Isle of Lesbos : Poetry : Historical : Charlotte Mew

 

Charlotte Mew
1879-1928

Charlotte Mew, born in London, was one of the last poets of the Victorian era. While she did not write poetry with overt lesbian themes, preferring to keep the speaker ambigious or male, she clearly loved and preferred women. She never married and assumed a persona traditionally seen as masculine, wearing tailored men's clothing, and keeping her hair short. She traveled alone, used strong language, and smoked. While her refusal to bend to society's role for women would seem to bode well, her life was full of misfortune, and she never seemed to connect with a lesbian community of her time, leaving her feeling isolated and disappointed.

In family life, tragedy seemed almost to stalk Charlotte. She was one of seven children and the oldest to survive. Three brothers died in childhood, a brother and sister were committed to asylums in their twenties, and by 1898, after her father's death, only her mother and one sister remained.

Even given this tragic life, however, Charlotte managed to produce respected poetry. Her literary career came slowly--while she published a story in The Yellow Book in 1894, she published only intermittently for the next 15 years. She wrote the body of her poetry between 1909 and 1916. After The Nation published "The Farmer's Bride" in 1912, she gained literary notice. She published her first chapbook, also called "The Farmer's Bride," in 1916, at the age of 47. While the chapbook was not a success in sales, it did gain notice from Sidney Cockerell, director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, who forwarded her work to others.

Charlotte's poetry was distinctive for her development of dramatic monologue, set to meter with a sharp sense of flow. Her lines often stretched long and captured a sense of enthusiasm followed by restraint. The topics often centered around loneliness, disillusionment, sexual longing, and fear.

Particularly notable from a lesbian standpoint is that Charlotte's love poems do not close with fulfillment or joy; instead, they are bleak and without hope. This reflects the frustration of her personal life, where she never seemed to find the women she most needed to connect with; she loved, but was not loved in return.

The major loves of her life were Ella D'Arcy and May Sinclair. Ella D'Arcy was a fellow writer and an editorial assisant at The Yellow Book. While Ella returned Charlotte's overtures of friendship, she was strictly heterosexual and refused anything more, and Charlotte gave up around 1902. Around 1913, Charlotte fell in love with May Sinclair, the novelist. While May originally pursued Charlotte with notes and requests for their meeting, when Charlotte expressed her love for May, May became cruel. She told others about Charlotte's feelings, even writing to Rebecca West to describe a lurid scene where May literally had to leap over a bed to get away from Charlotte. Whether or not this incident actually happened, May seemed to have no second thoughts about sharing the tale.

Several of her admirers were unswayed by gossip about Charlotte's private life, admiring her work openly. Thomas Hardy said that Mew as "far and away the best living woman poet." Virginia Woolfe told Vita Sackville-West about Mew's poetry, also insisting that Charlotte was the greatest living poetess."

In the late 1920s, after her mother died and her sister Anna (whom she lived with) was diagnosed with liver cancer, Charlotte began to have delusions. She imagined that Anna had been buried alive, then that Anna was infected with black specks. She was put in a nursing home in 1928 and ended up committing suicide by drinking a bottle of Lysol disinfectant.

Biography by Alix North

Top of page

Selected Works

On the Road to the Sea

We passed each other, turned and stopped for half an hour, then went our way,
I who make other women smile did not make you--
But no man can move mountains in a day.
So this hard thing is yet to do.

But first I want your life:--before I die I want to see
The world that lies behind the strangeness of your eyes,
There is nothing gay or green there for my gathering, it may be,
Yet on brown fields there lies
A haunting purple bloom: is there not something in grey skies
And in grey sea?
I want what world there is behind your eyes,
I want your life and you will not give it me.

Now, if I look, I see you walking down the years,
Young, and through August fields--a face, a thought, a swinging dream
perched on a stile--;
I would have liked (so vile we are!) to have taught you tears
But most to have made you smile.
To-day is not enough or yesterday: God sees it all--
Your length on sunny lawns, the wakeful rainy nights--; tell me--;
(how vain to ask), but it is not a question--just a call--;
Show me then, only your notched inches climbing up the garden wall,
I like you best when you are small.

Is this a stupid thing to say
Not having spent with you one day?
No matter; I shall never touch your hair
Or hear the little tick behind your breast,
Still it is there,
And as a flying bird
Brushes the branches where it may not rest
I have brushed your hand and heard
The child in you: I like that best
So small, so dark, so sweet; and were you also then too grave and wise?
Always I think. Then put your far off little hand in mine;--
Oh! let it rest;
I will not stare into the early world beyond the opening eyes,
Or vex or scare what I love best.
But I want your life before mine bleeds away--
Here--not in heavenly hereafters--soon,--
I want your smile this very afternoon,
(The last of all my vices, pleasant people used to say,
I wanted and I sometimes got--the Moon!)

