I broke the rules again! And grievously, choosing a selected works this time instead of a whole collection. But there wasn’t a huge amount of choice in the local bookshop where I was buying my last few treats of 2008, and I’d been wanting to read Charlotte Mew since reading about her in the Cambridge Companion to Twentieth Century English Poetry. Plus, like I said, it was the end of the year. Rules are there to be broken.
Before reading about her just at the beginning of last year, I’d never heard of Mew; I think she’s somewhat neglected. But according to the introduction to this selection, by Eavan Boland, who also selected the poems, she shouldn’t be; for Boland, Mew was instrumental in ‘the great unshackling of women’s voices in poetry’, thanks in part to her perspective as an outsider (although in her lifetime Mew was commended by John Masefield, Thomas Hardy and Walter de la Mare).
Again this was a collection that I read in one day. It’s pretty powerful stuff. She does seem to hover outside the canon, somehow, bridging the Victorian with the modern age? Her sexuality (she was lesbian) made her life difficult and led to much disappointment, and shades of that definitely come across in the poetry. Knowing that she killed herself by drinking Lysol made it all the more bleak. In fact her writing is like an even more depressed Hardy: failed love and lack of faith, expressed in lyric poetry that’s stretched almost to breaking point.
Favourites were ‘The Farmer’s Bride’, ‘The Quiet House’, ‘A quoi bon dire’, ‘On the Road to the Sea’, ‘From a Window’ and this, ‘In the Fields’ –
Lord when I look at lovely things which pass,
Under old trees the shadows of young leaves
Dancing to please the wind along the grass,
Or the gold stillness of the August sun on the August sheaves;
Can I believe there is a heavenlier world than this?
And if there is
Will the heart of any everlasting thing
Bring me these dreams that take my breath away?
They come at evening with the home-flying rooks and the scent of hay,
Over the fields. They come in Spring.