Poetry

Poetry Study: Charlotte Mew

All that she wrote had its quality of depth and stillness. No English poet had less pretensions, and few as genuine a claim to be in touch with the source of poetry.

Humbert Wolfe, writing in The Observer in 1929
Actor Charlie Merriman brilliantly performs Charlotte Mew’s famous dramatic monologue poem The Farmer’s Wife.

Introduction

On a modest London street in Bloomsbury in 1913 called Devonshire Street stood a tiny independent bookshop by the name of The Poetry Bookshop. It’s proprietor was Harold Munro, and he ran this friendly neighbourhood store until 1926. The shop had a welcoming reputation and children used to run in to buy illustrated rhyme-sheets, alongside adults who were encouraged to browse and read inside the shop. Several well-known poets treated the Poetry Bookshop like their own homes; Wilfred Owen, Robert Frost and Ezra Pound were familiar faces. As well as selling books of poetry, Harold also published – and it’s thanks to him that Charlotte Mew, a sometimes shy-and-silent young woman from Bloomsbury, found her audience. Invited to the shop by Harold’s assistant Alida Klemantaski, while Mew had never sought fame, she was quickly caught up in the whirl of poetic activity – and agreed to the publication of The Farmer’s Bride in 1916.

In actual fact, The Farmer’s Bride was only a moderate success. Some critics were unmoved and readers were still more interested in war poetry or works of escapism. Charlotte Mew had the misfortune to come into her artistic powers at the end of the nineteenth and turn of the twentieth centuries, the so-called Georgian period when English poetry was notable for ever-more cliched and escapist visions of semi-mythical landscapes and romantic nostalgia. Nevertheless, Monro and Klemantaski felt that their faith in Mew was justified and they, along with a small but influential group of more modern-leaning writers, rallied around her. Luminaries such as Virginia Woolf, Thomas Hardy, Edith Sitwell and Robert Bridges were keen to champion her and, in America, famous critic Louis Untermeyer wrote: “Had Miss Mew printed nothing but [The Farmer’s Bride], it would have been sufficient to rank her among the most distinctive and intense of living poets.” Mew’s distinctive personal style also won her admirers: she was a very short lady who dressed in men’s black suits and carried a black umbrella everywhere she went. She may have been a lesbian; at the very least she was attracted to women. But a series of personal family disasters, including the deaths of her siblings, the increasing poverty into which her family plunged, and the institutionalising of her brother Henry into an insane asylum, convinced her, whatever her sexual proclivities, never to marry lest she pass on the curse of mental illness to her own children.

Despite the patronage of a small circle of friends, during her lifetime (1869 – 1928) Mew amassed no large following and her reputation was eclipsed by the emergence of modern giants such as T.S. Elliot. However, history has been kinder to Mew. In the last few decades there has been a renewed interest in Mew’s prose and poetry and a re-evaluation of her contribution to literature. In 2021 a new biography of Charlotte Mew, This Rare Spirit by Julia Copus, was released and it seems that Charlotte Mew is belatedly having her moment in the spotlight. I hope that the poems you read on this course will introduce you to her distinctive voice and that you will enjoy reading poems by a person Virginia Woolf once called “the greatest living poet.”

IB Learner Profile: caring

We show empathy, compassion and respect. We have a commitment to service, and we act to make a positive difference in the lives of others and in the world around us.

 Born into a family of seven children (Mew was the eldest), three of her brothers and sisters died and two more were committed to insane asylums, leaving only herself and her sickly sister Anne. In 1898, her father passed away, leaving Charlotte and her sister in financial trouble and forcing them to downsize by renting out half their family home to make ends meet. Later, their home would be condemned, forcing Charlotte and Anne to share a rented room. Sadly, Anne developed cancer and Mew would care for her until she died in 1927, leaving Charlotte bereft and alone. Some speculate that the reason Mew left behind only a few poems, stories and essays – and why she never wrote a novel – is because, as well as trying to make ends meet as a female writer in a man’s world, Charlotte was an extremely caring person, putting the needs of her family before her own.

