She was admired, in her quiet and tragic lifetime, by Ezra Pound, Vita Sackville-West, and Siegfried Sassoon; Virginia Woolf referred to her as the “greatest living poetess” and Thomas Hardy called her “far and away the best living woman poet—who will be read when others are forgotten.” A quarter of a century after her death, when her Collected Poems was published in America in 1954 Marianne Moore deemed her work “above praise.” But Charlotte Mew appears today an all but forgotten figure, whose slender books of verse have been jostled off those cluttered, weight-bowed shelves on which we would preserve the best in twentieth-century poetry.
She is a poet all too easily jostled aside, for her voice was often timorous and the effects in her poems tended toward the measured and unspectacular. Her output was not only small but also patchy, and a good deal of what she did manage to produce deserves the neglect it has received. Her grammar was at times unsteady; her syntax often muddled; and her phrasings frequently puzzling, in part because, as she herself readily admitted, she never learned to punctuate. Her eye was nondescript—surprisingly so, given that she wrote splendidly in prose about the wonders of vision. She wore her influences a bit stiffly on occasion, a short-coming alluded to with lightfooted tact by Marianne Moore, who observed in nonjudgmental fashion that “there are in the style traces of W.B. Yeats and Thomas Hardy.” And yet her work displays what Moore called an “indigenous originality.” It is a testimony to the excellence of Charlotte Mew’s best poems that they seem no less distinctive for their being so few. The reader who grows enchanted with her work will likely develop strong feelings about what a Charlotte Mew poem is, and a conviction that no one else could have written anything quite like it.
One might have conjectured, with a cynicism tempered by sympathy, that the lurid events and patterns of her life would have fueled an ongoing interest in her work. Charlotte Mew was born in 1869 on the Isle of Wight into a family whose moderate affluence provided scant protection from misfortune. Of the seven Mew children, two died in infancy and one at the age of five, and two of them, Henry and Freda, became insane before reaching full adulthood. Henry, for whom Charlotte felt a particular affinity, spent the remainder of his short life in a hospital, where he died of pneumonia at the age of thirty-five, still irretrievably mad. The distancing, both physical and spiritual, that madness imposes provided her with a—and arguably the—principal theme of her poetry. (Her other major theme, unrequited passion, has obvious thematic ties to madness, among them the poignancy of thwarted self-fulfillment.) By temperament she was somewhat indrawn herself, and much of her poetry may be viewed as musings in isolation upon variant forms of isolation.
She was a woman driven by lesbian impulses, although it remains dubious whether she ever shared a sexual experience with anyone. Not surprisingly, given her passion for privacy, much is unclear about her life. The most important person in the world to her was probably her sister Anne—who was, besides Charlotte, the only child in the luckless Mew household to reach adulthood with body and mind intact. Charlotte, Anne, and their oppressive, hypochondriacal mother, Anna Maria, lived modestly for many years in Bloomsbury. Over time, money grew increasingly tight for them, and self-consciousness about their visibly straitened circumstances enhanced an innate reluctance to entertain. Anna Maria died of pneumonia in 1923 and Anne of cancer in 1927. Impossible as Anna Maria could be, her death devastated Charlotte, who wrote to a friend that she felt “like a weed dug up and thrown over a wall.” Anne’s death was a still greater blow—one from which Charlotte could not recover. In the next few months, she subsided into a frightened and artistically sterile reclusiveness, becoming guiltily obsessed with the notion that her sister had been buried alive. Her own death the following year bears in retrospect the stamp of inevitability. She was the victim of a particularly ghastly suicide. On the afternoon of March 24, 1928, Charlotte Mew drank a corrosive creosote solution that left her twisted up in pain and foaming at the mouth before it finally killed her.
The contours and motivations of her unhappy life are lucidly set out in Penelope Fitzgerald’s Charlotte Mew and Her Friends, which unfortunately was never published in America. Not least among the biography’s virtues is a respectful restraint that keeps intrusive psychological speculations to a minimum. Fitzgerald lets the poet’s story tell itself. At once genteel and rebellious, grateful and acidulous, Charlotte presents an inherently likeable figure, and the reader follows the ups and downs of her career with an easy-flowing interest.
