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"The Strangest Pain to Bear": Corporeality and Fear of Insanity in Charlotte Mew's Poetry

Author(s): Jessica Walsh


Source: Victorian Poetry, Vol. 40, No. 3 (Fall, 2002), pp. 217-240
Published by: West Virginia University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40004327
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"The strangest pain to bear":
Corporeality and Fear of Insanity
in Charlotte Mew's Poetry
JESSICA WALSH

I think my body was my soul,


And when we are made thus
Who shall control
Our hands, our eyes, the wandering passion of our feet? l

POETRY OF CHARLOTTE MEW (1869-1928) STRUGGLES TO ANSWER THIS


very question. Through her small but powerful body of work, Mew
searches for a solution to the anguish of "wandering passion" and a body
seemingly beyond her control. A deeply closeted lesbian troubled by fear
of insanity, she employs a wide variety of poetic voices in the quest to
conquer and categorize what she saw as a disobedient, unruly body. Trying
to believe the answers offered by religion and science, Mew nevertheless
remains conflicted throughout her career.
During her lifetime, Charlotte Mew attracted the praise of her
generation's literary stars, including Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, and
Ezra Pound. In spite of this impressive list of references and accolades,
Mew was all but forgotten by the time of her death in 1928. Noting her
demise, the neighborhood newspaper ran a simple, chilling obituary for
"Miss Charlotte Mary New [sic], ... a writer of verse" (Warner, p. xiii).
The inaccuracy and disregard underscore just how fickle Mew's reading
public could be. Scholars and readers may have put her aside because of
the enigmatic nature of much of her work. In Mew, critics find a challenge
unlike any other; those in search of clear answers resist her poetry. This
seems to have been the case since the early days of Mew scholarship. A
year after her death, critic John Freeman wrote in The Bookman that there
had been a "secret" Mew took to the grave with her.2 Similarly, Lorna
Keeling Collard wrote in The Contemporary Review that "one is continu-
ally being asked for a key to her poetry."3 Collard goes on: "Is there any
one poem or line which may give us a clue? Or is there no solution at all,

217

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2181 VICTORIAN POETRY

and must Charlotte Mew . . . forever remain a mystery?" Mew seems to


prove that the canon, with all its pretenses and parameters, is reluctant to
embrace an original voice.
Today, as in the later years of her lifetime, Charlotte Mew's poetry
maintains a cult following; the relatively small number of readers who have
encountered her work become ardent fans, while the majority of people
cannot recall having seen her name in print. A Virago edition of her Col-
lected Poems and Prose (1981) and an impressive biography by award-win-
ning novelist Penelope Fitzgerald (1988)4 have attracted a modicum of
critical attention, but Mew continues to linger in the margins of the canon.
Providing an excellent analogy, scholar Lucy Bland writes in her feminist
historiography Banishing the Beast of the social residuum that lingered omi-
nously and persistently at the edges of nineteenth-century British society.5
Mew's poetry has become a form of literary "residuum" - not embraced,
but still vibrant and dynamic, still clinging to the very margins from which
it derived its inspiration. Through her poetry, Mew agonized over a body
that did not fit into the categories and organizations offered to her by an
often strictly stratified society.
Mew's poetic ambivalence toward the body can be illuminated by a
brief examination of some biographical and political elements. Charlotte
Mary Mew was born in 1869 to Frederick Mew, a struggling architect, and
Anna Kendall Mew, a privileged woman who never recovered from her
decline in social status after marriage. Both Anna's brother and sister
suffered from mental illness and had to be institutionalized. Within the
Mew nuclear family, of the four of seven children who lived past childhood,
two went mad. Charlotte was only nineteen when her eldest brother Henry
began to deteriorate from the effects of dementia praecox, or what would
now be called schizophrenia. Since doctors had no cure for those suffering
from this disease, Henry was sent to a mental institution, where he spent
the last thirteen years of his short life. Only a few years later, Charlotte's
younger sister, Freda, then in her early teens, went the way of Henry. She,
too, spent the rest of her life in an institution (Fitzgerald, p. 44). After her
father's death in 1898, Charlotte, her sister Anne, and their mother Anna
moved into a rented home, part of which they sublet in order to make ends
meet. And there they remained, relatively poor and isolated. Charlotte
wrote stories and essays in order to support the family, while Anne painted
and embroidered, careful to remain genteel and avoid other professions
which would be revelatory of financial fall. Anna Kendall Mew died in
1923, and Anne succumbed to cancer four years later. After Anne's death,
Charlotte Mew began to insist that her sister had been killed not by cancer
but by tiny black spots. She feared that Anne had been buried alive, and
obsessed over the idea that a vein had not been opened before her

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JESSICA WALSH 1 219

interment.6 Suffering from what was diagnosed as neurasthenia, she


voluntarily moved to a nursing home in February 1928. On March 24 of
that year, she committed suicide by drinking Lysol (Warner, p. xiii).
Mew's life was one of quiet desperation, but it was also one of missed
and rejected opportunities. Both Charlotte and Anne must have felt some
sense of obligation toward their mother; however, their decision to reside
together had more to do with their mutual rejection of marriage and moth-
erhood. Herein lies one of the more troubling aspects of Mew's life for
feminist scholars eager to locate avant-garde defiance in her life: Mew's
decision to eschew marriage was largely based on her belief in eugenics.
Building strength steadily in Mew's lifetime, the branch of natural sciences
known as eugenics claimed as its focus the support of wise and healthy
mating. Just beneath the surface, however, eugenics was about discrimina-
tion, prejudice, and racism. Deriving from a Greek word meaning "well-
born," the term eugenics was coined by Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles
Darwin.7 Among the basic assumptions of eugenics were "the physical
basis of all mental illness, and the hereditary origins of mental weakness
and defect." 8 Intelligent and attractive men and women owed it to their
"race"9 and nation to have children in order to counter the effects of the
numerous "dysgenic" matches being made among the poor and minorities.
According to eugenicists, insanity traveled through family bloodlines -
and, psychologists agreed, the mother was far more likely to pass along
mental illness to children than the father. In addition, female children
were more likely to succumb to mental illness than their brothers
(Showalter, p. 123). Thus, madness was of the body - of the female body,
to be precise. Offering a concrete example, psychiatrist T. S. Clouston
stated in 1904 that all efforts must be made to prevent reproduction by
"the neurotic, thin, hysterical young women with insanity in their ances-
try. . . . We know they will not make safe or good mothers" (quoted in
Bland, p. 237). Although Clouston is unusually blunt in his phrasing, his
sentiments are hardly uncommon. In 1909, the Eugenics Education Soci-
ety founded the Eugenics Review, a journal intended to encourage thought-
ful reproduction, but more widely known for issuing alarmist doctrines on
the consequences of dysgenic matches. Many scientists conceded that en-
vironment could manipulate and influence heredity, but consensus main-
tained that nature was five to ten times more powerful than nurture (Bland,
pp. 222-228).
Eugenics found some of its strongest supporters among racist, nation-
alist, and imperialist factions who wished to create a global hegemony of
Englishness. But many feminists of the time also supported eugenics, since
it offered an entry point for discussions of reproductive rights, while en-
couraging the language of national pride so often employed by reformers