Lang and Lit Concept: perspective

How should we read and appreciate Charlotte Mew’s poetry? Why was her work overlooked for so long? Some posit that her work has been overshadowed by interest in her private life. After all, the hereditary insanity that seemed to curse her family, her frustrated desires for women, and not least her tragic death – she poisoned herself while in hospital – may detract from a genuine interest in her skill as a verse-maker. People like to categorise – was Mew a Victorian, a Georgian, a Modernist? Is she a queer writer? A feminist? While an academic study of poetry may involve a certain amount of learned critical appreciation, an important aim of studying literature is for you to develop your own perspective on the things you read, independent of what others might say.


The Farmer’s Bride

This album cover by The Crane Wives perfectly captures the Farmer’s Bride’s misery. You might think their music is a particularly good accompaniment to this poem as well.

The Farmer’s Bride describes the life of a young girl married to a much older man; she is clearly miserable in the relationship and tries to run away – only to be hunted down like an escaped animal and locked up in the farmer’s home. Narrated from the perspective of the farmer, it slowly becomes clear that the farmer thinks only of how his young wife might fulfil his own wants and needs. By the end of the poem, the reader has the uncomfortable suspicion that he might force himself on her – if he has not done so already. In this way, the poem illustrates rigid gender expectations held in English society of the time, whereby women were robbed of autonomy and humanity and treated as sexual objects or menial servants.

Born in 1869 during England’s Victorian era, Mew would have been all too familiar with the reality faced by most women in rural society. Women had few legal rights and were considered the ‘property’ of their fathers or husbands: marriage was akin to a transfer of property from one to another. Traditionally, a young woman could be expected to look after the household, cook, clean, and be obedient to her husband. A woman’s greatest success was being a mother. Age gaps between men and women were common, with some women marrying as early as age 12 or 13, and marriage agreements being made even earlier.

Advanced Poetics

The Farmer’s Bride features a special kind of repetition called epizeuxis, which means to repeat words or phrases one after the other, with no other words in between. When Mew writes, “Not near, not near!” she uses epizeuxis to convey the panic and fear in the farmer’s bride’s eyes when a man reaches for her. Can you find another example of this technique in the poem?

Learner Portfolio: Changing perspective

Explore the effect of perspective in this poem by retelling the story of The Farmer’s Bride from the point of view of one of the villagers. Before you write, decide if your villager approves or disapproves of the farmer’s story. This should set the tone for your piece. Extra credit if you can write in metrical verse.


Saturday Market

Miles Birket Foster lived from 1825 – 1899 and his watercolours of landscapes and rural towns across the continent reveal what life looked like in Europe. This painting is called Toulon Market and depicts a scene that, in some ways, might be like the market described in Mew’s poem. Yet in other ways it feels profoundly different. You might like to comment on this after reading the poem.

Saturday Market describes a close-knit rural community who, on a weekend, descend to the local market to trade goods and socialise. The poem is narrated by somebody who seems to hang back on the edge of the market, not really getting too close or too involved. So she has an ideal vantage point when the crowd cruelly single out another woman to jeer and jostle. It’s not immediately clear why the people at the market have suddenly turned on her, but, as the poem follows her home, we see her dispose of a ‘red dead thing’ and wonder what really happened?

Whilst Charlotte Mew could be warm and affectionate with her friends (like Alida and Harold Munro), she did not enjoy her small fame and preferred to remain aloof from wider literary society. She was stung by critics who did not take well to her early published work (The Farmer’s Bride was moderately successful, but some critics were less than complimentary) and mistrusted people easily. Her short stature and refusal to play the part of a docile, submissive female (she walked unescorted about London, rolled her own cigarettes, and cut her hair short) often placed her at odds with ‘polite society’ which she felt was overly judgmental and restrictive for women. As time passed, she found herself increasingly alienated – a theme that resonates powerfully in Saturday Market.

