11-15-1870

Charlotte Mew

CHARLOTTE MEW, English poet, born (d: 1928); an English poet, whose work spans the cusp between Victorian poetry and Modernism. She was born in Bloomsbury, London the daughter of the architect Frederick Mew, who designed Hampstead town hall. Her father died in 1898 without making adequate provision for his family; two of her siblings suffered from mental illness, and were committed to institutions, and three others died in early childhood leaving Charlotte, her mother and her sister, Anne.

Charlotte and Anne made a pact never to marry for fear of passing on insanity to their children. In 1894, she succeeded in getting a short story into The Yellow Book, but wrote very little poetry at this time. Her first collection of poetry, The Farmer’s Bride, was published in 1916, in chapbook format, by the Poetry Bookshop; in the US, it was entitled Saturday Market and published in 1921. It earned her the admiration of Sydney Cockerell.

Her poems are varied: some of them (such as ‘Madeleine in Church’) are passionate discussions of faith and the possibility of belief in God; others are proto-modernist in form and atmosphere (‘In N unhead Cemetery’). Mew gained the patronage of several literary figures, notably Thomas Hardy, who called her the best woman poet of her day, Virginia Woolf, who said she was ‘very good and quite unlike anyone else’, and Siegfried Sassoon, and obtained a small Civil List pension with the aid of Cockerell, Hardy, John Masefield and Walter de la Mare. This helped ease her financial difficulties.

After the death of her sister, she descended into depression, and she was admitted to a nursing home where she committed suicide by drinking Lysol. It used to be believed by the credulous that Mew was a perfectionist who destroyed poems that did not measure up to her exacting standards. But times change and it is now more or less accepted that Mew destroyed any evidence of her Lesbianism in her works. Since what remains is very fine indeed, the destruction of the majority of her work can only be called a major loss to English literature. Mew is buried in the northern part of Hampstead Cemetery, London.