Charlotte Mew: The Art of the Mask

Lisa Taddeo Click to

Lisa Taddeo is a 2017 recipient of The Pushcart Prize. She received her MFA as the Saul Bellow Fellow from Boston University. Her fiction has been published in Granta, The New England Review, and Esquire. Her nonfiction has been included in Best American Sports Writing and Best American Political Writing. Her first book will be published by Simon & Schuster in the spring of 2019.  


                                    Hidden Sex

 It’s arguable in some cases, indisputable in others, that writing about unrequited love yields penetrating work. It’s the particular agonizing discomfort of the emotion that gives an artist both the single-minded focus to write at his rawest, and also all the unbroken time in which to do it. Generally speaking, when one is happy, in love, going about the flower-picking, melody-humming business of daily life, he doesn’t need his work as much. He can write about the changing seasons, he can meditate upon the state of the world, sift through the travails of childhood to uncover the very moment in time when he became disillusioned. But once someone is broken over love, it can become an obsession, at which point there is no better work desk, no better quill, no better conductor for art than unrequited love.

But also it can be cloying, melancholic, self-pitying. The language can be purple, sometimes unoriginal. All that single-mindedness, all that inward festering, can show up on the page like a wound, and not a healed one that glimmers like mica, but a wet, new one, unsavory and explicit.

What if the artist cannot be honest? What if the artist must mask her obsession, and what if, further, it’s not just one person who is not returning her feelings, but an entire gender, an entire world of desire?

Where most artists who pine-write are hermetic in their pining, that is not so in the case of Charlotte Mew.

Mew was born in Bloomsbury, into a family that aspired to a higher social class, but was riddled with setbacks. Her brother and sister were diagnosed with schizophrenia and confined to institutions. Three other siblings died in early childhood. Her architect father died without leaving any money to provide for the remaining family. So Mew, her other sister, Anne, and their mother took in lodgers, and Mew turned to the vocation preferred by women of her aspirant class who needed to earn a living: she began to write.

Her mother, priggish and snooty, wanted her to act the lady. By contrast, Mew wanted to wear mannish clothes and roll her own cigarettes. She and her remaining uninstitutionalized sister vowed never to marry, so that they might never pass on their mental illness genes to another generation. Mew traveled to France and spent time on the docks with the boat boys. She became fascinated by the underbelly of society, feeling a kinship with its marginalized citizens.

For a decade, Mew published short stories in journals like The Yellow Book, but it wasn’t until the publication of “The Farmer’s Bride,” in The Nation in 1912, that Mew found her place.

Soon after, she had become respected by the best minds of her time; Thomas Hardy said “she was by far and away the best living woman poet,” a statement echoed in some form by Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound, among others.

There were two significant loves in Mew’s life: Ella D’Arcy and May Sinclair. Both spurned her, in different ways. Mew met D’Arcy when she was contributing to The Yellow Book, where D’Arcy was an assistant editor, and they become great friends, but D’Arcy was a confirmed heterosexual and rebuffed Mew—it seems from poems Mew wrote during the time—during a ghastly night in a hotel room in Paris. The unrequited love for Sinclair ended more cruelly. Though at first Sinclair pursued Mew, sending her notes and requesting a meeting, in the end Sinclair told their mutual friends of Mew’s fanatical feelings, recounting a scene where she once had to jump over a bed to get away from Mew.

Sadly for her, happily, perhaps, for her readers, Mew had to open her longing up in certain ways. Her narrators could not be her, thinly veiled. They could not even be her gender. Either they were men, as in “The Farmer’s Bride,” or they were genderless. Most of her poems’ subjects address a loved one who has gone away or died.  Meanwhile the speaker is this neutral beast; even her male speakers have an almost universal, mythic quality. Of course this likely emanated from a strained mind, and there must have been many difficulties in the shrouding, but what remains on the page is a remarkable ease, so that Mew’s essentially-masked poetry is more freeing and produces a more interesting effect than, say, a man writing about a woman he loves.

“The Farmer’s Bride” was, in fact, the poem which drew May Sinclair’s admiration, leading the novelist to court Mew’s friendship with a note of adulation. At the time of the poem’s publication, a wife could not legally refuse her husband’s sexual advances. But at Mew’s writing, attitudes to marriage were rapidly changing.

Of course, one could read the poem very simply, for the way it addresses the clash between society and individual, for its caretaking sentiment of the bride, as though the poet were merely making a statement on the patriarchal abusiveness of the law.

But if you read it more closely, a very obsessive heart hums at the base of every line. The narrator is the farmer himself, speaking in his dialect—when us was wed, runned away, etc, likely an Isle of Wight tongue, where Mew spent her childhood summers; she was forbidden by her mother to speak in that dialect at home in London—about the wife he chose, who was too young, perhaps, and more interested in the animals in the barn than in consummating her marriage to him.