Advanced Poetics

Saturday Market features notable use of the word ‘and’. Connecting several items in a list together using ‘and’ is known as polysyndeton. When you read verse two, look carefully for this technique. How does Mew use the simple word ‘and’ to thicken the atmosphere of the marketplace?

Learner Portfolio: Creating imagery

Charlotte Mew was a writer of prose as well as poetry; although she never wrote a novel, Mew published short stories and essays. Before attempting this Learner Portfolio, you might like to read one of her stories: A White Night. In this unusual story, our narrator, Cameron, visits a remote hill town in Spain with his sister Ella and her new husband, King. When night falls, they decide to explore and end up getting themselves locked in a church. It’s too late to expect help so they decide to spend the night inside – and that’s how they become accidental witnesses to a bizarre and disturbing ritual…

Once you’ve read this story, think about how the themes and images in A White Night compare to the poems you have read so far. Then practise your own creative writing by rewriting the scene from Saturday Market in prose form.


Rooms

Interiors are often prisons in Mew’s poetry.

Elizabeth Black
Artist and designer Alicia Zhou worked with me to illustrate our Poetry Prof blog. This illustration was inspired by the image of Charlotte and Anne in their little damp room by the sea. You can see more of Alicia’s fantastic work on Rooms and other poems by visiting our blog.

In this short and melancholy poem, Charlotte Mew’s ageing speaker reflects on her life by remembering a series of rooms – living spaces – that she has passed through. The rooms are presented as simple, bare places, listed one after the other, with no warm memories of moments that may have happened inside. Even rooms in busy European cities (Paris, Geneva) that might have been the sites of exciting events are simply passed over as if nothing special ever happened inside. As the poem progresses, the rooms get smaller and smaller until finally the speaker and her unseen companion simply lie still, side by side, as if there’s no room to move. They are simply waiting to die. The reader leaves the poem with the impression that not having the freedom to live life to the full isn’t really living at all.

Written in the 1920s, only a few short years before her death, Rooms expresses feelings of frustration and disappointment at the lessening of life’s possibilities. Although the poem reveals very little about the speaker, Mew may have felt the same suffocating sense of restriction the poem conveys. In 1898, Mew’s father passed away, leaving Charlotte and her sister Anne in financial trouble and forcing them to downsize by renting out half their family home to make ends meet. Later, their home would be condemned, forcing the sisters to share a rented room (possibly the little, damp room described so pitifully in the poem). At the end of her life, Charlotte entered a nursing home – so, on one level, the series of ever smaller and more disappointing rooms of the poem stand in for the increasingly difficult and narrow circumstances of her life. 

Advanced Poetics

Irony is a device encountered in all forms of literature: prose, drama and poetry. Irony suggests things are very different from how they appear to be. The word ‘irony’ derives from the Greek ‘Eiron’, who was a person who deceived others by feigning ignorance. Can you explain how Charlotte Mew uses irony in the last lines of Rooms?

Learner Portfolio: Feeling trapped

‘Interiors are often prisons in Mew’s poetry’ – Elizabeth Black

A persistent theme in Charlotte Mew’s poetry seems to be the tension between human society and the world of nature. Complete a piece of work that explores this theme. You could practise your analytical writing by writing a mini-essay, or create a visual guide to the symbols that represent the theme of humanity vs nature in the poems you have read.


On the Asylum Road

This four-stanza poem was published in Mew’s 1916 collection The Farmer’s Bride, although it was probably written several years earlier. The poem reflects on encounters between ordinary townsfolk and a group of mentally impaired people on the road. While the townsfolk seem friendly enough, a state of segregation clearly exists between the two groups, not least because the mentally impaired inmates are usually confined to a grim and forbidding asylum outside the town. The poem asks us to reflect on the relationship between the inmates and the ordinary townsfolk, and to consider how people who are different are so easily ‘othered’ by those who find it easy to conform.

