Charlotte Mary Mew (15 November 1869 – 24 March 1928) was an English poet, whose work spans the cusp between Victorian poetry and Modernism.
She was born in Bloomsbury, London the daughter of the architect Frederick Mew, who designed Hampstead town hall. Her father died in 1898 without making adequate provision for his family; two of her siblings suffered from mental illness, and were committed to institutions, and three others died in early childhood leaving Charlotte, her mother and her sister, Anne. Charlotte and Anne made a pact never to marry for fear of passing on insanity to their children.
Mew wrote stories and verses in her teens. Her first published work was the story “Passed,” accepted by Henry Harland for the 1894 number of The Yellow Book. Harland praised but rejected her next offering, “The China Bowl,” and for the next decade and a half Mew published only the occasional story or essay, mostly in order to supplement the family’s dwindling income.
Mew wrote most of her poems between 1909 and 1916. In 1912, she gained notice when Henry Massingham’s radical paper The Nation published her poem “The Farmer’s Bride.” Mew was soon taken up by the hostess Catherine Scott, at whose teas she read and thereby gained some literary attention.
Introduced to Alida Klementaski and Harold Monro of the Poetry Bookshop, she published a chapbook, “The Farmer’s Bride,” under its imprint in 1916. The volume did not sell well, but Sidney Cockerell, the director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, noticed it and sent copies to his literary friends, including Siegfried Sassoon and Thomas Hardy. Hardy was particularly impressed by her work. A second edition of “The Farmer’s Bride” with additional poems was published in 1921. Cockerell’s patronage enabled Mew to receive a small Civil list pension in 1923.
In 1894, Mew succeeded in getting a short story into The Yellow Book, but wrote very little poetry at this time. Her first collection of poetry, The Farmer’s Bride, was published in 1916, in chapbook format, by the Poetry Bookshop; in the USA, it was entitled Saturday Market and published in 1921. It earned her the admiration of Sydney Cockerell.
Her poems are varied: some of them (such as ‘Madeleine in Church’) are passionate discussions of faith and the possibility of belief in God; others are proto-modernist in form and atmosphere (‘In Nunhead Cemetery’). Mew gained the patronage of several literary figures, notably Thomas Hardy, who called her the best woman poet of her day, Virginia Woolf, who said she was ‘very good and quite unlike anyone else’, and Siegfried Sassoon. She obtained a small Civil List pension with the aid of Cockerell, Hardy, John Masefield and Walter de la Mare. This helped ease her financial difficulties.
After the death of her sister, she descended into a deep depression, and was admitted to a nursing home where she eventually committed suicide by drinking Lysol.
Mew is buried in the northern part of Hampstead Cemetery, London NW6.