Thursday, 15 April 2010

Charlotte Mew: 'The Cenotaph'

I have never understood why Charlotte Mew's achievement is so rarely celebrated. She seems to me to have been one of the very great poets of the last century. Bizarrely, her work is more likely to appear in anthologies of Victorian poetry, even though the only book published in her lifetime was The Farmer's Bride (1916, expanded 1921), most of which she wrote after 1912. Defenders of the canon often protest that identity politics should not be allowed to replace aesthetic judgements. Yet here is one of our most important poets, a woman and a lesbian, whose work continues to be overlooked by all sides because it does not lend itself to lazy categorisation.

I once enquired after the possibility of editing Mew's letters. My publisher expressed a keen interest, but the reaction of an existing editor of Mew's work, whose proprietorial senses were outraged, soon dissuaded me. A decade later, the edition which (I was assured) she was already working on seems no closer to being finished. It is a great shame. Mew's poetry is most easily available through a very poor edition by Eavan Boland, the prose is out of print, and most of the letters languish unread. Mew has been badly served, although this valuable website makes some of her work available.

I have blogged previously that Mew wrote three poems explicitly addressing the Great War. They are not quite at the level of a masterpiece like 'Madeleine in Church' (extracts here), but like that untouchably perfect monologue of religious doubt, each challenges and overturns familiar consolatory conventions. The best known of the three is 'The Cenotaph'. As an admissions tutor at Bristol, I used to set the poem as an unseen. The strongest candidates wrote brilliantly about its changing rhymes and rhythms; the worst would seem not even to notice that the lines vary in length from four syllables to 23, so determined were they to escape into a caricaturing account of the futility myth, usually with reference to 'Dulce et Decorum Est'.

The Cenotaph

Not yet will those measureless fields be green again
Where only yesterday the wild sweet blood of wonderful youth was shed;
There is a grave whose earth must hold too long, too deep a stain,
Though for ever over it we may speak as proudly as we may tread.
But here, where the watchers by lonely hearths from the thrust of an inward sword have more slowly bled,
We shall build the Cenotaph: Victory, winged, with Peace, winged too, at the column's head.
And over the stairway, at the foot---oh! here, leave desolate, passionate hands to spread
Violets, roses, and laurel with the small sweet twinkling country things
Speaking so wistfully of other Springs
From the little gardens of little places where son or sweetheart was born and bred.
In splendid sleep, with a thousand brothers
     To lovers---to mothers
     Here, too, lies he:
Under the purple, the green, the red,
It is all young life: it must break some women's hearts to see
Such a brave, gay coverlet to such a bed!
Only, when all is done and said,
God is not mocked and neither are the dead.
For this will stand in our Market-place---
     Who'll sell, who'll buy
     (Will you or I
Lie each to each with the better grace)?
While looking into every busy whore's and huckster's face
As they drive their bargains, is the Face
Of God: and some young, piteous, murdered face.

The poet excoriates herself, and at the same time acknowledges her distance: 'it must break some women's hearts'. She and her readers are among the whores and hucksters, horribly captured in that most disgusted of rhymes: buy/I/lie. God is not mocked, Galatians tells us, 'for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap'. Yet here there is no salvatory transformation. We are lost in our money-grubbing littleness, unredeemed by the deaths of those young men. Nor do they find hope of resurrection. The unknown soldier is also Christ, but his 'young, piteous, murdered face' remains unregenerated by spring.


  1. Thank you for this, Tim. I don't understand either why Mew's achievement is so rarely celebrated. I have not seen the Eavan Boland edition of the Selected Poems so I can't comment, but I do have Val Warner's Collected Poems and Selected Prose (Carcanet, 1997), which has served me well along with the Cyder Press reprint of The Farmer's Bride.

    Mew traveled well across the Atlantic to the US, where The Farmer's Bride, renamed Saturday Market, impressed American critics, including Marguerite Wilkinson, writing for the New York Times and Louis Untermeyer writing for the New York Post (both 1922). Wilkinson included Mew in her 1921 book New Voices. Mew was also featured in the 1929 Twentieth Century Poetry, published by Houghton Mifflin in Boston, Mass.

    Wilkinson, a Canadian-born a poet, writer and anthologist, found much to praise in Mew's poetry and regarded her and Wilfred Owen as the "most interesting by far" of "recent" English poets.

    Wilkinson generally found the poetry of English women too conservative and staid but found in Mew "a splendid exception...a woman who writes with intense vitality, with rare individuality. ...Mew fills every line of her work with life. Her mind walks upright through her world." Wilkinson praised her rhythms and observed that Mew was "one of the few living poets who understand organic rhythm, who know how to make every syllable, every catch of the breath contribute to verisimilitude of presentation and emotional intensity....the discerning will find in these cadences a rich an subtly varied music."

    Other critics commented on her "passion" and "individuality".

    Reminders like yours help chip away at the neglect.


