Words to Walter de la Mare's Mistletoe

Poetry Analysis of ‘Misletoe’ by Walter de la Mare

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.

One candle in this Xmas poem

A Candle Burns in Walter de la Mare’s poem “Mistletoe.”

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?

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73 thoughts on “Poetry Analysis of ‘Misletoe’ by Walter de la Mare

  1. Teagan Geneviene

    Festive and educational, Christy. How ironic that a plant which is both parasite and poison (to one degree or another) came to represent stealing or inviting kisses. Cynic that I am, I’ll not take that any farther. 😉 Happy holiday hugs, my friend.

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    1. Christy B Post author

      It can be surprisingly easy to be cynical this time of the year.. but I’m thankful you kept on the positive side, sweetie. Hugs to you too, for the holidays and beyond 🙂

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  2. Clanmother

    Poetry is the best way to celebrate the holiday season. I really enjoyed this post. You asked what my favorite Christmas poem. Mine is by Longfellow:

    I heard the bells on Christmas Day
    Their old, familiar carols play,

    and wild and sweet
    The words repeat
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

    And thought how, as the day had come,
    The belfries of all Christendom

    Had rolled along
    The unbroken song
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

    Till ringing, singing on its way,
    The world revolved from night to day,

    A voice, a chime,
    A chant sublime
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

    Then from each black, accursed mouth
    The cannon thundered in the South,

    And with the sound
    The carols drowned
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

    It was as if an earthquake rent
    The hearth-stones of a continent,

    And made forlorn
    The households born
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

    And in despair I bowed my head;
    “There is no peace on earth,” I said;

    “For hate is strong,
    And mocks the song
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

    Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
    “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

    The Wrong shall fail,
    The Right prevail,
    With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

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  3. Keith

    Christy, very interesting. I like that he leaves the reader to his or her own interpretation leaving a few clues along the way. Have you seen interpretations where the kissing bandit was not other-wordly? Keith

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    1. Christy B Post author

      I hadn’t heard of any other interpretation than the ghostly one but absolutely it must be out there too.. for such a lonely character in the story, I would hope that he finds a love of this world xx

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  4. Sue Dreamwalker

    This is such a wonderful poem that has long stood the test of time.. And his poetry I remember from School days..
    Sending lots of hugs and ‘kisses’ your way too Christy, thank you sweet friend for your beautiful friendship ..Wishing you a wonderful Christmas.. and a Happy New Year xxx ❤

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    1. Christy B Post author

      A few people have commented that the poem takes them back to their school days.. I hope they are good memories 😉 Thank you for making time here to enjoy a bit of poetry, Sue, before you go rest xx Happy New Year and all the best for Xmas! ❤

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    1. Christy B Post author

      Eeeek I’m envisioning you thinking back to school and having shivers of being forced to recite poetry.. I hope the memory is a better one of de la Mare than that 😉

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  5. melouisef

    I had to google to find out about mistletoe because I don’t think it is something one finds here in the Southern Hemisphere. Of course what we see here is the artificial version hanging on the front door. Not always and not everywhere because after all Christmas is a cultural institution. But thank you for a great original post and no I had no idea who this guy was. I hope the kiss was the beginning of a romance ❤

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  6. Aquileana

    I can feel the ghostly imagery over here. Two verses reminded me of Plato´s cave allegory, which I am mentioning because I´d say we are not so sure if this is an illusion, a reverie… The narrator seems to be slept, or daydreaming somehow. The verses are: “Just one candle burning on, Shadows lurking everywhere”.
    This poem is mostly about loneliness, I think… The shadows could represent reflections of people (already gone: the party is over) … and the ghostly kisser could be a projection of the narrator´s own needs or wishes. Wonderful and intelligent analysis, dear Christy!… Sending love 😘

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    1. Christy B Post author

      The loneliness is heavy in the poem, isn’t it.. I agree.. and the other-worldly kiss sounds haunting.. I thought it was a different take on a Christmas poem and wanted to share my thoughts, so it’s nice you liked reading the post, AP ~ Love you! Thanks for the wonderful reflections you’ve written here ❤

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  7. jbcowgill

    Great poem and great back story about the poem. I enjoy seeing how many of these poems come to light.

    Now maybe a nice man will kiss you under the mistletoe, or maybe the mistletoe will be… on your toe. LOL!!

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  8. Rajagopal

    What a thoughtful way, Christy, to usher in yuletide spirit than talk about a poem on the same subject. It brought back many memories because the poems that engaged my school days of over half a century ago were mainly those of Walter de la Mare, Charles Kingsley, Christina Rossetti, Tennyson, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Wordsworth and Shelley. My favourite Christmas poem is Wordsworth’s ‘Minstrels’, “The minstrels played their Christmas tune / To-night beneath my cottage-eaves; / While smitten by a lofty moon, / The encircling laurels, thick with leaves, / Gave back a rich and dazzling sheen, / That overpowered their natural green. // Through hill and valley every breeze / Had sunk to rest with folded wings: / Keen was the air, but could not freeze, / Nor check, the music of the strings; / So stout and hardy were the band / That scraped the chords with strenuous hand. // And who but listened? – till was paid / Respect to every inmate’s claim, / The greeting given, the music played / In honour of each household name, / Duly pronounced with lusty call, / And ‘Merry Christmas’ wished to all”. With only few days to go, it is merry Xmas to you from me too…

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    1. Christy B Post author

      Raj, the poem “Minstrels” that you shared here is beautiful. You point out many of the great poets in your comment too and between you and them I am in good company indeed. Thanks for the beautiful words, support this year, and for the well wishes. A happy Christmas to you and your family!

