The Trees are Down

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

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)

Writing Ideas

  1. Mew’s poem is an ecological elegy; she’s mourning not a person cut down in the prime of life but trees she has known “half my life.” Write a poem that similarly elegizes an aspect of a natural environment you know well, and that has been destroyed. This can be a tree or a plant or even (like Mew’s rat) an animal.
  2. “The Trees are Down,” as Molly Peacock notes in her guide to the poem, is “vigorous … its lines running like ‘the great gale that came.’” Part of that vigor comes from Mew’s verbs. Circle all the verbs in her poem and use them, or their opposite, in the same order to write a new poem.
  3. Mew’s poem “unmakes” the usual carpe diem tradition of poems about spring. Write a poem that also “unmakes” a typical subject matter, or mode, of poetry.

Discussion Questions

  1. While many of Mew’s lines look like prose, they contain an element of “sing-song” that pushes them back toward poetry. Try to identify the full, half, and slant rhymes in the poem. Now try to mark the stresses: how do Mew’s long lines remain rhythmical?
  2. Long lines are “cut” into short lines as the poem proceeds. What is the effect of the oscillation between long and short lines?
  3. Peacock describes Mew’s style as “lyrical narrative.” The poem’s main narrative of the plane-trees is interrupted by a memory of a “large dead rat in the mud of the drive.” Why does Mew interject this memory here? What other kinds of “unmaking” or “hurt” does the poem present?
  4. What is the time frame or scale of the poem? What tense does Mew start the poem in and what tense does she end with? How do the lines help or hinder your travel as a reader through these multiple time frames?

Teaching Tips

  1. Mew’s poem might be considered an earlier forerunner to ecopoetics, a kind of poetry that’s “not quite nature poetry,” according to the Learning Lab glossary. Have students read that glossary entry and discuss Mew’s poem in relation to it. Does Mew’s poem fit the definition? Have students research the poets listed in the glossary and compare and contrast their poems to Mew’s. Then, perhaps bring in some examples of poems traditionally considered to be “nature poems”: perhaps Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” or “Lines Written in Early Spring.” What claims do such older poems make for nature? What is the relationship between humans and nature that each poet—Wordsworth, Mew, and contemporary poets such as Juliana Spahr—is attempting to describe
  2. Peacock describes Mew’s poem as “utterly conversational but completely rhythmical.” Perhaps building off previous discussion questions, introduce the idea of scansion to your students. Discuss English as a language with stressed and unstressed syllables, and scanning as a way of making a diagram of one’s reading experience. In pairs, have one student speak Mew’s lines aloud naturally while the other marks where they hear the stressed syllables. Then have the pairs switch roles. After each student has read aloud and scanned the poem, ask them to compare their scansions. Do they match? Do some people hear or read stresses differently? Discuss differences as a class—this could open up a larger conversation about speech habits or ways of speaking, and of listening.
More Poems by Charlotte Mew