Off the Ground Summary by Walter de la Mare

This poem summary focuses on the poem ‘Off the Ground’ by the Georgian poet Walter de la Mare. ‘Off the Ground’ is not one of his well-known poems, but is an immensely enjoyable one nonetheless for it tells a rather whimsical story.

In this hundred and ten line poem, de la Mare himself is the storyteller. There are no stanza breaks in the poem. The poet introduces the story as being about three farmers who had a bet amongst themselves for one pound that each of them could lead the other two off the ground through their dance. So they all took of their coats and put on their shoes in preparation of this challenge. With a countdown from one to three, they all began dancing in a pace that was neither excessively fast, nor exceptionally slow. It was noon, and the three farmers emerged out of the comforting shadow of the elm tree they had been standing under, into the sun, and kept dancing all across the meadow. As they were dancing, they crossed the village school. They danced with their knees bent, and while keeping the rhythm on their fingers. Their shoes creating quite a noise as they jumped up and down, and turned around as part of their respective dance routines, and in this way, they also crossed the village church and its grounds. They completed a mile when they reached a meadow that was privately owned by someone called Tupman. However, the thought of trespassing didn’t scare them, or affect them in any way whatsoever. Instead, they thoughtlessly danced their way over the three bars of the turnstile that separated that private property from the public grounds. The farmers then proceeded in a straight direction to reach Whipham, and from there, they went downhill to Week. Their steps were light and melodious, but not so fast as to elude observation. After this downhill descent, they again climb upward to Watchet, and continued their journey onwards to Wye. They measured the distance they had traversed not in miles or kilometres, but by the number of churches they had crossed, and in fact they counted that they had crossed seven churches in total until then. Number of churches was not their only means of measuring distance, for they found that they had also passed by five mills. They had also crossed countless farms, and sheep. The three farmers also passed by places with unusual names, like Old Man’s Acre, and Dead Man’s Pool. All these places they had left behind on their way to Wool. As they also passed Wool by, their dance had taken on such a feverish movement that they seemed like tops spinning in a dream-like manner. After Wool, they crossed Withy, Wellover, Wassop, and so many other places whose names start with the letter ‘W’ that they could not recall the names fully, and only remembered that the first syllable was ‘Wo’. Their dance never fell out of rhythm, even once, and so their heels moved with the regularity of a clock. Though they covered league after league while dancing, none of the farmers felt tired.

At this point, the content and tone of the poem shifts slightly. It had seemed like a prosaic description till now, but hereafter the description becomes lively, and the apparently anonymous farmers get names. Walter de la Mare says that they finally reached the sea, which appeared to be green in colour (perhaps because of a large quantity of floating algae and suchlike) after passing by Willow-cum-Leigh. Then one of the farmers, Farmer Bates stops at the shore all out of breath, and wonders aloud what is under the sea. Bates is sure that no man knows the answer to that question. Then, following Bates, Farmer Giles also stops and says that his mind is becoming weak as he attempts to calculate how far down a man would have reached if he had been drowned in the sea. However, the third farmer, Farmer Turvey does not stop at the shore, and dances right into the water of the sea. The other two imagine that Turvey has reached the land of mermaids (those fair sea creatures who have fins, as well as a human torso), where the inhabitants play on the harp all day, and comb their yellow hair. As Bates and Giles sit on the shingle of the beach, only Farmer Turvey’s cap is seen floating. No bubble or ripple was visible in the water, and Bates and Giles thought Turvey had disappeared to the place where he would be having a feast off plates made of gold. No echo of the singing, dancing and merry-making that Turvey indulged in with the mermaids could be heard by the other two farmers. They called out to Turvey, but received no reply except the sound of the water breaking upon the shore. Feeling gloomy, they sat and thought about their homes and their beds. Finally, they got up and said that Turvey must be deep in the sea. They each dropped their share of forty shillings into the water, for Turvey had been able to dance them off the ground, and therefore, he had won the bet.

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