The name Charlotte Mew glimmers between fame and obscurity, and has now for over a century. She was born in 1869 in London and had exactly one book of poetry to her name when she died by her own hand in 1928. This book, The Farmer’s Bride (1916), sold moderately well and was critically acclaimed (garnering such fans as Siegfried Sassoon and Virginia Woolf). On the strength of it she was granted a prestigious civil pension in a time of dire financial need.
It was the publication of the title poem in 1912, when she was in her early forties, that made Mew a cause célèbre. Much anthologized since, “The Farmer’s Bride” was ahead of its time: a narrative about female fear, male bewilderment, and sexual misery. A farmer takes a (too) young wife. She loves and communes with animals, shunning men. She barely speaks. Refusing her husband’s bed, she runs away. He and the villagers chase her down, bring her back, and lock her in the house. This is all related to us by the farmer, who both pities her and is aroused by her wildness:
She sleeps up in the attic there
Alone, poor maid. ’Tis but a stair
Betwixt us. Oh! my God! the down,
The soft young down of her, the brown,
The brown of her—her eyes, her hair, her hair!
There the poem ends, after a mere six stanzas of affliction.
Part of what drew readers was its (even then, controversial) sympathy for both characters: the farmer is perhaps not a monster, nor does the bride seem quite right in the head. It is Mew’s signature poem in a few ways: it is a dramatic monologue, tinged with balladry, but seemingly written—or, rather, spoken—off the cuff; her characters are disappointed and cruelly treated by fate; behind it all is an unfathomable mystery that forces a spontaneous cri de coeur. Mew’s friend and admirer Sydney Cockerell, the curator of the Fitzwilliam Museum, first identified this characteristic of her dramatis personae; she thanked him in a letter and added, “One has not only the cry but the gesture and the accent.” She believed “the quality of emotion” was “the first requirement of poetry…for good work one must accept the discipline that can be got, while the emotion is given to one.”
“The Farmer’s Bride” was an entrée to ever-wider circles of publishers and salonistes. It hit Alida Klemantaski (later Alida Monro), assistant to Harold Monro of the renowned Poetry Bookshop and imprint, like a thunderclap; she played an important part in the eventual publication of The Farmer’s Bride as well as a posthumous collection, The Rambling Sailor. The poem also drew the attention of Catherine Amy Dawson Scott (author of the epic poem Sappho), who befriended the skittish Mew and introduced her to the novelist May Sinclair, who in turn introduced her to Ezra Pound and Richard Aldington, editors of The Egoist. James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was already slated to be serialized in it; in due time it would publish T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Pound took Mew’s poem “The Fête” for an issue published in May 1914.
“The Fête,” like “The Farmer’s Bride,” is spoken by a persona—a sixteen-year-old French boy oppressed by his boarding school, who catches a mystifying glimpse of beauty when he sees a circus girl performing at a fair:
…She flew, but not so high—
And then she did not fly;
She stood in the bright moonlight at the door
Of a strange room, she threw her slippers on the floor—
You heard the patter of the rain,
The starving rain—it was this Thing,
Summer was this, the gold mist in your eyes;—
Oh God! it dies,
But after death—,
To-night the splendour and the sting
Blows back and catches at your breath,
The smell of beasts, the smell of
dust, the scent of all the roses in
the world, the sea, the Spring,
The beat of drums, the pad of
hoofs, music, the dream, the
dream, the Enchanted Thing!
Here again is the cri de coeur, several of them in fact scattered through the 160-plus lines, with their irregular meter and stanzas, repetitions and exclamations, anacoluthons and macaronics (Mew loved France and its poetry, sometimes incorporating French phrases, and the word “fête” recurs as a symbol of the dazzlement of youth).
This was exactly the second of Mew’s dramatic monologues that I had ever read; it made my hair stand up, and I couldn’t get it out of my mind for days. The emotion is palpable. The boy is lonely to the point of despair in his bed at school. But what is revealed to him at the fair, and what may have happened in the woods that he now hates, and what he intimates about his mother, in whom he can no longer find solace, go unspoken. Abhorring this vacuum in the narrative, a potent combination of our own sorrow and speculation rushes in to fill it.