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220 I VICTORIAN POETRY

campaigning against repressive and allegedly primitive laws and traditions


(Bland, p. 47). Feminist crusader and contraceptive pioneer Margaret
Sanger stated in an article that the "chief issue of birth control" was "more
children from the fit, less from the unfit." 10 Indeed, the line between birth
control and population control can be easily crossed by those who mix
notions of individual rights with visions of common good.
Although she may not have foreseen the implications, Mew became
complicit in this system of scientific racism when she forced herself to
remain childless based on the flawed ideology of eugenics. n Knowing that
she had numerous mentally ill relatives, and that as a mother she would
likely pass along her tainted heritage, Mew overrode her apparent love of
children (Fitzgerald, p. 47) in order to spare another generation from what
most people considered a sentence of lifelong misery and alienation. She
could not depend on her body to produce "normal" or "healthy" children,
so she resolved to avoid the risk.
Mew's conflicted view of the body, as well as the rejection of the
traditional family unit, is further illuminated by her sexual orientation.
All evidence indicates that Mew's only loves were women - and that none
returned her affection in the same way.12 Even the most liberated British
lesbian would have encountered difficulty in understanding her place in
society during Mew's lifetime. During the late nineteenth and early twen-
tieth centuries, notions of women's friendships underwent a major shift.
Nineteenth-century acceptance of the benign, even endearing nature of
romantic friendships between women changed in the years surrounding
the Freudian revolution. Lesbianism as a term and a subject of anxiety
became more common, especially after the Oscar Wilde trials of 1895 led
to quiet conversations among even "proper" people on the subject of ho-
mosexuality.13 With a few significant exceptions - such as Edward Car-
penter - public figures who broached the subject of homosexuality roundly
condemned it as a sin, a disease, or both. English society continued to
judge male homosexuality much more severely, but gay women were far
from accepted. Probably fearing condemnation, Mew never acknowledged
her lesbianism to her family or friends. Had she done so, she would have
been forced to confront yet another potential indicator of insanity.
Just as Mew's rejection of marriage and children may at first sight
appeal to feminist scholars in search of a lost pioneer, Mew's refusal to
commit to what Judith Butler terms a "gendered . . . cultural identity" H
may initially attract the attention of queer and lesbian theorists. Indeed,
through contemporary eyes, Mew seems like an emblem of queerness long
before the term was reclaimed and redefined. In public, she performed
femininity with a twist of the masculine. In her poetry, she performed
both genders with ease, often enacting a male voice in order to communi-

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JESSICAWALSHI221

cate strong erotic desire for women.15 She embodies what Suzanne Pharr
describes as "a non-normative sexuality which transcends the binary dis-
tinction homosexual/heterosexual to include all who feel disenfranchised
by dominant sexual norms."16 Through her own eyes, however, she must
have seemed lost, adrift between categories. Second-wave lesbian femi-
nist theory, which has traditionally embraced the concept of choice - re-
ferring frequently to the "woman-identified woman"17 - seems similarly dis-
tant from Mew's situation. By all accounts, her difference was not a politi-
cal or social choice intended to advance awareness of alternative lifestyles,
nor was it a form of liberating transgression. While reading Mew's poetry
through recent queer and lesbian theory allows for a deeper understanding
of the subtext of her often complicated work, one cannot escape awareness
that lesbianism in Mew's time was considered by most medical profession-
als to be a mental illness, not a subversive lifestyle.
Mew's lesbianism only intensified her feelings of isolation and alien-
ation, and she did little to counteract a progressive sense of loneliness.
Women who were breaking free from the domestic tradition were forming
personal and professional networks throughout London; from association
with other single women, Mew could have located a sense of belonging,
had she chosen to do so. In the early years of the twentieth century, single
women could pursue one of several opening careers. Women with a desire
to work outside the home could find jobs more easily than their foremothers.
Single life was, for the first time, emerging as a real, if challenging, possi-
bility for women in search of an alternative to the domestic norm. This
lifestyle was embodied in the New Woman, an archetype perfected in nov-
els like those of Sarah Grand and subsequently imitated by young women
in need of role models. The New Woman, according to Laura Stempel
Mumford, was "middle class but worked for a living, often at a job newly
opened to women. She . . . eschewed marriage as imprisoning, engaged in
physical exercise, smoked and drank openly, advocated dress reform, and
even wore men's clothes."18 New Women often undertook some sort of
socially conscious work like nursing or education, and many who did so set
up settlement houses, which were cooperatives of single young women in
the city, close to the people they hoped to help. The New Woman was a
trope of possibilities for women in search of independence and, at the same
time, a supportive community.
Yet the single life was also a difficult and complicated one. Single
women risked being labeled "odd" or "redundant" women - they threw off
the allegedly natural equilibrium of society, according to which each woman
should pair off with a man to found a contented domestic unit. To some,
odd women were perceived as a social problem, since they represented an
anomaly that could negatively influence future generations. New Women