This was a career slow to come to any sort of fruition. Mew broke into print in 1894, at the age of twenty-four, when The Yellow Book published a story called “Passed,” but her first book, a slim collection of poems entitled The Farmer’s Bride, did not appear until 1916. Charlotte was by then a “younger poet” of forty-six. And although The Farmer’s Bride received some heartening and discerning praise, it did not sell well.
By the time her first book arrived, however, exciting developments had come to Mew’s life. In 1912, shortly after what would become the title poem to The Farmer’s Bride appeared in The Nation, she was “taken up” by her first literary patron, Catherine Dawson Scott, a founder of PEN. The following year, a second patron materialized, the celebrated novelist May Sinclair, who sent Mew’s poetry to Pound, Rebecca West, H.D., and others, and, in 1918, a third, Sydney Cockerell, the director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Charlotte, and Charlotte’s work, had begun to circulate in London literary circles. And in time, approval which meant more than anything that London could provide arrived from Dorchester. Thomas Hardy had been impressed by The Farmer’s Bride. He was the living writer most revered by Mew, and when in the spring of 1918 he invited her to visit him and his wife at their house, Max Gate, she accepted with edgy eagerness. The visit went well. Hardy, who was growing quite elderly, charmed Mew, and he was quite taken with this tiny, hoarsevoiced woman whose looks and manner blended so strikingly a feminine frailty with a masculine severity.
Mew’s appetite for fame appears to have been finite, and by the time she turned fifty, in November of 1919, with the Great War behind her and a new decade fast approaching, she had achieved most of what she might reasonably have coveted. She was growing increasingly well-respected—at least among the reading public that mattered to her—and had received hearty encouragement from many of the country’s best writers. Still, her body of published poetry was tenuously small, and all signs indicated that it would remain so; she never could manage to hurry her work along. In addition, her natural sense of foreboding, fostered no doubt by recurrent family tragedies, warned her that all success was chancy. These forebodings were fully justified, it turned out, as the succeeding decade proved a time of poverty, illness, and unhappiness for the three women of the Mew household. And none of them survived it.
As fine as Fitzgerald’s biography may be, the reader will likely depart it feeling some frustration at the way its subject never comes wholly alive in its pages. Charlotte’s life unfolds without ever engendering that feeling of special intimacy, of being in the company of a stranger whom one nevertheless knows quite well, which can be the chief pleasure of biography. Fitzgerald is perhaps not to be censured, however, for any sense of an unabridged distance that her biography creates. Charlotte was so intensely private that her posthumous refusal to step forth fully in a biographical embodiment seems only fitting. Predictably—and happily enough—one must turn to her poems to see her most clearly.
Until recently, the simple task of turning to Mew’s poetry could present a problem. Her verse was out of print and not to be found in most libraries. The original printings had been small and her books rarely surfaced in secondhand shops. The publication a few years ago of her Collected Poems and Prose, edited by Val Warner, provided in some ways a welcome rectification. This book brought inexpensively together not only most of her previously published poems but also seven never previously collected; it also rounded up for the first time Mew’s essays and stories.
The preponderance of the book is devoted to prose; the collected poems cover only sixty of its 446 pages. Warner was presumably motivated by an understandable and generous belief that since the prose had never received book publication it should at last be given its day and due. Unfortunately, much of Mew’s prose was middling work at best, and before reaching the end of Collected Poems and Prose the wayworn reader will probably wish that a more discriminating editorial policy had prevailed. Unfortunate, too, is the book’s slipshod production. Misinformation begins with the introductory material on the back cover, in the form of a factual error (the reader is told that Mew committed suicide at the age of forty-nine, ten years before she did), and continues steadily throughout the text, chiefly in the form of typographical errors. Always regrettable, misprints are particularly baneful in the work of a poet like Mew (or Cummings, or Dickinson) whose punctuation was so eccentric. Faced with the unignorable possibility of a misprint, the reader is apt to lose a vital willingness to puzzle out any quirk or uncertainty.
