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.
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)