Poet's Pick April 21
Charlotte Mew: "Sea Love"
Selected by Cally Conan-Davies
National Poetry Month 2014

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Cally Conan-Davies's Poetry Month Pick, April 21, 2014

"Sea Love"
by Charlotte Mew (1869-1928)

Tide be runnin’ the great world over:
  ’Twas only last June month I mind that we
Was thinkin’ the toss and the call in the breast of the lover
  So everlastin’ as the sea.

Heer's the same little fishes that splutter and swim,
  Wi’ the moon’s old glim on the grey, wet sand:
An’ him no more to me nor me to him
  Then the wind goin’ over my hand.

 

*Cally Conan-Davies Comments:
After Thomas Hardy died in January, 1928, a piece of paper was found in his desk drawer on which he had written out Charlotte Mew's poem "Fin de Fete." Mew had worshipped Hardy, as she did Emily Brontë, and Hardy considered Mew "far and away the best living woman poet, who will be read when others are forgotten." But later that same year, when Mew committed suicide by drinking a glass of lysol, a caustic disinfectant, a local paper made brief reference to the death of "Charlotte Mew, said to be a writer". This is a strange cross of callous understatement and fair comment, as Mew in her life was little known by many and incompletely known by a few. The life of her work seems tied to a similar fate. I want to look at one of the handful of her short lyric poems, "Sea Love," to give Hardy's prediction a bit of a nudge.

"Sea Love" was first published in the first issue of Harold Monro's magazine The Monthly Chapbook in 1920 when its author, Charlotte Mew, was fifty. Monro, with his wife Alida, was the owner of The Poetry Bookshop in Bloomsbury which played a vital role for poets both little and well-known from 1913-1926. When Alida read "Sea Love" on BBC radio in 1924, Mew was at the height of her small fame. "Sea Love" couldn't be more simple. Two quatrains, eight lines, rhyming a,b,a,b,c,d,c,d. And it couldn't be more remarkable because of its technical virtuosity—the music and the creation of a voice—and its striking imagery and themes, artistry that impressed Virginia Woolf who thought Mew "very good and interesting and unlike anyone else."

All Mew's poems demonstrate mastery of simple rhyming of free-running lines.  Here, we have "over" "we" "lover" "sea" "swim" "sand" "him" "hand." There isn't an obnoxious rhyme in any of her poems, I find. She uses rhyme as if it were as natural to vernacular speech as it is to self-consciously "literary" speech (which I believe it is). Part of the naturalness of her rhyming comes from her sense of the line. Because of her irregular line lengths and rhythms, her rhymes never feel unnaturally placed. She is a formalist bent in the hands of a free spirit. Internal rhymes enhance both the speech pattern and the natural energy of the poem. Her dance along the lines (she was a great dancer, I was unsurprised to learn; all her poems dance) is more than sprightly—it breaks pattern and tempo because there is no other way to suggest the independence of this speaker, this woman who stands by the sea at night, not in love and in the world.

To understand why certain of her contemporaries thought her poems needed revision, that her unpredictable lines were something that needed correcting, rather than being precisely as Mew intended them, try reading "Sea Love" aloud. According to people who knew her, Mew had a "flexible" voice, with breaks in it, "fascinating to listen to". Feel how the lines in your own mouth favour sensuality over decorum, how the sense of impulsive thought is conveyed.  Feel the open recklessness, the sea-motion, in "Was thinkin' the toss and the call in the breast of the lover". Now compare it with "Wi' the moon's old glim on the grey, wet sand" where the "m" and "o" and "oo" sounds slow the line right down, as well as the braking power got by giving both nouns two single-syllabled adjectives. Mew believed "all verse gains by being spoken and mine particularly—I suppose because it's rough—though my ideal is beauty." Rough beauty, indeed. These sounds and mouthings are meaning's vehicle. In the first stanza, sound and rhythm carry the reckless conviction (that long third intoxicated line) of passionate love: this feeling will last forever. In the second, loss and gone-ness suddenly wheel in as the single syllabled words press home the reality, "An' him no more to me nor me to him".

