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Mew Selected Poetry & ProseLast time I decided not to focus on some of the more famous or possibly more accessible dramatic lyrics.

So, where next?

I think there is a bullet that I have to bite. There is one poem that, at this point in my reading of her work, seems to me her greatest and most challenging, confronting the reader with some of our most basic existential questions through what sounds like the authentic voice of a deeply troubled heart and soul.

There are other poems whose haunting beauty makes for an easier read and I love them in their way almost as much – The Forest Road for example. They would be much easier to write about, but to do so would be to cop out from the challenge of conveying here the greatness of what I really feel is her most powerful dramatic lyric of all, one which addresses her usual challenging issues of death, despair and exclusion, this time in a deeply spiritual context.

So, Madeleine in Church it’s going to have to be, heaven help me.

Copus describes it as[1] ‘the first dramatic monologue voiced by a fallen woman,’ and goes on to say[2] it is ‘a text in which a woman talks candidly to God about her tortured soul, her sensuality and her numerous past lovers, and the compositor would take no part in promulgating it’ apparently because he thought it was ‘blasphemous’.

Challenging Questions

It confronts me with the questions I’d like to think I’d answered completely convincingly for the rest of my days down here, but know deep down that such absolute certainty will always remain elusive in this mortal life, and conviction in the reality of an afterlife, for example, mostly evades reason’s grip and only rests securely in the hands of faith. It is not comfortable to be challenged by this poem’s fiercely passionate confrontation of such questions, but Mew’s use of this dramatic format (even if it does express exactly what she believed herself at times, and that is a matter of debate) allows me to identify with Madeleine’s painful questioning without feeling coerced into sharing the perspective into which it leads her.

What we find in the poem often contradicts what I believe that I believe – for example, its reductionism, an exact reversal of what I believe I know to be the truth. Madeleine explains ‘I think my body was my soul,’ and although that sounds slightly tentative she comes across later as more assertive: ‘ we are what we are: the spirit afterwards, but first the touch.’ Many posts on this blog are testimony to how far away from this position I stand.

So, why do I find myself feeling so positive about the poem?

Reading Madeleine in Church, for me, feels like walking into the unhappy house my spirit used to live in, bringing back memories of why it had to leave in search of somewhere better. Such a poem unsurprisingly would have felt ‘blasphemous’ to someone who still drew comfort from the walls and décor of that same house, but for me it speaks of a kindred spirit who, unlike me, never managed to find a better home in this life for their spirit.

IMG_6659The poem is also is one of those that has the effect I described in an earlier post. I read these words from Madeleine in Church to my wife in the All Saints café in Hereford city centre, a most appropriate location:

What can You know, what can You really see
Of this dark ditch, the soul of me!

A poem of hers had brought me to the edge of tears once more.

HaydenIt’s almost impossible to pin down exactly why that should be, apart from the probability that those words echo a sense of unworthiness most of us share at one time or another. Its music echoes another moving poem I love, which reads, ‘What did I know, what did I know/of love’s austere and lonely offices?’ This is from the Bahá’í poet Robert Hayden’s Those Winter Sundays.

Maybe also part of the power to move me, which those words have, comes from their close correspondence with a feeling I tried to capture in Labyrinth:

Mind aches in the silence
which could mean Presence
or absence.
Only reflections to go on
if we, like Perseus,
are not to turn to stone.

Anyway, Madeleine in Church is the poem of hers I’ve read and re-read more than any other. This is for at least two reasons, apart from the sheer satisfaction derived from immersing myself in her mind.

The first motivation is to try and understand why I find it so deeply satisfying, and the second to try and unravel the meaning of some of the more perplexing passages. I’ll be focusing further mainly on the first point.

I was also planning to expand on the stirring effects of the elastic lines and redolent imagery, but the stack of reflections I’ve already built up is towering so high I have decided to abandon that plan.

Its resonance for me

There is partly the fascinating correspondence between Madeleine’s sceptical reflections and my lapsed Catholic/Pre-Bahá’í period.

One moment in particular marks one of the earliest roots of my doubt. It was an experience in church when I was very young – maybe five years old or so. Everyone was bowing down at the same point in the Mass and I asked my mother in a whisper why they were doing this and she replied, in a way which she thought fitting for my age and degree of understanding, ‘Because it’s too beautiful to look at.’

This was a challenge too difficult to resist. Something that beautiful and I couldn’t look! This I must see.

And I looked up and I looked round everywhere. The only objects I could see were the same old altar, the same old pictures of the stations of the cross, the same old man in a funny dress standing in front of the altar.

