My experience of poetry is similar to my experience of music. A powerful poem or song connects with my emotions faster than my thoughts can catch up. Something resonates and refuses to be ignored. It reaches through my defensive filters of reason or prejudice or good taste or habit and triggers joy or sorrow.
The source of the resonance intrigues me. There are songs and poems that have no link to my life as I experience it or even to my dreams, yet they touch me. I wonder if it is simply that I recognise something true and honest in them, not an argument or a proof, but a distillation of the writer’s experience, that insists on being heard.
Today, the first day of our latest lock down, I went looking for a poem that might cheer me. I wanted to find a new poem and let it brighten my day.
I looked up the poetry of Charlotte Mew. Decades ago, in my teens, I’d studied (and loved and memorised and played over and over in my head like a favourite new tune) her poem ‘The Farmer’s Bride’. It’s her best known poem. It tells a sad story with a strong voice and clear images in a way that was irresistibly accessible.
Here’s how it opened
Three summers since I chose a maid, Too young maybe—but more’s to do At harvest-time than bide and woo.
With those three lines I already thought I knew this man and I judged him harshly. By the end of the next verse I felt my judgement was premature. There was more to him than brusque entitlement.
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 ’twadn’t a woman— More like a little frightened fay. One night, in the Fall, she runned away.
Already, I could see this was a tragedy, caused perhaps by carelessness but not by malice, that had affected the farmer and his bride. I read the rest of the poem eagerly and it has never left me. You can read the full text HERE
Today, I read more of Charlotte Mew’s poems, wanting something empathetic, compassionate and perhaps hopeful. What I found, for the most part, was sadness. Not the self-conscious look-how-tortured-I-am-by-life sadness of the melodramatic wannabe poet but a sadness so integrated into the poet’s experience that it haunts every poem. Later, I looked for details of her life and saw what a terrible time she’d had but I felt that this was something her poetry had already told me.
The poem that resonated with me today was ‘Rooms’. It didn’t cheer me but it did make an impression. Here it is:
Rooms by Charlotte Mew I remember rooms that have had their part In the steady slowing down of the heart. The room in Paris, the room at Geneva, The little damp room with the seaweed smell, And that ceaseless maddening sound of the tide— Rooms where for good or for ill—things died. But there is the room where we (two) lie dead, Though every morning we seem to wake and might just as well seem to sleep again As we shall somewhere in the other quieter, dustier bed Out there in the sun—in the rain.
At first, it was the rooms that caught my eye, making me imagine an itinerant life in places that were never home. Then I realised what the rooms really were and how this woman saw her life and it saddened me.
She looks back on her life as having been a slow progress towards death. Life was a ‘steady slowing down of the heart’. Each room was a place her life was confined to. They were each places where she was confronted by death. She has come to see those rooms a series of not-quite coffins.
In her current room she and her companion walk through their days but in all but appearance are laying dead.
She ends the poem with the thought that her confinement will end with her final room, her ‘quieter, dustier bed’, her coffin which offers her the freedom of sleeping:
'Out there in the sun - In the rain.
An afterlife, a peace in death, is not an idea that works for me. I see death as my final full stop. Yet here I felt the truth, (Charlotte Mew’s truth, not mine), of death as a release,
After having read this poem, I wasn’t surprised to find that Charlotte Mew eventually took her own life. The truth in this poem seems to make that almost inevitable.