This slim volume provides a useful starting-point into the
small oeuvre of this puzzling writer. Despite publishing early writing in The
Yellow Book and other journals in the
1890s and her own poetry collection The Farmer's Bride in 1916 and being, as a result, invited to visit
Hardy at Max Gate, her work seems often overlooked or in danger of being
forgotten. Born in 1868, Mew had
a wretched, repressed life, her sexuality often rejected or snubbed, members
of her family tormented by insanity, early deaths and depression. Eventually,
she killed herself in 1928, leaving behind a few essays, some poems and a
tempting, slightly unfinished life which has itself been fictionalised.
Eavan Boland's introduction helpfully contextualises this, but I am unsure
about her attempts to claim Mew as a woman writer, a kind of forerunner of
the concerns explored in fiction by Woolf and lived by Vita Sackville-West.
Her poems, direct and uncluttered by Georgian rhetoric are often set in the
recognisable landscape of Masefield and Brooke, with the looming shadow of
the Great War never far off. They also often make use of sudden dissolves of
viewpoint, in an almost filmic way - longer pieces such as 'Madeleine in
Church' and the bleak 'In Nunhead Cemetery' thus gain something by being read
alongside Eliot's 'The Waste Land'.
Boland singles out Mew's 'plain-spoken syntax' as a key feature and the
modern reader would certainly respond to this. Some of the briefer pieces,
for example, access an atmospheric beauty difficult to locate without sickly
sentiment in some of the contemporary Georgians. Take 'In the Fields', for
heart of any everlasting thing
bring me these dreams that take my breath away ?
come at evening with the home-flying rooks and the scent of hay,
the fields. They come in Spring.
The vaguely religious framing of this conclusion, the unindividuated pronouns
resulting in a kind of ambiguity - these are typical of Mew. There are many
such fragments in this selection - 'I have Been Through the Gates', 'Not for
that City' - and they possess an eerie resonance. The longer pieces build
upon this atmosphere, being almost a collection of such reveries stitched
Among the longer poems, 'Madeleine in Church', whilst possessing a more
consistent narrative drive, is clearly written by the same writer. Curiously,
the title monologue from Mew's first collection, 'The Farmer's Bride', now
seems a little like watered-down Browning, whatever the claims made for
Boland, keen to introduce readers to Mew's poems of sexual ennui and
yearning, includes a good chunk of that first volume, The Farmer's
Bride, but some of the later poems from
her second, posthumous collection The Rambling Sailor (1929) are also of considerable interest: 'The
Trees are Down' and 'Rooms', both included here, for instance. Those
intrigued by Mew's melancholy and plain-speaking syntax may like to explore
further with the 'Collected Poems and Selected Prose', edited by Val Warner, which Carcanet published in
1997: this gives a much wider selection, as the title implies, of the work of
this tormented, unclassifiable poet.
© M.C.Caseley 2008