The only difference was this big round golden thing he was holding above his head. This seemed to be the object everyone was bowing to, but I didn’t get it. It was quite pretty but definitely not too beautiful to look at.

In any event my faith was possibly not of the strongest, as I had not gone to a Catholic school, as was usually the case, perhaps because my parents were of different views about the wisdom of that, though I never really knew why my mother had departed from tradition in this way. So, it was not too difficult to undermine more or less permanently the ambivalent faith I had developed by this impressionable age.

So, when Mew puts these words into Madeleine’s mouth, ‘I, too, would ask Him to remember me/If there were any Paradise beyond this earth that I could see,’ I’m catapulted back to that earlier questioning state of mind, still mixed with a thirst for something to believe in. Her exploration of this  threads its way through the poem. About suffering she laments:

                                                               . . . . one cannot see
How it shall be made up to them in some serene eternity.
If there were fifty heavens God could not give us back the child who went or never came.

And at the end of the poem the raw need for something to believe in still bleeds across the page, steeped in the pain of disbelief:

                        . . . . . . . . . .most of all in Holy Week
When there was no one else to see
I used to think it would not hurt me too, so terribly,
If He had ever seemed to notice me
Or, if, for once, He would only speak.

What I think also draws me to the thinker of these thoughts is that the inner sceptic and the earlier selves, who respond strongly to this poem, will never die, hence my daily prayer for firmness in the Faith. To deny this would be dangerous self-deception. In any case the sceptic has value, protecting me from too complacent a faith in all my tempting misunderstandings, memories and misinterpretations.

An equally interesting echo of my own journey comes when Madeleine comments that ‘It seems too funny all we other rips/Should have immortal souls.’ When I moved from atheism to faith on beginning to tread the Bahá’í path (I’m never comfortable asserting that ‘I became a Bahá’í’ – no one except ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has probably ever achieved that in this mortal world), I struggled with a sense of the improbability of souls: it was much easier to believe in a God (of some kind) rather than in our immortality. ‘How could beings such as us ever deserve such a blessing?’ I thought. It took many months of research at the time to almost convince my inner sceptic that this might in fact be possible.

Then there is Mew’s and my outsider syndrome. She is not writing as Madeleine from some kind of patronising distance. The Mew, who was hiding behind the shield of propriety I mentioned earlier, was unconventional, rebellious and a crusader for the downtrodden and misunderstood. She not only felt for Madeleine: there was also a level of her being, not too deep inside, at which she felt the same as her.

To some degree in some respects, I’m in the same boat. When I began working in mental health and went to see a Jungian psychotherapist, we decided that the epitaph engraved in big letters on my tombstone would be, ‘He died with his options open.’ I was very reluctant to make any kind of commitment. I had never joined any group, even when their aims mapped closely onto mine. I was very much what the socialists I used to mingle with called a ‘fellow traveller.’

Also I chose to work in mental health because I felt so strongly drawn to those who had been labelled ‘schizophrenic.’ I passionately believed, and still do, that they are not somehow fundamentally different from the rest of us, the victims of a meaningless madness. They are human beings, just like you and me, struggling to make sense of, and learn to live with experiences that would have broken most people into fragments of their former selves. Hence the title of my blog, really. Hence my sense that, in some way, I am singing very much from the same hymn sheet as Charlotte Mew.

Because of her direct experience of that same kind of brokenness, both in her family and potentially in herself, I think, Mew felt the same, and her way of expressing that was to step into the minds of those people, whom too many of us have rejected and despised. She felt for and spoke for them.

One of the most powerful stanzas in the whole poem speaks, I feel, to this:

.                     “Find rest in Him” One knows the parsons’ tags—
Back to the fold, across the evening fields, like any flock of baa-ing sheep:
Yes, it may be, when He has shorn, led us to slaughter, torn the bleating soul in us to rags,
For so He giveth His belovèd sleep.
Oh! He will take us stripped and done,
Driven into His heart. So we are won:
Then safe, safe are we? in the shelter of His everlasting wings—
I do not envy Him his victories, His arms are full of broken things.

Here we see described, in my view, a heart-felt response to the suffering of the world, which is so vividly present to the speaker it’s almost impossible to believe in a God of any kind, certainly a positive one. Mew herself almost certainly feels the same. Doubt, if not absolute denial, is a reasonable response.

Mew This Rare SpiritMadeleine in Church, more than any other single poem of Mew’s, illustrates the extent of my resonance with her poetry.

The power of the poem for me is not diminished by its discrepancies with my perspective.

