This Rare Spirit- A Life of Charlotte Mew by Julia Copus


By Byron Beynon 

As a child Charlotte Mew’s imagination “thought the stars were God’s angels”.  At school she was fortunate to have a teacher who had a heartfelt enthusiasm for books, her name was Lucy Harrison, and Mew became strongly attached to her.  One former pupil remembered “just how it felt when Miss Harrison came into the room, bringing with her, as she always did, a serene sense of freshness and space and of august things ….. she had the power not only of imparting knowledge but of communicating atmosphere and beauty, with the result that she made many good lovers of poetry, eager to read and glad to learn by heart. I think that was one of the greatest things she did for us. One learnt how profoundly poetry counts, or should count, in life.”

Mew would develop into a great poet despite having a deep desire for privacy and keeping herself apart from literary groups and cliques. Alida Monro, the wife of Harold Monro who was to publish Mew’s first book of poems The Farmer’s Bride (published 1916, expanded edition 1921) described Mew as “very small, only about four feet ten inches, very slight, with square shoulders and tiny hands and feet.” Monro also described her first meeting with the poet at the poetry bookshop she ran with her husband, she asked, “Are you Charlotte Mew?” and Mew’s reply was “I am sorry to say I am.”  Mew saw herself as an outsider. Others like Thomas Hardy thought she was “the greatest poetess” he knew of. Virginia Woolf thought her “the best of poets alive”, Siegfried Sassoon also admired her work and Ezra Pound accepted Mew’s poem “The Fête” for publication in The Egoist (May 1914). Marianne Moore also warned that “If we choose to leave the poems of Charlotte Mew out of our literary heritage, we are leaving out an original”.

Born in London in 1869, the third child of an architect named Frederick Mew and his wife Anna Maria.   Her childhood was devastated by the death of three of her siblings and two others fell victim to mental illness and hospitalisation. She and her beloved sister Anne renounced marriage for fear of passing on insanity to their children. Her first publication was a story entitled “Passed” which appeared in the second volume of The Yellow Book.  Most of her surviving poetry dates from 1912 and later.

In the 1920s the Euston Road in London was widened opposite Euston Station, and the great plane trees were torn down by the developers.  Mew’s poem “The Trees Are Down” describes her feelings when the plane trees at the bottom of her garden were felled. These are the final two verses of the poem:
“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”.
Copus is also good at interpreting and explaining the mood of the poem when she says ““in the final five lines, she does something that lifts the poem beyond being a reflection: with an eerie sense of theatre, she cuts out all background noise – the gales and the incessant blows of the axe – and locates us inside the felled trees themselves as they lie dying in the grass, so that we hear with them “a quiet rain”, “the sparrows flying” and “the small creeping creatures in the earth where they were lying””.

This is the first comprehensive biography of Mew and Julia Copus has been able to draw on a wealth of previously unseen materials, including letters, photographs, medical records, diaries and testaments of friends. Copus has written a fine biography with the understanding of a poet enabling the reader to gain fresh and interesting insights into Mew’s private and public life and work.

You can find the book here: This Rare Spirit: A Life of Charlotte Mew (Faber Poetry)

Byron Beynon coordinated Wales’s contribution to the anthology Fifty Strong (Heinemann). His work has featured in several publications including North of Oxford, Jerry Jazz Musician, The London Magazine, Wasafiri and the human rights anthology In Protest (University of London and Keats House Poets). His most recent collection is Where Shadows Stir (The Seventh Quarry Press).