It's no surprise that Mew, as a young writer, wrote plays. "Sea Love," like many of her poems, is essentially a dramatic performance. It begins with "Tide be runnin' the great world over:" — a highly colloquial exclamation of all-encompassing-ness. The full-colon at the end of this energetic first line emphasises that nothing in nature is immune to the dramatic insight that fulfills the poem. From Mew's biographer, Penelope Fitzgerald, we learn that Mew was "a born impersonator who could 'do' anybody".  Her best-known poem during her life, "The Farmer's Bride", is an expert example of dialect and idiom, at using the diction and syntax of a particular speaker's time and place and dramatic situation. She would have absorbed the diction and intonation of the "Sea Love" speaker during her long summer months of childhood on the Isle Of Wight.

In "Sea Love," voice seems to run ahead while thought chases it toward a perception as simple and deep as a child's. You know how it is, how often we don't know what we know until we say it. Mew found a poetic technique for intuition, a way of pacing and turning lines to give the impression of a vital and immediate mind in action, in the act of realising itself. Along with the melodic tumble of words along the line, the variations in the rhythm, it's the clarity and intimacy of the diction that make "Sea Love," for me, irresistible: "Twas only last June month, I mind..."; "little fishes that splutter and swim"; "moon's old glim".

The iconic setting, too, is crucial to the poem's magic: summer, on a beach, at night. And most importantly, we are alone. By we of course I mean the poem's "I", but it is no leap at all to leap into the place of the solitary-aware "I" in "Sea Love." This is our mutual human heart, astonished by its own capricious isolation, and seeming almost to relish its own mercurial nature. I often wonder if John Fowles was inspired by "Sea Love" to create Sarah Woodruff in The French Lieutenant's Woman, though there is nothing conventionally romantic or ambiguous about this speaker who breaks entirely from Victorian sentiment. Here, the woman is both the unloved and the unloving one. Both "him" and "me" are inconstant. W. H. Auden, in his lectures on the iconography of the sea, said 'the sea . . . is the symbol for primordial undifferentiated flux". This is the sophisticated way of saying what the final lines of this poem so directly, and wearing their weight of significance so lightly, enact: the dramatic image of a person feeling the wind on her hand, and knowing what it is to touch and not to hold. Arresting, swift, supple, cool, suspended—it is a crystalline ending:

'An him no more to me nor me to him
Than the wind goin' over my hand.

The voice of everything and nothing. The voice of lucidity. To read these lines is like looking from a seacliff through clear green seawater to the quiet rocks on the seabed. This feels like such an unrehearsed meeting of a private world and a natural world and a human universal. I cannot glean a trace of self-pity from the line, maybe due to the absence of harsh consonantal sounds; the two 't's almost disappear. Instead,  a rippling run of 'n's and 'm's  actually sound like "wind goin' over my hand." The breathtaking sound-proximity of  "wind" and "hand" speaks of a free spirit with a freighted heart. "One can bear hard things under the open sky," wrote Mew.

And so we come to what I always think of as the conclusion to a poem: the title. Both words are nouns in their own right, and also form a compound abstract noun, and "sea" functions as an adjective. It can refer to love of the sea, and a love like the sea. And it also works homophonically: "See Love," an imperative to look at love the way it is. Mew demonstrates great artistry by uncovering sensitive depths with utmost simplicity.  Walter de la Mare, who warmed to her slowly, but once warmed was won over, wrote  "She just knows humanity . . . one of the rarest things in the world." I know what he means.  Mew is a freakishly gifted human speech musician. And we are most human in our embodied voices.

In all her "little technical experiments", as she called her poems, Charlotte Mew neither toes the metrical line, nor throws the line over arbitrarily; she lets her strangely articulate voices lope to their own measure. A crie de coeur in a lyric poem like "Sea Love" is not a scream; it is an astonishment of emotion modulated and directed by an elegant and compassionate intelligence. Because of this—its startling voice-music—her work is unusual, urgent, and cuts at the edge as much today as it did when she conjured a fickle heart at the shore of a constant and indifferent sea from a basement room in Bloomsbury.


About Cally Conan-Davies:
Cally Conan-Davies studied in Melbourne, Australia, before moving to the United States in 2012. Her poems have appeared in numerous periodicals including Poetry, The New Criterion, Subtropics, and The Hudson Review.


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