Mew lived in a time where attitudes to mental impairment were very different to those in many countries today. Throughout the nineteenth century, the British asylum system proliferated in response to a perceived ‘epidemic’ of madness. Clinical psychology was in its infancy, and genuine mental illnesses were conflated with nonsensical diagnoses of mania in response to things as diverse as ‘grief’ and even ‘poverty’! The new pseudo-science of eugenics taught that mental disabilities of all kinds were hereditary and that mothers were likely to pass mental disabilities onto their children. As two of her siblings suffered from mental illness, Charlotte and her sister Anne decided never to marry or bear children through fear of pass. However, her poem explores the universal theme of difference, and how those who do not conform can be marginalised and ostracised by those who do.

Advanced Poetics

Throughout On the Asylum Road, Mew employs the personal pronoun ‘we’, so her speaker represents a plurality of voices. In poetry, this is called the public voice. It is fairly unusual for poets to adopt the public voice as this implies that they are speaking for others as well as themselves. Why do you think Charlotte Mew has chosen to use the public voice in this poem?

Learner Portfolio: Is Mew a Gothic writer?

Was Mew a late-Victorian, a Georgian, a Modernist? Is she a queer writer? A feminist? Charlotte Mew is a difficult poet to classify, as suggested by this extract from a review of Mew’s short stories:

There was a lot going on in this fin de siecle [end of the 19th century] as regards women, both in terms of their writing and in terms of their more general social position. We think of decadent writers and artists as men – Wilde, Beardsley – and the same is true of this era’s serious literary authors: think of Henry James and Joseph Conrad. Yet at the same time, there was an explosion of writing, mostly in the form of short stories, from women. They were published in periodicals like Vogue and Lippincott’s and The Yellow Book, most of which don’t exist any more. They were by and about “New Women”, creatures of sometimes ambiguous sexuality, authors of unrecognised genius, complex thinkers. They terrified critics, who referred to them dismissively as vain “erotomaniacs”. One of them was Charlotte Mew.

Some readers associate her style with the Gothic Literature that was popular throughout Mew’s lifetime. Research the conventions of Gothic Literature, then write a Learner Portfolio entry arguing that Mew could be classed as a gothic writer. If you like, you can present this work in a visual way, for example, by creating a mindmap showing how Mew’s poetry intersects with the conventions of Gothic Literature such as the doppelganger, blood. fear, use of setting (such as the broad and barren moors) – and many more.


The Trees are Down

The Renaissance revered the ancient world, the nineteenth century was moved and lit by the Renaissance; we have no patience even with the nineteenth century. The past is a stupid corpse. The inspiration of the woods, the forest voices, the fairy dancers, the mystery of things that stand against the sky – these are ‘of old time.’

from the essay ‘Men and Trees’ by Charlotte Mew

Spring in a London house. A group of workmen are busy cutting down a cluster of plane trees at the end of the garden. Our speaker watches sadly from a window. The job has taken several days, but now they are on the last tree. They talk and laugh as they work, the sounds of crashing branches, the grate of saws and coarse laughter dominating the site. The watcher is reminded of another spring, many years ago, in which she came across the body of a dead rat. She remembers feeling shocked – even though rats are low and dirty creatures, Spring is a time for new life and even rats deserve their day in the sun. Today, that feeling returns, but magnified a hundred-fold. As the poem ends, we realise the speaker is sad to her core. She grew up in this house alongside these trees; they shared the same seasons, endured the same storms and enjoyed the same sunny days. When the men carry off the trees, she feels as if they carry half her childhood away with them.

