Charlotte Mew, ‘The Farmer’s Bride’

Three Summers since I chose a maid,
Too young maybe – but more’s to do
At harvest-time than bide and woo.
When us was wed she turned afraid
Of love and me and all things human;
Like the shut of a winter’s day.
Her smile went out, and ’twasn’t a woman–
More like a little, frightened fay.
One night, in the Fall, she runned away.

“Out ‘mong the sheep, her be,” they said,
‘Should properly have been abed;
But sure enough she wasn’t there
Lying awake with her wide brown stare.
So over seven-acre field and up-along across the down
We chased her, flying like a hare
Before our lanterns. To Church-Town
All in a shiver and a scare
We caught her, fetched her home at last
And turned the key upon her, fast.

She does the work about the house
As well as most, but like a mouse:
Happy enough to chat and play
With birds and rabbits and such as they,
So long as men-folk stay away.
“Not near, not near!” her eyes beseech
When one of us comes within reach.
The women say that beasts in stall
Look round like children at her call.
I’ve hardly heard her speak at all.

Shy as a leveret, swift as he,
Straight and slight as a young larch tree,
Sweet as the first wild violets, she,
To her wild self. But what to me?

The short days shorten and the oaks are brown,
The blue smoke rises to the low gray sky,
One leaf in the still air falls slowly down,
A magpie’s spotted feathers lie
On the black earth spread white with rime,
The berries redden up to Christmas-time.
What’s Christmas-time without there be
Some other in the house than we!

She sleeps up in the attic there
Alone, poor maid. ‘Tis but a stair
Betwixt us. Oh, my God! – the down,
The soft young down of her; the brown,
The brown of her – her eyes, her hair, her hair!

Charlotte Mew (1869 – 1928)

I love the poetry of Charlotte Mew, although I find it extremely disturbing.  Mew was writing on the border between the Victorian and Modernist periods and her poems have a strange quality, partly traditionalist and partly experimental.  Two of Mew’s siblings were committed to asylums and she was terrified of becoming “mad” herself.  She was a lesbian, but was unable to form a stable relationship with another woman. She eventually committed a horrible suicide by drinking disinfectant.

The mysterious speakers in her poems are often outsiders, people at extremes, on the verge of breaking down completely, like the speaker in this eerie poem. ‘The Farmer’s Bride’ haunts me with its fairytale-like quality, its allegory about patriarchy, and its double-voiced expression of desire. I say double-voiced because even though the speaker in this poem is male, I sense a subtextual expression of frustrated lesbian desire, especially in the last stanza.

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2 thoughts on “Charlotte Mew, ‘The Farmer’s Bride’

  1. Haunting indeed. I’ve been wanting to read Charlotte Mew for ages, but she’s really difficult to find in the States. Just as well I like my poets obscure!

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