You know, at dusk, the last bird's cry,
And round the house the flap of the bat's low flight,
Trees that go black against the sky
And then--how soon the night!

No shadow of you on any bright road again,
And at the darkening end of this--what voice? whose kiss? As if you'd say!
It is not I who have walked with you, it will not be I who take away
Peace, peace, my little handful of the gleaner's grain
From your reaped fields at the shut of day.

Peace! Would you not rather die
Reeling,--with all the cannons at your ear?
So, at least, would I,
And I may not be here
To-night, to-morrow morning or next year.
Still I will let you keep your life a little while,
See dear?
I have made you smile.

Top of page

Absence

Sometimes I know the way
You walk, up over the bay;
It is a wind from that far sea
That blows the fragrance of your hair to me.

Or in this garden when the breeze
Touches my trees
To stir their dreaming shadows on the grass
I see you pass.

In sheltered beds, the heart of every rose
Serenely sleeps to-night. As shut as those
Your garded heart; as safe as they fomr the beat, beat
Of hooves that tread dropped roses in the street.

Turn never again
On these eyes blind with a wild rain
Your eyes; they were stars to me.--
There are things stars may not see.

But call, call, and though Christ stands
Still with scarred hands
Over my mouth, I must answer. So
I will come--He shall let me go!

Top of page

Monsieur Qui Passe

A purple blot against the dead white door
In my friend's rooms, bathed in their vile pink light,
I had not noticed her before
She snatched my eyes and threw them back to me:
She did not speak till we came out into the night,
Paused at this bench beside the klosk on the quay.

God knows precisely what she said--
I left to her the twisted skein,
Though here and there I caught a thread,--
Something, at first, about "the lamps along the Seine,
And Paris, with that witching card of Spring
Kept up her sleeve,--why you could see
The trick done on these freezing winter nights!
While half the kisses of the Quay--
Youth, hope,-the whole enchanted string
Of dreams hung on the Seine's long line of lights."

Then suddenly she stripped, the very skin
Came off her soul,-a mere girl clings
Longer to some last rag, however thin,
When she has shown you-well-all sorts of things:
"If it were daylight-oh! one keeps one's head--
But fourteen years!--No one has ever guessed--
The whole thing starts when one gets to bed--
Death?-If the dead would tell us they had rest!
But your eyes held it as I stood there by the door--
One speaks to Christ-one tries to catch His garment's hem--
One hardly says as much to Him--no more:
It was not you, it was your eyes--I spoke to them."

She stopped like a shot bird that flutters still,
And drops, and tries to run again, and swerves.
The tale should end in some walled house upon a hill.
My eyes, at least, won't play such havoc there,--
Or hers--But she had hair!--blood dipped in gold;
And there she left me throwing back the first odd stare.
Some sort of beauty once, but turning yellow, getting old.
Pouah! These women and their nerves!
God! but the night is cold!

Top of page

My Heart is Lame

My heart is lame with running after yours so fast
Such a long way,
Shall we walk slowly home, looking at all the things we passed
Perhaps to-day?

Home down the quiet evening roads under the quiet skies,
Not saying much,
You for a moment giving me your eyes
When you could bear my touch.

But not to-morrow. This has taken all my breath;
Then, though you look the same,
There may be something lovelier in Love's face in death
As your heart sees it, running back the way we came;
My heart is lame.

Top of page

A Quoi Bon Dire

Seventeen years ago you said
Something that sounded like Good-bye;
And everybody thinks that you are dead,
But I.

So I, as I grow stiff and cold
To this and that say Good-bye too;
And everybody sees that I am old
But you.

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.


Top of page

Where to Read More...

  • Charlotte Mew--a discussion of her style, a bibliography, and selected works. Part of Spondee.
  • Charlotte Mew, Collected Poems and Prose, Val Warner, editor (London: Virago, 1981)
  • T.E.M. Boll, "The Mystery of Charlotte and May Sinclair: An Inquiry" Bulletin of the New York Public Library 75 (September 1970, pp 445-453)
  • Mary C. Davidow, "The Charlotte Mew-May Sinclair Relationship: A Reply" Bulletin of the New York Public Library 75 (March 1971, pp 295-300)
  • Penelope Fitzgerald, Charlotte Mew and Her Friends (London: Collins, 1984)
  • Linda Mizejewski, "Charlotte Mew and the Unrepentant Magdalene: A Myth in Transition," Texas Studies in Literature and Language 26 (Fall 1984, pp 282-302)
  • P.B. Parris, His Arms are Full of Broken Things (London: Viking, 1997) [Fiction]

Top of page