The Fête

By Charlotte Mew 1869–1928 Charlotte Mew
To-night again the moon’s white mat
       Stretches across the dormitory floor
While outside, like an evil cat
       The pion prowls down the dark corridor,
       Planning, I know, to pounce on me, in spite
For getting leave to sleep in town last night.
But it was none of us who made that noise,
       Only the old brown owl that hoots and flies
Out of the ivy—he will say it was us boys—
       Seigneur mon Dieu: the sacré soul of spies!
       He would like to catch each dream that lies
           Hidden behind our sleepy eyes:
Their dream? But mine—it is the moon and the wood that sees;
All my long life how I shall hate the trees!
 
In the Place d’Armes the dusty planes, all Summer through,
Dozed with the market women in the sun and scarcely stirred
       To see the quiet things that crossed the Square—,
A tiny funeral, the flying shadow of a bird,
       The hump-backed barber Célestin Lemaire,
       Old Madame Michel in her three-wheeled chair,
              And filing past to Vespers, two and two,
              The demoiselles of the pensionnat
Towed like a ship through the harbour bar,
       Safe into port, where le petit Jésus
Perhaps makes nothing of the look they shot at you:
       Si, cest défendu, mais que voulez-vous?
It was the sun. The sunshine weaves
A pattern on dull stones: the sunshine leaves
       The portraiture of dreams upon the eyes
              Before it dies:
       All Summer through
The dust hung white upon the drowsy planes
Till suddenly they woke with the Autumn rains.
 
       It is not only the little boys
      Who have hardly got away from toys,
But I, who am seventeen next year,
Some nights, in bed, have grown cold to hear
      That lonely passion of the rain
Which makes you think of being dead,
And of somewhere living to lay your head
       As if you were a child again,
Crying for one thing, known and near
Your empty heart, to still the hunger and the fear
    That pelts and beats with it against the pane.
 
              But I remember smiling too
At all the sun’s soft tricks and those Autumn dreads
    In winter time, when the grey light broke slowly through
The frosted window-lace to drag us shivering from our beds.
     And when at dusk the singing wind swung down
Straight from the stars to the dark country roads
                     Beyond the twinkling town,
    Striking the leafless poplar boughs as he went by,
Like some poor, stray dog by the wayside lying dead,
We left behind us the old world of dread,
I and the wind as we strode whistling on under the Winter sky.
 
And then in Spring for three days came the Fair
    Just as the planes were starting into bud
Above the caravans: you saw the dancing bear
    Pass on his chain; and heard the jingle and the thud.
            Only four days ago
            They let you out of this dull show
To slither down the montagne russe and chaff the man à la tête de veau
            Hit, slick, the bull's eye at the tir,
Spin round and round till your head went queer
On the porcs-roulants. Oh! là là! fête!
Va pour du vin, et le tête-a-tête
With the girl who sugars the gaufres! Pauvrette,
    How thin she was! but she smiled, you bet,
 
    As she took your tip—“One does not forget
The good days, Monsieur”. Said with a grace,
But sacrebleu: what a ghost of a face!
    And no fun too for the demoiselles
Of the pensionnat, who were hurried past,
    With their “Oh, que c’est beauAh, qu’elle est belle!
A lap-dog’s life from first to last! ;
The good nights are not made for sleep, nor the good days for dreaming in,
    And at the end in the big Circus tent we sat and shook and stewed like sin!
 
    Some children there had got—but where?
Sent from the south, perhaps—a red bouquet
    Of roses, sweetening the fetid air
With scent from gardens by some far away blue bay.
    They threw one at the dancing bear;
The white clown caught it. From St. Rémy’s tower
    The deep, slow bell tolled out the hour;
The black clown, with his dirty grin
    Lay, sprawling in the dust, as She rode in.
 
She stood on a white horse—and suddenly you saw the bend
    Of a far-off road at dawn, with knights riding by,
A field of spears—and then the gallant day
Go out in storm, with ragged clouds low down, sullen and grey
    Against red heavens: wild and awful, such a sky
    As witnesses against you at the end
Of a great battle; bugles blowing, blood and dust—
The old Morte d’Arthur, fight you must—.
    It died in anger. But it was not death
    That had you by the throat, stopping your breath.
She looked like Victory. She rode my way.
 
She laughed at the black clown and then she flew
             A bird above us, on the wing
Of her white arms; and you saw through
A rent in the old tent, a patch of sky
With one dim star. She flew, but not so high—
             And then she did not fly;
She stood in the bright moonlight at the door
Of a strange room, she threw her slippers on the floor—
                    Again, again
              You heard the patter of the rain,
              The starving rain—it was this Thing,
Summer was this, the gold mist in your eyes;—
                     Oh God! it dies,
                     But after death—,
    To-night the splendour and the sting
    Blows back and catches at your breath,
The smell of beasts, the smell of dust, the scent of all the roses in the world,
                 the sea, the Spring,
The beat of drums, the pad of hoofs, music, the dream, the dream, the
                 Enchanted Thing!
 
    At first you scarcely saw her face,
    You knew the maddening feet were there,
What called was that half-hidden, white unrest
To which now and then she pressed
    Her finger-tips; but as she slackened pace
And turned and looked at you it grew quite bare:
             There was not anything you did not dare:—
Like trumpeters the hours passed until the last day of the Fair.
 
    In the Place d’Armes all afternoon
    The building birds had sung “Soon, soon”,
The shuttered streets slept sound that night,
                      It was full moon:
The path into the wood was almost white,
The trees were very still and seemed to stare:
    Not far before your soul the Dream flits on,
    But when you touch it, it is gone
And quite alone your soul stands there.
 
Mother of Christ, no one has seen your eyes: how can men pray
                    Even unto you?
There were only wolves’ eyes in the wood—
                    My Mother is a woman too:
Nothing is true that is not good,
With that quick smile of hers, I have heard her say;—
I wish I had gone back home to-day;
    I should have watched the light that so gently dies
    From our high window, in the Paris skies,
                    The long, straight chain
    Of lamps hung out along the Seine:
I would have turned to her and let the rain
Beat on her breast as it does against the pane;—
    Nothing will be the same again;—
There is something strange in my little Mother’s eyes,
There is something new in the old heavenly air of Spring—
The smell of beasts, the smell of dust—The Enchanted Thing!
 
All my life long I shall see moonlight on the fern
    And the black trunks of trees. Only the hair
Of any woman can belong to God.
The stalks are cruelly broken where we trod,
                     There had been violets there,
                     I shall not care
As I used to do when I see the bracken burn.

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Poet Charlotte Mew 1869–1928

POET’S REGION England

SCHOOL / PERIOD Victorian

Subjects Activities, Eating & Drinking, Nature, Religion, Christianity, Social Commentaries

Poetic Terms Rhymed Stanza

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 Activities, Eating & Drinking, Nature, Religion, Christianity, Social Commentaries

POET’S REGION England

SCHOOL / PERIOD Victorian

Poetic Terms Rhymed Stanza

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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