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Don Selby & Diane Boller
Shara Lessley's Poetry Month Pick, April 25, 2012
"The Farmer's Bride"
by Charlotte Mew (1869-1928)
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 ’twadn’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 wadn’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 keep 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 grey 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!
Shara Lessley Comments:
Charlotte Mew's was a strange and terrible loneliness. She struggled with the shame of a family in financial distress, the loss of six siblings to schizophrenia and illness. Her sexuality—intolerable by strict Georgian society—remained publicly undisclosed. Her poems, however, were praised by the likes of Thomas Hardy and Ezra Pound. In response to Mew's 1921 collection, Saturday Market, one critic hailed "the arrival of genius." Virginia Woolf once declared her "the greatest living poetess."
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.
About Shara Lessley:
Shara Lessley is the author of Two-Headed Nightingale. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, her poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Ploughshares, The Southern Review, New England Review, and jubilat, among others. She currently lives in the Middle East.
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