Charlotte Mew was born in Bloomsbury in 1869 into a middle-class Victorian family and died, by suicide, in 1928. Her family’s ideas of respectability – combined with the desire to keep secret the hereditary mental illness which led two of Charlotte’s siblings to the asylum – meant that she never became a part of the Bloomsbury set, or of any other literary group. She began publishing short stories in her mid-20s in order to make money, but it wasn’t until she was 45 that her slim volume of poems, The Farmer’s Bride, appeared in print, and caused something of a stir.
In spite of strong admiration from many leading literary figures of the day (among them Thomas Hardy, Ezra Pound, Siegfried Sassoon, Virginia Woolf and Walter de la Mare), Mew’s work never reached a wide readership, and she was excluded from all five volumes of the influential Georgian Poetry series. In common with other women poets of her era, her poems were overshadowed by those of her male contemporaries, some of whom objected to her technique of sometimes writing in the voice of a male persona. A remark made by the minor poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt typifies the view: ‘A woman ought always to write like a woman, notwithstanding the temptation there doubtless is to invert the rôles,’ he wrote, after being sent some of Mew’s poems for comment.
It was that sort of repudiation – the attempt to silence aspects of Mew’s work – that led to the idea for my creative response. A cento is a patchwork of poetic lines, a form that lent itself well to my wish to set Mew alongside some of the male poets of her day whose voices were heard (and continue to be heard) so much more loudly than her own. My poem is composed of lines from the work of Walter de la Mare, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Thomas Hardy, Ezra Pound, Edward Thomas, W. B. Yeats – and, of course, Charlotte Mew, who gets the first and last word here, as well as many other lines in between. Speaking loud and clear in such company, Mew –unsurprisingly – more than holds her own. But what emerges is a strange hybrid voice with its own definite story to tell. I will leave it up to the reader to decide whether that voice is male or female or – as Mew once wrote of one of her own literary heroes, Emily Brontë – ‘purely spiritual, strangely and exquisitely severed from embodiment and freed from any accident of sex.’
by Julia Copus
Not here, not now, we said; not yet,
Speaking for all who lay under the stars
And they are not gone, yet, for me, the lights, the colours, the perfumes.
I roved the past – a thousand thousand years –
And in a town that is no more a town
I quite forgot I could forget.
The town is old and very steep
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness.
I sit alone
And clear thoughts move in me
Of what is past, or passing, or to come
(The black stream, catching on a sunken rock,
The drowsy water rats,
The thick, close voice of musk)
And earth is silent as it is black
And I am nearly as happy as possible.
I remember the young day,
I remember the trees, and the high, white walls, and how the sun was always on the towers,
I remember a slice of lemon, and a bitten macaroon.
I saw it then as we see things in dreams – I do not remember how long I slept
But I remember smiling too
And how the silence surged softly backward,
You for a moment giving me your eyes.
Where are you now?
Blessings emblazoned that day.
The showers beat,
Lucent and lovely –
Ran and sparkled down each side of the road.
And red the sunlight was, behind it all.
A flight of pigeons fluttered up into an early evening mackerel sky.
Summer was past and day was past
And you went, and I let you go!
You that were life, our little wind-blown hearts!
And if only you had left a light
The air, which is now thoroughly small and dry,
Would have been different, for it would have been
Like the brook's water glittering.
Now, every night I shall see the windows shining.
I think that my soul is red
Like the soul of a sword or a scarlet flower.
No shadow of you on any bright road again.
I have safely trodden underfoot the leaves of another year.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses
– Minute by minute they change –
And everybody sees that I am old
The dark-lit stream has drowned the Future and the Past.
If things are so it does not matter why.
I must be satisfied with my heart, although
It shuts God out; it comes between.
This is the best and the worst of it
And the pain is deadly sweet.
From lines by Charlotte Mew, Walter de la Mare, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Thomas Hardy, Edward Thomas and W.B. Yeats. Find the sources for this poem below.
This creative response was commissioned as part of Julia Copus's resurrection of Charlotte Mew, for a séance [Not] in Oxford on 2 June 2021, on the Dead [Women] Poets Society national tour 2019-21. At the same séance, Thea Ayres resurrected H.D. - find her three poems in response to H.D. here, and watch an edited recording of the event below.
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This project is supported by Arts Council England. Illustrations by Lily Arnold.