reader, and also did so right around the world for the British Council and the Arts Council. In addition, he undertook several significant stints attached to a variety of educational and cultural institutions in Exeter, Australia and Canada after retirement.
Charles Causley died aged 86 in late 2003, after some years of ill-health, in a Launceston nursing home not far away from his residence of many decades, Cyprus Well. That house is also now marked by a plaque, erected by the Causley Trust to mark its restoration and re-opening as an arts and literature facility.
The simply-engraved, dark Cornish slate headstone of Causley’s grave — simply inscribed ‘Poet’ — may be seen, next to that of his mother, in the lovely old churchyard of St Thomas Parish Church in the Riverside district of Launceston (about half a mile north of the the main town centre, on the A388 St.Thomas Road to Holsworthy).
The grave is located only a hundred yards or so from the house where he was born (marked by a blus plaque), and near the ancient packhorse bridge across the small River Kensey.
Causley’s first published collection of poems, Farewell, Aggie Weston was published by The Hand and Flower Press in 1951. Survivor’s Leave followed in 1953. His literary reputation was fully established in 1957 with the publication of Union Street by Rupert Hart-Davis, which featured an enthusiastic introduction by Edith Sitwell.
Other collections of new poems from Causley regularly followed throughout the 1960s. Johnny Alleluia was published in 1961, and Underneath the Water appeared in 1968. His poetry also began to be widely anthologised, and to share volumes with other contemporary British poets: George Barker, Martin Bell, Laurie Lee, Thom Gunn, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Norman MacCaig, Adrian Mitchell, Edwin Morgan, John Fuller, Elizabeth Jenning, Vernion Scannell, John Walsh, Kathleen Raine, U.A. Fanthorpe, Elma Mitchell, and Michael Rosen.
In the 1960s, Causley also cemented his reputation as an anthologist, editor, critic, and essayist. He became well-known as an occasional broadcaster (especially athrough his role as the host of BBC Radio 4’s Poetry, Please! for many years).
The final collections of new poetry from Causley — Secret Destinations (1984), Twenty-One Poems (1986) and A Field of Vision (1988) — are a prolific and impressive late flowering of his literary achievement, featuring new subjects, approaches and styles alongside mature developments of his familiar ones.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, Causley wrote and published more and more poetry for children. Some are simple rhymes, designed to delight younger readers mainly through their very sound alone. 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 were illustrated by prominent artists.
However, Causley always agreed with the view that “there are no good poems for children that are only for children”. Indeed, there is frequent overlap between the contents of his Collected Poems (appearing in several editions over more than 25 years, the last coming out in 2001) and those that appear Collected Poems for Children (1996, with several subsequent re-printings).
His poetry often refers to Cornwall, its people, geography, history, customs and legends. His regional stature was reflected in his appointment as a Bard of the Cornish Gorsedd in 1955 (although he never appears to have participated in that body and its activities afterwards). Nevertheless, Causley’s vision, interests and writing stretched far beyond his native county, or indeed Britain and not only reflected his global travels but his personal fascination with other peoples and cultures. This is also reflected in his translations of poetry from several other languages.
Many of his poems consider fellow writers such as John Keats, John Clare, Federico Garcia Lorca, Cecil Day-Lewis, Jack Clemo, John Betjeman. Artists he admired also feature in his writing: Vincent Van Gogh, Samuel Palmer and Maxim Gorky, and the Cornish sculptor, Neville Northey Burnard.
Causley also wrote plays, short stories and opera librettos (alongside editing anthologies). In addition, he regularly contributed reviews and articles to literary magazines including The Listener, The London Magazine and Poetry Quarterly. His work still appears in many educational texts, while a number of his poems have been set to music by composers like Stephen McNeff, as well as folk musicians like Alex Attewell and in particular his distant relative Jim Causley.
In 1958, Causley was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literaturel he was subsequently also awarded a CBE in 1986.
Other literary 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 in the 1970s, and was made an honorary Doctor of Letters there, in 1977.
He was very highly regarded by fellow poets and other writers and artists, across the UK and worldwide. When he turned 65, many of them (including Ted Hughes, Elizabeth Jennings, Philip Larkin, Roger McGough and Seamus Heaney) contributed poems to a publication dedicated to him. More poems and prose tributes, as well as some of Causley’s own writings (some them never before published), also then appeared in another volume, in honour of his 70th birthday in 1987.
Known and admired as a quiet and modest man (and moreover, personally very well-liked, too) Charles Causley’s public readings were noted for the respect he always gave to his audiences.