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CHARLOTTE MEW  
(1869 - 1928)

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Charlotte Mew site
Charlotte Mew page at Isle of Lesbos

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Charlotte Mew Biography
by Rita Mae Reese

Born into a middle-class family in London, Mew was one of four children. Two of the children suffered from mental disorders. After the death of the father, the family endured considerable financial difficulties and made great sacrifices in order to keep up the appearance of their former station. Both daughters remaining at home with their ailing mother attempted to supplement the family’s income:  Mew began publishing stories and poems in publications such as The Yellow Book and her sister took on small painting jobs. Mew’s first collection, The Farmer’s Bride, appeared in 1916. Mew become a rather well-known literary figure, winning the admiration of writers such as Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, and, later, Marianne Moore. Standing at just four-foot-eleven-inches tall, Mew nonetheless had a commanding presence, particularly when she was reading from her own work. Throughout her life, Mew seems to have suffered from a number of unrequited passions. After the death of her mother and then her sister, Mew was briefly institutionalized and the following year she committed suicide by drinking Lysol. Penelope Fitzgerald published a thorough biography in 1984 entitled Charlotte Mew and Her Friends which many hoped would revive interest in this unjustly neglected poet.

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Four Poems:

A Quoi Bon Dire

   Seventeen years ago you said
Something that sounded like Good-bye:
   And everybody thinks you are dead
      But I.

   So I as I grow stiff and cold
To this and that say Good-bye too;
   And everybody sees that I am old
      But you.

   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, and I shall have tossed your hair

 

On the Road to the Sea

We passed each other, turned and stopped for half an hour, then went our way,
        I who make other women smile did not make you--
But no man can move mountains in a day.
        So this hard thing is yet to do.

But first I want your life:--before I die I want to see
        The world that lies behind the strangeness of your eyes,
There is nothing gay or green there for my gathering, it may be,
            Yet on brown fields there lies
A haunting purple bloom: is there not something in grey skies
                 And in grey sea?
        I want what world there is behind your eyes,
        I want your life and you will not give it me.

        Now, if I look, I see you walking down the years,
        Young, and through August fields--a face, a thought, a swinging dream
                                     perched on a stile--;
        I would have liked (so vile we are!) to have taught you tears
                                But most to have made you smile.
        To-day is not enough or yesterday: God sees it all--
Your length on sunny lawns, the wakeful rainy nights--; tell me--;
         (how vain to ask), but it is not a question--just a call--;
Show me then, only your notched inches climbing up the garden wall,
                I like you best when you are small.

             Is this a stupid thing to say
             Not having spent with you one day?
        No matter; I shall never touch your hair
        Or hear the little tick behind your breast,
             And as a flying bird
        Brushes the branches where it may not rest
        I have brushed your hand and heard
     The child in you: I like that best
So small, so dark, so sweet; and were you also then too grave and wise?
        Always I think. Then put your far off little hand in mine;--
                                     Oh! let it rest;
I will not stare into the early world beyond the opening eyes,
        Or vex or scare what I love best.
        But I want your life before mine bleeds away--
            Here--not in heavenly hereafters--soon,--
            I want your smile this very afternoon,
        (The last of all my vices, pleasant people used to say,
            I wanted and I sometimes got--the Moon!)

            You know, at dusk, the last bird's cry,
        And round the house the flap of the bat's low flight,
            Trees that go black against the sky
        And then--how soon the night!

     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.

 

The Trees Are Down

- and he cried with a loud voice: Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees -
-Revelation

They are cutting down the great plane-trees at the end of
         the gardens.
For days there has been the grate of the saw, the swish of
         the branches as they fall,
The crash of the trunks, the rustle of trodden leaves,
With the 'Whoops' and the 'Whoa', the loud common talk,
         the loud common laughs of the men, above it all.

I remember one evening of a long past Spring
Turning in at a gate, getting out of a cart, and finding
         a large dead rat in the mud of the drive.
I remember thinking: alive or dead, a rat was a
         god-forsaken thing,
But at least, in May, that even a rat should be alive.

The week's work here is as good as done. There is just
         one bough
On the roped bole, in the fine grey rain,
         Green and high
         And lonely against the sky.
                    (Down now! -)
         And but for that,
         If an old dead rat
Did once, for a moment, unmake the Spring, I might never
         have thought of him again.

It is not for a moment the Spring is unmade to-day;
These were great trees, it was in them from root to stem:
When the men with the 'Whoops' and the 'Whoas' have carted
         the whole of the whispering loveliness away
Half the Spring, for me, will have gone with them.

It is going now, and my heart has been struck with the
         hearts of the planes;
Half my life it has beat with these, in the sun, in the rains,
         In the March wind, the May breeze,
In the great gales that came over to them across the roofs from the great seas.
         There was only a quiet rain when they were dying;
         They must have heard the sparrows flying,
And the small creeping creatures in the earth where they were lying -
         But I, all day, I heard an angel crying:
          'Hurt not the trees.'

 

The Quiet House

When we were children Old Nurse used to say
   The house was like an auction or a fair
   Until the lot of us were safe in bed.
   It has been quiet as the country-side
   Since Ted and Janey and then Mother died
And Tom crossed Father and was sent away.
After the lawsuit he could not hold up his head,
   Poor father, and he does not care
   For people here, or to go anywhere.

To get away to Aunt’s for that week-end
   Was hard enough; (since then, a year ago,
   He scarcely lets me slip out of his sight--)
At first I did not like my cousin’s friend,
   I did not think I should remember him:
   His voice has gone, his face is growing dim
And if I like him now I do not know.
   He frightened me before he smiled--
   He did not ask me if he might--
   He said that he would come one Sunday night,
   He spoke to me as if I were a child.

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 colors 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 burned quite through you die.
   Red is the strangest pain to bear;
In Spring the leaves on the budding trees;
In Summer the roses are worse than these,
   More terrible than they are sweet:
   A rose can stab you across the street
    Deeper than any knife:
   And the crimson haunts you everywhere--
Thin shafts of sunlight, like the ghosts of reddened swords
                                    have struck our stair
As if, coming down, you had split your life.

   I think that my soul is red
Like the soul of a sword or a scarlet flower:
   But when these are dead
   They have had their hour.

   I shall have had mine, too,
    For from head to feet,
   I am burned and stabbed half through,
    And the pain is deadly sweet.

   Then things that kill us seem
    Blind to the death they give:
   It is only in our dream
    The things that kill us live.

The room is shut where Mother died,
   The other rooms are as they were,
The world goes on the same outside,
   The sparrows fly across the Square,
   The children play as we four did there,
   The trees grow green and brown and bare,
The sun shines on the dead Church spire,
   And nothing lives here but the fire,

While Father watches from his chair
                        Day follows day
The same, or now and then, a different grey,
                        Till, like his hair,
Which Mother said was wavy once and bright,
                        They will all turn white.

   To-night I heard a bell again--
Outside it was the same mist of fine rain,
The lamps just lighted down the long, dim street,
                        No one for me--
   I think it is myself I go there to meet:
I do not care; some day I shall not think; I shall not be!

 

 

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Last Updated: Sat, July 8, 2006
©2006 John Struloeff -- All Rights Reserved.