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“a cameo cut in steel”
Charlotte Mary Mew, esteemed by Siegfried Sassoon, and Ezra Pound was born in London on November 15, 1869. She took her own life on March 24, 1928. Haunted by unrequited passion and tormented by fears of madness she, nevertheless, produced poems of unique beauty and passion. Although her life was lived for the most part in poverty and despair she was still recognized by Vita Sackville West as a poetess of distinction. Virginia Woolf called her the greatest living poetess, and Marianne Moore, a quarter of a century after her death, considered her work ‘above praise.’ Thomas Hardy accorded her extraordinary praise, and others believed she approached poetic genius.
Today she has been all but forgotten. Penelope Fitzgerald’s laudable biography Charlotte Mew and Her Friends attempted to revive a substantial interest in her. Yet a significant lack of response seems to be the case. Material on Mew is sparse indeed. A search of Internet has resulted in a few connections. So this homepage in part will attempt to explain Charlotte Mew, tell of her tragic life, and present some of her lovely and haunting work. The author of this homepage welcomes any comment or help on bringing Charlotte Mary Mew the recognition she deserves.
Poetically she spoke in an apprehensive voice that somewhat concealed her natural sense of foreboding. As a result her meter was somewhat restrained and approached blandness. Many times her lines appeared broken in measure and carried a certain abruptness. Her grammar was confusing and her syntax was often muddled, and her form seem to follow feeling. She was by temperament withdrawn and her writing diffident.
Her dread about madness, justified by her circumstances, gave direction to her work along with the motivation to write of unrequited love, aptly described by one critic as ‘the poignancy of thwarted self-fulfillment.” Her torment at the prospect of madness and distressing ruminations over unanswered love broke out in a few of poems in expressions of yearning for the peace of sunlit summer days, of young love and innocence. She looked beyond death and the grave to a radiant place of magnanimity, serenity and reunited love.
Louis Untermeyer said that her work had a deceptive fragility – ‘a cameo cut in steel’. Thomas Mann felt the she was, ostensibly, always the impersonal observer. Yet she imparts to her theme as much intensity as though she were actually expressing her own subjective mood. Monro and Lorna Collard added that, the secret of her power lies in her sense of spiritual values.
Her best work is caught in five poems of exquisite beauty and charm: From the Window, I So Liked Spring, Sea Love, The Farmer’s Bride and A Quoi Bon Dire. Charlotte Mew, like Emily Dickinson, wanted her manuscripts burned. Fortunately, they still remain for our enjoyment. In the Forward to Charlotte Mew and Her Friends by Penelope Fitzgerald, Brad Leihauser ends his introduction by this tender observation:
“To have written, as Charlotte Mew did, a handful of poems of unique beauty and finish represents an inspiring beating of the odds. They ought to entitle her to a small share of enduring renown. The longings in her poems remain passionately undiminished by time, as do her cries for a world more just and forthcoming. And yet sixty years after her death, as her miseries recede into the gentling past, increasingly her poems themselves become the other world, that ‘over there’ where longings and love together lie beneath a reconciling sun. Bitter loss becomes lovely loss – bitter yearnings, sweet yearnings.”
On March 24, 1928, Charlotte Mew drank some Lysol, a corrosive poison, and slowly died in pain. Near the very end she said, as her final words, “Don’t keep me, let me go.” Penelope Fitzgerald in her Mew biography ends with these bittersweet words: The grave of Anne and Charlotte Mew is in Fortune Green Cemetery, London N.W.6, Section M11, No. 28829. In her will Charlotte asked for an almond tree, or some small tree, to be planted, but, if this was ever done, the tree has not survived.
There are some daffodils, however, which flower every spring on the grave, planted by well-wishers.