Of course, the farmer would feel frustrated at this. After all, he is legally owed a conjugal relationship with his wife, and there she is, fluttering about with the birds and rabbits, but growing fearful and slipping away whenever any men come near.

One way to read the poem is to assume that Mew is the bride herself. As a woman who likes women, it would make sense that she feels this great anxiety over what society expects from her. The men coming to hunt her and force her into the strictures of that society would have filled her with great trepidation.

But there is yet another way to read it.

Sweet as the first wild violets, she,
To her wild self. But what to me?

 In these lines, one can hear another tone. Yes, the farmer is still speaking, he is still frustrated. But suddenly, there is a sharpness, a depth that transcends the farmer’s local speech and rises to something greater. Here, it seems the poet herself is speaking. The speaker is no longer the bride that wants to escape the pursuant menfolk on the farm, but a person who is in great emotional pain, who craves something that will not love her back—that, in fact, runs from her.

The farmer returns, with his casual frustration, for another stanza and a half. And then we arrive at the final three lines, a marvel of imagery, sound, and plangent obsession:

            Betwixt us. Oh! my God! the down,
The soft young down of her, the brown,
The brown of her – her eyes, her hair, her hair!

 These lines, the utter mania of them, seem to reach up through the page, grabbing the reader by the throat and saying, Don’t you see! How I suffer!

The repetition, indeed, throughout this piece and others, is something Mew uses to heighten the hysteria. But it isn’t a violent and mannish hysteria; it’s closer to a fierce but muted cry.

Suddenly it seems the poet is not the bride at all, but a fellow worshipper of the bride, someone who is not a man, someone who does not want to enter her and force his will, but who wants to admire and love her. Of course, all types of obsessive love are difficult for the subject to endure, regardless of gender. And the speaker of the poem seems blind to that, much the way May Sinclair alleges that Mew was blind to her disinterest. But beyond these narrative elements, the voice of the poem, because it is mired in this confusion, because perhaps the poet herself was at various times in her mind the bride, or the farmer, and sometimes neither, but a watcher who saw it all and was rendered despondent by the state of affairs, is wonderfully unbiased. Like water it flows. Like oil and vinegar it separates and accuses itself and argues. For of all these reasons, the poem sings beyond itself. It manages to pine from multiple directions, and to counter the pining at the same time.

In “Fame,” there is a different metier. The poem is full of lovely, shocking, claustrophobic images (the over-heated house, the moon’s dropped child). The speaker derides the people who are on her stairs, who do not love her beyond her art. She wants to leave Fame, even as she has just now found its apex (Fame, still with such eyes and that bright hair!) but she can’t leave it, because Fame is her ticket to the world of women like May Sinclair. Without Fame, Mew would just be a woman who loves women, without the possibility that one of these women might love her work first, and later, her.

Often this sort of manic yet conciliatory understanding of the way the world works can be gleaned just from the aforementioned repetition in Mew’s work.  In “The Narrow Door,” the words, The narrow door, the narrow door begin the poem and then appear twice more throughout.

In “The Peddler,” we have, The road, the road, beyond men’s bolted doors. In that poem, the speaker asks the subject for the key that locks her heavy heart. This speaker is reminiscent of the speaker in “The Farmer’s Bride.”  There is a broken-up pining.

Then there is this stanza:

While my gay ghost caught and kissed yours, as ghosts don’t do,
And by the wayside, this forgotten you and I
Sat, and were twenty-two

The notion of a gay ghost, of course, strikes one if they know Mew’s sexual preference. This poem could be about D’Arcy, as the timeline would suggest.

But the word ghost is far more telling than the word gay.  It speaks to the filmy part of Mew’s self that does not see the light or, perhaps, the side of her that has been killed.

Still, there is something about the word gay that catches, that echoes, that even bristles. Like schoolchildren one might have the urge to rifle through Mew’s poems to find the word. If one were looking to brand Mew, using this word, her own word, against her, then one might feel successful. In “Jour de Morts,” there is the line, But white and wistful ghosts of gayer roses, quite a lovely line and again there is, too, the word, ghost.

In this poem one finds many similarities in tone to “The Farmer’s Bride,” and it also echoes Yeats’ “When You are Old.”

Ah! no! come out with me before the grey gate closes
            It is your fête and here is your bouquet.        

 The speaker seems, again, to be a genderless watcher, in love with a woman as she fades into the sunset of her life.

Returning to the word, gay:
In “Afternoon Tea,” we have Gay Kate’s stolen kisses…

In “Song,” we have, my gayest game.

In “A Farewell,” we have, And should she not be gay, Poor lady! Well she too must have her day.