One reason why “The Fête” was published in the avant-garde Egoist and not, say, the best-selling anthology series Georgian Poetry (also associated with Mew’s publisher, Harold Monro) was that these improvised rhythms were completely new. While sustaining the feel of a rhyming ballad, Mew broke with the quatrain and let her lines expand and contract, like rubato phrasing on a piano. It was Walter de la Mare, with his perfect ear for metrical verse, who dissuaded the editor of Georgian Poetry from soliciting her work at a time when the magazine published no women (though later he repented, helping her attain her Civil List pension). Even Dawson Scott and Sinclair fretted that there was something too free about her meter—and possibly about her irrepressible subject matter. Mew’s biographer, Penelope Fitzgerald, observes, “Pound, however, was a connoisseur of metamorphosis, of speaking through and being spoken through, and, what was more, he understood the broken rhythm.” Mew could almost have been a modernist: H.D. wrote a warm review of The Farmer’s Bride in The Egoist. Marianne Moore called her an “original.”
She was born too early to be a modernist. It was Thomas Hardy she revered, and when The Farmer’s Bride caught his attention in 1918, he and his wife, Florence, invited her to dinner at Max Gate, their house in Dorset; they became friends. There was justice in this. Both wrote fiction, and wrote poetry as if it were a species of fiction. Both fashioned incantatory verse out of colloquial speech—and even dialect—but were dismissive of metrical “rules” laid down by the Victorians. Both worked in a deeply emotional vein, recording intense, inconclusive encounters between persons with a nonmoralizing, nonprogrammatic eye for dramatic ironies. Hardy was, Fitzgerald relates, “firm in his opinion that she was ‘far and away the best living woman poet, who will be read when others are forgotten.’” That hasn’t quite happened, but had Mew written as much as Hardy (her oeuvre stands at only seventy poems), would she have been more influential?
Or what if she had been more gregarious? Julia Copus, in her introduction to Mew’s new Selected, emphasizes her “antipathy to self-promotion,” and that “she was never taken up by a specific group or movement and remained, in that respect, forever an outsider.” Yet she might not have been so strong a poet of the cri de coeur if she had not herself experienced the kind of privation that drives a wedge between oneself and society.
Frederick Mew was a London architect who had married Anna Maria Kendall, his employer’s daughter, and then failed to keep her in the style to which she had become accustomed. But genteel poverty was the least of their tragedies. Of their six children—Henry, Charlotte, Anne, Richard, Daniel, and Freda—two sons, Richard and Daniel, perished within months of each other in 1876. Charlotte turned seven between the two deaths. When she was twenty, Henry was committed to the Peckham House asylum; eight years after that, Freda would be committed to the Wight Lunatic Asylum after jumping out of a window.
When Mew’s father died, he left them very little to live on, yet her mother (whom Edith Sitwell deemed “arachnoid”) forbade her remaining daughters to work, nor did she sanction a move to a more affordable neighborhood than Bloomsbury. It was a source of class shame. Mew’s literary career began with short stories published in small magazines; Anne surreptitiously worked as a journeyman artist. The mother and two daughters formed a tightly knit household with a misandrous parrot named Wek; their life was a gradual, inexorable slide into “reduced circumstances.”
When Mew found an audience in her early forties, she was careful to keep her public and private worlds separated, fearing scandal. It was an effort—and it is painful, reading Fitzgerald’s biography, to follow the course of the vivacious and stylish girl as she becomes a careworn, shabby, shrinking violet of middle age. But out of this double life emerged poems that transformed her family’s trauma into something richer and stranger.
“In Nunhead Cemetery” is one of these. Henry Mew is buried there. Charlotte seems to have written the poem about a decade after his death of tuberculosis in the asylum in 1901. As it starts, it might be a sentimental reminiscence of a visit to her brother’s grave. But within a few stanzas, it is clear that the speaker is a man addressing his dead love, a woman: “I tried to make you understand/The cheap, stale chap I used to be/Before I saw the things you made me see.” Then tenderness gives way to bitterness: they were to have been married the month after she died. They had waited to consummate their love, and now it would never happen. The cri de coeur arrives: “There was nothing we could not do, you said,/And you went, and I let you go!”
And then something unexpected happens:
Now I will burn you back, I will burn you through,
Though I am damned for it we two will lie
And burn, here where the starlings fly
To these white stones from the wet sky—;
Dear, you will say this is not I—
It would not be you, it would not be you!
