Charlotte Mew: “The Trees Are Down”
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.
Poet, essayist, short fiction writer, and biographer Molly Peacock was born in Buffalo, New York and earned her BA from Harpur College (Binghamton University) and her MA from the Johns Hopkins University. She has taught at many universities and served as the president of the Poetry Society of America, where...