Therein lies the trouble with society, and likely the one that Mew was trying to avoid by keeping her narrators neutral. One is somewhat trained to read each poem looking for a phallus, or the anti-phallus, the smooth marble, untouched. And indeed what is it about society – that we still do this – how long will the homophobic hangover last, that we still need to comb through a text for the word gay as though we were investigators?

It can be argued that only because homosexuality did then and still does carry so much baggage—even beyond homophobia, there is still a clandestine cast to same-sex relationships—  must we pay attention to the ways in which it might have strangled an artist. In Mew’s case, the argument is that the strangulation produced a striking effect. One has to consider that this argument is cloistering in itself, that it is unfair and, perhaps, a backtracking, a negation of progression.

Sometimes, Mew’s speakers are very male, boundlessly so, almost exuberantly so. In “The Fête,” the narrator is a young man, but more specifically he is all young boys. One can feel the exaggeration, almost, in the phrase, us boys, and perhaps see Mew dressed up like Viola as Cesario—indeed Mew did dress in men’s attire, so this is not a terrific stretch, however this poem feels steeped in such images.

In the last stanza of “The Fête,”

All my life long I shall see moonlight on the fern
                      And the black trunks of trees. Only the hair
            Of any woman can belong to God.
The stalks are crudely broken where we trod,
                                    There had been violets there,
                                    I shall not care
            As I used to when I see the bracken burn.

The poem is about a boy whose life was forever altered by one night with a circus performer. But what is most striking is the line about the hair of women, which for Mew is clearly the symbol of her desire, it’s the thing that drives her mad with longing. And more important still is the voice of the narrator, this young man, all young men— Mew has sharpened their ability to convey their lust and desire for women in words, but at the same time she has softened it, so that the desire exists on a more altruistic plane. The desire is for the woman to endure as an exalted being, and not in the way some men worship women, but in the way that the flowers and the birds might revere a forest sprite.

By writing from the point of view of a man, Mew of course inures herself to being called a lesbian. She also inures herself to denunciations of her opinions. She can scorn society as a man, as easily as she can pine for a woman, like a man. In this way, when one arrives to an actual genderless poem, one may appreciate it even more, for being even quieter than usual.

In “Left Behind,” the final stanza:

And one fine morning in a sunny lane
            Some boy and girl will meet and kiss and swear
                        That nobody can love their way again
                                    While over there
            You will have smiled, I shall have tossed your hair.

The beauty here is in the indentation. The first two lines describe a typical scene—two young lovers betting their love is the first and only that has existed with such profundity of feeling and scope. While over there, in the discreet middle of the line, seems to hide itself, seems to almost wink at its subject, as though to say, You and I once were there, where no one saw us.

When Mew speaks of men who’ve died, as in “Arracombe Wood,” she does not weep for men as a man might, or as a woman might, but in this gender-fluid way, that is perhaps the most unadorned, unencumbered. It renders the obsession not mild but infinitely palatable. Like something one will never tire of eating.

This follows in “My Heart is Lame,” which begins, My heart is lame with running after yours so fast. Mew is weary, and her poetry has that air of weariness. Not a fierce passion, but a weary one. It succeeds inconspicuously, as do all things of passion written with enough distance to be gorgeous and not merely bloody.

That weariness would follow her all her days, because she could not find love that would stay. After Sinclair, Mew had several other friendship-romances, and whether or not they were physically consummated is unknown.  Of course one can’t overlook the patriarchy of the time, as in Yeats’ branding of Mew as the finest living woman poet. But for Mew her fears were not driven by career. Unlike others, her career was incidental, it was a way in which she might first make money, and later find love, by being exposed to other intelligent women like herself, progressive enough to give into any homosexual predilections.

But how fine the art is, how open it becomes when she made it larger to hide herself, and to accommodate herself. Her words aren’t full of growth simply because the narrator might be anyone. There is a greater alchemy involved. Her poems are so breathtaking because there is an inversion that happens. The narrowing impulse leads to a “widening gyre,” a funnel of poetry.

Mew’s last days ended as her life began, in fear and loneliness. After Mew’s sister, Anne, died of liver cancer, Mew began to suffer delusions. She would see visions, for example, of her sister’s body dappled with dark specks.  All her life she’d feared ending up like her schizophrenic siblings, and now here the nightmare was actually happening. She placed herself into a nursing home and eventually committed suicide in 1928, by swallowing a bottle of Lysol. That there was no one there to tell her the dark specks she saw were not delusions, but that her sympathetic, perspicacious mind might be seeing the cancer personified, the way her poetry personified a loneliness that was greater than the sum of the genders—that there was no one there to tell her is one of those misfortunes of life.  Some have none, and some have more than they need, to write as stunningly as they might.