A fierceness takes over—Mew called it in a letter “a lapse from…sanity.” He wants to bury himself on the spot, but the reciprocal exchange of “you will say this is not I” and “it would not be you” are ambiguous. Would death change them too utterly to recognize each other? There, in the graveyard on the brink of nightfall, the poem leaves its pitiable speaker—and us.
“Ken” seems to be another imaginative refiguration of Henry, this time spoken by a child who witnesses her elders dispose of a village madman’s frightening and unpredictable—but also frequently gentle—presence:
Nothing was dead:
He said “a bird” if he picked up a broken wing,
A perished leaf or any such thing
Was just “a rose”; and once when I had said
He must not stand and knock there any more,
He left a twig on the mat outside my door.
The narrator wonders:
Do roses grow
Beneath those twenty windows in a row—
And if some night
When you have not seen any light
They cannot move you from your chair
What happens there?
I do not know.
What, indeed, happens in a Victorian asylum after dark? Mew leaves it to our imagination—all the more dreadfully for that.
Other poems—“The Changeling,” “To a Child in Death,” and “To a Little Child in Death”—seem to emerge from the trauma of losing two baby brothers. Wherever children, or the insane, appear in Mew’s poems there is a pathos of cruel innocence and abject helplessness. But there are also astonishing poems that have no recourse to autobiography: “Pécheresse,” narrated by a fallen woman walking a French quayside on the lookout for her sailor; “Madeleine in Church,” with its divorcée defending sensuality as she prays in a church; “Saturday Market,” strongly hinting at a gruesome abortion. In 1920 the editor Alida Monro wrote of Mew that her poems give “the essence, never the solution of an idea…a psychological study that would have made a full six shilling novel if written by a novelist.”
So a schematic reading of Mew’s poetry as thinly veiled autobiography does her a disservice. Nevertheless, it is impossible to read her harrowing poems about love and not wonder if this achievement could come through observation alone, as with “Rooms”:
I remember rooms that have had their part
In the steady slowing down of the heart:
The room in Paris, the room at Geneva,
The little damp room with the seaweed smell
And that ceaseless maddening sound of the tide—
Rooms where for good or for ill, things died:
And there is the room where we (two) lie dead
Though every morning we seem to wake, and might just as well
seem to sleep again
As we shall some day in that other dustier quieter bed
Out there—in the sun—in the rain.
Copus tells us, “There is no hard evidence of any romances in Mew’s life, nor any record of her romantic feelings—let alone sexual encounters—and nothing that could be described as a love letter, either to or from her, has been found.” This departs rather significantly from Fitzgerald’s conclusion, which is that Mew was a lesbian, even if her loves were unrequited. Circumstantial evidence—that she added mannish touches to her attire, smoked hand-rolled cigarettes, and acted the flâneuse and “quay-loafer”—don’t rise to the level of proof, any more than her impersonations of sexually frustrated men and boys do. But Fitzgerald did report hearsay that Mew threw herself at May Sinclair (relayed by none other than Rebecca West). She was also convinced that Mew was in love with another novelist, Ella D’Arcy, and that her first infatuation was with the lesbian headmistress of her school, one Miss Lucy Harrison.
Fitzgerald calls these crushes Schwärmerei, enthusiasms. If smothered love was Mew’s poetic specialty, Fitzgerald’s speculations give some account of it. This novelist—exquisite and still underrated—wrote some of the most heartbreaking love stories of the past century, and when she writes of Mew, “she would always choose wrong. She was marked out to lose, with too much courage ever to accept it,” it is obviously why she found Mew such a sympathetic subject.
Otherwise we are left with Copus’s conviction that Mew was asexual, following her favorite poet, Emily Brontë, of whom Mew wrote, “It is said that her genius was masculine, but surely it was purely spiritual, strangely and exquisitely severed from embodiment and freed from any accident of sex.” But can we trust Mew to be candid? I think of one of Fitzgerald’s most devastating lines, from The Blue Flower: “I don’t know to what extent a poet lies to himself.”
After all, Mew’s statement comports strangely with her own decidedly sexual personae, such as Madeleine, who (in Mew’s longest poem, a tour de force) cries:
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.