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222 I VICTORIAN POETRY

were subject to mockery in all forms, including literary.19 These uncon-


ventional women were also perceived as only marginally healthy; despite
the messages of eugenics, mainstream society continued to see deliberately
childless women as selfish and mentally unwell (Showalter, p. 125). In
this and in other issues related to sexuality, single women found them-
selves subjected to a bewildering array of conflicting messages. The Victo-
rian ideal had long held that women's moral superiority stemmed from
their passionlessness. But by the turn of the century, many doctors argued
that chastity was unhealthy. Eleanor Marx-Aveling and Edward Aveling
wrote in Thoughts on Women and Society that "Lunacy" was a possible result
of sexual repression.20 Although the quest to define morality lay at the
heart of the increasingly powerful feminist mission, even the most liberal
of groups did not foreground discussions of women's desires.21 At the same
time, conventional feminine purity arguments were finding new strength;
out of the struggle between religion and science over the nature of women's
sexuality emerged a powerful fusion of ideas. Many feminists embraced the
unification of religious and scientific ideas as a means of arguing with both
head and heart, and such a move only added to the conflicting messages
sent to women outside the institution of marriage.
Although Mew's companions labeled her a New Woman because of
her quirks - such as frequent swearing, smoking, and rather mannish dress -
she clung in many ways to a dying breed of Victorian propriety, and judged
her nontraditional friends harshly.22 Mew's only flirtation with any sort of
work outside the home was a brief stint as a volunteer at a conservative
philanthropic society called Miss Paget's Girls' Club, which worked to train
young women to become good missionary wives (Fitzgerald, p. 91 ). Seem-
ingly uninterested in politics, she neither spoke out in favor of the empow-
erment of women nor exercised her right to vote after women's suffrage
prevailed (Fitzgerald, p. 50). It is possible that the now familiar associa-
tion of feminism and homosexuality deterred her, but it is far more likely
that she simply could not suppress her feelings of difference long enough
to become part of any community or group. She was truly part of the
residuum, bearing the imprints of many ideological tendencies yet com-
mitted to none.
The last possible home for Mew was the church, and it seems to have
been the most likely. Mew's work and personality suggest a strong attrac-
tion to asceticism and the discipline it offered. Had she elected to pursue
religion, she would have found herself in a significant population. The
popularity of High Anglican and Catholic Sisterhoods grew rapidly in the
nineteenth century, capitalizing on the desire to unite the fragments of
industrial life under one great ideal. Eugenicist Henry Maudsley contended
that women could escape the conflict between desire and morality through

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]ESSICA WALSH 1 223

displacing sexual feelings onto religion. Others claimed that religion could
prevent lunacy. According to Fitzgerald, Mew's cousin believed she "would
have become a Roman Catholic if it hadn't been for the sacrament of
confession. She could not bring herself to that." Late in life, Mew at-
tended mass, but could never characterize herself as a believer (Fitzgerald,
pp. 79, 178). Indeed, she once referred to herself as a "poor infidel" (quoted
in Warner, p. xvi). One can see how she would have been both attracted
to and repelled by the tenets of Roman Catholicism. The strict structure of
Catholicism would have given her a set of rules for dealing with her de-
sires - but confession would have meant admitting those very desires. It
would have demanded an awareness of the body's weaknesses, and that is
something Mew could never allow herself to achieve. Her anxiety regard-
ing her body seemed to segregate her from others. But she also knew that
the potential for happiness lay in a physical relationship with another
woman. Tensions like this led her to remain in the margins, experiencing
her fears and anxieties almost entirely alone.
Just as Mew failed to immerse herself in any ideological community,
so did she shy away from the small cluster of powerful literati who encour-
aged her. She was first published in The Yellow Book in 1894. The short
story "Passed" had immediately caught the eye of publisher Henry Harland,
who described it as "highly remarkable" with "priceless bits of very subtle
observation, of very subtle imagining, and of very subtle wording" (quoted
in Davidow, p. 276). Even at this early, crucial time in her career, Mew was
characteristically contrary. A letter from Harland reveals her unexpected
and heated resistance to suggestions regarding revisions.23 Another letter
sidesteps her apparent request for advance payment. Although Mew did
continue to publish in various journals and periodicals - sometimes using
the almost laughable pen name Charles Catty - her first volume of poetry
did not appear until 1916, when she was forty-seven. Sources conflict as
to how many copies were printed of The Farmer's Bride, but the meager
number fell between 500 and 1000, of which 150 were sold.24 She refused
requests for portraits and biographical information, which could have aug-
mented sales. Despite the small circulation of The Farmers Bride, the book
won her the admiration of many major literary figures. For no known
reason, almost no work written after 1916 exists. It is possible, as Alida
Monro suggests, that she left off writing after that time; but it is also pos-
sible that she made good on her threats to burn writings with which she
was unhappy. Another edition of The Farmer's Bride appeared in 1921
with some additional - but not new - poems. The Rambling Sailor, pub-
lished posthumously in 1929, similarly included a number of previously
unpublished but not recent poems.
The pieces that do remain, however, consistently grapple with issues

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224 I VICTORIAN POETRY

of the body's desires and perceived weaknesses. The body, in Mew's eyes,
engenders flickering moments of hope, but more often, extreme despair
that approaches or results from mental instability. Some of her most intri-
cate work confronts the issue of institutionalization. Only two poems on
the subject were published, both in The Farmer's Bride. In "Ken," one of
Mew's better-known pieces, she explores both personal and social beliefs
regarding the corporeality of insanity. The first stanza's plodding and ir-
regular mixture of tetrameter and pentameter reinforces the images of a
bleak gothic landscape dominated by "a great Church above," an asylum,
and a castle (1. 6). The speaker's voice intensifies as she begins discussing
Ken, an awkward but gentle Wordsworthian "Idiot Boy" who loves the
very townspeople who reject and fear him. Uncomfortable with any form
of difference, the locals consider him mad. An "uncouth bird," he is an
alien presence in a society trained to classify and stratify, a monstrosity in
the eyes of the proverbial angry villagers (1. 23):

