The Rambling Sailor A Graph Review 45 highpoints of 55
by Charlotte Mew
Published 1929, by ‘The Poetry Bookshop’
Price 3/6 d (probably not generally available!)
Spring, trees, especially sycamore; love, loss, death and religion appear to be the mainstay of Charlotte Mew’s (1870-1929) poetry. This review is on ‘The Rambling Sailor’ her second collection, published posthumously in 1929. The first was ‘The Farmers Bride’. The frontispiece photograph shows Charlotte Mew dressed in suit and tie, somewhat dandyish, sincere and maybe a little apprehensive.
‘The Rambling Sailor’ was published by ‘The Poetry Bookshop’ based at 38 Great Russell Street, owned, run and financially supported by Harold Monro, himself a poet but ever-inclined to promote and support other poets, to the detriment of his own poetic prominence.
The Introductory Note gives a brief life of Charlotte Mew with her hardships, financial and family, given mention in the style of the day (ie they existed but not explained ), briefly that her architect father died and left the family short of money. The introductory note is signed A.K. and is most likely Alida Klemantaski, using her unmarried name here. She had met Harold Monro in 1913 and they married in 1920 and was fully involved with his love of poetry, in his writing, publishing and the bookshop.
Charlotte had three siblings who died in early childhood, two others who suffered mental illness and were institutionalised and a sister, Anne. Their father died when she was 28 and she lived with sister Anne and their mother from then onwards, always in poor circumstances. Born in Bloomsbury, the centre of London, she lived there almost continuously for the rest of her life. Great Russell Street is the nearby address of her publisher so she would have known it well.
I have to admit that on beginning to read this book, the first time I have read her in collection rather than an individual poems, I was distracted by the frequent religious elements throughout and somewhat overbearing tones of morbidity. However, the poetry does offer more on re-reading than the last sentence states. The depth of thought individually and across the collection becomes much more interesting. Unlike Alice Meynell, Charlotte Mew seems to have a more prosaic view of her religion, almost challenging. Love, religion and nature are endlessly appearing in guises that the poet may lead you to choose between. Her god is always there but the lie of each poem may seem to veer away. Likely she took solace in and sought all three, in her poetry. Maybe looking forward to the end of her difficult life and hardships in simple union with them.
Charlotte was not prolific in her writing but her free-style poetry was robust and moulded into the new ‘modernism’. She was part of Bloomsbury and the literary period but not the ‘Bloomsbury Set’. Her themes may have been somewhat Victorian but she gained an audience and readership including many writers who were themselves pushing into ‘modernism’ before the Great War and after. Her writing was appreciated by many writers such as Hilda Doolittle (HD), Virginia Woolf and especially Thomas Hardy. I particularly like ‘Fin De Fete’, (a copy, cut from a journal was found in Hardy’s papers). Bloomsbury would have been at its height as creative centre of the day when she was writing and performing her poetry. She may not have been part of the inner circles but they would certainly have been part of her audience .
I have included a small selection below, but would also recommend reading her poems: The Farmers Bride, On the Road to the Sea, The Peddler, May 1915, and June 1915.
See, her poems are creeping up on me, hope they are not too maudlin’ for you! My favourites of the moment: Afternoon Tea and Fin De Fete.
I have not mentioned the title poem yet, ‘The Rambling Sailor’. The poem is following the similar subjects of love and death but at quite a ‘lilt’. Death always following but for once we do catch a glimpse that though forever circling, Death is not always winning. Inevitably, yes, but there are degrees of hope and conviction, especially in this poem, that you should take love when you find it because love softens the finality. She has switched tones and voices for this poem which comes as quite a surprise, though not unique. The poem offers thought that had she managed to escape her personal ‘tram-lines’ she could have widened her range and appeal (but this can apply to all of us!). Sadly her life and responsibilities held too tight a grip. ‘At one with nature’ was Charlottes main theme in her poetry; with death came unity with earth and her loved ones. Release, perhaps, from a difficult life and memories. Finally she could be herself and at rest.
My tendency is to look for the ‘nature poems’ to include as favourites. I suppose I should call them ‘Romantic’ but for me that still conjures limiting images of Wordsworth et al and too-cosy styles even if the pictures they give are bleak at times.
I include a few poems from the book to air her work and suggest she should be read more widely, in conjuction with notes on her life. Usually I read the collection first then life-notes (researched, not just from the book) and re-read the collection as necessary to give myself an idea of what I like and why.
I have tried to place lines as they are in the book but some may be due to laying the page rather than author’s intention. They give no composition dates.
Sometimes I know the way
You walk, up over the bay;
It is a wind from that far sea
That blows the fragrance of your hair to me.
Or in this garden when the breeze
Touches my trees
To stir their dreaming shadows on the grass
I see you pass.
In sheltered beds, the heart of every rose
Serenely sleeps to-night. As shut as those
Your guarded heart; as safe as they from the beat, beat
Of hooves that tread dropped roses in the street.
Turn never again
On these eyes blind with a wild rain
Your eyes; they were stars to me —
There are things stars may not see.
