is the author of What Feeds Us (Wind Publications, 2006) which was awarded the Quentin R. Howard Poetry Prize. She is also the author of Eve’s Red Dress (Wind Publications, 2003) and a chapbook, Against Perfection (Poets Forum Press, 1998).
Her poems have been published in several anthologies, including Poetry Daily: 366 Poems from the World’s Most Popular Poetry Website and Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems for Hard Times.
Her poems have also appeared in such journals as Beloit Poetry Journal, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Prairie Schooner. Her work has been nominated for several Pushcart Prizes, featured on Poetry Daily, and read by Garrison Keillor on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac.
A former high school English teacher, Diane now works as a poet-in-the-schools.
Please visit her website.
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Charlotte Mew’s “The Farmer’s Bride”
by Diane Lockward
The Farmer’s Bride
The Farmer’s Bride” is the title poem of the only collection Charlotte Mew published during her lifetime, first in 1916 with seventeen poems and again in 1921 with an additional eleven poems. The first edition received ten reviews, one by H.D. who compared Mew to Browning; nevertheless, the book sold poorly. Mew then came to the attention of Thomas Hardy, already an important influence on her work. With Hardy’s championship, the expanded edition of The Farmer’s Bride fared well and Mew enjoyed modest critical and popular success. However, soon after her death in 1928, her work began fading into obscurity.
There are several possible reasons for the decline of interest in Mew’s work: her output was minimal; the quality of her work is considered uneven; and readers may have been put off by the financial embarrassment and insanity in her family, her lesbianism, and her violent suicide. In spite of later praise from such luminaries as Virginia Woolf and Marianne Moore, both The Farmer’s Bride and the posthumous The Rambling Sailor remain out of print, and there is neither a definitive biography nor a standard text of Mew’s work.
Certainly, “The Farmer’s Bride” merits renewed interest. In this dramatic monologue, Mew convincingly assumes the persona of a farmer speaking of his failed marriage, a story fraught with dramatic irony. The farmer has little understanding of his own feelings or his wife’s, but the reader gains this understanding through Mew’s skillful use of images. The farmer repeatedly describes his bride with images drawn from the world with which he is familiar—farmland and barnyard. She is “Straight and slight as a young larch tree, / Sweet as the first wild violets.” She is “like a hare,” “like a mouse: / Happy enough to chat and play / with birds and rabbits,” “Shy as a leveret,” and covered with “soft young down.” These similes and images aptly characterize the farmer for they are in the language he might be expected to use and they suggest a tenderness he is unable to articulate. At the same time, they convey the bride’s oneness with nature, her affinity for animals, and her fear “Of love . . . and all things human.” The verbs, too, do good service, balancing our pity for the farmer with anger as he describes the apprehension of his runaway bride: “We chased her . . . / We caught her, fetched her home at last / And turned the key upon her, fast.”
Mew uses every element of the setting to advantage. The passage of the seasons enhances the tone of despair. The farmer married in summer, his bride “Too young, may be—but more’s to do / At harvest-time than bide and woo.” In the Fall, “she runned away.” Now the approaching Christmas holiday adds to the poignancy of his loneliness as he and his wife are separated by a flight of stairs. Mew also skillfully uses colors to animate her scene. The farmer tells us that the night he discovered his bride missing, she “Should properly have been abed; / But sure enough she wasn’t there / Lying awake with her wide brown stare”—surely a look of sexual terror. Mew paints a dismal scene: “. . . the oaks are brown, / The blue smoke rises to the low gray sky. . . / the black earth spread white with rime, / The berries redden up to Christmas-time.”
Meter creates additional tension in the poem. The dominant meter is iambic tetrameter, but there are also seven iambic pentameter lines, six 9-syllable lines, and one 16-syllable line. We find an occasional trochee, anapest, and spondee (“Not near, not near!”) scattered throughout the poem, as well as a line in dactylic trimeter (“Shy as a leveret, swift as he”). The iambic lines keep us moving forward; the metrical shifts throw us off our rhythmic stride. Such music both pleases and disturbs us.
Mew’s facility with rhyme is stunning. End rhyme runs throughout the entire poem, but the pattern changes with each stanza. One of the most subtle and ear-pleasing rhyming feats is Mew’s braiding of sounds from stanza to stanza, e.g., “there,” “stare,” and “hare” in stanza 2 is echoed in “there,” “stair,” and “hair” in stanza 6; “down” and “Town” in stanza 2 return as “brown” and “down” in stanza 6; “wed” in stanza 1 as “abed” in stanza 2; “sheep” in stanza 2 as “sleeps” in stanza 6. We also find internal rhyme: “lying” and “flying,” “stay” and “away,” “oaks” and “smoke,” “spread” and “redden.” And near rhyme: “fast” and “most,” “runned” and “turned,” “hardly” and “heard,” “beasts” and “beseech.” And the consonance of “swift . . . / Straight and slight . . . / Sweet;” and “maid,” “bride,” “wed,” “afraid.” The assonance of “me,” “sheep,” “reach,” “speak,” “leaf;” and “bide,” “smile,” “wide,” “lying,” “flying like,” “shy,” “wild,” “rises,” “lie,” “rime,” “time.”
And finally, repetition adds to the music. Surely one of the finest examples occurs in the last three lines: “Oh! my God! the down, / The soft young down of her, the brown, / The brown of her—her eyes, her hair, her hair!” Throughout his monologue, the farmer has made no overt statements of emotion; then here at the very end, this cry erupts from the heart, its repetitions conveying deep sexual longing, a longing painfully at odds with the bride’s sexual terror. How could Mew, a spinster, a lesbian, a woman believed to never have had any sexual experience, have known so much about the complexities of the human heart?