Charlotte Mew

The district of Bloomsbury in London is a storied one, around the beginning of the century. It was the home of Vanessa Bell, from which came the famed 'Bloomsbury Group' that included her sister Virginia Woolf (who also spent time living in Bloomsbury) and many other of the leading lights of the day. J.M. Barrie lived there when he arrived in London (the home where he lived, supposedly, is the model of the home in the old Disney Peter Pan film). William Butler Yeats made Bloomsbury his London home. Dorothy Sayers spent the greater part of the 1920's there. It is, even now, the home of the British Museum, as well. It is strangely fitting, then, that in 1869, when Karl Marx would have been studying the workings of Capitalism and the transformations of the Industrial Revolution in the British Museum reading Room, that in this same neighborhood, the poetess Charlotte Mew was born. Charlotte Mew was the daughter of Frederick Mew, an architect (the trade runs deep in her blood, her grandfather and several other relatives shared the calling), who, later, died without leaving enough money for his family. Four of the Mew children lived into adulthood. Mew's brother and one of her sister's were admitted into institutions early in their grown years. Mew herself, and her remaining sister, Anne, made a pact with each other never to marry, for fear of passing insanity down to their children. It was, thus, outside of the confines of the traditional Victorian family and in somewhat straitened circumstances that Mew spent her adulthood. Mew, in many ways, is a British Emily Dickinson. In the same way as Dickinson, Mew wrote poetry that was, frankly, unclassifiable and incomprehensible in it's time, from a position of relative solitude. She formed intense friendships with several women (most notably, it seems, her sister and Emma Hardy, the wife of author and poet Thomas Hardy), and otherwise lived a life of almost pathological privacy, actively working to make sure there was as little biographical information on her as possible at her death. And more than anything else, like Emily Dickinson, she was a poet with a startling, powerful vision of what it is to be alive:
The Peddler

Lend me, a little while, the key
That locks your heavy heart, and I'll give you back--
Rarer than books and ribbons and beads bright to see,
This little Key of Dreams out of my pack.

The road, the road, beyond men's bolted doors,
There shall I walk and you go free of me,
For yours lies North across the moors,
And mine lies South. To what seas?

How if we stopped and let our solemn selves go by,
While my gay ghost caught and kissed yours, as ghosts don't do,
And by the wayside, this forgotten you and I
Sat, and were twenty-two?
Give me the key that locks your tired eyes,
And I will lend you this one from my pack,
Brighter than colored beads and painted books that make men wise:
Take it. No, give it back!

Mew lived in a strange, transitional sort of poetry, halfway between the Victorians and the Modernists, and at the same time neither of these two things. Her poetry almost feels the prophetic echoes of a future, in the same way that you feel the coming echoes of the Romantics in a poet like William Blake.

Her main publication was 'The Farmer's Bride', at first a very short collection of poetry, but later expanded to include several other pieces (the version on Gutenberg is the short one, I'm afraid, though if you want to listen to them, the long version is on librivox in audio form, and read quite well). The book was never extraordinarily popular, but drew praise from many luminaries of the day. Thomas Hardy considered her the best female poet of her age, and Virginia Woolf called her "very good and quite unlike anyone else" (which, from Virginia Woolf, is high praise). She got a small government pension and lived frugally, putting out several other poems over her life.

No shadow of you on any bright road again,
And at the darkening end of this--what voice? whose kiss? As if you'd say!
It is not I who have walked with you, it will not be I who take away
Peace, peace, my little handful of the gleaner's grain
From your reaped fields at the shut of day.

Peace! Would you not rather die
Reeling,--with all the cannons at your ear?
So, at least, would I,
And I may not be here
To-night, to-morrow morning or next year.
Still I will let you keep your life a little while,
See dear?
I have made you smile.