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  9. Sarah Potter Writes

    I love de la Mare. When I first heard The Listeners read at school by my rather vibrant English teacher, it sent tingles down my spine and I thought it a very exciting, slightly scary poem. One of my favourite songs ever, which I once sang in a recital, was Cecil Armstrong Gibbs’ musical setting of de la Mare’s poem “Silver”.
    Funnily enough, I listened to a wonderful nature programme on the radio early on Sunday morning, which was all about mistletoe, so your poetry analysis is very timely, as I know more about the plant, plus the myths and legends attached to it, than I did a week ago.

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    1. Christy B Post author

      Oh how wonderful that you have such good memories of de la Mare’s poems being recited. I love that this post evoked them for you ~ and oh my what a coincidence that you had just listened to that program about mistletoe!

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  10. theburningheart

    Well Christy, in all honesty wasn’t acquainted with Walter de la Mare, or his poem, however I am not sure he was talking about a ghostly kiss…On those days people were a lot more discrete about love, kissing and all those matters, so believe it was metaphorical in the sense of letting us know he got a kiss under the mistletoe, without revealing who kissed him!
    Or a mere wish fulfilling fantasy, after all who doesn’t dream of being kissed under the mistletoe by that particular person we may fancy?
    In Spanish we have a beautiful poem by Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, that goes:

    Sabe si alguna vez tus labios rojos. quema invisible atmósfera abrasada,. que el alma que hablar puede con los ojos. también puede besar con la mirada.

    That would translate as:
    Know if ever your red lips, feel the air surrounding them on fire,That a soul who can speak through the eyes, also can kiss you with a look.

    Pardon my translation I just made it right now. But of course I do not know nothing about de la Mare, and he could have been talking about a ghost.
    In any case great post of yours that I enjoyed as usual Christy, and taking the occasion we wish you a Merry Christmas to you and your loved ones, and give you a more chaste kiss, through this media, regardless of not been under the mistletoe. 🙂

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    1. Christy B Post author

      How intriguing about your interpretation of de la Mare’s “Mistletoe.” Not a ghost but a secret lover.. oh the romantic in me is going to have to think on this one! 🙂 And the Spanish poem sounds lovely with your translation! I’m pleased I was able to introduce you to de la Mare and also share a chaste kiss too. Merry Christmas!

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  11. ivonprefontaine

    I recall Walter de la Mare’s poetry from elementary school. We had to memorize poems and recite them in class. I chose one of his. I thought it was called Elevator or about an elevator, but I looked for it several years ago and did not find it.

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  12. Sageleaf

    Wonderful analysis! I love when symbols used in poems promote discussion and interpretation. I appreciate it more and more and more.
    That’s a neat poem; I never knew who wrote it. But its simple, yet powerful words indicate its ingenuity and persistence to survive the decades.
    Thank you for sharing it here and for your take on it. 🙂

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  13. Bun Karyudo

    I didn’t know the original poem, but I was interested to read it and your analysis of it, Christy. Now I’m wondering about this mysterious unseen kisser. I initially thought the speaker was talking about the memory of a past kiss, and then when I read it again, I thought maybe it was some kind of ghostly kiss. It’s all very eerie! 😀

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  14. Phil Ryan

    This is very good, both the poem and the piece, explaining it. Thank you.
    I’m not a great reader and don’t know the poem but… I like to think of an older gentleman, staying up late to enjoy the piece and quiet after the house guests (off spring and grand children) have gone to bed (he’s also the candle burning on) and remembering past acquaintances (the shadows). A younger version of him being kissed by his partner. Lost in his thoughts he doesn’t hear or see that partner who kisses him before they retire for the night.
    Sorry, I kind of stumbled in here but would like to return if the quality of this piece is duplicated across the blog 🙂

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    1. Christy B Post author

      Welcome, Phil! Your interpretation of the poem is an interesting one.. it would fit with the man feeling alone as he is reflecting on happier times of the past.. Only de la Mare would know for sure, of course. A few other commenters mentioned his poem “The Listeners,” so I may just have to write a post about that one soon too!

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      1. Phil Ryan

        Thanks Christy. His repetition of pale green, fairy mistletoe just reminded me of (some) older folk repeating themselves and his eyes seeing a potentially bright green colour as pale but… Having read your piece on Robert Frost’s Nothing gold can stay poem I’m clearly out of my depth! I’m looking forward to reading more and learning lots 🙂

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  15. Sherri

    I so much enjoyed your interpretation of ‘Mistletoe’ Christy. I did find it quite ghostly, fairy-like though, not frightening…definitely supernatural! Merry Christmas lovely one, I look forward to seeing you after the New Year! 🙂 xoxo

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    1. Christy B Post author

      Hi sweet friend! I don’t know “The Prince” ~ Just Googled it and found “I Met at Eve” which has the first line “I met at eve the Prince of Sleep…” ~ Am I on the right track? I’m going to read it today!

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      1. Carolee Croft

        Oh, I think I know that poem too, though it’s different from the one I’m thinking of. It begins “Sweet Peridarchus was a prince, the prince he was, of mouses”. Too bad I can’t find it anywhere on the internet. Regardless, hope you enjoy your poetry reading 🙂

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