Charlotte Mew (1869-1928)• Charlotte Mew writes here of arborcide. The title of Mews poem is "The Trees Are Down" and it opens with a quotation from Revelation 7.2-3 ("and he cried with a loud voice: Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees"). "He" in the quotation is the "angel ascending from the east, having the seal of the living God." Charlotte Mew wrote the poem in reaction to the felling of plane trees in Euston Square Gardens in the early 1920s.• Charlotte Mew was highly regarded by writers such as Thomas Hardy. She vowed never to marry because she feared she might carry a hereditary mental illness, as a brother and sister had been committed to institutions. This fear, and grief for the death of her sister Anne, led to her suicide in 1927.
Mew (1869-1928) was born into a once well-to-do family of architects. Her fatherlost the family fortune and died, leaving her mother, a beloved sister, and twomentally ill siblings for whom institutional upkeep had to be paid. Mew and hersister vowed never to marry for fear of passing on this illness, though perhaps thestronger reason was Mew’s attachment to women.After her mother’s death, and after her sister’s death, despite the fact that Hardyand Walter de la Mare secured her a pension, she took her own life, dying horriblyby drinking a bottle of lye. Once you know this awful fact, it hangs over her work,something to be adjusted to, or gotten rid of, or, perhaps, read through. Even withits images of death, this vigorous poem must have been written at the height ofher energy, its lines running like “the great gales that came” “across the roofsfrom the great seas” in a spirit of outrage and shocked sympathy. It is a testamentto a spirited sensuousness that keeps her work vitally alive, and whispering to us,despite our ignorance of her.Writing most of her poems from the late 1890s to 1913, Mew published only onebook in her lifetime, The Farmer’s Bride, which was extravagantly praised byThomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, Siegfried Sassoon, and Edith Sitwell. Sassooncompared her to Christina Rossetti; Woolf called her “the greatest living poetess”;and Hardy wrote, “Miss Mew is far and away the best living woman poet—whowill be read when others are forgotten.” Ironically, Mew is so utterly forgottenthat you can’t even buy her Complete Poems in the US (although it is available inEngland and Canada, published by Penguin).
A poet anticipates the contemporary narrative lyric—and her ownunfortunate end.“The Trees Are Down,” with its epigraph from the Book ofRevelation, depicts British poet Charlotte Mew’s own ideas of valour, andit might even foreshadow her own end. With her lanky-linedpoem, daring in its combination of near-prosiness with the chant ofchildlike rhyme, Mew is the foremother of our current style of lyricalnarration, or narrative lyric. I personally love this poem because of the“swish” and the “crash” and the “rustle” of the felling and because of theshocking (and everlasting) image of the rat. Mew is utterly conversationalbut completely rhythmical when she says, “I remember thinking: alive ordead, a rat was a god-forsaken thing, / But at least, in May, that even arat should be alive.” She allows us to enter her consciousness, to sharewith her the horror at the destruction of the “great plane trees at the endof the gardens,” and she is even bold enough to invite us to hear theangel of Revelation at the end. Her poem is protean (versatile/changeable) and alive—treelike in its look and in its long-limbedconstruction. I wonder, leaving aside obvious reasons of sexism, ifperhaps her work nearly disappeared because she created our mode oflyric narration a century too early.
Subject matter• In pairs, read the poem and then decide what it is about.• Do you think that this poem is solely expressing Mews’ affinity with nature, or do you think there is another undertone running through the story.Something to consider: This poem, and Mews’ work in particularbecame popular again in the 1980’s and gained momentum alongwith the feminist movement.• Comment on the significance of starting and finishing the poem with reference to the Bible.
What is the significance of…“If an old dead rat/ Did once, for a moment, unmake the Spring,I might never have thought of his again.”The opening and closing references to the Book of Revelation inthe Bible?“Spring” and “May”…”Spring is unmade to-day;” and “Half theSpring, for me, will have gone with them”“fine grey rain, /Green and high”
Style• The register of the poem is very conversational. Why do you think the author created the poem in this way?• The length of the lines varies greatly in the poem. This has sometimes been referred to as being symbolic representations of trees – Long, lanky and bold. The third line is particularly important, as it is short and begins with the word ‘branches’. Does this visual representation of subject matter aid in your overall understanding of the text? Explain in detail using reference to the poem.
Language devices• In pairs, break down a stanza each, alternating until you finish the poem.• For each stanza:• -Identify the language feature• -Suggest a possible meaning• -Discuss its relevance to your overall understanding of the poem.• Once you and your partner have completed the whole poem, compare your notes and discuss how the language devices accumulate to give you a detailed perspective on this poem.
NotesThere is a clear sense of desolation and loss in this poem, alament for the felling of ‘the great plane-trees’. The trees havesurvived the variations of nature – ‘sun’, ‘rains’, ‘wind’, ‘breeze’and ‘gales’ but are brought down by men whose ‘Whoops’,‘Whoas’ and ‘loud common talk’ seem to show their lack ofcare, creating a strong contrast with the narrative voice.The men are also separate from the connectedness of thenatural world, with the narrator showing links between the ‘rat’,the trees, the weather conditions, ‘the sparrows’ and ‘the smallcreeping creatures’. The narrator is also connectedsympathetically and suggests a spiritual dimension with the‘angel’ of the penultimate line and the initial quotation fromRevelation, one of the books of the Bible.
Notes cont.• The poem contains a number of onomatopoeic and rhyme effects while it uses form quite freely, with short lines and very long lines (several are so long they have to be split for printing, to which Mew objected). It is worth considering how these techniques maintain the connections between ideas in the poem.
Relevance to today?• Today there is a growing concern that as humans we are abusing our natural environment. Tree felling is sometimes a contentious topic.• Mew personifies trees and believes that they hold symbolic value for us as human beings.• Charlotte Mew believed that trees did not deserve to take the fall, regardless of the reason. To what extent do you agree with her?• These days we grow trees for the specific purpose of cutting them down – eg Christmas tree farms, paper factories.Do you think that these reasons are valid?
Compare with• My Parents Stephen Spender• The Trees Philip Larkin• A Quoi Bon Dire Charlotte Mew• Further reading• http://www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/indexer?owner_id=486• Songs