If Charlotte Mew’s poems deserve better, they are lively enough to survive worse. Collected Poems and Prose reveals to us a unique voice of unboastful toughness and poignant longings. It also clarifies, as poems scattered in anthologies naturally cannot, the species and range of Mew’s talent. Her adoration of Hardy, for example, grows clearer. Like him, she was attracted to rural dialect and to roughed-up awkwardnesses designed to disturb any ear in search of euphony. She shared his taste for a wistful melancholia and a brusque tenderness, and his abiding interest in the lingering voices of the dead. The reader sees, as well, why Marianne Moore found Mew’s work so engaging. Both women were fond of surfeit—especially the risking of monotony through the piling up of a single rhyme. In Mew’s work, as in Moore’s, one finds frequent illustration of that curious auditory paradox which might be summarized as “More than too much is not excessive.” If three proximate uses of the same rhyme often prove monotonous or discordant, its appearance four, five, even six times in succession can, in the right hands, propel the reader beyond monotony and discord into the realm of a harshly beautiful new music. Mew’s “A Farewell,” for example, opens conventionally enough:
Remember me and smile, as smiling too, I have remembered things that went their way—
But with these two lines, the reader has already been introduced to all the end-rhymes this sonnet offers; thus it will go—in juxtapositions of oo and ay—for fourteen lines. Still more excessive, in terms of rhyme and assonance, is the opening of “Do Dreams Lie Deeper?”:
His dust looks up to the changing sky Through daisies’ eyes;
And when a swallow flies Only so high
He hears her going by As daisies do. He does not die
In this brown earth where he was glad enough to lie.
Her poetry could rightly be described as diffident, at least in reference to its ambitions and assertions, but her ear was adventurous. There was often a nervy bravado to the music of Charlotte Mew.
If Mew burdens her critics with occasional obscurities, she lightens their load by writing magnificent short poems; there need be few troublesome efforts to excerpt her work when so many of her best lyrics are brief enough to be reprinted in entirety. Here is “Sea Love”:
Tide be runnin’ the great world over: T’was only last June month I mind that we
Was thinkin’ the toss and the call in the breast of the lover So everlastin’ as the sea.
Heer’s the same little fishes that sputter and swim, Wi’ the moon’s old glim on the grey, wet sand;
An’ him no more to me nor me to him Than the wind goin’ over my hand.
How easy this looks to write but how easily, in fact, it might have gone astray! Attempts to put Poetry into the mouths of the unlearned are generally disastrous—either condescendingly sentimental or laughably ponderous. Mew’s poem has an unpushed flow, an easy conjunction of the common and the unusual. Little fish that swim are—God knows—hardly worth remarking; but fish that “sputter and swim” are genuine creatures—the sort from which a hardpressed fishing village might draw a livelihood. And if “grey, wet sand” seems stolidly plain, it nonetheless provides an arena for magic when the moon’s “glim” finds it out. This ease of treatment extends to the poem’s sentiment. The woman speaker feels nothing so weighty as remorse but merely, and yet more grandly, a simple wonder: Isn’t it odd—she asks us, as the sea of the first stanza thins to the breeze of the second—how inconstant we are and how painlessly love can depart from us?
A similarly reflective breeze runs through “From a Window”:
Up here, with June, the syca- more throws Across the window a whispering screen; I shall miss the sycamore more, I suppose,
Than anything else on this earth that is out in green. But I mean to go through the door without fear, Not caring much what happens here When I’m away:—
How green the screen is across the panes Or who goes laughing along the lanes With my old lover all the summer day.
One need modify the first line only slightly, changing “with June” to the more predictable “in June,” to behold how narrow is the boundary separating the quick from the lifeless. By means of “with June,” the reader is lightly, colloquially airborne, lifted past a thudding stammer in line three (“sycamore more”) which might otherwise strike too clangorously within a poem of such modest size and music. Line four, in any case, is extraordinarily ungainly—any less so, and it would doubtless be too much so. The effect, instead, is of a worked-for sincerity. The poem is about ready to unclot, beautifully, but before it does so we face that heavily contiguous internal rhyme of “mean” with “green” and a recalling, by means of “door,” of that echoing “sycamore more.” With what buoyancy, by contrast, comes the introduction of a death that may be a suicide. “When I’m away,” the poet says, and could almost be referring to a simple departure from town.