I think I hardly found a trace


Of likeness to a human face
In his. And I said then
If in His image God made men,
Some other must have made poor Ken (11. 14-19)

Ken's strangeness, the speaker insists, is thoroughly entrenched in his fear-


ful body. Such an assertion enables traditional belief systems to remain
intact; his insanity is neither a feature of humanity at large nor attribut-
able to any known divinity. Rather, it is a physical anomaly embodied
solely in his own person.
Even the manifestations of Ken's mental illness center on the physi-
cal. Like an embodiment of Christ, he lords over children and animals:
oftener than not there'd be
A child just higher than his knee
Trotting beside him. Through his dim
Long twilight this, at least, shone clear,
That all the children and the deer,
Whom every day he went to see
Out in the park, belonged to him. (11. 28-34)
He does not differentiate between the few forms of life from which he
receives kindness and love. Children, animals, and adults are all at the
same level to him. Similarly, he demonstrates a complete lack of under-
standing when it comes to differentiating the body as a whole from its
parts: "He said 'a bird' if he picked up a broken wing, / A perished leaf or

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JESSICA WALSH 1 225

any such thing / Was just 'a rose'" (11. 49-5 1 ). The insistent use of synecdo-
che reflects the magnitude of his fundamental abnormality. He is a differ-
ent sort of body, but he also sees bodies differently.
Ken's focus on physicality appears in his religious practices as well,
the only situation in which his anger surfaces. Although he is drawn to
the church to "see the lights," he disrespectfully "fidgets" too much, fre-
quently entering a trance-like state in which he fixates on the Christ fig-
ure and demands, "Take it away" (11. 38, 36, 48). Going so far as to chew
"his rosary to bits," he presents a challenge to the accepted faith (1. 46).
Ken is thus ungodly and godless in his corporeality and insanity; he nei-
ther looks like God nor likes the looks of Him. Christian doctrine has no
place for Ken, but his angry rejection of it sentences him to punishment in
its name. Ken's punishment becomes essential to the maintenance of or-
der and normative behaviors within the town. As a result, Ken is institu-
tionalized, his body comfortingly removed and contained.25
Nevertheless, Ken does not seem entirely inhuman to everyone. One
signal of his humanity lies in "his eyes, which looked at you / As two red,
wounded stars might do" (11. 20-21). For Mew, red is the most crucial of
colors, signifying lost honor, inappropriate desire, and sinful promiscuity.
Red is also the damaging flame and the visible, bloody proof of women's
fertility or fallenness; in "The Quiet House," "Red is the strangest pain to
bear" (1. 29). Read together in the context of post-Darwin psychological
thought, these ostensibly feminine associations acquire a profound mean-
ing when applied to the male figure of Ken. Simply through looking at his
eyes, the reader learns that his madness (a trait itself commonly associated
with the color red) stems from the womb of the mother, the site of original
virtue, sin, desire, fertility, blood, and mental weakness. From the redness
of the mother, Ken gains his only humanizing aspect - his eyes - but also
his horrifying inability to comprehend society as the majority of others do.
For the speaker, however, the conclusion seems less than tidy due to
her enigmatic bond with Ken. Formerly, he had attempted to befriend
her: "once, when I had said / He must not stand and knock outside there
any more, / He left a twig on the mat outside my door" (11. 52-54). But
what Ken sees as a tree full of life, she sees as an annoyance and an intru-
sion. Simple moments of rejection like this one pave the way for his incar-
ceration among the ill. No one will defend him or offer him a home.
Although silent, she is empathetic, and she endeavors to imagine life be-
hind bars, where darkness rules the body. Alluding to one of Ken's fits, the
speaker indicates her fear that he will be mistreated in that house on the
hill, implicitly acknowledging the threat of abuse:

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226 / VICTORIAN POETRY

And if some night


When you have not seen any light
They cannot move you from your chair
What happens there?
I do not know. (11. 77-81)

Shifting from speaking of "Ken" to an abstract "one" to an accusatory and


self-reflexive "y°u>" the poetic voice has shifted into the space of the other,
mentally if not physically. She has become isolated and different. The
speaker concludes,

when they took


Ken to that place, I did not look
After he called and turned on me
His eyes. These I shall see- (11. 82-85)
Within these words, the speaker reveals her guilt at not responding more
sympathetically to the "wounded stars." Ken intuits that the speaker un-
derstands him better than the "they" who locked him up, and it is her own
reluctance to implicate herself that silences her. She longs to distance
herself from Ken, but finds herself bound to him by an incomprehensible
tie. She is the only one who could have spoken on his behalf, but she
failed to do so. She will "see" Ken's eyes, both in her memory and her
mirror. At the end of the day, she is not so far removed from the "other"
she discusses. Mew's poetic voice, like Ken, experiences difference in a
society intent on sameness.
Mew's other poem on insanity, "On the Asylum Road," features less
defined subjects and a somewhat abstract collective speaker who narrates
the poem from the perspective of the "merry town or village folk" (1. 5).
The indecisive phrasing - note the use of "or" - suggests that the collec-
tive voice has a universal appeal. Almost everyone fits into the descrip-
tion of "town or village folk." But at the same time, the use of the collec-
tive vantage point reveals an attempt to create a clear us/them bifurcation
that will insulate the sane from the mad. This separation is physical in
both the geographical and corporeal senses: "Theirs is the house whose
windows- every pane - / Are made of darkly stained or clouded glass" (11.
1-2). Windows function as a metaphor for the eyes; like Ken, the patients
at this institution are marked by their visual organs, greeting townsfolk
with "scattered stare[s]" (1. 6). Not only are they inhabitants of a different
home, they also display the symptoms indicative of those who dwell on a
different mental plane. Mew is far more forthright in her description of
the genetic source of the madness in "On the Asylum Road" than in "Ken."

