The Pitch: Charlotte Mew

Carmine Starnino talks to Julia Copus about her new book

Photo: courtesy of the author 

Photo: courtesy of the author 

WELCOME TO THE PITCH, a series on Partisan in which writers come clean about their works-in-progress—and share an exclusive excerpt. This week, Carmine Starnino talks to British poet Julia Copus about her biography of Charlotte Mew. 

Please tell me about your new book.

Shortly after midday on 24th March 1928, poet Charlotte Mew walked from her nursing home near Baker Street in London to the local shops. The room she’d left looked out onto a blank, brick wall—a world away from the light and colour that poured through her extraordinary poems. After buying a bottle of Lysol disinfectant, she returned, sat down on her bed, eased off the cork-top from the bottle and drank. She was 59. It was a bleak end to a life that, though often difficult, was also full of promise and vision. A list of Mew’s admirers reads like a roll-call of leading writers of her day: Robert Bridges, Walter de la Mare, Hilda Doolittle, Thomas Hardy, Ezra Pound, Siegfried Sassoon and Virginia Woolf.

Only one book about Mew’s life has so far been published. Penelope Fitzgerald’s Charlotte Mew and Her Friends appeared over thirty years ago, and is essentially a selectively focused portrait of Mew, based on the key relationships in her life. My book will centre instead on the close link between Mew’s life and her poetry, within the context of the London literary scene of the day—a milieu that was shattered by the First World War but quickly rebuilt itself.

Why did you choose to write about Mew?

After buying a bottle of Lysol disinfectant, she returned, sat down on her bed, eased off the cork-top from the bottle and drank.

I found her poems captivating and began to wonder why she wasn’t better known. She’s one of those writers who was admired in her time by prominent literary figures but was largely unknown by the general public and is now very much overlooked—in Britain, at least (although her best known poem, ‘The Farmer’s Bride’, is part of various English syllabuses over here). Originally I thought of doing a Selected Poems, as part of Faber’s Poet to Poet series, but they’d closed the series for the time being, and I’d started to feel anyway that I wanted to write more about Mew than a short introduction would allow. I became curious about what had fed into those extraordinary poems, and the more I discovered the more I felt the need to tell her story.

What’s the most unexpected thing you learned about Mew’s literary friendships?

Mew’s friendships tended to be personal rather than literary. She was completely uninterested in self-publicity and was never once tempted to make friends for the sake of furthering her reputation. To give an example, Lady Ottoline Morrell was a renowned society hostess and friend to artists, whose tea parties were attended by the likes of T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats, Henry James and D. H. Lawrence. Morrell admired Mew’s work and did her best to befriend her, but did so at a time when Mew was spending all her time sitting by the bedside of her dying sister—and “consequently,” Mew explained, “have none for seeing anyone else.”  Even when Mew’s sister died, Morrell failed to take the hint, and it was then that Mew wrote her a sharper note saying, “I hoped you would understand—as nearly everyone else has been good enough to do without my saying so—that I am only seeing & writing to old friends.” Morrell was well placed to put in a good word for Mew, but Mew snubbed her attentions because she found them intrusive.

The more I discovered the more I felt the need to tell her story.

Do you think certain poets, by dint of their temperament and the nature of their work, are destined to be forever underrated?

I’m not sure what style of work or kind of temperament might lead to a poet being underrated. What I’ve observed is that certain writers have praise heaped on them in their lifetimes and then are quickly forgotten, while others—and it’s true that they often seem to be the more modest kind, in terms of self-publicity— are initially overlooked but then are championed at a later date and enjoy a renaissance. The wonderful novelist and short story writer Elizabeth Taylor is one of those. I think Charlotte Mew will be another.

Excerpt from Charlotte Mew  

Lotti Mew was an observant child; a watcher—or ‘ whacher’, to use the habitual spelling of a writer whose work she would come to admire greatly, Emily Brontë. But at the same time as she was doing her observing, she had the strongest sensation also of being watched, by something—or someone—unseen, so that she never felt quite private or alone. Sunday was, for her, ‘a day of eyes, of transcendental vision’. It’s an unsettling notion, and one that would remain with her throughout her life. ‘In the Sunday of my fancy,’ she wrote at a distance of some thirty years, ‘the sky hangs like a gigantic curtain, veiling the Face which, watching us invisibly, we somehow fail to see. It judged in those old days my scamped and ill-done tasks. It viewed my childish cruelties and still, with wider range, it views and judges now.’

This ‘Face’, an all-seeing, ever-present deity, was almost certainly linked in Lotti’s mind with the statue of King George I that looked out across her London neighbourhood from the steeple of St George’s Church. ‘The eyes of the Lord are always upon us,’ she read in The Believer’s Daily Remembrancer; ‘may our eyes be ever towards the Lord.’[i]

The impression of being observed—and answerable to the observer—would become a key theme for Mew. Her poetry is littered with images of eyes, though in fact they are not always intended to signify surveillance. Most of the time, they are human eyes – windows onto a whole range of emotions. As well as passion and wantonness (implied by the wandering blue eyes of the vicar’s temptress) the eyes in Mew’s poems express at various times fear, calmness, fickleness, hurt, beauty or else a dull lifelessness. But here and there they are distinctly ethereal – disembodied, even—and stand for a scrutiny of the most invasive kind: ‘To-morrow I will tell you about the eyes of the Crystal Palace train / Looking down on us,’ says the half-mad narrator of ‘In Nunhead Cemetery’ to his recently buried sweetheart, refusing to acknowledge her death. (The train-line that was built to ferry the crowds to Crystal Palace, after it had moved from Hyde Park to Penge Common, ran directly past the cemetery at Nunhead.) One sees in this image not only the flat eyes of the train windows shining in the sunlight, but the scores of hidden, watchful eyes behind them.

Lotti also knew from her Daily Remembrancer that the ever-watchful God was connected in some way with death. Indeed, she read there that we should ‘consider death as going to take possession of the place He has prepared for us.’[ii] In the chilling ‘Smile, Death’ (published in Mew’s posthumous collection, The Rambling Sailor), death is a fellow skater, come to speed her out of this world. As well as the speaker’s unquestioning compliance, what makes this poem especially unnerving is the moment of revelation, when death finally unmasks itself – at the speaker’s invitation—and looks directly into the speaker’s own eyes. Most chilling of all is the instant when we learn that the expression on death’s face is not, as we might expect, one of menace or unthinking evil but of kindness:

Smile, death, as you fasten the blades to my feet for me,
On, on let us skate past the sleeping willows dusted with snow;
Fast, fast down the frozen stream, with the moor and the road and the vision behind,
(Show me your face, why the eyes are kind!)

[i] Smith, Rev. James, The Believer’s Daily Remembrancer (London: S. Marshall & Co., 1846), p. 296
[ii] ibid., p. 172

JULIA COPUS is a poet and children’s author. She has won First Prize in the National Poetry Competition and the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem (2010). Her latest poetry collection, The World's Two Smallest Humans (2012), was awarded a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize and the Costa Poetry Award.

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