The concluding phrase, “all the summer day,” probably held a good deal of private magic for Charlotte Mew. One gathers from her other poems and her stories a sense of summer symbolizing for her a lovely alternate world enriched by childhood’s enchantments. Despite the tragedies of her youth, Mew looked back on it, as Fitzgerald points out, as “a time of intense but lost happiness.” Tormented as she was by fears of madness and the gnawings of unanswered love, her spiritual leanings toward a world of peace—sunlit and innocent—were naturally irresistible. Her poems again and again look out across the boundary of the grave, locating in some vast Beyond a place of golden clemency. “A Quoi Bon Dire,” perhaps her finest short lyric, offers a good example:
Seventeen years ago you said
Something that sounded like Good- bye; And everybody thinks that you are dead,
So I, as I grow stiff and cold
To this and that say Good-bye too; And everybody sees that I am old
And one fine morning in a sunny lane
Some boy and girl will meet and kiss and swear That nobody can love their way again While over there
You will have smiled, I shall have tossed your hair.
The specificity of “seventeen years,” in a poem that otherwise eschews all specificity, produces a firm realism; the “I” of this poem has been mourning for a long while. There is a good deal of artistic wisdom in the phrase “To this and that.” Mew resists any temptation to attempt to sum up the world with some sharp, emblematic detail; rather, by being so vague, she implicitly tells the reader that the mere world is insignificant in a universe where love alone matters. And when in the last stanza the poem casts off the rigidities of its iambic tetrameter quatrains, and their truncated final lines, to expand into a sweeping pentameter, the poem again risks blandness in pursuit of a humble candor. “And one fine morning in a sunny lane”—what could be simpler than that? And yet, when “some boy and girl” are introduced in the next line, the reader is given an inkling that the speaker’s mourned-for and long-dead lover was first met in the ardor of youth. There was an earlier boy and girl, one must suppose, whose love eventually terminated in the grave. Or, perhaps, never terminated—since, “over there,” they are as dazzlingly in love as ever. But what, and where, is “over there”? This evidently is a place the grave cannot infringe upon, where love comes right at last. And a place where Charlotte Mew, that solitary lover, found frequent solace.
There is no solace to be found in “The Farmer’s Bride,” probably the best of her longer poems. In six stanzas of varying lengths, a farmer unfolds the relentlessly claustrophobic tale of his wretched marriage. He is clearly a man of few words who does not feel at home with words—and yet who is driven to long utterance through insupportable frustration. In his struggling but straightforward way, he makes plain in the poem’s first few lines that he cannot understand his new wife’s transformation:
Three Summers since I chose a maid,
Too young maybe—but more’s to do
At harvest-time than bide and woo. When us was wed she turned afraid
Of love and me and all things human;
Like the shut of a winter’s day
Her smile went out, and ‘twadn’t a woman—More like a little frightened fay. One night, in the Fall, she runned away.
The woman is bewitched, surely. In any case, she must be brought home and restored to her duties, as is only right:
All in a shiver and a scare
We caught her, fetched her home at last And turned the key upon her, fast.
She will not fly again, apparently, and does her housework satisfactorily now. Yet it seems she has made another sort of flight, into a zone of magic, or madness. The poem’s music alters with this alteration, as rhyme is stacked clamorously upon rhyme:
Happy enough to chat and play With birds and rabbits and such as they, So long as men-folk keep away.
“Not near, not near!” her eyes beseech
When one of us comes within reach. The women say that beasts in stall Look round like children at her call. I’ve hardly heard her speak at all.
The poem plays as well with a constrictive repetition of words, notably a pairing of “down” and “brown.” In the second stanza, the bride has a “wide brown stare” and is chased “across the down.” In the penultimate stanza, the “oaks are brown” and “one leaf in the still air falls slowly down.” The word-pair returns tellingly in the final stanza, as the farmer’s level voice breaks into exclamations of Iust and helplessness:
She sleeps up in the attic there Alone, poor maid. ‘Tis but a stair Betwixt us. Oh! my God! the down, The soft young down of her, the brown,
The brown of her—her eyes, her hair, her hair!
