When Walter de la Mare (1873-1956) wrote the poem “Mistletoe,” he may not have realized the longevity of his words. “Mistletoe,” which first published in 1913, remains popular today. The 14-line poem is easily found online in several Christmas poetry collections, and I have been a fan of it for several years.
Structure of the 1913 Mistletoe Poem
The English poet de la Mare combines a clever rhyme scheme with flowing lines over two verses. He writes in the first-person perspective, and, as with many of his other poems, “Mistletoe” paints a deceptively simple scene and featured ghostly imagery (if this topic intrigues you, perhaps a read of his book Eight Tales would be one to check out). If you read the lines of this Christmas poem out loud, you may notice it has a musical quality about it.
What is Walter de la Mare’s ‘Mistletoe’ About?
The first few lines offer a snapshot of the central character sitting alone in a room under the mistletoe. A reader may assume it is nighttime as there is “one last candle burning low, / All the sleepy dancers gone.” The narrator is painted as being tired and lonely.
With the background set, de la Mare then writes that “Some one came, and kissed me there.” He repeats the sentiment at the end of the poem: “Stooped in the still and shadowy air / Lips unseen – and kissed me there.” The kiss is from a stranger and the mood the poet creates is eerie.
Using lines such as “shadows lurking everywhere” and “shadowy air” conjure up feelings of mysteriousness. Sitting alone, the narrator does not see the person who lays the kiss. With only one candle burning, the room is almost totally dark. The descriptive lines create a haunting effect on the reader, as well as many questions. For instance:
- Who laid the kiss?
- Is the form who entered the room “lips unseen” a real person or a ghost?
- Is the form unseen because it is a spirit rather than human form?
These questions are good ones for readers to ask themselves given that Walter de la Mare is known for writing supernatural-themed works.
Interpretation of the Poem ‘Mistletoe’
De la Mare made good use of repetition within the poem. For example, the line “pale-green, fairy mistletoe” is repeated twice within the poem. Repetition strengthens the image of the dangling mistletoe in the reader’s mind. Using the word “fairy” as a descriptor relates to what mistletoe represented in the time period when the poem was written.
In the past, mistletoe was thought to bring good luck.In the first century in Britain, Druid priests cut mistletoe and then divided the branches into sprigs. They distributed the sprigs to people who hung them over doorways to protect against thunder, lightning, and other said evils.
Within this context, the mistletoe in the poem likely refers to relationships between intangible concepts such as good and evil, or good luck and bad fortune. The kiss from the stranger then would be viewed as positive given it occurred under the mistletoe. Perhaps the kiss is from an angel. Indeed the word “fairy” is repeated within the poem.
So, Walter de la Mare has created a Christmas poem with a ghostly twist. Interestingly, while his “Mistletoe” poem is fairly easy to find online, there are few interpretations of it. I wonder why that is so…
Surprising Facts about Walter de la Mare
Here are some fun facts you may not yet know about the English poet (yet):
- Walter de la Mare’s mother was a relative of the poet Robert Browning
- He was an editor and critic, in addition to writing poems and novels
- Have you heard of Walter Ramal, the author of the 1902 poetry book Songs of Childhood? It was a pseudonym used by Walter de la Mare
- He was able to support his writing with full-time once he acquired a government pension from London’s Anglo-American (Standard) Oil Company, where he had been employed as a clerk in the stats department
- Several honorary degrees were held by de la Mare from top universities such as Oxford and Cambridge
So tell me, is there a Christmas poem that you like a lot?