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JESSICA WALSH 1 227

These patients are nothing less than "the incarnate wages of man's sin" (1.
8). All the weakness of humanity, passed on generation after generation
through the mothers, have concentrated in their bodies. The sin, in this
case, is dysgenic reproduction, without which the weaknesses would have
died out long ago. Significant in this image is the idea that a segment of
the population has been "chosen" to embody sinfulness and therefore spare
the remaining majority. Difference is a form of martyrdom; it is a curse
with a redemptive twist.
Despite the speaker's attempt to construct the insane as so entirely
foreign as to constitute another species (11. 10-14), they resist such catego-
rization. The patients have little to offer the townspeople, but "nor do we
to them / Make their life sweet" (11. 13-14). In the only stanza that fully
departs from a neat quatrain of iambic pentameter, the poetic voice crypti-
cally states that the patients' "pulses" may "beat / To fainter music," but
they still beat, indicating an undeniable link between the sane and the
insane. Again, the speaker goes so far as to imagine the self as seen by the
mad others:
The gayest crowd that they will ever pass
Are we to brother-shadows in the lane:
Our windows, too, are clouded glass
To them, yes, every pane! (11. 15-19)

This notion functions on two levels, consistent with Mew's frequently


ambivalent attitude toward images of the body. First, it reinforces the idea
of difference, in that neither group can penetrate the "windows" of the
other. Second, on a more provocative level, it suggests that the mad and
sane share a veil of perpetual nonunderstanding, evidence of a weakness
stemming from the body itself. In other words, if all people seem "clouded"
to others, then who is truly clear? Are traditional categories as stable as we
believe them to be?
In "Ken" as well as "On the Asylum Road," the speakers play the role
of people of the "borderland." The borderland, as a late Victorian psychia-
trist described it, refers to "many persons who, without being insane, ex-
hibit peculiarities of thought, feeling, and character which render them
unlike ordinary beings" (quoted in Showalter, p. 105). As residents of the
borderland, these people are always closer to madness. They are at the
highest risk, liable at any time to cross the border. The speakers of the
asylum poems both shift perspectives from that of sane observer to curious
participant in the ideology of the insane by merely imagining life on the
other side. Their mental transgressions are their "peculiarities of thought,
feeling, and character." What this shift to the borderland ultimately
achieves is the creation of a challenge to the reader's perception of mad-

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228 / VICTORIAN POETRY

ness and otherness. It plants the seed of doubt, begging the reader to ques-
tion her own physical and mental health. At the same time, it demon-
strates the speaker's seeming inability to separate herself from the possibly
unstable contents of her physical make-up. Despite her efforts, Mew's po-
etic voice remains perpetually in the "borderland."
The subject of forbidden desire and physical pleasure entrenches
Mew's poetry even further in the borderland. She unmistakably craves
pleasure - the yearning for it saturates her poetry. Yet the same ambiva-
lence regarding the body that causes her simultaneously to fear and iden-
tify with the insane results in the uneasy coexistence of a longing for sexual
pleasure and a belief that the pursuit of it can only cause pain. Critics,
including Val Warner, have argued that Mew fails to embrace her desire
because of homosexuality. However, since lesbianism was considered by
many to be a pathological condition, ambivalence toward passion can be
seen as directly related to Mew's fear of madness. This theme develops
over and over again in Mew's poetry: surrender to pleasure results in end-
less punishment. In "Pecheresse," for example, the female speaker describes
her ardent passion for a sailor who took her virginity - and her anguished
nights of waiting for his return. Standing among sailors' wives and prosti-
tutes, the speaker struggles to justify herself:

One night was ours, one short grey day


Of sudden sin, unshrived, untold.
He found me, and I lost the way
To Paradise for him. I sold
My soul for love and not for gold (11. 21-25).

Aware that he probably has a woman at every port, she nevertheless views
this sailor as her one true love: "There is but one for such as I / To love, to
hate, to hunger for" (11. 36-37). She laments, "I shall die or perhaps grow
old / Before he comes" (11. 15-16). As the reader accustomed to fallen-
woman narratives knows, he will never come back. He was the worst
choice of lovers, one who leaves her to a life of loneliness and shame. In
this sense, "Pecheresse" parallels some of Mew's recurrent fears and regrets
regarding the choice of romantic pursuits. If she succumbs to her love for
other women, will she find herself outcast and alone? The sailor, once the
speaker's "Paradise," has now become her "Hell" (11. 24, 45). Her desire
has intensified to the point that she has lost track of her faith. The sailor
is her God, displacing her traditional need to confess to the Virgin Mary,
who now seems "as frozen snow" compared to her burning passion (1. 43).
Her inability to maintain her religious focus recalls "Ken," in which ab-
sence of faith functions as an indicator of madness. The pursuit of physical
pleasure has thus taken complete control of her mind, tragically ending in

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JESSICA WALSH I 229

a life sentence of mental torment and solitude.


Just beneath the surface of Mew's work, the struggle between thinly
veiled homosexual desire and self-loathing rages on, as seen in "The
Changeling," which originally appeared in The Farmer's Bride. Form and
content are closely related in this piece - just as the speaker vacillates be-
tween loyalties, so do the lines, changelings in their own right, skip be-
tween lengths and meters; no two stanzas display the same form. A
children's poem with Rossettian overtones, this piece portrays the psycho-
logical struggle of an ostracized child attempting to resist the enchanting
changelings who beckon her from outside the window. The speaker, ad-
dressing her parents, differentiates herself from her siblings as "so wild, /
Your disgrace, with the queer brown face . . . never, / Never, I know, but
half your child!" (11. 6-8). She experiences the markedly physical need to
immerse herself in (her) nature, contrary to the ostensibly more normal
siblings who do not share in her different, unnamable form of passion.
The androgynous bird-like changelings, locked out of the house, have come
to fetch her from the world of a thoroughly traditional family. The parents
have borne several children, at least one of whom has died; a suitably noisy
nursery coexists beside the classic scene of a quiet sitting room with a warm
fire. By constructing herself as a changeling among them, the speaker
distances herself from and rejects the social/familial structures of her day,
among which her form of desire is unacceptable.
Indeed, she has long felt ostracized from them for the very reason
that her cravings are not like their own. Even her modes of communica-
tion, linked to what she describes as visible physical differences, such as
her skin color, are not the same as her family's: "Sometimes I wouldn't
speak, you see, / Or answer when you spoke to me" (11. 34-35). She prefers
to listen to "the whole world whispering" (1. 37). She longs to replace the
distracting chatter of society with the language of nature, to hear the sen-
sual sounds of

