Dead [Women] Poets Society Blog

Julia Copus resurrects Charlotte Mew

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.’