There is another magnetic quality in this poem that was harder to pin down and bring into consciousness, but which seems none the less a potentially important aspect of its attraction for me.

As I groped to pin this down more exactly I jotted down the idea that Mew is ‘mimicking thought’ in this and other poems. Then I found myself wondering whether in some respects it even achieved something that shifted towards a stream of consciousness, such as Virginia Woolf developed to such a high level. Was I back to the idea of capturing consciousness again, something I had located as the focus of the modern novel rather than poetry? I tried to define what criteria might be applied in this case, and felt that to fully qualify for a representation of the stream of consciousness the poem must at the very least need to feel more like inner rather than social speech. Given that many of the monologues are addressed to a listener who is not physically present, including God/Jesus, I came to feel that Madeleine in Church, as well as some of her other poems, meets this criterion at least in many places, if not all.  I came to feel that Madeleine in Church, as well as some of her other poems, meets this criterion at least in many places, if not all.  Take this short section, for example, with its associative flow:

                                              I could hardly bear
The dreams upon the eyes of white geraniums in the dusk,
The thick, close voice of musk,
The jessamine music on the thin night air,
Or, sometimes, my own hands about me anywhere —
The sight of my own face (for it was lovely then) even the scent of my own hair,
Oh! there was nothing, nothing that did not sweep to the high seat
Of laughing gods, and then blow down and beat
My soul into the highway dust, as hoofs do the dropped roses of the street.

I think that it does, but I will need more time to be absolutely sure. I suspect this quality will prove to be part of her poetry’s attraction for me.

The process of composing this post has been intriguing – even as I thought it was finished, over and over again more ideas to include in it drip fed into my brain. It reminds me of Auden’s paraphrase of Valéry in 1965: ‘A poem is never finished; it is only abandoned.’

There is so much more I could say, because there are so many themes she touches on that resonate so strongly for me. It would simply be impossible to cover them adequately right now. For a start this post is too long already. And perhaps most importantly I think I will need a lot more time to grasp more Fitzgerald Mew biographysecurely more of the implications of this richly evocative poem. Suffice it to say that I feel its psychological, narrative, spiritual and empathic depths warrant the attention of every discerning reader of poetry, whether they agree with what Mew seems to be saying or not. It captures so many of the key challenges and heart aches of the human condition.

I hope at least I have proved my point that she is a poet worthy of consideration. Whether I have or not, I am extremely grateful to Julia Copus for bringing Charlotte Mew to my attention, and also to Penelope Fitzgerald for further enhancing my understanding of her life.

When all the work on this sequence had been done, I decided, rather late in the day, to check my go-to reference about poetry – Lives of the Poets by Michael Schmidt – to see if he had written anything about Charlotte Mew. As I have never read his book from cover to cover, only using it as a reference when I want to check out a poet I don’t know, I had never read these words before, I swear, where he describes Madeleine in Church as ‘her largest achievement, uneven but powerful.’ I see that as a partial endorsement of my evaluation. I would be tempted, though, to substitute ‘greatest’ for ‘largest’!

So, what’s Schmidt’s final verdict overall? ‘Her originality,’ he writes, ‘of form and theme, her electrifying uniqueness, mean that one day she will find a constituency, without special pleading.’ Hopefully I’ve been some help in moving things forward to that end. Only time will tell.

References:

[1]. Copus – page 256.
[2]. Page 268.

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. . . . joy and pain, like any mother and her unborn child were almost one.

(From Madeleine in Church)

FanthorpeWe move now from the nature poems of the previous post in this sequence to Mew’s dramatic lyrics.

My taste for the dramatic monologue goes back a long way – at least to the fourth year at secondary school when Tommy Turner, the improbably charismatic teacher of English I described in a recent sequence, hooked me on Browning’s poetry.

It even clinched my sense that U A Fanthorpe was a decent poet worth reading when I got as far as her moving dramatic monologue in the voice of William Tyndale, whose early translations provide the foundations of the King James version of the Bible. Though elsewhere she mercilessly mocks superstitious and self-righteous piety along with other unappealing frailties, her ability to identify with deep and compassionate spirituality in even the most distant places is uncanny, as this poem proves.The words are spoken as he sits in his cold and candleless ‘palatial jail’ as ‘the Emperor’s guest’:[1]

But I watch too,
As once I stood on Nibley Knoll and looked
Out over moody Severn across the Forest
To the strangeness of Wales, Malvern’s blue bony hills,
And down on the dear preoccupied people
Inching along to Gloucester, the trows with their sopping decks
Running from Bristol with the weather behind them
And none of them knowing God’s meaning, what He said to them,
Save filtered through bookish lips that never learnt
To splice a rope or fill a bucket. So I watched,
And saw the souls on the road, the souls on the river,
Were the ones Jesus loved. I saw that. Now I see
The landscape of my life, and how that seeing
Has brought me to this place, and what comes after.