The shy green grasses making love,

The pebbles pushing in the silver streams,


The rushes talking in their dreams. (11. 38-43)

She belongs, in short, to another world which lies beyond the boundaries
of accepted, civilized life. To enter it is a transgression, but she can no
longer resist. By embracing the physical and the erotic, she steps into the
sexually charged "wet, wild wood" (1. 65). In this land of androgynous
pleasure and ecstasy, no desire will be forbidden.
Consistent with Mew's battle with what she perceived to be a trou-
bling body, however, the wet, wild wood is not purely a chance at satisfac-

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230 I VICTORIAN POETRY

tion. Indeed, the speaker voices her ambivalence towards the surrender to
this other world: "Why did they bring me here to make me / Not quite bad
and not quite good, / Why, unless they're wicked, do They want, in spite,
to take me?" (11. 62-64). Here, the longings which have been constructed
as natural - even preferable to the world of turn-of-the-century society -
become more menacing. She recognizes that her desire is not only differ-
ent but also wrong according to social norms. With this, Mew's speaker
shifts to a tone of self-loathing combined with a fear of mental and physi-
cal weakness. The parallel to the process of recognizing and rejecting one's
homosexual desires emerges clearly. As sexual politics of the era dictate,
transgression must lead to punishment. The remarkable aspect of Mew's
poetic voice is that she simultaneously takes on the roles of transgressor
and enforcer. When the speaker saw the changelings' world from inside
the house, it appealed to her. From outside, however, she feels a nostalgia
for the norm: "Now, every night I shall see the windows shining, / The
gold lamp's glow, and the fire's red gleam" (11. 65-66). She begins to under-
stand that she belongs nowhere. The changelings reportedly "feel no pain,"
but the speaker predicts, "I shall always, always be very cold" (11. 70, 72).
In a motif reminiscent of "Pecheresse," once approached, the Heaven be-
comes a self-created Hell from which she "shall never come back again!"
(1. 73). The body, then, is home to desire, but this desire, in turn, is the
road to perpetual torment. As Fitzgerald states, "all passion [is] destruc-
tive" (p. 47).
The title poem of The Farmer's Bride can be seen as a recasting of the
themes of desire, insanity, and corporeality as they appear in "The Change-
ling." In this poem, however, the male speaker describes his naive, child-
like bride who is terrified - justifiably, according to Mew's other works - of
sexual contact:

When us was wed she turned afraid


Of love and me and all things human;
Like the shut of a winter's day.
Her smile went out, and 'twasn't a woman -
More like a little frightened fay. (11. 4-8)

Scared of an irreversible transgression, and of the children she might bear,


the bride clings to her virginity, running into the countryside in search of
safety. Chased by the farmer and his allies, she flees "like a hare" but is
eventually caught and "fetched home at last" where they "turned the key
upon her, fast" (11. 15, 18, 19). Whereas "The Changeling" constructs
nature as the location of sensuality and danger, "The Farmer's Bride" casts
the natural world as the home of purity and solace. In the wild, she finds
the community to which she ought to belong. She is "Happy enough to

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JESSICAWALSH/231

chat and play / With birds and rabbits such as they, / So long as men-folk
keep away" (11. 22-24)- During the day, she does her housework quietly
and well, unless a man approaches: '"Not near, not near!' her eyes beseech
/ When one of us comes within reach" (11. 25-26). She endures constant
fear and isolation, but cannot escape her situation. Her displays of distress
and desperation result from her fruitless battle against that reality. But to
others, her insistent denial and odd behaviors suggest mental instability -
after all, who but a madwoman would resist marriage? As a result, she
suffers the proverbial madwoman's fate and "sleeps in the attic there / Alone,
poor maid" (11. 42-43). An equally unpleasant punishment falls on the
farmer, who committed the sin of lusting after an innocent girl. His guilty
desire for his wife, whom he characterizes in vaguely animalistic terms,
overwhelms him to the point that he cannot speak clearly:
Tis but a stair
Betwixt us. Oh! my God! the down,
The soft young down of her, the brown,
The brown of her - her eyes, her hair, her hair! (11. 43-46)

The farmer's remorse - overshadowed as it is by longing - reveals that he


is not without empathy for the woman he has hurt. But, as in Mew's other
poems, desires of the body must result in the fall from paradiso to inferno,
from fantasy to reality. As such, the farmer, like the poet, is doomed to lust
but never consummate, to live chaste and childless in a state of misery
from which he "shall never come back again."
This endless longing and inevitable disappointment transmogrify into
a tangible object in "Saturday Market." The poem's imperative poetic
voice is that of society, advising the female subject of the poem to hide the
"red, dead thing" she carries, which represents, as Suzanne Raitt writes,
"the shame of her desire."26 Interpreted by critics as the speaker's heart, or
an abortion or miscarriage, this red object can also be seen as the remains
of a figurative, self-imposed hysterectomy. The woman removes the womb,
seat of fertility - or lack thereof - as well as women's mental illness. It is
the alien that causes her alienation, and, as such, must be destroyed. Yet
she cannot entirely sever the metaphorical cord; she clutches the flesh to
her under a "wet" shawl, suggesting at once tears, blood, and sexual fluids.
Removed from the body, the red object will surely die, but not before
glimpses of it have left the motley assortment of people at the market "grin-
ning from end to end" in a macabre display of simultaneous ridicule and
curiosity (1. 14). This ridicule emerges formally in the jaunty and flippant
meter of the poem as well. The poetic voice is a scornful representative of
the symbolic order, a sardonic enforcer of the norm. The marketplace
serves as a powerful setting for the poem in that it offers absolutely every