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
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
My soul into the highway dust, as
hoofs do the dropped roses of
It’s worth mentioning that “Madeleine in Church” was considered so prurient that a print compositor balked at setting it, resulting in a scramble to find a new printer for The Farmer’s Bride. This sensuality that Mew evinced in virtually every poem mingles provocatively with motifs of coffins and graves, ghosts and memories, moons and fetuses and overblown roses, but it is not an endorsement of spirit over body. Love—whether Madeleine’s kind, or a child’s—is simply the strongest impression the world can make on us before withdrawing all happiness.
The fleeting nature of it is what Mew captures so well: that, and its incompleteness. The ambiguities in her poems are wounding to the reader seeking closure (it saves many a poem and its cri de coeur from mere sentimentality). While we’ll never know exactly what “the Enchanted Thing” is in “The Fête” (though we infer that it has to do with sex), what we later find is that, in “Moorland Night” (collected posthumously), “Thing” is capitalized again:
My face is against the grass—the
moorland grass is wet—
My eyes are shut against the
grass, against my lips there
are the little blades,
Over my head the curlews call,
And now there is the night
wind in my hair;
My heart is against the grass and
the sweet earth;—it has gone
still, at last.
It does not want to beat
And why should it beat?
This is the end of the
The Thing is found.
This time around, the Thing is most certainly death.
An expanded edition of The Farmer’s Bride was published, again by the Poetry Bookshop, in 1921 and met with even greater notice. Mew enjoyed literary celebrity in London for a few short years, though she often recoiled from the likes of Lady Ottoline Morrell, and even the sympathetic Cockerell, in their efforts to show her off at salons and luncheons. Then, one by one, her remaining family perished: first her parrot Wek in 1921, then Charlotte’s mother in 1923, and worst of all Anne in 1927, after an agonizing spell with uterine and liver cancer. This final bereavement was the poet’s undoing. Charlotte Mew suffered a breakdown and committed suicide by drinking Lysol, aged fifty-eight.
The past decade has seen the work of several lesser-known twentieth-century female poets brought back into print besides Mew, including Lynette Roberts (1909–1995), who died in obscurity after many years of silence; Rosemary Tonks (1928–2014), who died a recluse after many years of silence; Joan Murray (1917–1942), who, after one book selected by Auden for the Yale Younger Poets series, was permanently silenced by congenital heart failure; and most recently Rosamund Stanhope (1919–2005), who had a long period of silence and then broke it before her death. So I Looked Down to Camelot was her first collection, and its reissue by Flood Editions is a revelation.
Born fifty years after Mew, Stanhope did not publish So I Looked Down to Camelot until 1962, making her about Mew’s own age at the time The Farmer’s Bride appeared. The interim between these two debuts had seen the triumph of modernism and a backlash to it. Had Stanhope been born American, she might have been part of a generation of confessional poets wrestling with the legacy of Eliot. In Great Britain, the poetic situation was more muted, or diffuse. Early on, there was the rise and fall of neo-Romanticism in the person of Dylan Thomas; there was also the reactionary Movement (including Thom Gunn and Kingsley Amis), from which Philip Larkin emerged to become the most popular and influential poet of that generation.
Stanhope has more in common with another contemporary outlier, the Scottish poet W.S. Graham: both let the sound, rather than the semantics, of a poem lead to unforeseeable ends. So I Looked Down to Camelot opens with “The Greenhouse,” a poem of four stanzas in which a luxuriance of herbage and verbiage are equated:
Seeing December’s filicale,
Her nervous woods,
In the red sound of the soil
I plot my trowel,
Looking for round green words.
Plants creep and spire,
Leaves coil and trace
Their potted artifice.
In the red sound of the air
The heart’s forced temperature
Heats the induced flower.
There are readers for whom a recondite word is a deal-breaker; here, “filicale” (a fern) makes so bold as to appear in the first line; “aphyllous” (leafless) in the third stanza doubles down on vocabulary. “Here I plot my trowel,” Stanhope repeats firmly in the final stanza. The soundplay creates a metonymic relation between trowel and vowel, woods and words, red and read, plot and plot. Meanwhile, in its fidelity to end rhymes and alternating three- and two-beat accentual lines, the poem maintains its trellised structure in the midst of proliferative overgrowth.