But call, call, and though Christ stands
Still with scarred hands
Over my mouth, I must answer. So,
I will come–He shall let me go!
Fin De Fete
Sweetheart, for such a day
One mustn’t grudge the score;
Here, then, it’s all to pay,
It’s Good-night at the door.
Good-night and good dreams to you,—
Do you remember the picture-book thieves
Who left two children sleeping in a wood the long night through,
And how the birds came down and covered them with leaves?
So you and I should have slept,—But now,
Oh, what a lonely head!
With just the shadow of a waving bough
In the moonlight over your bed.
From a Window
Up here, with June, the sycamore throws
Across the window a whispering screen;
I shall miss the sycamore more, I suppose,
Than anything else on this earth that is out in green.
But I mean to go through the door without fear,
Not caring much what happens here
When I’m away: —
How green the screen is across the panes
Or who goes laughing along the lanes
With my old lover all the summer day.
The Forest Road
The forest road,
The infinite straight road stretching away
World without end: the breathless road between the walls
Of the black listening trees: the hushed, grey road
Beyond the window that you shut to-night
Crying that you would look at it by day –
There is a shadow there that sings and calls
But not for you. Oh! hidden eyes that plead in sleep
Against the lonely dark, if I could touch the fear
And leave it kissed away on quiet lids –
If I could hush these hands that are half-awake,
Groping for me in sleep I could go free.
I wish that God would take them out of mine
And fold them like the wings of frightened birds
Shot cruelly down, but fluttering into quietness so soon.
Broken, forgotten things? there is no grief for them in the green Spring
When the new birds fly back to the old trees.
But it shall not be so with you. I will look back. I wish I knew that God would stand
Smiling and looking down on you when morning comes,
To hold you, when you wake, closer than I,
So gently though: and not with famished lips or hungry arms:
He does not hurt the frailest, dearest things
As we do in the dark. See, dear, your hair –
I must unloose this hair that sleeps and dreams
About my face, and clings like the brown weed
To drowned, delivered things, tossed by the tired sea
Back to the beaches. Oh! your hair! If you had lain
A long time dead on the rough, glistening ledge
Of some black cliff, forgotten by the tide,
The raving winds would tear, the dripping brine would rust away
Fold after fold of all the loveliness
That wraps you round, and makes you, lying here,
The passionate fragrance that the roses are.
But death would spare the glory of your head
In the long sweetness of the hair that does not die:
The spray would leap to it in every storm,
The scent of the unsilenced sea would linger on
In these dark waves, and round the silence that was you –
Only the nesting gulls would hear – but there would still be whispers in your hair;
Keep them for me; keep them for me. What is this singing on the road
That makes all other music like the music in a dream –
Dumb to the dancing and the marching feet; you know, in dreams, you see
Old pipers playing that you cannot hear,
And ghostly drums that only seem to beat. This seems to climb:
Is it the music of a larger place? It makes our room too small: it is like a stair,
A calling stair that climbs up to a smile you scarcely see,
Dim, but so waited for; and you know what a smile is, how it calls,
How if I smiled you always ran to me.
Now you must sleep forgetfully, as children do.
There is a Spirit sits by us in sleep
Nearer than those who walk with us in the bright day.
I think he has a tranquil, saving face: I think he came
Straight from the hills: he may have suffered there in time gone by,
And once, from those forsaken heights, looked down,
Lonely himself, on all the lonely sorrows of the earth.
It is his kingdom – Sleep. If I could leave you there –
If, without waking you, I could get up and reach the door -!
We used to go together. – Shut, scared eyes,
Poor, desolate, desperate hands, it is not I
Who thrust you off. No, take your hands away –
I cannot strike your lonely hands. Yes, I have struck your heart,
It did not come so near. Then lie you there
Dear and wild heart behind this quivering snow
With two red stains on it: and I will strike and tear
Mine out, and scatter it to yours. Oh! throbbing dust,
You that were life, our little wind-blown hearts!
The road! the road!
There is a shadow there: I see my soul,
I hear my soul, singing among the trees!
Domus Caedet Arborem
Ever since the great planes were murdered at the end of the gardens
The city, to me, at night has the look of a Spirit brooding crime;
As if the dark houses watching the trees from dark windows
Were simply biding their time.
The Trees are Down
-and he cried with a loud voice: Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees – Revelation
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 ‘Whoa’, 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.’
…………………………………………………from Early Poems section
Please you, excuse me, good five-o’clock people,
I’ve lost my hatful of words,
And my heart’s in the wood up above the church steeple,
I’d rather have tea with the birds.
Gay Kate’s stolen kisses, poor Barnaby’s scars,
John’s losses and Mary’s gains,
Oh! What do they matter, my dears, to the stars
Or the glow-worms in the lanes!
I’d rather lie under the tall elm-trees,
With old rooks talking loud overhead,
To watch a red squirrel run over my knees,
Very still on my bracken bed.
And wonder what feathers the wrens will be taking
For lining their nests next Spring;
Or why the tossed shadow of boughs in a great wind shaking
Is such a lovely thing.