Poet's Pick April 4
Charlotte Mew: "Fame"
Selected by Vanesha Pravin
National Poetry Month 2016

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Vanesha Pravin's Poetry Month Pick, April 4, 2016

by Charlotte Mew (1869–1928)

Sometimes in the over-heated house, but not for long,
    Smirking and speaking rather loud,
  I see myself among the crowd,
Where no one fits the singer to his song,
Or sifts the unpainted from the painted faces
Of the people who are always on my stair;
They were not with me when I walked in heavenly places;
    But could I spare
In the blind Earth's great silences and spaces,
  The din, the scuffle, the long stare
  If I went back and it was not there?
Back to the old known things that are the new,
The folded glory of the gorse, the sweetbriar air,
To the larks that cannot praise us, knowing nothing of what we do,
  And the divine, wise trees that do not care.
Yet, to leave Fame, still with such eyes and that bright hair!
God! If I might! And before I go hence
    Take in her stead
    To our tossed bed
One little dream, no matter how small, how wild.
Just now, I think I found it in a field, under a fence –
A frail, dead, new-born lamb, ghostly and pitiful and white
    A blot upon the night,
    The moon's dropped child!


* Vanesha Pravin Comments:
Charlotte Mew’s “Fame” feels as vital as ever, despite the considerable differences between fame in the early 20th century and fame today. Naturally, television and the Internet have made the famous of our time more famous than they could be in Mew’s time, but many of the conflicts generated by fame remain the same. What are the benefits of a public life? What are the costs? Mew’s poem traverses both the allure of being emancipated from a life of obscurity, and the great cost of detachment from a simpler, more meaningful life lived in communion with nature.

“Fame” immediately launches the reader into an oppressive domain – an “over-heated house” – where the speaker, aware of the shelf life of fame, notes that present circumstances are “not for long.” Right away, this persona is established as conflicted – “smirking and speaking rather loud,” and simultaneously observing herself “among the crowd.” This rhetorical device enables the reader to empathize with the speaker, whose skepticism isn’t merely targeting some “other.” By seeing her as one of the crowd, we’re less prone to dismiss her subsequent revelations as lofty pronouncements of a detached observer.

She grasps how hard it is to discern guises: “no one . . . / . . . sifts the unpainted from the painted faces / Of the people who are always on my stair.” This failure only amplifies the oppressiveness of this place. The sycophants – presumably those with painted faces – become a stifling nuisance because the room is so overrun with people that they are “always on [her] stair.” Yet these same people “were not with [her] when [she] walked in heavenly places.” The word heavenly suggests nostalgia for a purer experience of the natural world that the speaker is about to address. She is distrustful of the people surrounding her who are disconnected from the sublime “folded glory of the gorse,” and “sweetbriar air.” By conjuring her private moments in the past, returning to the “old known things that are [now] the new” as she observes herself in the overheated house, the speaker elicits a comparison between the freedom of invisibility, i.e., of life before fame, and the claustrophobic oppression of life post-fame. The “heavenly places” acquire a mythic dimension, and the speaker is aware of how, in contrast, earthly fame is transient and its players are not to be trusted. They did not bear witness to the speaker’s experience of the transcendent. The speaker trusts “the old known things” that have become “the new” because these things have nothing to gain from her. The natural world cannot validate us – the Earth is “blind,” and “larks . . . cannot praise us, knowing nothing of what we do,/And the divine, wise trees . . . do not care.” We move from the oppressiveness of the opening lines to the liberation that comes from the natural world’s indifference to us. We also witness a progression from the speaker’s distance at the beginning, when she observes herself ill at ease in the human world, to a more measured intimacy with the natural world, which shows no interest in observing the observer. There is a freedom in not being seen. Invisibility is a reprieve, an antidote to fame.

The poem also works on the ear, from the recurring sibilance (sometimes, smirking, speaking, see, singer, song, sifts, stair, spare, silences, spaces, scuffle stare), to the rhyme (long/song, loud/crowd, faces/places/spaces, stair/spare/stare/there/air/care/hair), to the cadences. We feel the language as a current, moving from the more measured pace at the beginning and then accelerating towards the end. This is most effective near the end, where she first lists modifiers – “frail, dead, new-born” in rapid succession, and then follows these by conjunctions that separate the next list of adjectives – “ghostly and pitiful and white,” forcing the reader to slow down and register the qualities of this particular lamb against all of its customary associations with sacrifice, innocence, and renewal. This line, with its long string of modifiers, rushes forward, then slows down, only to be followed by a drop down into the staccato of the last two lines: “A blot upon the night/The moon’s dropped child!” Here, the poem works on the eye as well, as the lineation itself echoes the drop of the final image. “The moon’s dropped child” lands on the page, framed by white space.

In the hands of another poet, the poem might have ended with the transition: “ . . . divine, wise trees that do not care.” But Mew has a heightened awareness of the ongoing tension within the hierarchy of needs, so an ambivalence follows: “Yet, to leave Fame, still with such eyes and that bright hair!/God! If I might!” The dialectic takes a turn, which lends urgency to the poem. It also gives “Fame” a timeless quality as elements of this conversation echo in our time, a timelessness that is amplified by some of the phrasing in the poem. A phrase like “Just now, I think I found it,” feels freshly spoken.

And what do we make of the ending? We can return to the title itself to contextualize it. In stark contrast to the superficiality of fame looms the ever-present gravity of death – a reminder of the finitude of our lives, and a prompt to seek richer meaning. For the speaker, meaning is found in her transcendent experience of the divine in nature, where she walks “in heavenly places.” This is clearly where she feels most herself, even when nature presents her with the starkest reality of all – the death of the innocent. Ending the poem with a dream where a lamb lies dead at birth somehow amplifies the image, and clarifies the writer’s resolution of her earlier ambivalence. She chooses the natural world, even though it comes with the unadorned reality of death and with utter indifference to us. Still, that is the dream she takes with her to bed, despite the allure of fame with all of its apparent validation.

Vanesha Pravin:
Vanesha Pravin is the author of Disorder (University of Chicago Press, 2015), which was also a finalist in the Crab Orchard Series Open Competition. She is the 2015 recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Sarton Prize. Her poems have appeared in Callaloo, Crab Orchard Review, Many Mountains Moving, Phoebe, Prodigal, and Slate. She teaches at the University of California, Merced.

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