Because religious persecution is still part of our lived experience, this poem is deeply moving. The reinforcement of this priceless gem triggered this comment in the margin: ‘I almost gave up before I got to this magnificent sequence.’

Why so challenging?

Even given this familiarity with the dramatic monologue as a form of poetry that integrates consciousness, character, and narrative, this post is going to be the most challenging of this sequence for a number of reasons.

First of all, there is so much I could say, her dramatic monologues cover so much ground. Then there is the fact that I am not sure I can find words to convey the impact of her greatest poems, they work on so many levels. On top of that so many of her themes map onto the preoccupations of my lifetime – death, mental health issues, loss, and faith, or in my earlier days, the lack of it – just to name the obvious.

There’s an interesting caveat to share at this point, I feel. There is no poet anywhere who writes great poetry all the time, not even Shakespeare as Paterson’s commentary on his sonnets indicates. As Randall Jarrell put it, ‘a good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightening five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great.’

I’ve tested this myself not just with the poems of Fanthorpe mentioned above but also with the likes of Yeats, Keats, Herbert, Marvell and Larkin. In each set of complete poems I only highlight a relatively small number. In Mew’s Selected Poetry and Prose I have highlighted 20 poems out of 50 (40%). Compare to this Larkin, for example, in whose Collected Poems I have so far highlighted 29 out of 244 (12%). Admittedly if Mew has written as much and I had the collected poems the figures would have been closer, but she’s clearly made a strong impression on me.

Mew This Rare SpiritPerhaps one of the best ways of describing the impact that Mew’s dramatic monologues make is to say that she seems to do in poetry what Alice Neel did in her art. Her history of grief, loss and the stigma of a family with the taint of ‘insanity,’ along with her sense of always being an outsider, empowered her sense of empathy with the outcasts of society, just as Neel’s inscape helped her connect in a similar way with those society had in some way left behind. Empathy allied with a degree of projection fuelled the power of the poems. As Copus expresses it in her introduction to the Selected Poetry and Prose:[2] ‘It is no mistake that she wrote so many dramatic monologues: the genre is the perfect vehicle for the lonely cast of souls she brought into being.’ In her way she was a ‘collector of souls’ just as Neel was.

Reading Mew and feeling so drawn into the poems is making me realise that one of my favourite forms may in fact perhaps be better described as the dramatic lyric, as one critic terms the form she often uses. Dramatic monologues can sometimes lack the music that I also need along with the psychological insights and narrative element. Combining psychological interest, story and song makes this form of poetry perfect for me. I love many other forms of lyric as well, but this probably takes the prize. Mew is definitely in her unique way the Alice Neel of poetry.

Fitzgerald Mew biographyWhat is also interesting, but perhaps not hugely significant is that, like Browning, as I pointed out in an earlier sequence, who had a public persona very different from the characters captured in his dramatic monologues, the same split was to some extent true of Charlotte Mew. Penelope Fitzgerald summarises it in her case by saying:[3] ‘There is pathos in this clinging to gentility by a free spirit, who seemed born to have nothing to do with it.’ After an uncomfortable trip to France it even extended to friends who were close to her:[4] ‘she was usually careful to present an edited version herself to those who were fond of her.’ I’m not arguing that such a split is necessary for a poet who wants to excel in the dramatic monologue, but in both Browning’s and Mew’s cases the hidden and possibly disreputable self seems to inspire the poems.

Which Poems?

So, which poems shall I choose to prove my point? ‘There’s the rub’, to borrow a phrase from the Bard.

It’s tempting to go with a safe bet like The Farmer’s Bride. While telling the story from the frustrated husband farmer’s point of view we still can empathise with his evasive bride. Copus again pins down one of the crucial qualities of this poem:[5] ‘[I]n her best known poem, The Farmer’s Bride, we encounter Mew’s uncanny facility for viewing both sides of a difficult situation with equal compassion, and for presenting them to us in such a way that simplistic notions of right and wrong become meaningless.’

My feeling, though, is to go with poems that are even less well-known.

The Quiet House was tempting. It combines, as her poems often do, simplicity with perplexity, so it would be good illustration in that sense. It opens very simply:

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.