“The Farmer’s Bride,” like Frost’s “Home Burial,” presents a portrait of rural domestic anguish the more affecting for having its somewhat thick-skinned husband speak and not, as might be expected, his more sensitive, “poetic” wife. Her plight is to be intuited only. One is reminded also of Elizabeth Bishop’s “Brazil, January 1, 1502,” in which the first European settlers tear at the “hanging fabric” of the New World’s vegetation, “each out to catch an Indian for himself—/ those maddening little women who kept calling, / calling to each other.” This is desire that “maddens” in two senses—that irritates and crazes at once. Mew’s poem, like Bishop’s, contains a subtle link between a ravished terrain and the female torso; that “hanging fabric” at which the settlers tear suggests clothes, of course, just as the “down” of the farmer’s landscape is tied to the faint, intimate hair of her body. In Mew’s poem, one must sympathize with the farmer—after all, he wanted nothing more than a “good wife”—even while shuddering at its evocation of a destructive male lust, a dumb manly dominance. This fellow’s wife is too delicate for him, and he, in his simple desire to “have” her, has crushed her.
To my mind, the best of Charlotte Mew’s poems, the ones that belong in any anthology seeking to represent twentieth-century English verse, are “The Farmer’s Bride,” “À Quoi Bon Dire,” “Sea Love,” and perhaps “From a Window,” “I so liked Spring,” “Fin de Fête.” Four of the six, incidentally, are to be found in Philip Larkin’s controversial The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse.
Although this anthology was warmly commended by, among others, W.H. Auden, John Betjeman, and C.P. Snow (Auden and Betjeman, it should in fairness be added, were generously displayed in its pages), it also stirred up impressive outpourings of vituperation. It was called “fussy,” “conservative,” “lifeless,” and worse—criticisms in many ways justified. Certainly, Larkin did a very lax job of presenting poets younger than himself. Geoffrey Hill was given only sixteen lines and Seamus Heaney made no appearance at all. In addition, and whether “conservative” or not, a good many of its contents were simply dull, with little but decorum to recommend them. And yet the purposes behind the anthology, and their specific application to a poet like Charlotte Mew, appear sound enough. Its pages are replete with tempered, short, well-crafted poems—as if Larkin were seeking to right a balance, to perform a salvaging. He was apparently suggesting that in a century whose poetry has been overmastered by brilliant, incendiary revolutionaries—all those wonderfully harsh, crackling harmonies one hears in the great modernists—a subtle miniaturist like Charlotte Mew can easily be overlooked. Larkin made a similar point, explicitly, when seeking (vainly, it turned out) to interest Faber and Faber in publishing Barbara Pym:
I like to read about people who have done nothing spectacular, who aren’t beautiful and lucky, who try to behave well in the limited field of activity they command, but who can see, in little autumnal moments of vision, that the so called “big” experiences of life are going to miss them; and I like to read about such things presented not with self pity or despair or romanticism, but with realistic firmness and even humour.
These are arguments that ultimately go far beyond the work of Barbara Pym or Charlotte Mew. They seek—convincingly, to my mind—to challenge our notions of what properly is our literary heritage.
In our own country, certainly, we have seen a similar undervaluation of the poet whose pitch is refined and whose scale modest but intricately calibrated. How else explain why Louise Bogan’s poems were allowed to go out of print for a time, or why John Crowe Ransom’s work appears so infrequently in bookstores and in college course syllabuses? A poem as accomplished as Bogan’s “Juan’s Song” or Ransom’s “Parting at Dawn”—or Mew’s “À Quoi Bon Dire”—suggests a perfection that is ultimately a dare: they ask whether we are worthy of them, and the only proof of our worthiness rests in the zeal with which we espouse them.
To have written, as Charlotte Mew did, some half-dozen lyrics of unique beauty and finish represents an inspiriting beating of the odds. They ought to entitle her to a small share of enduring reknown. The longings in her poems remain undiminished by time, as do her cries for a world more just and forth-coming. And yet, some sixty years after her death, as her miseries recede into the gentling past, increasingly her poems themselves become part of that other world, that “over there” where longings and love together lie beneath a reconciling sun. Bitter loss becomes lovely loss—and bitter yearnings, sweet yearnings.
January 15, 1987