Mew lived in a house in Euston Square Gardens when, in 1922, workers cleared the south gardens of great plane trees in order to begin new construction. As well as being a reaction to this incident, the poem reflects broader concerns in Mew’s life. Around the same time as the tree-felling, her mother passed away and she wrote this in 1928, just after her sister Anne died as well. Charlotte was distraught at the death of her sister, who was her lifelong companion, and the poem reveals both grief and a profound fear of inescapable death.

Advanced Poetics

An epigraph is a short quotation, phrase, or line from another literary work placed at the beginning of a piece of writing. Epigraphs often allude to the themes and concerns of the writing, as well as set the atmosphere or tone. Do you recognise the epigraph at the start of The Trees are Down? How does it hint at the themes and ideas in the poem you’re about to read?

Learner Portfolio: Symbols of death

The inevitability of death is a powerful and persistent theme in Charlotte Mew’s poetry, and in The Trees are Down in particular. In 1922 Mew witnessed the cutting down of the Euston Square trees; in this poem, the pain of that experience is reflected in the slow, drawn-out death of the trees.

In fact, descriptions of death pervade many of Mew’s poems which, when collected together, can be interpreted as a reflection on the ubiquity of death and the inescapability of death for both nature and humanity. While the human and natural worlds do seem to be at odds in many of her poems, the certainty of eventual death is something both humanity and nature have to face.

Skim and scan your anthology for images, symbols and foreshadowings of approaching death. Create a chart in which you present the symbols of death you found in The Trees are Down and other poems.


Ken

Ken, like Saturday Market, takes a scene between two vulnerable individuals as its central premise, and the poem further investigates the processes of alienation that led to the institutionalisation of people in mental asylums and during Mew’s lifetime. An unnamed speaker witnesses the tension that grows between a mentally-impaired man (the poem’s titular Ken) and the other residents of a small town who are becoming increasingly intolerant of his behaviour. When Ken is eventually incarcerated the speaker is greatly affected. However, he or she does not speak out in Ken’s defence. The poem encourages us to reflect on the importance of empathy and compassion – but also on the limits of compassion in a society where people have to protect themselves against the resentment of others, lest they too fall victim to persecution.

This poem may have resonated more personally with Charlotte Mew because of her very real fear of institutionalisation. She was the eldest of seven siblings. Three of her brothers and sisters died in infancy, but her brother Henry and sister Freda were both confined to institutions. Mew guarded this secret throughout her life. In the context of the emerging pseudo-science of eugenics, fear of passing on mental or physical defects was understandably sensitive for Mew, and this poem exudes unease and fear of discovery.

Advanced Poetics

For a brief moment in Ken, the eponymous Ken stands on a stair, half lit, half in shadow. Actually ‘stairs’ are a recurring symbol in Charlotte Mew’s poetry; a symbol that keeps appearing in a literary work becomes a motif. Can you say what you think stairs might symbolise in Mew’s poems?

Learner Portfolio: Practise for Paper 1 (Literature students only)

If you are a Language A: Literature student, at the end of your course you will sit Paper 1: Guided Literary Analysis. This paper contains two previously unseen literary passages. SL students write a guided analysis of one of these passages; HL students write about both passages. The passages could be taken from any of four literary forms: prose, poetry, drama or literary non-fiction. Each of the passages will be from a different literary form.

Here are two further poems written by Charlotte Mew that are not included in this programme of study. Each poem would count as a passage equivalent to one you might be given in Paper 1; therefore, each passage is accompanied by a guiding question to provide a focus or ‘way in’ to your response. Choose one passage and complete this Learner Portfolio entry in the style of Paper 1: Guided Literary Analysis.


Charlotte Mew’s War Poetry

TBC

Advanced Poetics

Resources

  • The Cenotaph Questions and Activities

Learner Portfolio: Practise for Paper 2

Write this Learner Portfolio in the style of a practice Paper 2 response. You can use one of the prompts below, or another prompt given to you by your teacher. Although Paper 2 requires you to write about two literary works, for the sake of this exercise you could focus only on your response to Charlotte Mew’s poetry, or you could try to compare your ideas to another literary work you have studied (visit this post for more help with Paper 2 compare and contrast skills).