Only later in the poem do things become more puzzling, and continue so over several stanzas, of which I quote the shortest:

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.

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

Copus helps by explaining in the notes to this poem[6] that ‘the colour red is used throughout [her] poetry to denote passion and the fullness of life.’ Even more interestingly she adds: ‘Mew expresses the idea that there is a price to pay for profound sensory experience, and that joy is never entirely divorced from pain.’ For me this resonates so closely with Bob Dylan when he sings ‘Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain (from Not Dark Yet), and with the same quality I sensed in Alice Neel’s paintings.

In the end though, powerful as it is, it seemed too close to her own life to qualify as a perfect example of her use of the dramatic monologue. Family members are simply transpositions of her own family – for example, her father died not her mother, and the parallels are therefore very close.

Now for something much darker and more demanding in the next and final post.

Footnotes

[1]. Fanthorpe: New & Collected Poems – page  296.

[2]. Copus – page xxv.

[3]. Penelope Fitzgerald – page 45.

[4]. Page 77.

[5]. Copus – Page xxv.

[6]. Page 155.

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In the pause between posts on Charlotte Mew’s poetry,  I thought it worth posting some examples of her poetry. Here’s the last.

                         To a Child in Death

You would have scoffed if we had told you yesterday
   Love made us feel, or so it was with me, like some great bird
      Trying to hold and shelter you in its strong wing;—
A gay little shadowy smile would have tossed us back such a solemn word,
      And it was not for that you were listening
      When so quietly you slipped away
With half the music of the world unheard.
What shall we do with this strange summer, meant for you,—
      Dear, if we see the winter through
      What shall be done with spring?
This, this is the victory of the Grave; here is death’s sting,
That is not strong enough, our strongest wing.

But what of His who like a Father pitieth?
His Son was also, once, a little thing,
The wistfullest child that ever drew breath,
Chased by a sword from Bethlehem and in the busy house at Nazareth
Playing with little rows of nails, watching the carpenter’s hammer swing,
Long years before His hands and feet were tied
And by a hammer and the three great nails He died,
Of youth, of Spring,
Of sorrow, of loneliness, of victory the King,
Under the shadow of that wing.

 

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Mew Selected Poetry & Prose

We are what we are: when I was half a child I could not sit

Watching black shadows on green lawns and red carnations burning in the sun,

Without paying so heavily for it

That joy and pain, like any mother and her unborn child were almost one.

(From Madeleine in Church)

The critical consensus seems to be that by far the most significant body of her work is to be found in her use of the dramatic monologue. Even though that is probably true, I am still going to deal with her approach to nature first, partly because one of her poems about trees was the first of hers to make such a deep impression on me and also because the reason for its special attraction and power was so obvious to me. For that reason this poem will be the main focus of this post.

I have already referred in a previous post to her conviction (Copus – Page 331) that ‘– in the natural world at least – after death comes renewal.’ Death also comes strongly into the picture in another way. The nature poem of hers that impacts on me the most powerfully, and it may be one of her greatest poems, is The Trees Are Down.

There are two main sets of reasons why this resonates so strongly. One relates to the two poems by other poets that have haunted my imagination since I read them. The other relates to the value I place on trees and my experience of a loss in that context.

Mew This Rare SpiritFirst the tradition

I was probably still at primary school when I read the first poem on this theme. That’s what the memory feels like anyway. In the front room of our family home there was a tall book case with glass doors on its upper section. Amongst many other books, mostly novels of the Rider Haggard variety, there were two books of poems: Lyra Heroica and Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. I wasn’t particularly interested in boys on burning decks or Horatios at bridges – I think tales about my father and the First World War had well and truly scuppered Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori for me even by that stage (see my poem Unfinished Business later this week for my own take) – so the Golden Treasury tended to win every time. I still remember the sight and feel of the dull red and slightly roughened cover as I strained to slide it off its high shelf. The poem that concerns us now was CXLIII – The Poplar Field by William Cowper. (OK – so I checked the number on Google – my memory’s not that good). That he had serious mental health problems and attempted suicide three times was not known to me then, but whether the poem’s underlying melancholy resonated in some way with the background of grief in our home I can’t say for sure.

Anyway, this is the poem in full:

The Poplar Field

The lilting music of his lyric’s form is perhaps too cosy for the liking of a modern ear, but the strong sense of our mortality triggered by his remembered connection with the trees still gives the poem power, I think, to move us.

