Vol 94 No 1
I See Myself Among the Crowd: The Poetry of Charlotte Mew
The things that kill us seem
Blind to the death they give:
It is only in our dream
The things that kill us live.
(“The Quiet House”)
One Tuesday evening in November 1915, when a small figure slipped into The Poetry Bookshop, Alida Klementaski (later Alida Monro), strode up to her and asked, “Are you Charlotte Mew?” “I am sorry to say I am”, the figure replied. It’s a great self-deprecatory joke, and one perhaps aimed at the clear difference between the grey energy of little Miss Mew and the broody youth of beautiful Miss Klementaski. But it’s also a keynote for her poems, in which Mew’s voices announce in art their guilt and their identity,
both their sorriness and the fact that they exist.
Mew’s baffled diffidence lives within the unapologetic strength of her
poems. They buttonhole us, flirt with us, flounce, question, plead, confide or denounce; they call back to us as we are leaving, or grab our attention as we pass by in the street. They are never neutral, never uncommitted. Something is always at stake; something must be said. They seek an interlocutor, an addressee, as a drunk seeks their own door: the path is wayward, but an instinct brings you home. They live to be heard, and although they make their own odd mark on the page, everything tends towards the contact between the voice and the listener. They are deeply unfashionable.
Her poems are truly impersonations. She writes “dramatic monologues”, taking on the voices of a farmer whose wife cannot bear to be near him in “The Farmer’s Bride”; or a man whose fiancée has just died in “In Nunhead Cemetery”; or “the soul of a boy of seventeen” in “The Fête”. The style of each poem varies to fit its speaker, while always being unmistakably a Charlotte Mew poem.“The Quiet House” concerns a solitary young woman left alone in dreary solitude with her father in a London house. The poem moves through abrupt transitions between strange, inexplicably burdensome feeling and utterly prosaic detail. There is the sudden flat statement of fact and then the sudden flat statement of the intangible. The feelings live in the things; the things live in the feelings.
No year has been like this that has just gone by;
It may be that what Father says is true,
If things are so it does not matter why:
But everything has burned, and not quite through.
The colours of the world have turned
To flame, the blue, the gold has burned
In what used to be such a leaden sky.
When you are quite burned through you die.
“Madeleine In Church” is quite different. Here, as a woman reflects after a lifetime of easy affairs, the images are all of the tangible, the physical world. Her dwelling only in her body finds its apt expression in her language:
That You can change the things for which we care,
But even You, unless You kill us, not the way.
Mew’s use of dialect dates her – these were the days of Hardy’s Wessex poems and D. H. Lawrence’s poetic experiments with Nottinghamshire speech.However, the dialects she chooses, those of Cornwall, the Isle ofWight, the London working classes, are always voices at one remove from her own. Like Lawrence, she experienced the class divide in her own home,with a father who could drop into the Isle of Wight voice of his youth, and a posh mother whose snobbery outlawed those local words.Mew’s poems are acts of truancy that allow her to become some truant self, and so inhabit modes of speech, and ways of being, that her respectability forbade. She takes on the voice of a philandering man about town, an ageing demi-mondaine, a sexually frustrated romantic French school-boy, a sexually frustrated romantic island farmer, a frustrated young girl trapped at home with her father. Her people are locked
in, incarcerated in houses, schools, rooms, and trapped within the prison of their identities too. So their minds and their thoughts wander, but ultimately cannot freely range. They return to the person, or the feeling, that might free them. And yet the offered freedom never quite arrives. The woman locked in the upstairs room never gives herself freely; the fête never comes back; the body remains in the grave.
