Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Charlotte Mew: 'May, 1915'

Last weekend, I attended the Decadent Poetics conference in Exeter, and gave a talk on one of my favourite poets, Charlotte Mew. Mew seems to me to be scandalously underappreciated. Hers is a narrow achievement---only one book appeared during her lifetime---but at her best she bears comparison with any of her contemporaries. I am currently writing an essay on her work for the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Victorian Poetry, and will enthusiastically accept any further invitation to proselytise on her behalf.

Mew's poetry is one of the few redeeming features of Scars Upon My Heart, an anthology of 'women's poetry and verse of the First World War' which eschews value judgement in favour of inclusivity. Mew and the other significant poets collected there (Cannan, Cole, Farjeon, Meynell) almost disappear beneath waves of mediocrity. Thankfully, the anthology prints all three of Mew's poems explicitly addressing the War. The best known is 'The Cenotaph', which I have previously discussed here. There are also two shorter poems: 'May, 1915' and 'June, 1915'. Here is 'May, 1915' as edited by John Newton in the most reliable edition of Mew's poetry.

May, 1915

    Let us remember Spring will come again
    To the scorched, blackened woods, where all the wounded trees
    Wait, with their old wise patience for the heavenly rain,
  Sure of the sky: sure of the sea to send its healing breeze,
      Sure of the sun. And even as to these
        Surely the Spring, when God shall please
      Will come again like a divine surprise
To those who sit to-day with their great Dead, hands in their hands, eyes in their eyes,
At one with Love, at one with Grief: blind to the scattered things and changing skies.

I have argued elsewhere that this is a poem fractured across its middle. The first four and a half lines may require a willed act of remembrance in order to assert the therapeutic powers of seasonal cycles, but the emphasis remains positive: no matter how badly damaged, nature will recover in time. The problem occurs in the second half of the poem, when the speaker wants to draw parallels between the patient trees and the mourning relatives of the Great War's dead. 'And even as to these': the awkwardness of the phrase is an acknowledgement that the simile remains problematic. That is followed by more special pleading (or wishful thinking) in the word 'Surely': the switch from the confidence of the thrice-repeated 'Sure' to 'Surely' betrays scepticism more than faith. By May 1915, 'Love' and 'Grief' have become synonymous, expanding as the lines expand, and blinding the bereaved even to the divinely ordained Spring and its supposed healing qualities.

2 comments:

  1. "the switch from the confidence of the thrice-repeated 'Sure' to 'Surely' betrays scepticism more than faith."

    Especially when it goes on to that phrase "when God shall please", because one can't help immediately thinking of all the things he is being "pleased" to send at that moment, May 1915.

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  2. Not exactly a literary response to your post on Charlotte Mew's 'May 1915', but I read your post just after looking at a post on paintings of the Somme - which might interest if only for the 1913 painting.
    See
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/yourpaintings/2011/07/battle-of-the-somme.shtml

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