Much later – how much later I’m not quite sure, but almost certainly before I left secondary school  – came my encounter with a second poem of even greater power. Even though I cannot remember when I first read it, I’m sure that I knew of the poet while I was still at school. My mother was a devout Roman Catholic and knew of him as a Jesuit priest, so I’m sure I scouted the library fairly early for a copy of his poems. My own copy of Poems of Gerald Manley Hopkins was bought in 1963, when I was studying English Literature at university.

We’re dealing with poplars again, though in a more demanding style – it’s also more freely flowing, a sign of things to come with Mew.

Binsey Poplars

Hopkins conveys his sadness, discomfort and frustration as well as the beauty in his freer form. He also had his battles with depression, which he described in one poem as ‘[p]itched past pitch of grief.’ Even now, after all these years of knowing this poem, my heart hurts as I read it. That’s partly because I also experienced the loss of a dearly loved tree, an experience that hurts me still, along with other losses, but also because of the prescience of some of its most powerful lines, such as ‘O if we but knew what we do/When we delve or hew —/Hack and rack the growing green!’

I will be re-publishing two poems, one Oak in Winter and the other On the Death of Trees, as this sequence moves towards it end, just as a way of indicating how much this theme matters to me and possibly why. Some time back the so-called ‘light’ pollarding of the long line of lime trees down a road near our house disturbed me greatly, even after the workmen explained it would not seriously harm the trees: how much worse I would have felt if they had cut them completely down I can only imagine. The trees have recovered up to a point but I miss the thick branches stretching across the footpath and over the road. Running parallel on the grass is a line of poplars, still intact, thank goodness, apart from one storm casualty that crashed down on a neighbouring fence. No one was harmed.

Avenue of Limes

The Trees Are Down

Now, though it’s time to look at the poem Mew wrote that got me hooked, and I didn’t just have to imagine how it felt anymore (the exceptionally long lines dictated the use of a smaller font – a problem type-setters found it hard to solve in her lifetime without using strange page sizes).

The Trees Are Down 1

The Trees Are Down 2

Not poplars this time but plane trees, of which there were, and still are, many in London. They were planted in numbers at a time when their ability to shed their bark meant that the dark discoloration from the soot-laden atmosphere of the coal-burning city would be conveniently discarded and replaced so their beauty was never compromised for long.

The poem deals with (Copus – page 330)

. . . . a topic about which she had already written in prose form – the felling of trees to make way for new buildings – and once again, it has been occasioned by a recent memory. In the green, open-space of Endsleigh Gardens, very near the Gordon Street house, a number of mature London planes had been cut down in preparation for a large building that would serve as the new headquarters for the Quaker movement.:

The poem, I hope, speaks powerfully for itself.

I just want to focus on the particularly moving final lines. I am strongly attracted to her capacity for deep empathy, rooted I believe in her early experiences of death and her lifelong acquaintance with serious mental health problems in her family. Those lines capture a beautiful example.

This is not that tired old trope of the pathetic fallacy, where the poet, usually a man, projects their feelings onto the landscape. That’s always seemed more than a touch narcissistic to me. This is something different. Yes, she is intensely sad to see the trees killed. The ‘grate of the saw’ wounded her as much as the growling sound of our modern tree-felling machines offends me now. What she is doing though is projecting herself into the trees as they lie dying.

She is doing for trees essentially the same thing as Shakespeare did for the beetle when he wrote:[1]

And the poor beetle, that we tread upon,

In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great

As when a giant dies.

Or the snail ‘whose tender horns being hit,/Shrinks backward in his shelly cave with pain.’[2] However, it’s not pain that Mew attributes to the trees but connectedness.

And I do not experience this as a sentimental projection. All the evidence that has accrued over recent decades demonstrates that trees are tuned into their surroundings with a sensitivity that was previously discounted, even unimaginable perhaps except by poets like Mew. To imagine them hearing, even when they are cut off from the soil and dying, for me is a metaphoric representation of this sensitivity. If this seems improbable to you I can only suggest that you immerse yourself in Richard Powers’ The Overstorey, if novels are your thing, or Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard, if you prefer a more straightforwardly scientific approach.

The elastic nature of her lines, and the freedom with which she exploits it, adds to the power of the poem. Even the longest lines rhyme with far shorter ones so the music is never lost. And she does not resort to what I experience as the gratuitous obscurity of much modern poetry, which is not to say that everything she writes is crystal clear as we will see when I move on next time to her dramatic monologues. But I feel her poems are obscure only when the experience she is trying to convey is hard to decode, but she doesn’t write as though all life is ferociously encrypted.