The case for Charlotte Mew has been made often enough now. In her own time, and afterwards, many good and great writers have admired her: Thomas Hardy; Siegfried Sassoon; May Sinclair; Virginia Woolf; Marianne Moore. (Characteristically, the one time she met Virginia Woolf both were too shy to speak to each other.) She figures fairly substantially in Philip Larkin’s Oxford Book of Twentieth Century Verse, which is where I, like a lot of other people, first discovered her. Yet her position in “the canon”, if it matters, is not as secure as it ought to be. Is she taught in universities? How many of her poems get into anthologies? She is hardly a neglected figure – her poems are published in a very readable Penguin Classics version admirably edited by John Newton (no relation). Yet she seems consigned to a vaguely Georgian summer’s haze, with W. H. Davies, and Walter De La Mare, and Francis Cornford, and Ivor Gurney, and, to a lesser extent, Edward Thomas. It is a comfortable place perhaps, and such poets will always find readers, but the feeling remains that they are secondary figures.Mew’s “oddity” counts against her too. She looks like an eccentric, too straight to be a Modernist and too strange really to be a Georgian. Her oeuvre is slight, and her Complete Poems is slimmer than even Housman’s. Yet she wrote many poems that seem to me to be excellent, and at least a dozen that are as good as any written in the twentieth century.
Charlotte Mew lived in London for most of her fifty-eight years, unobtrusively making do, quietly taking in lodgers. She looked after people: her elderly mother; her lovely but ineffectual sister; her siblings in the lunatic asylums. Mostly life passed quietly, marked by nothing very much: an illness; a debt; a brief escape abroad; a death. And yet, this respectable Edwardian spinster staving off the disgrace of poverty with thrift, this Bloomsbury bourgeois, also published in The Yellow Book and The Egoist, ardently (and inappropriately)
pursued her school-teacher, and Ella D’Arcy, and May Sinclair, and was taken up, not once but twice, by the Bohemian wing of literary London.
This apparent split in Mew’s personality has bewildered some of her
champions. Penelope Fitzgerald writes her otherwise excellent biography of Mew as though wrestling feebly with a constant dismay that Mew is not someone else. She divides Mew into “Charlotte”, the laudably lesbian poet and unsung genius with the roll-up cigarettes, and “Miss Lotti”, who worries over pins and pence, and gets horribly upset when the family parrot dies. Why should she choose to be Miss Lotti when she could have been a heroic New
Woman? Instead Mew apologetically drifts through life, like one of the more solidly suburban and hence disappointing characters in an E. M. Forster novel. At no time does Fitzgerald perceive that this stands as one of Mew’s greatest strengths. By never escaping she could feel more powerfully the longing to escape. She never received from life what she wanted: but life did grant her the almost palpable sense of the thing she had missed.
Mew’s ordinariness became a strength, but it would be wrong to imagine it as a virtue. Mew did not often grab life.When she did attempt to do so, as when she made a sexual advance toward the heterosexual May Sinclair, things would go badly. Poor Mew ended up chasing poor Sinclair around the bedroom, the two middle-aged women leaping in their hazardous flight and pursuit over the bed that intervened between them. Unsurprisingly,Mew did not declare herself a second time. She grew used to forgoing.
Some time ago Philip Larkin asserted an unhelpful split in the possibilities open to the writer, or indeed anyone. The first is romantically to pursue variety and adventure, a course that only ends in divorce, drunkenness and a corpulent complexion. The other is to settle into the life of humdrum ordinariness, a course which only leads to divorce, drunkenness, and so on. In Mew’s case, I’d rather think of Osip Mandlestam’s affirmation that at all times poets should experience the fate open to everyone else, without privileges, without any sense of specialness. Yet Mew did not quite do this either. How
could she? What was the common fate of a Londoner at the turn of the last century? She experienced instead the fate of her class, the insecure bourgeoisie. Her gradual descent into a genteel but nonetheless real poverty was one shared by thousands.
However it is intrinsic to her gift that Mew’s circumscribed life did not circumscribe her emotional imagination. Mew chose her life; she also chose imagination. She wrote about passion and wrote about it passionately. Perhaps her love for other women, a love that never reached its object, gave her insight into the outsider’s daily losses. And in choosing a circumscribed life, she gave herself access to the understanding of such circumscription too. The intensities she describes are not macabre, or “mad” as some of her critics assume, but are the fugitive and intensely real feelings that anyone might feel.
Like Louis MacNeice, she saw that “ordinary people” are strange too, and flit in their moments of loneliness to places that their public personas would never admit to knowing.
