- 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.
- “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.
- 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.
- 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?
- Long lines are “cut” into short lines as the poem proceeds. What is the effect of the oscillation between long and short lines?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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
- 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.
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Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees—
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.
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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 and her sister Anne, both of whom, because of the history of mental illness in their family, decided never to marry so they wouldn't pass the traits on to their children. The traumatic issues Mew grappled with during her childhood—death, mental illness, loneliness, and disillusionment—became themes in her poetry and stories.
Mew published her first work when she was in her mid-twenties. Although today she is best remembered for her poetry, she also wrote a number...
Poems By Charlotte Mew
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