There will be more on Mew in September. This is for two reasons. As always the footfall on my blog drops in August, and seems to have done so slightly earlier this year. As I want to share with as many people as possible the power of Mew’s poetry, it seems best to delay the rest of this sequence till the footfall picks up again. Also, though, I think I need more time to reflect if I am to do her poems justice.

Anyway, next time I’ll take a look at how her empathy empowers her poems about people rather than trees.

Mew Diagram

References

[1]. Measure for Measure – Act III, Scene 1, lines 84-86.

[2]. Venus and Adonis – line 1033-34.

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In the wake of the next post on Charlotte Mew  I thought it appropriate to republish this poem. Because my father fought in the first world war, even though he never spoke of his experience its shadow hung over my childhood, mostly through my mother’s anxious ruminations about its impact on her life. The book I remember discovering as a child was a collection of black and white photographs of the ‘Great War.’

Unfinished Business

For source of image see link

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Mew This Rare Spirit

Then safe, safe are we? in the shelter of His everlasting wings—

I do not envy Him his victories, His arms are full of broken things.

(From Madeleine in Church)

In the previous post, after explaining how Julia Copus’ excellent biography of Charlotte Mew had opened my eyes to the power of a poet I had never heard of before, I tried to convey how death played a huge part in Mew’s life. Now I intend to look more closely at the meaning of death for Mew and its impact on her poetry, before moving on to at least beginning to consider the equally important issue of mental health.

Death and her Poetry

Copus points out that Mew[1] ‘would return to the staircase image over and over in her poems.’ It would often ‘denote a walkway to a longed-for silence; a hint, perhaps, at the respite that death might provide.’ In one of my favourite poems, Not for that City, for example, she writes:

. . . if for anything we greatly long,

It is for some remote and quiet stair

Which winds to silence and a space of sleep.

The image of the stair conveys also to me at least a sense of rising above the world.

Mew also toys with the question of whether consciousness survives death, and if so, in what way. The poem Requiescat[2]‘finishes by wondering whether the deceased might also… remember, in his or her turn, the things of the world; could it be that consciousness remains alive in the world, after the body has left?’ The closing stanza captures this vividly:

Beyond the line of naked trees

At the road’s end, your stretch of blue –

Strange if you should remember these

As we, ah! God! remember you!

There is, I feel, even more doubt about that possibility in Charlotte’s mind, than Copus’ wording suggests.

Mew Selected Poetry & ProseTo someone who came to believe in survival after death after two decades of dogmatic disbelief, I don’t agree with Copus’ sense that what she calls Mew’s ‘central premise’ in the poem is strange. What’s so odd about entertaining the idea that:[3]‘consciousness might continue its daily existence after death, might remember physical experience – and even go on engaging in some way with the earth’s seasonal rhythms’? A sense of this appears in other poems as well. In Here Lies a Prisoner Mew describes the dead man as ‘listening still to the magpie chatter/Over his grave.’ There are though moments when the opposite seems to be implied as in the last line of The Quiet House: ‘I do not care; some day I shall not think; I shall not be!’ Mew’s article on Emily Brontë conveys a similar perspective:[4] ‘[Death] was not a problem, because it was the end problems.’

According to Copus, Mew does repeat[5] the ‘conviction’ that ‘in the natural world at least – after death comes renewal.’  More of that when I look at the nature poems.

In the end, Copus is clear in her own mind that Mew holds onto something almost the opposite of a force for life as not just a destination but a welcome escape:[6] In ‘Moorland Night’ the Thing that is found . . . is the final, blissful cessation of all life’s human concerns, a melting away of boundaries, a yielding to the larger cycle of life.’ Our sense of a separate identity melts back into this cycle like drops of rain blend into a stream. For her, Copus feels[7]  ‘the only thing that mattered was the here and now.’ There is no gateway to an afterlife.

I am not sure I quite buy into something as simplistic. There are powerful lines that complicate the picture. For example, these from The Call:

                The world is cold without

And dark and hedged about

With mystery and enmity and doubt,

But we must go

Though yet we do not know

Who called, or what marks we shall leave upon the snow.

There are certainly strong reasons for believing that, for Mew, what she most values is transient. In Moorland Night she calls this ‘the Thing,’ which she doesn’t define but explains ‘Perhaps the earth will hold it, or the wind, or that bird’s cry,/But it is not for long in any life I know.’

Penelope Fitzgerald[8] feels that Mew’s take on death is similar to that of Alfred Noyes’s who ‘finds he is beginning to doubt doubt and disbelieve in disbelief.’