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232 I VICTORIAN POETRY

imaginable commodity to townspeople - but nothing has prepared the


crowd for what the woman carries with her. What she clutches is so ut-
terly foreign that it draws everyone's attention. In order to repress success-
fully the bizarre and unacceptable incarnation of desire she cradles, she
must, according to the poetic/social voice, "make an end of it; bury it soon"
(1. 24). After smashing it against the hearthstones, she will mourn but
briefly, and then fall into a "long, long rest" (1. 30). This suggests that the
killing of one's desires - even when done to protect one from the penetrat-
ing, violating, and mocking gaze of society - may cause one's own death.
Either embracing or destroying one's desires will cause pain, since the de-
sires themselves are signs of weakness and difference. As in many of Mew's
poems, this bizarre poetic voice ultimately fails to alleviate her physical
and mental dilemmas.
The female subject of "Monsieur qui Passe" similarly displays her de-
sires, and with sadly similar results. The speaker of this piece - the man
who passes - is a thoroughly cynical male who meets the strong gaze of a
prostitute, a woman who at first appears to be only "A purple blot against
the dead white door / In [his] friend's rooms, bathed in their vile pink
light" (11. 1-2). Walking outside with her, he receives an unexpected
response from her in the form of a narrative, which he listens to absently:
"God knows precisely what she said - / I left to her the twisted skein, /
Though here and there I caught a thread" (11. 7-9). Theirs is a tragedy of
misunderstandings - she perceives and reacts to an illusion of kindness in
this hard, cold man. Her story, the verbal reinterpretation of "Saturday
Market'"s red, dead thing, is so private and revelatory that it seems to the
man that "suddenly she stripped, the very skin / came off her soul" (11. 17-
18). Narrating her own fall in poetic fragments and broken, irregular lines,
she tells of a surrender to her feelings, a night when her body was alive
"While half the kisses of the Quay - /Youth, hope, - the whole enchanted
string / Of dreams hung on the Seine's long line of lights" (11. 14-16). She
seeks salvation and forgiveness from him, a man unable to grant it: "One
speaks to Christ - one tries to catch His garment's hem - / One hardly
says as much to Him - no more: / It was not you, it was your eyes - -I spoke
to them" (11. 26-28). Thus baring her soul, or pulling back the shawl to
reveal what is at once her shame and her only link to possible happiness,
she meets with rejection and dismissal. The speaker articulates the sen-
tence she has feared all along: "The tale should end in some walled house
upon a hill" (1. 31). By displaying her desire, she has allowed society to
become voyeur and judge; the only safe place for a woman with such
longings and "nerves" (1. 36) as hers is the "walled house" of "Ken" and
"On the Asylum Road." The woman learns that naming her desires can be
as frightening as the desires themselves.

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JESSICA WALSH 1 233

Yet if female 'identified sexuality cannot lead to fulfillment, the per-


sistent desires must be expressed and explored through other signs. Raitt
adroitly states that Mews "desires inhabited a liminal zone where they
were neither fully sublimated nor ever satisfied. Hence, perhaps, her eroti-
cization of death" (p. 11). "The Quiet House" is among Mew's most com-
plicated and ultimately bleak examinations of the processes of death, which
can begin even in the midst of life - even in the midst of desire. Indeed,
the poem is an exploration of a Coleridgean "death-in-life." Paralleling
the unraveling of life, each stanza becomes less regular and structured than
its predecessors. In a house stilled "since Ted and Janey and the Mother
died / And Tom crossed Father and was sent away," the speaker attempts to
navigate her way through adolescence (11. 5-6). In addition to solitude,
humiliation has contributed to the death shroud over the house. The
father has endured a lawsuit, which has broken his spirit and ruined the
family financially and socially; his fall in society has become his obsession.
The most horrible suffering, however, has been reserved for the speaker,
who had to plead for a holiday at her aunt's and, while there, was raped. A
sheltered, Victorian girl at the end of girlhood, she struggles to sort out the
difference between good and bad forms of attention as she recalls the event:

To get away to Aunt's for that week-end


Was hard enough; (since then, a year ago,
He scarcely lets me slip out of his sight - )
At first I did not like my cousin's friend,
I did not think I should remember him:
His voice has gone, his face is growing dim
And if I like him now I do not know.
He frightened me before he smiled -
He did not ask me if he might -
He said that he would come one Sunday night,
He spoke to me as if I were a child. (11. 10-20)

She is monitored constantly by her father, who apparently knows of her


loss of honor - but at the same time, she is locked into silence by him, a
man who simply "watches from his chair" without speaking (1. 58). This
vision of an alienated girl and her obsessive father smoldering wordlessly
and painfully toward death could easily be the creation of Edgar Allen
Poe.
In keeping with Mew's construction of sex as potentially devastat-
ing, the contact between the boy and the girl becomes yet another one of
life's painful but incessant steps toward death. Contemplative and solitary,
she muses that "[R]ed is the strangest pain to bear" (1. 29). Red is flames,

