Lovely Things Which Pass

Selected Poems, Charlotte Mew, edited by Eavan Boland
(9.95, 43pp, Carcanet)

This slim volume provides a useful starting-point into the small oeuvre of this puzzling writer. Despite publishing early writing in The Yellow Book and other journals in the 1890s and her own poetry collection The Farmer's Bride in 1916 and being, as a result, invited to visit Hardy at Max Gate, her work seems often overlooked or in danger of being forgotten. Born in 1868, Mew had a wretched, repressed life, her sexuality often rejected or snubbed, members of her family tormented by insanity, early deaths and depression. Eventually, she killed herself in 1928, leaving behind a few essays, some poems and a tempting, slightly unfinished life which has itself been fictionalised.

Eavan Boland's introduction helpfully contextualises this, but I am unsure about her attempts to claim Mew as a woman writer, a kind of forerunner of the concerns explored in fiction by Woolf and lived by Vita Sackville-West. Her poems, direct and uncluttered by Georgian rhetoric are often set in the recognisable landscape of Masefield and Brooke, with the looming shadow of the Great War never far off. They also often make use of sudden dissolves of viewpoint, in an almost filmic way - longer pieces such as 'Madeleine in Church' and the bleak 'In Nunhead Cemetery' thus gain something by being read alongside Eliot's 'The Waste Land'.

Boland singles out Mew's 'plain-spoken syntax' as a key feature and the modern reader would certainly respond to this. Some of the briefer pieces, for example, access an atmospheric beauty difficult to locate without sickly sentiment in some of the contemporary Georgians. Take 'In the Fields', for example:

     ...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.

The vaguely religious framing of this conclusion, the unindividuated pronouns resulting in a kind of ambiguity - these are typical of Mew. There are many such fragments in this selection - 'I have Been Through the Gates', 'Not for that City' - and they possess an eerie resonance. The longer pieces build upon this atmosphere, being almost a collection of such reveries stitched together.

Among the longer poems, 'Madeleine in Church', whilst possessing a more consistent narrative drive, is clearly written by the same writer. Curiously, the title monologue from Mew's first collection, 'The Farmer's Bride', now seems a little like watered-down Browning, whatever the claims made for it. 

Boland, keen to introduce readers to Mew's poems of sexual ennui and yearning, includes a good chunk of that first volume,
The Farmer's Bride, but some of the later poems from her second, posthumous collection The Rambling Sailor (1929) are also of considerable interest: 'The Trees are Down' and 'Rooms', both included here, for instance. Those intrigued by Mew's melancholy and plain-speaking syntax may like to explore further with the 'Collected Poems and Selected Prose', edited by Val Warner, which Carcanet published in 1997: this gives a much wider selection, as the title implies, of the work of this tormented, unclassifiable poet.

        M.C.Caseley 2008