Whatever her beliefs about an afterlife or some kind of continuing consciousness, there is no doubt that Mew’s familiarity with the pain of loss often crept into her poems. Take To a Child in Death as an example, written 30 years after two deaths in 1897. As Penelope Fitzgerald describes it in her biography,[9] Mew poses a ‘wretched question from the suddenly left alone – “What shall we do with this strange summer, meant for you?”’ She spoke of her childhood as ‘a time of intense, but lost, happiness.’

Mental Health:

Death was not the only source of distress and loss in her life. As she saw it, her family was tainted with the stigma of mental illness, something which impacted on her life in more ways than one.

Her brother, Henry[10] ‘was experiencing full blown delusions’ by June 1884. He was admitted[11]  to ‘London’s most notorious asylum,’ the New Bethlem Hospital on 14 June that same year. Copus is clear that Charlotte would have seen herself as also tainted with the same genetic flaw. The diagnosis he was given[12] was of ‘acute mania with excitement and impulsiveness’.

In those days a family such as hers would have not wished this to be known to anyone else. Charlotte would have gone to great lengths to keep it quiet. There is no reference to him[13] ‘in any of her surviving letters,’ though ‘his presence haunts her poetry.’ She was also plagued by ‘the fear that the same thing might happen to her and to her sisters.’ Copus[14] describes her as ‘standing sentinel to a secret that was not to be carried outside its walls at any cost.’

Fitzgerald Mew biographyThere were other costs to the family. Instead of generating income[15] Henry ‘had become a steady drain on the family coffers.’ Copus is clear that[16] the family ‘were resentful of the amount of money’ their father spent on Henry’s care, ‘or became so as the years passed.’ After he died, they took steps[17] to arrange for Henry to be ‘discharged “uncured” from Holloway Sanatorium and transferred to Peckham House Lunatic Asylum, which took in both paupers and private patients, for whom the institution advertised ‘moderate terms’.” Instead of sending their sister, Freda,[18] ‘back to London, arrangements were made for her admission to a local nursing home called The Limes, on the High Street in nearby Newport [Isle of Wight].’ After a suicide attempt in January 1899,[19] Freda ‘was admitted to the private wing of the nearby county asylum, Whitecroft Hospital.’ Freda[20] ‘never did recover her sanity’ and she remained ‘in the asylum for the rest of her long life.’

Sadly,[21] on 22 March 1901, ‘just three and a half years after entering Peckham House Lunatic Asylum, Henry Herne Mew died there, of tuberculosis.’ It is likely that Charlotte, in particular, may have felt guilty ‘over the fact that Henry had caught the infection since his move to Peckham House, which took in paupers alongside private patients.’

An additional emotionally damaging cost in the longer term was Charlotte’s, and her sister Anne’s resolve[22] ‘that the door of marriage should be closed to them: given the severity of Henry’s illness, they believed it would be irresponsible to bring children of their own into the world.’ They feared ‘passing on the mental taint that was in their heredity.’

Fitzgerald clarifies exactly why this was:[23]

As ill-fortune would have it, the breakdown first of Henry, and then of Freda, coincided with the years when the science or apparent science of eugenics first took the field… Eugenics… [set] out to show that transmission of this inheritance led to the gradual degeneration of the whole society.… if any member of your family was different, no matter in what way, you were morally bound not to reproduce.

This seems a good place to pause and, using a diagram, give some pointers to where the sequence will be going from here.

As I see it, the impact of deaths and mental health problems in the family combined to give Charlotte a high degree of empathy, particularly with those on the edges of society – outsiders and misfits – with whom she strongly identified. Her empathy clearly extended to nature, though the reasons for that are less clear.

The results are on the one hand to create poems, written in the form of a dramatic monologue, giving powerful voice to those who are all too often ignored, and on the other moving testimony to her strong identification with aspects of the natural world, even to the extent of capturing, at times, what she conveys as a kind of consciousness.

More of that next time.

Mew Diagram

References:

[1]. Page 151.

[2]. Copus – page 179.

[3]. Page 180.

[4]. Fitzgerald – page 94.

[5]. Copus – page 331.

[6]. Page 354.

[7]. Page 376.

[8]. Fitzgerald – page 100.

[9]. Page 10.

[10]. Copus – page 60.

[11]. Page 62.

[12]. Page 63.

[13]. Page 65.

[14]. Page 68.

[15]. Page 80.

[16]. Page 124.

[17]. Page 128.

[18]. Page 129.

[19]. Page 130.

[20]. Page 132.

[21]. Page 136.

[22]. Page 83.

[23]. Fitzgerald – page  41.

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