Mew appeared to her contemporaries not just as a great poet but as a great reader of her poems. When reading, Charlotte Mew, akin to Henry James’s Verena Tarrant, would go into a trance, from which at the end of the reading she would have, with some difficulty, to be summoned back. She would fiercely inhabit the voice of another, using their accents, their intonation, rather than her own, “taken over by a distinct personality”. Afterwards, she would just sit, exhausted. She intoxicated her audience; Evelyn Underhill remarked that it was like “having whisky with my tea” – a neat simile to convey Mew’s conjunction of extremity and ordinariness. Writing and reading the poem was possession. Mew wrote to a literary friend, that “All
verse gains by being spoken, and mine particularly – I suppose because it’s rough – though my ideal is beauty”. To her contemporaries, Mew’s written words lacked the stunning power of her readings. May Sinclair worried that “Fête” was “wonderfully achieved, but it absolutely needed her voice, her face, her intonations and vehemence, to make it carry. I think she’s got to find a form which will be right without these outside aids.” But she already had the form.Her verse was a kind of theatre. Sometimes Mew could feel herself being set forth before her listeners like a performing animal, and that they were simply keen to watch this ordinary little woman become these dark, fervent others.
Always she writes of people at the moment of passion. In a letter to Kate Cockerell, Mew wrote: “mais il faut écouter le coeur when there’s nothing else to listen to”. It was said of her that only her discomfort with the doctrine and practice of confession kept her from becoming a Roman Catholic. Yet all her poems are confessions. In her work, the confessor, their voice wrested out of
desperation, talks always to an absent other: a vanished lover; the dead; God. Mew’s voices are caught within their emotion. Mew wrote in a letter of May 1917, that “The quality of emotion . . . the first requirement of poetry ... for good work one must accept the discipline that can be got, while the emotion is given to one”. She chooses the cri de coeur, where “One has not only the cry but the gesture and the accent – and so one goes on – calling up witnesses to the real thing.”
Her impersonations arise out of a sense of a person in extremis, though often one provoked by a state of crisis that has existed for a long time. This risks the reader’s embarrassment, as often Mew teeters on the edge of hysteria, but without ever, or rarely, falling into its abyss. Rather than hysteria, her work exemplifies anxiety. Hysteria loses a self; anxiety finds it: becomes, in fact, a mode of overly acute and painful consciousness. In anxiety, people and things
impact upon us and we are too vulnerable to turn away their expected blows.
Loss most provokes this anxiety; “Left Behind” might be the title of all her poems. Mew is the patron saint of the unrequited, and particularly of that most destroying form of unrequitedness that is bereavement. In Mew’s poems, lovers are always lost, recapturable only in the “poor receipt” of poetry:
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.
It won’t surprise anyone to learn that A. E. Housman liked this poem better than any other by Mew. The same contrast of “you and I” and “everybody” is common to both their work; both of them felt how life could cause “the slowing down of the heart”.
This may make Mew seem a dour depressive, whose eventual suicide acts as the apotheosis of her status as The Unhappiest One. (The suicide has a characteristic Mewian touch: thrifty to the last, she chose the cheapest poison when buying one to dispatch herself with.) Clearly Mew’s sense of life makes optimists stumble, especially as it appears irrefutable. People do suffer; hearts break; loneliness hurts us; and unfulfilment deadens us. But Mew’s voices
express better than most the powerful need to be fulfilled. Even in speaking of their deadness they are incorrigibly, defiantly alive.
Her imagination lives with people whose madness or simplicity draws them closer to the physical world: the girl in “The Farmer’s Bride”, “Ken”, Dave in “Arracombe Wood”. Such figures of natural passion are of their time, like Mowgli in Kipling’s Jungle Books or Rima in W. H. Hudson’s Green Mansions. The appeal of such people is clear.Mew lived her life caught in a paradox. Her love for Emily Brontë probably depends on the fact that they share a myth.
The figure of Cathy Earnshaw weeping so that she might be flung out of heaven and returned to Wuthering Heights is one that recurs in different guises in Mew’s poetry. It is the burden of the “Old Shepherd’s Prayer”:
Heavenly Master, I wud like to wake to they same green places
Where I be know’d for breakin’ dogs and follerin’ sheep.
And if I may not walk in th’old ways and look on th’old faces
I wud sooner sleep.
Life intoxicated Mew; she felt the heartbreak of beauty. That she should also have had a “heart”, a genuine sympathy and understanding of people quite unlike herself, for all that they share her isolation and her frustration, is the miracle of her poems.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The