Thursday, 29 January 2009

Charlotte Mew's War Poetry

Charlotte Mew (1869-1928) was a major poet. That may sound far-fetched to anyone who knows her by (minor) reputation, or who has only seen the over-anthologised poem 'The Farmer's Bride'. But if you haven't read her work, you are missing one of the great pleasures of early twentieth-century poetry. She can sometimes be found at the tail-end of Victorian literature surveys and anthologies, and her preoccupation with the figure of the fallen woman, in particular, does hark back to Victorian traditions. Even so, her versification --- which looks Whitmanian until you realise that she is still working within an accentual-syllabic metre and pursuing it to breaking point --- speaks instantly of her orginality. She is the missing link between Victorian and Modernist poetic practices; her fraught 200-line dramatic monologue 'Madeleine in Church' exploring the collision between religion and sexual desire (an extract here) makes her Robert Browning's radical heir.

The First World War lurks in the shadows of all Mew's poems of that period, but she only writes directly about it on three occasions. Although 'The Cenotaph' is deservedly the best-known, 'May 1915' and 'June 1915' merit wider currency as well. It is hard to blame anthologists of war poetry who overlook them, when those poems can't even be found in the new Selected Poems, edited by Eavan Boland. (Mew wrote so little poetry that it seems miserly to be given only a selection.) Boland never mentions the War in her perfunctory introduction, even though Mew's work constitutes one of the most agonised civilian poetic responses to issues of guilt, artistic entitlement and commemoration. Predictably enough, Boland heads straight for the well-worn narratives instead. She is more concerned with Mew's sexuality, with the terrible oppressions endured by women poets, and with attempts at aphorism which are as pointless as they are indefensible: 'The Mew family are the dark side of Empire', or 'The nineteenth century was a time of sinister enchantment for women poets.' All of them. All century.

Boland's edition is a wasted opportunity. Happily, Carcanet still publishes Mew's Collected Poems and Selected Prose. It is more complete (as its title promises) and much better edited.

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