The Trees are Down

By Charlotte Mew 1869–1928 Charlotte Mew

—and he cried with a loud voice:
Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees—
(Revelation)

They are cutting down the great plane-trees at the end of the gardens.
For days there has been the grate of the saw, the swish of the branches as they fall,
The crash of the trunks, the rustle of trodden leaves,
With the ‘Whoops’ and the ‘Whoas,’ the loud common talk, the loud common laughs of the men, above it all.

I remember one evening of a long past Spring
Turning in at a gate, getting out of a cart, and finding a large dead rat in the mud of the drive.
I remember thinking: alive or dead, a rat was a god-forsaken thing,
But at least, in May, that even a rat should be alive.

The week’s work here is as good as done. There is just one bough
   On the roped bole, in the fine grey rain,
             Green and high
             And lonely against the sky.
                   (Down now!—)
             And but for that,   
             If an old dead rat
Did once, for a moment, unmake the Spring, I might never have thought of him again.

It is not for a moment the Spring is unmade to-day;
These were great trees, it was in them from root to stem:
When the men with the ‘Whoops’ and the ‘Whoas’ have carted the whole of the whispering loveliness away
Half the Spring, for me, will have gone with them.

It is going now, and my heart has been struck with the hearts of the planes;
Half my life it has beat with these, in the sun, in the rains,   
             In the March wind, the May breeze,
In the great gales that came over to them across the roofs from the great seas.
             There was only a quiet rain when they were dying;
             They must have heard the sparrows flying,   
And the small creeping creatures in the earth where they were lying—
             But I, all day, I heard an angel crying:
             ‘Hurt not the trees.’

Charlotte Mew, “The Trees are Down” from Collected Poems and Prose (Manchester, England: Carcanet Press Ltd., 1981).

Source: Collected Poems and Prose (Carcanet Press Limited, 1981)

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Poet Charlotte Mew 1869–1928

POET’S REGION England

SCHOOL / PERIOD Victorian

Subjects Nature, Trees & Flowers, Social Commentaries

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Charlotte Mew: “The Trees Are Down”

A poet anticipates the  contemporary narrative lyric—and her own unfortunate end.

By Molly Peacock

Once I had to get along with some people who could never agree on anything. Then our neighbor cut down a tree. Instantly we united in mourning. It is irresistible to identify with trees. Tall emblems of endurance, they possess the special allure of being alive but not animate. They stay as still as monarchs on their thrones, existing at so perfect a distance from us that they create a mythic parallel with our human lives.

So humans suffer when we see people cutting down trees, even if it’s for the trees’ “own good.” And we suffer with outrage if we see no reason for the felling. To weather a hurricane and still raise your arms in praise of existence—that is tree-valor.

The Trees Are Down,” with its epigraph from the Book of Revelation, depicts British poet Charlotte Mew’s own ideas of valor, and it might even foreshadow her own end. With her lanky-lined poem, daring in its combination of near-prosiness with the chant of childlike rhyme, Mew is the foremother of our current style of lyrical narration, or narrative lyric. I personally love this poem because of the “swish” and the “crash” and the “rustle” of the felling and because of the shocking (and everlasting) image of the rat. Mew is utterly conversational but completely rhythmical when she says, “I remember thinking: alive or dead, a rat was a god-forsaken thing, / But at least, in May, that even a rat should be alive.” She allows us to enter her consciousness, to share with her the horror at the destruction of the “great plane trees at the end of the gardens,” and she is even bold enough to invite us to hear the angel of Revelation at the end. Her poem is protean and alive—treelike in its look and in its long-limbed construction. I wonder, leaving aside obvious reasons of sexism, if perhaps her work nearly disappeared because she created our mode of lyric narration a century too early.

Writing most of her poems from the late 1890s to 1913, Mew published only one book in her lifetime, The Farmer’s Bride, which was extravagantly praised by Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, Siegfried Sassoon, and Edith Sitwell. Sassoon compared her to Christina Rossetti; Woolf called her “the greatest living poetess”; and Hardy wrote, “Miss Mew is far and away the best living woman poet—who will be read when others are forgotten.” Ironically, Mew is so utterly forgotten that you can’t even buy her Complete Poems in the US (although it is available in England and Canada, published by Penguin).

Mew (1869-1928) was born into a once well-to-do family of architects. Her father lost the family fortune and died, leaving her mother, a beloved sister, and two mentally ill siblings for whom institutional upkeep had to be paid. Mew and her sister vowed never to marry for fear of passing on this illness, though perhaps the stronger reason was Mew’s attachment to women. (If you want to visualize her, dress her in what she typically wore: a porkpie hat, tweed topcoat, and boots. Doesn’t that look a little like a tree?)

And like those trees in her poems, she too was cut down, but by her own hand. After her mother’s death, and after her sister’s death, despite the fact that Hardy and Walter de la Mare secured her a pension, she took her own life, dying horribly by drinking a bottle of lye. Once you know this awful fact, it hangs over her work, something to be adjusted to, or gotten rid of, or, perhaps, read through. Even with its images of death, this vigorous poem must have been written at the height of her energy, its lines running like “the great gales that came” “across the roofs from the great seas” in a spirit of outrage and shocked sympathy. It is a testament to a spirited sensuousness that keeps her work vitally alive, and whispering to us, despite our ignorance of her.

I am indebted to John Newton’s preface to the Complete Poems of Charlotte Mew and to the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women for the biographical information about the poet.


Molly Peacock on Charlotte Mew's "The Trees are Down" from Dark Horses: Poets on Overlooked Poems. Copyright 2007 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the author and the University of Illinois Press.

The Trees are Down

By Charlotte Mew 1869–1928 Charlotte Mew

Biography

The life of turn-of-the-twentieth-century British writer Charlotte Mew was full of tragedy from beginning to end. Mew was born in London in 1869 into a family of seven children; she was the eldest daughter. While she was still a child, three of her brothers died. Later, another brother and then a sister were committed to mental hospitals in their twenties where they would spend the rest of their lives. That left only Charlotte . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Nature, Trees & Flowers, Social Commentaries

POET’S REGION England

SCHOOL / PERIOD Victorian

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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