In 1827, her sister Anne died. Charlotte was broken. Several years earlier, the sister in the asylum had died of tuberculosis, giving Charlotte a great fear of germs. Anne's room, at her death, was found dotted with black spots, which Charlotte felt sure were the cause of her death, though a coroner declared them to be simply soot from the London air. Charlotte grew increasingly disturbed, and several friends suggested gently that she admit herself to an asylum. She refused, but did eventually go to an asylum, where her phobia of germs grew stronger, still. In 1928, Charlotte Mew was found dead, after having drunken half a bottle of Lysol.
The Changeling:

Toll no bell for me, dear Father dear Mother,
Waste no sighs;
There are my sisters, there is my little brother
Who plays in the place called Paradise,
Your children all, your children for ever;
But I, so wild,
Your disgrace, with the queer brown face, was never,
Never, I know, but half your child...

Sometimes I wouldn't speak, you see,
Or answer when you spoke to me,
Because in the long, still dusks of Spring
You can hear the whole world whispering;
The shy green grasses making love,
The feathers grow on the dear grey dove,
The tiny heart of the redstart beat,
The patter of the squirrel's feet,
The pebbles pushing in the silver streams,
The rushes talking in their dreams,
The swish-swish of the bat's black wings,
The wild-wood bluebell's sweet ting-tings,
Humming and hammering at your ear,
Everything there is to hear
In the heart of hidden things.
But not in the midst of the nursery riot,
That's why I wanted to be quiet,
Couldn't do my sums, or sing,
Or settle down to anything.
And when, for that, I was sent upstairs
I did kneel down to say my prayers;
But the King who sits on your high church steeple
Has nothing to do with us fairy people!


Amy said...

Lovely. Thanks for posting this. I have a book of her poems on my shelf that I need to take down and open up.

Trapunto said...

The first and last poems are familiar to me, very likely from anthologies when I was a child, but I've never even heard of the poet. After a life like that, to have her poems buried among Victorian sweetness deemed appropriate for children--how strange!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the introduction. I have never heard of this author before.

Anonymous said...

I meant poet.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Amy - Do! I'm proselytizing Ms Mew, and like I tweeted you, I thought of you specifically as someone who shoudl read this :).

Ms Trapunto - I'm actually a terrible ignorant, and read almost no poems at all when I was little. And now that I'm NOT little, I don't like anthologies - I love the poetry books that feel like they cohere, like I'm crawling inside of someone and getting deeper with each poem, you know?

Ms kissacloud - My pleasure! I hope you find time for her, she's really wonderful.

Trapunto said...

Yikes, I sound like some owlish little thing sitting among stacks of dusty tomes! By anthologies I just mean old collected sets of short stories and poems for children like The Book House and the Golden something or other, and some first-half-of-the-20th-century anthologies that were around my granny's house--the kind of thing that would have "The Goblin Market" in them. I liked to read about fantasy scenarios and fairies, and poems were the only place I knew to find those things.

I haven't really read poetry since my teens. I'm saving it for my old age. Along with opera.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Trapunto - The only poetry I remember reading as a kid off the top of my head was Shel Silverstein, and unlike every other kid under the age of 12, I HATED it. HATED it. Felt like cheating. :D But I DO LOVE Goblin Market! But I can't imagine reading it as a little kid, it's ... I mean am I the only one that thinks the whole poem is a little... erm... nevermind. Grownup, lets just say grownup.

Trapunto said...

What? You mean it's not about fruit?

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Trapunto - I want you to know how much moral courage it took me this morning not to respond with a lewd comment. That is all.

Trapunto said...

Duly noted!

Since I'm here: how did Shel Silverstein feel like cheating?

One of my gradeschool teachers (3rd?) would occasionally read out a poem of his for a class reward. All I remember is not liking the gross-out ones, and there being something a little scary about them.

MTTranslations said...

these are my translations of Tsvetaeva
hope, you'll like them

theinkbrain said...

I wonder what could be made of the fact that Christina G Rosetti,
(Goblin Market) Charlotte Mew were lesbians and and Shel Silverstein was gay....
Tsvetaeva (also mentioned here had an intense love affair with Sophia Parnokh. She also fell in love with Natalie Clifford Barney....
Perhaps its all a coincidence.

Anonymous said...

Its nice seeing Mew being read and remembered.