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It seemed appropriate if slightly rash to republish, after my sequence on Charlotte Mew, this sequence of poems about people suffering from serious mental health problems. She’s premier league whereas I’m somewhere close to the bottom of the league table in this respect. It just helps to partly explain my deep admiration for her work. 

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It seemed appropriate if slightly rash to republish, after my sequence on Charlotte Mew, this sequence of poems about people suffering from serious mental health problems. She’s premier league whereas I’m somewhere close to the bottom of the league table in this respect. It just helps partly explain my deep admiration for her work. 

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It seemed appropriate if slightly rash to republish, after my sequence on Charlotte Mew, this sequence of poems about people suffering from serious mental health problems. She’s premier league whereas I’m somewhere close to the bottom of the league table in this respect. It just helps partly explain my deep admiration for her work. 

Read Full Post »

It seemed appropriate if slightly rash to republish, after my sequence on Charlotte Mew, this sequence of poems about people suffering from serious mental health problems. She’s premier league whereas I’m somewhere close to the bottom of the table in this respect. It just helps partly explain my deep admiration for her work. 

Griefwork v2

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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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