Call it a manifesto of espalier poetics. So I Looked Down to Camelot returns over and over to the regenerative principle of plant-life and the cellulose mimicry of language: “The Loud-Leaved Trees,” “The Light Puts Out the Conifer,” and even, per Andrew Marvell, “The Garden.” “So the Expensive Sun” adds a metonym of currency to the mix, suggesting that vegetation and language and money create something out of nothing, and give themselves away with prodigality:
So the expensive sun
Coins green, spends June,
In opulent summer pours
On rich, cosmetic flowers
Its largesse and its lien.
So the expensive spring
Hands the year out
And in a fresh, extravagant coat
Mints thrum, pays song.
“Thrum” is as resonant a word, semantically, as its sound suggests; not only is it onomatopoeia for what bees and stringed instruments may do, but it also carries a usage from weaving (a fringe of warp-threads left on the loom) that derives from an Old English word for the ligament of the tongue. When Shakespeare has Bottom as Pyramus, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, cry, “O fates, come, come, cut the thread and thrum,” he braids in the image of the mythic Moirai with their shears and Ovid’s lovers dead in their wooded bower; Stanhope would have known the allusion, as she also mentions the fertility cult of Adonis—“To Adonis, in January”—in which the vegetation god must die to be resurrected in the spring. Hence “largesse,” as she notes, is related to “lien.”
Stanhope’s ability to mint a new metaphor strongly recalls Emily Dickinson: “The diocese of snow,” “The park named Hitherto,” “That summer paragon/The prelate corn/That preaches in the sun.” So is her mix of perfect and slant rhymes:
A resonant idea
That struck my speech
In the middle of the head
Put minutes in my ear
Made my mouth watch
Like birds among the dead.
Here the imagery of her own brain and ear, birds and the dead, is very Dickinsonian, as is the associative leap between the ear’s input of ticking (meter, for instance) and the mouth’s output of “watch,” where the part of speech is momentarily up for grabs, destabilizing our reading (first we think it’s a verb—creating the synesthetic image of a mouth doing what an eye does—but it’s really a noun, as in wristwatch). This device, anthimeria, is one of Stanhope’s great secrets, used to terrific effect all over Camelot:
From walls and orchards in your level land
Brides on the lawn a happiness of snow….
Ankling in the wade
Of the shore sea’s reach….
Do you remember
This hand you made that marched the paper
Down where the red woods wander
Closely related is her tendency to destabilizing puns: Are those red woods also “read” woods; is “ankling” a swerve from “angling”? In “The frock the spider wears/Is buttoned with her tears,” is it an eye’s tears or the web’s tears, and in any case, how can something be buttoned by a hole (or “tear”)? In “Miniature Snowstorm,” is she shaking a snowglobe or rocking a cradle?
I tip the globe and know
The hand that tilts the world,
The thought that darks the child.
These effects amount to infinitesimal miracles on the page: by playing on the multiple meanings and uses of words, Stanhope increases the mental space her small poems take up, and amplifies the time it takes to absorb them. In other words, they resonate more loudly: they thrum. This legerdemain puts her in the company not only of Dickinson but that “sleight-of-hand man,” Wallace Stevens, whose poems of florid overgrowth are unparalleled in American letters. Come to think of it, both Stevens and Stanhope wrote not only of greenery but also, as if in counterpoint, of snow and the generative qualities of erasure.
So why don’t we know Rosamund Stanhope’s work better? In 1963, not long after the publication of So I Looked Down to Camelot, she had a catastrophic accident, falling down a staircase and breaking her back, resulting in years of hospitalizations and a nervous breakdown, after which she ceased to write poetry (she tried her hand at novels, but none was published). From the accident until her death in 2005, she suffered chronic pain and could not walk without assistance. A schoolteacher as well as a wife and mother, she picked up her pen again only after her retirement in 1987 and came out with two volumes of poetry, Lapidary (1990) and No Place for the Maudlin Heart (2001). Her obituary in the Guardian notes that they are “a departure: relaxed, outspoken”—here’s hoping that they, too, will be reissued soon.
We are in dire need of refreshing our relation to language—of rediscovering close looking, close reading, and fidelity to meanings. At the same time, we are in a happy position to overthrow sclerotic categories—of national poetries (recognizing that poets belong to a language, not a country); of patrilineal and patrimonial literature; of “major” and “minor.” If Mew and Stanhope were hard-to-categorize outsiders in their own time, they may be better appreciated in ours—as nonpareils.