Small Wonder

Charlotte Mew and Her Friends

by Penelope Fitzgerald
Collins (London), 240 pp., £12.95

Charlotte Mew
Charlotte Mew; drawing by David Levine

She was admired, in her quiet and tragic lifetime, by Ezra Pound, Vita Sackville-West, and Siegfried Sassoon; Virginia Woolf referred to her as the “greatest living poetess” and Thomas Hardy called her “far and away the best living woman poet—who will be read when others are forgotten.” A quarter of a century after her death, when her Collected Poems was published in America in 1954 Marianne Moore deemed her work “above praise.” But Charlotte Mew appears today an all but forgotten figure, whose slender books of verse have been jostled off those cluttered, weight-bowed shelves on which we would preserve the best in twentieth-century poetry.

She is a poet all too easily jostled aside, for her voice was often timorous and the effects in her poems tended toward the measured and unspectacular. Her output was not only small but also patchy, and a good deal of what she did manage to produce deserves the neglect it has received. Her grammar was at times unsteady; her syntax often muddled; and her phrasings frequently puzzling, in part because, as she herself readily admitted, she never learned to punctuate. Her eye was nondescript—surprisingly so, given that she wrote splendidly in prose about the wonders of vision. She wore her influences a bit stiffly on occasion, a short-coming alluded to with lightfooted tact by Marianne Moore, who observed in nonjudgmental fashion that “there are in the style traces of W.B. Yeats and Thomas Hardy.” And yet her work displays what Moore called an “indigenous originality.” It is a testimony to the excellence of Charlotte Mew’s best poems that they seem no less distinctive for their being so few. The reader who grows enchanted with her work will likely develop strong feelings about what a Charlotte Mew poem is, and a conviction that no one else could have written anything quite like it.

One might have conjectured, with a cynicism tempered by sympathy, that the lurid events and patterns of her life would have fueled an ongoing interest in her work. Charlotte Mew was born in 1869 on the Isle of Wight into a family whose moderate affluence provided scant protection from misfortune. Of the seven Mew children, two died in infancy and one at the age of five, and two of them, Henry and Freda, became insane before reaching full adulthood. Henry, for whom Charlotte felt a particular affinity, spent the remainder of his short life in a hospital, where he died of pneumonia at the age of thirty-five, still irretrievably mad. The distancing, both physical and spiritual, that madness imposes provided her with a—and arguably the—principal theme of her poetry. (Her other major theme, unrequited passion, has obvious thematic ties to madness, among them the poignancy of thwarted self-fulfillment.) By temperament she was somewhat indrawn herself, and much of her poetry may be viewed as musings in isolation upon variant forms of isolation.


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