As part of its annual fundraising efforts, Poetry Daily has been circulating via newsletter poems published prior to 1923, along with commentary by contemporary poets. Yesterday, in addition to featuring my poem, "The Peninsula," the editors also sent out my observations about Charlotte Mew's "The Farmer's Bride" to PD subscribers. You can access "The Farmer's Bride" at the Poetry Foundation by clicking here. Following is my commentary on this very haunting poem.
Shara Lessley’s Poetry Month Pick, April 25, 2012
Yet until the spring of 2004, Charlotte Mew was the most eccentric poet I’d never heard of. It was Eavan Boland who first suggested I read Mew and who brought the writer to life. She was petite, Eavan said, small-boned. She wore her hair closely shorn. She dressed in men’s suits tailored to fit her 4’10’’ frame. She always carried a black umbrella. After her last remaining sister (nursed by Mew through terminal cancer) passed away, the grief-stricken poet became deranged. Efforts to treat her failed. In the early months of 1928, Mew consumed a bottle of creosote and died frothing at the mouth.
Although hers was not the Moderns’ avant-garde experimentation, Mew rebelled against Georgian fashion by mixing meters and varying syntactical patterns. Her line length was unusually long. At a time when women poets treated religious and domestic subjects within the confines of strict formal verse, Mew populated her stanzas with hospitals, graveyards, sea roads and cloisters. Such rooms still sing with the psychology of isolation and loss. Beyond these distinctions, Eavan suggested I read Mew as a masterful chronicler of the estranged. I began with "The Farmer’s Bride," a narrative poem in which an alienated husband recounts the unusual circumstances of his marriage.
In "The Farmer’s Bride" Mew writes against love’s timelessness, extracting romance from the pastoral. Instead of a passionate shepherd and his love, Mew introduces a couple in crisis. Within the first stanza, we learn it’s been "three summers" since the farmer—whose work leaves little time for courtship—picked his mate. Perhaps she was too young, he speculates. Regardless, on their wedding day she "turned afraid," he claims, "Of love and me and all things human."
Over 46 lines, Mew reveals much about the poem’s title character: the farmer’s wife is frightened, shy, and swift. She "chats and plays" with rabbits and birds, but refuses "men-folk." At times, she’s wild, almost nonhuman. She runs off and is hunted by her spouse "like a hare / Before lanterns ... /all a shiver and a scare." Despite her eccentricities, she’s a good housekeeper, physically attractive. Still, something holds the couple apart. The bride, we’re told, sleeps in the attic. This estrangement extends beyond the bedroom: in their years together, the young woman’s husband has hardly heard her speak. Although her behavior is perplexing, the farmer can’t entirely fault his wife. He expresses real grief for the distance between them, as well as emotional and physical desire.
Of course, physical desire is the poem’s great unspoken weight. As the couple’s "short days shorten" (time is running out!) and "berries redden up to Christmas-time," Mew divulges an astonishing fact: after three married years the couple’s relationship remains unconsummated. It’s this revelation against which the poet juxtaposes the farmer’s erotic outburst: "Oh! my God! the down, / The soft young down of her, the brown, / The brown of her—her eyes, her hair, her hair!" What this surge of physical description reveals (note the emphasis gained via repetition of sound, syntax, image, and word choice) is the husband’s powerful attraction to his wife. That there’s "but a stair / Betwixt" them baits the question: how long will the gentleman farmer remain a gentleman?
Although it’s been years since I first encountered the poem, reading "The Farmer’s Bride" still puts me on edge. Its fits of flight disturb me, as do its patterns of avoidance and pursuit. Much like the key turned to imprison the young bride, Mew’s end rhymes continually close in on themselves, locking into place. The poet’s merging of plainspoken diction and dialect is to be admired, as is her ability to exploit the natural world in order to increase psychological tension and suspense. I find the spouses’ lack of communication heartrending. It’s impossible to know with whom Mew most identified—the strange young girl skittish in the company of men, or the lonely farmer confused and pained by unrequited desire. Whether readers sympathize with husband or wife (I suspect most relate to both), ultimately "The Farmer’s Bride" depicts—with rebelliousness and skill—a love that is darker, unfulfilled; yet, for all its terrible loneliness and grief, Mew’s is a love poem still.