Choose one of the following prompts (or use another prompt you have been given), talk with your teacher about how to approach and structure your writing, then complete your portfolio entry:

  1. Discuss the significance of urban and/or rural settings in works of literature you have studied.
  2. Identify some of the forms intolerance can take, and discuss how its effects on both the victims and the intolerant are presented in works you have studied.
  3. Examine the portrayal of difference (e.g. physical limitations, mental illness, race, class or sexual identity) in literary works you have studied.
  4. To what extent do male and female literary characters accurately reflect the role of men and women in society?

Towards Assessment: Higher Level Essay

Students submit an essay on one non-literary text or a collection of non-literary texts by one same author, or a literary text or work studied during the course. The essay must be 1,200-1,500 words in length. (20 marks).††

Please find suggestions here; but always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

While Charlotte Mew is a relatively under-appreciated poet, a small body of critical appreciation is available to those with an interest in her writing. However, a valid criticism of those who have written about Mew’s poetry in the past is the tendency to generalise about the events of her life and superimpose ‘meanings’ onto her poems. While it is perfectly valid to suggest links between what you know of Charlotte Mew’s life and personal circumstances and the images and events of her work, you should avoid the temptation to conduct a biographical study of authenticity when choosing literary works for your HL Essay. Instead, find a line of literary inquiry that can focus your ideas on her poems and investigate the literary methods she employs so beautifully. Questions you might like to ask include, but are not limited to:

  • Investigate the relationship between people and nature in poems by Charlotte Mew. How does Mew present this relationship in effective ways?
  • Discuss the theme of empathy through an analysis of the perspective of Charlotte Mew’s speakers in selected poems from the anthology.
  • How does Charlotte Mew use colour in striking and symbolic ways throughout her poetry collection?
  • What effects are created by Charlotte Mew’s formal and stylistic choices, such as rhythm, meter, lineation and use of rhyme?
  • Explore the ways Charlotte Mew employs seasonal imagery and uses the pathetic fallacy throughout her poetry collection.
  • How important is alliteration, consonance and assonance to an appreciation of Charlotte Mew’s poems?
  • To what extent do interiors, rooms and enclosed spaces symbolise prisons in poems by Charlotte Mew?

Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work, students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt: Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied. (40 marks)

Please find suggestions here; but always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

Charlotte Mew’s poems would make an excellent literary work to discuss in your oral assessment. The poems are rich in themes that could be used to generate a Global Issue: anxiety, alienation, the treatment of women, disability, war and remembrance, and more. Once you have finished studying the poems in this collection, spend a lesson working with the IB Fields of Inquiry: mind-map the poems, include your ideas for Global Issues, make connections with other Literary Works or Body of Works that you have studied on your course and see if you can make a proposal you might use to write your Individual Oral.

Here are one or two suggestions to get you started, but consider your own programme of study before you make any firm decisions about your personal Global Issue. Whatever you choose, remember a Global Issue must have local relevance, wide impact and be trans-national:

Two or three of Mew’s poems explore the way communities treat those who are different in some way, be it the Farmer’s young bride, who has a fear of menfolk, Ken, who is mentally disabled, or the unnamed girl in Saturday Market. And while Mew’s speakers often exhibit sympathy for the plight of these individuals (even the old farmer seems to understand his wife is unhappy), they often struggle to intervene in a meaningful way. What might Mew be implying about society’s treatment of those who are different from other people – and our wider reluctance to help?

While Mew’s speakers and certain individuals in her poems hold nature in high esteem, or even commune with nature, most people treat nature as a commodity to be exploited or worse, an inconvenience to be callously disposed of. The Trees are Down presents these issues most strongly, but you can sense the tension between the human and natural worlds in poems such as Saturday Market and Mew’s war poetry too.

Categories:Poetry

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