Charlotte Mew: Proto-Modernist Poems

Charlotte Mary Mew

Proto-Modernist Poet

Charlotte Mary Mew (15 November 1869 – 24 March 1928) was an English poet, whose work spans the cusp between Victorian poetry and Modernism.

She was born in Bloomsbury, London the daughter of the architect Frederick Mew, who designed Hampstead town hall, and Anna Kendall. She attended Lucy Harrison’s School for Girls and lectures at University College London.  Her father died in 1898 without making adequate provision for his family; two of her siblings suffered from mental illness, and were committed to institutions, and three others died in early childhood leaving Charlotte, her mother and her sister, Anne. Charlotte and Anne made a pact never to marry for fear of passing on insanity to their children. (One author calls Charlotte “almost certainly chastely lesbian.”) Through most of her adult life, Mew wore masculine attire and kept her hair short, adopting the appearance of a dandy.

Charlotte Mew

A dandy in masculine clothing and hair style

She was very determined not to provide anyone with even the briefest of autobiography.  Even the most biographical of her essays could, in theory, be complete fiction; and poetry has a structure and content of its own, unconstrained by any relation to the life that generated it.

In the world that Charlotte Mew wrote about, science was not isolated from art and literature: And sociology was related to the natural sciences in a way that it no longer is. To recognise Charlotte’s world we must recover these relationships. We are helped to do so by her friendship with the Chick sisters. The Chick sisters, and their descendants, were active in the arts and the sciences and it is clear from Harriette’s diary that conversation flowed easily across all areas. The science of evolution was embedded in literature in the bookplate that Arthur Tansley (Edith’s husband) designed. Similarly, Tansley’s friend botanist Frederick Frost Blackman (Elsie’s husband) was a patron of the Fitzwilliam Museum. Tansley’s ecology might be regarded as a development of the biology of Herbert Spencer. Spencer sought the most general laws with the widest application and hisevolutionary biology lay at the heart of his social science.

In 1894, Mew succeeded in getting a short story into The Yellow Book, but wrote very little poetry at this time. Her first collection of poetry, The Farmer’s Bride, was published in 1916, in chapbook format, by the Poetry Bookshop; in the USA, Her second collection was entitled Saturday Market and published in 1921 by Macmillan. It earned her the admiration of Sydney Cockerell.

The Farmer’s Bride was written during the 19th century and based in a farming community. Although marriages were not necessarily arranged in the strictest sense, they were often organized according to valuable family matches and convenience, rather than love. Mental illness affected the writer and her family, and could be considered a source of inspiration for the depiction of the bride in the poem.

From Mental Health History Timeline: “Passed,” A short story, is the first known published work of Charlotte Mew. The writer, walking in a poor area of London, visits a church. She sees a gospel that the priest at the altar does not:

“Two girls holding each other’s hands came in and stood in deep shadow behind the farthest rows of high-backed chairs by the door. The younger rolled her head from side to side; her shifting eyes and ceaseless imbecile grimaces chilled my blood. The other, who stood praying, turned suddenly (the place but for the flaring alter lights was dark) and kissed the dreadful creature by her side. I shuddered, and yet her face wore no look of loathing nor pity. The expression was a divine one of habitual love. She wiped the idiot’s lips and stroked the shaking hands in hers, to quiet the sad hysterical caresses she would not check. It was a page of gospel which the old man with his back to it might never read. A sublime and ghastly scene.”

The description may shock (See also 1916), but compare with Jayne Eyre in 1847 and the Care of Children Committee in 1946. The outstanding difference is the compassion.

Her poems are varied: some of them are passionate discussions of faith and the possibility of belief in God; others are proto-modernist in form and atmosphere (‘In Nunhead Cemetery‘). Many of her poems are in the form of dramatic monologues, and she often wrote from the point of view of a male persona (‘The Farmer’s Bride‘). Two concern mental illness – “Ken” and “On the Asylum Road“.  For more poems and critical commentary see The InkBrain  and Charlotte’s Web from Middlesex University.

When Charlotte Mew was writing, the theosophists were drawing on many religions and mythologies to create their own world vision. Their sources including belief in elementals, faerie forces or spirits of the elements, from which races of humans and gods could have evolved. Charlotte was sufficiently close to theosophist circles in 1914 to have a story about a woman with supernatural communication published in The Theosophist. The death in 1895 of Bridget Cleary, an Irish labourer’s wife , illustrates the relation in (some) popular cultures of the world of faerie and changes in human personality. I have argued that this theme of changing being and changing consciousness runs through much of Charlotte’s writing. It is what Baring- Gould would have called a “radical” (motif) to her stories. The word and the motif that symbolises this most effectively, in relation to fairies, is changelingThe Farmer’s Bride (1911/1912) is a fay, or fairy –The Changeling, a children’s poem, (1912/1913) was published at the same time as Men and Trees, which finishes with Joan of Arc, as a child, dancing round a fairy tree. In The Smile, the child (then woman) who can see the enchanting smile without climbing to the enchantress, as others have to, had, as a baby, the characteristics that might have been interpreted as indicating a changeling.

In Men and Trees, Charlotte partly explains the significance of fairies to the twentieth century. She says

“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 … these are ‘of old time’ … We must not speak in the marketplace of what happens to us in the forest, says Hawthorne – [nowadays] Everything happens in the market-place. Where else? But the market-place is not real: the real things are happening in the forest still.”

Charlotte Mew's sibs

Charlotte Mew with a brother and sister. She is probably the girl on the left.

The spirit that animates Charlotte Mew’s writings appears accessible to agnostic and believer alike, and disturbing to the preconceptions of all of us. Siegried Sasson wrote to, and of, Charlotte that poets “carry the world on their shoulders… And in their eyes the future of civilisation struggles to survive”. Charlotte, he said, was “intensely” aware of her “responsibility” and sustained it “nobly”. The world that is carried in Charlotte’s writing is the material world of flesh and death, of life and grief, of desire and reverence. The spirit that animates it is “Everything there is to hear in the heart of hidden things”.

Mew gained the patronage of several literary figures, notably Thomas Hardy, who called her the best woman poet of her day, Virginia Woolf, who said she was ‘very good and quite unlike anyone else’, and Siegfried Sassoon. She obtained a small Civil List pension with the aid of Cockerell, Hardy, John Masefield and Walter de la Mare. This helped ease her financial difficulties.

After the death of her sister from cancer in 1927, she descended into a deep depression, and was admitted to a nursing home where she eventually committed suicide by drinking Lysol. Mew is buried in the northern part of Hampstead Cemetery, London NW6.

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2 Responses to Charlotte Mew: Proto-Modernist Poems

  1. francenestanley says:

    What a sad, sweet life she led. It brings to mind that often the artistic are plagued by mental illness.

    • I think it is the repressive culture we live in, the “Starving artist” concept, and the general envy/hate relationship that the un-creative have for the creative that drives the creative to madness. Can we even imagine a society where artists, writers, poets, musicians–as well as architects, engineers, and makers of all stripes were honored as much as financiers?