  2. Is Mew read now in the States, Pam? Another big US backer was Marianne Moore, whose praise used to appear on the dust-jacket of (I think) Saturday Market.

  3. To the best of my knowledge, Mew is read very little in the US these days. She had a better following in 20s and 30s when critics reviewed her poetry and included her in articles and books. Peggy Parris, an associate professor of literature at Western NC University here, seems to have done considerable work on Mew that includes an extensive biography and a novel based on Mew's life. That said, I've been trying to track down Parris with little luck so far.
    In 2003, poet Edward Hirsch featured Mew in his popular "Poet's Choice" column in the Washington Post so that would have created a temporary groundswell of interest in her work.
    I believe that her poems have appeared occasionally in Poetry Magazine but I would need to check to be sure. Not much, is it! Mew needs an advocate here.

  4. Parris's novel, "His Arms Are Full of Broken Things" isn't very good, I'm afraid.
    I think Penelope FitzGerald's fine biography of Mew is still in print and there was an excellent review in the NYRB when it appeared in the USA which should have made people curious. I've always thought there was a resemblance between Mew's dramatic monologues in rhymed free verse and T.S.Eliot's early poetry inspired by Laforgue but I've never been sure what it is or how it cane about- I don't thonk Eliot had read Mew, or Mew Laforgue. Perhaps a similar response to the state of poetry at the time.

  5. Mew and Eliot... I agree about the resemblance. Look at these:

    'I am scared, I am staying with you to-night' ('In Nunhead Cemetery'); '"My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me..."' (The Waste Land)

    'A handful of forgotten dust' ('Madeleine in Church'); 'I will show you fear in a handful of dust' (The Waste Land).

    That second example shows the difficulty of 'proving' the indebtedness. The handful of dust phrase occurs in Donne and Tennyson. On the other hand, just a few lines earlier Mew had mentioned fear, so all the ingredients are there for Eliot to draw on. Then there are tonal similarities, such as between 'The Quiet House' (another of Mew's masterpieces) and the opening of The Waste Land:

    Red is the strangest pain to bear;
    In Spring the leaves on the budding trees;
    In Summer the roses are worse than these,
    More terrible than they are sweet:
    A rose can stab you across the street
    Deeper than any knife

  6. I wasn't only thinking of the similarity in tone and metaphor, which derives from the kind of poets and people they were, but also of the similarity in technique: the loosening of traditional forms, the use of apparently simple rhymes without a formal rhyme scheme. That could be a product of personality too, but it's a different kind of similarity, I think.

  7. Sorry, a slip of the fingers, Parris has done an extensive bibliography not a biography as I typed!

  8. Well, Pamels, if Peggy Parris and P.B.Parris are the same person- and it seems likely- she wrote a biographical novel about Mew called "His Arms Are Full of Broken Things". It hypothesises that Mew was unrequitedly in love with Thomas Hardy.

  9. Yes, Roger, they are one in the same. I've learned that she retired from teaching at UNC Asheville about nine years ago. I'm curious to know how much work she has done on Mew outside of the bibliography and the novel. This is a very literary part of the US and Parris still seems active in local events so I will try to track her down. Someone working on Mew in the mountains in Southern Appalachia is unusual and worth investigating.

  10. Tim, few things have lifted me as high as finding this website. I have little to add: all I want to say has been far more eloquently expressed by you and the writers of comments before me. I just want to say thank you for addressing virtually every emotion that this sublime, ignored poet brings out in me.

  11. Dear all, I've just come across this site and your comments after finding on WorldCat Parris's fictionalized biography of Mew, titled, as you note, His Arms are Full of Broken Things. I must say I feel a bit relieved to hear Parris's novel doesn't do justice to either Mew herself or Fitzgerald's biography, as I have been writing a biographical novel of Mew during the last year or so, based on Fitzgerald's biography, my MA thesis, and original research in London conducted last spring,without knowledge of Parris's work. I only hope my novel does do justice to Mew and her poetry. In particular, my aim is to portray her "affairs" with Ella D'Arcy and May Sinclair as other than "farce," the term Fitzgerald chooses for their treatment to date. At any rate, I guess the upshot is that there are many of us who love Mew's work on both sides of the pond. Yes, I'm an American. Wish me luck.

  12. Mew is published in an anthology of female war poets called ''Scars Upon My Heart''. The collection is worth a read - there are several female poets who wrote movingly of the Great War. It conveys an alternative perspective to Sassoon, Owen and the poets who fought. Women's experiences were varied; some were emancipated many were bereaved, all suffered. Some, like Pope, were crassly gungho.

  13. Hi Tim. I'm struck by the line 'there was a grave whose earth must hold too long, too deep a stain' The earth and earth usually hold graves not vice-versa. What kind of figure of speech is Mew using here? Many thanks from Germany!

  14. I think it's just that the earth (i.e. soil, not Mother Earth) which is on/in this grave will not respond to the rejuvenating powers of springtime. The pattern of death and rebirth, with all its usual consolations, won't work this time. Does that help?