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234 I VICTORIAN POETRY

blood, desire, madness, "[a]nd the crimson haunts you everywhere" (1. 35).
Shut in the house amid death and desire, the speaker simultaneously expe-
riences suffering and joy: "I am burned and stabbed half through, / And the
pain is deadly sweet" (11. 39-40). Indeed, she must cling to this pain, for
once it ends, so does life. Like a strange flower, her "red" soul blooms when
fed on pain and then dies, having "had [its] hour" (1. 36). The pain is
sweet because it is loud and alive, something to cling to amid the madden-
ing quiet of a house in which "nothing lives . . . but the fire" (1. 52). Her
imaginings of her own death, prompted by the tolling of a bell, center on
the complete loss of existence, the idea that the redness, with its slow
persistent burn, has destroyed her. She will have neither a quiet nor a
tortured afterlife, but simply absence, emptiness, an unequivocal loss of
self, which Mizejewski describes as Mew's greatest fear.27
The culmination of Mew's despairing representations of the body
occurs in "Madeleine at Church," an extraordinarily complex poem that
Mizejewski describes as formally illustrative of "Mew's virtuosity with tex-
ture and music" (p. 289). In "Madeleine," Mew confronts the corporeality
of insanity, forbidden desire, and death through a poetic voice at once
desperate and deliberate. Stretching over two hundred lines, Mew's cre-
ative masterpiece concerns a fallen woman who escapes the label "prosti-
tute" only because she has married several times. Eyeing the various icons
and statues crowded into a Catholic church, she weaves a non-linear nar-
rative of her fascinating life, a life of physical desire and incompatible spiri-
tual hunger. Madeleine's journey into the intersection of spirit and body
pushes at the limits of acceptable subject matter, introducing a perspective
on Christianity so unorthodox that one printer refused to set it because he
deemed it blasphemous (Fitzgerald, p. 157). Mew steps into the character
of a woman alienated from the mainstream due to her pursuit of pleasure, a
woman confronting the possibility of spiritual emptiness as well as social
alienation.
Reluctant to turn immediately to the imposing figure of the crucifix,
she kneels before a "plaster saint" - who, like herself, is "Not too divine"
(1. 8). Madeleine comforts herself by thinking that the figure must have
"fallen" before its ascent. As Marina Warner writes, "The Catholic reli-
gion does not admit sins or even faults in its God, nor even in his mother.
The image of human error is relegated to the lesser ranks of the fellowship
of saints . . . who committed sins and then did bitter penitence for them."28
Madeleine imagines the saint's "short stroll about the town," thereby es-
tablishing common ground from which to progress in this spiritual exchange.
Revealing something significant about herself as she expresses her belief in
the power of redemption, she declares to the saint that "anyone can wash
the paint / Off our poor faces, his and mine!" (11. 11, 13-14). A painted

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JESSICA WALSH 1 235

woman, she makes it clear early on in the poem that she has broken and
rejected the rules embraced by the idealized "True Woman," rules which
encouraged "faithfulness, temperance, and motherhood" (Mizejewski, p.
290). She thinks back on her unfaithful past, recalling her husband Monty's
face, "gone suddenly blank and old / The hateful day of the divorce: /
Stuart got his, hands down, of course" (11.18-20). Consistent with Victo-
rian fears of self-perpetuating, ever-worsening wantonness, Madeleine's
lechery early in her life marked the beginning of a long string of lovers,
some of whom she names while others she simply refers to as "boys" (1. 99).
She is not a prostitute, but she is a woman whose desires place her outside
the acceptable categories of wife or spinster. Just as marriage does not suit
her, she imagines that motherhood would be a wrong decision. The code
of True Womanhood speaks to her of a wasted life:

Oh! I know Virtue, and the peace it brings!


The temperate, well-worn smile
The one man gives you, when you are evermore his own:
And afterwards, the child's, for a little while,
With its unknowing and all-seeing eyes
So soon to change, and make you feel how quick
The clock goes round. (11. 74-80)

She responds bitterly to the myth of domestic bliss and tranquility, stating
forthrightly that she prefers to spend her earthly time pursuing fulfillment
of earthly desires. Madeleine has thus fallen from her socially prescribed
role into the netherworld of feminine disobedience.
Madeleine refuses to sacrifice herself and sublimate her cravings in
the name of faithfulness, temperance, and motherhood. However, this
refusal is not without ambivalence, and a sense of conflict has plagued her
for as long as she can remember:

We are what we are: when I was half a child I could not sit
Watching black shadows on green lawns and red carnations burning in the
sun,

Without paying so heavily for it


That joy and pain, like any mother and her unborn child were almost one.
I could hardly bear
The dreams upon the eyes of white geraniums in the dusk,
The thick, close voice of musk,
The jessamine music on the thin night air,
Or, sometimes, my own hands about me anywhere -
The sight of my own face (for it was lovely then) even the scent of my own
hair (11. 50-59)

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236 / VICTORIAN POETRY

The external, as interpreted by her overly acute senses, triggers in her an


intense blend of emotions, placing her among Mew's many borderland
speakers. Immersed in the sensuous world of natural and physical beauty,
Madeleine experiences agony and discomfort. Her own body repels her in
the repressive social environment of fin-de-siecle England, but at the same
time it overpowers her efforts to subject it to equally repressive measures.
An adult, she remarks that "they are not gone, yet, the lights, the colours,
the perfumes" of youth (1. 131). But as she has aged, this conflict has
assumed a new component: she has developed a strong fear of death. The
possibility of eternal solitude has forced her to seek comfort in the church,
a place that initially seems to fail her: "But this place is grey, / And much
too quiet. No one here, / Why this is awful, this is fear!" (11. 139-141).
Rather than the proverbial struggle between self and society, Madeleine
must also confront her mortality and the vision of a purely spiritual,
noncorporeal existence. She states in a semantically simple but conceptu-
ally crucial line, "I think my body was my soul" (1. 63). Seeing everything
through the lens of the physical, she cannot imagine a division between
the body and the true "self - for Madeleine, one is intertwined with the
other.
For this reason, Madeleine turns to the thought of Mary Magdalene,
her Biblical antecedent.29 Mary, in Madeleine's radical and eroticized for-
mulation, was never asked to reject passion or lust. Rather than eliminat-
ing her desire, as the Catholic tradition demands, she claims that Christ
displaced that desire onto himself:

Surely You knew when she so touched You with her hair,
Or by the wet cheek lying there,
And while her perfume clung to You from head to feet all through
the day
That You can change the things for which we care,
But even You, unless You kill us, not the way. (11. 181-185)

Affection, desire, and lust cannot be destroyed even by Christ; they can
only be properly channeled. Christ appears as a tolerant and understand-
ing lover who accepts that "She did not love You like the rest, / It was in
her own way, but at the worst, the best" (11. 176-177). He shows mercy to
Mary by giving her an ideal outlet for her passions, a way to live in the
throes of lust but be raised from the socially assigned status of the fallen
woman. The nature of her love does not change, but its object does.
Madeleine envies this method of achieving "peace . . . but passion too" (1.
186). Becoming Christ's lover, like Mary, would resolve her conflicts and
legitimize her desires. One can see the attraction such a concept must hold

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JESSICAWALSHI237

for Mew, who longed for a resolution to her fears regarding what seemed
like pathological, inappropriate desire.
Yet Madeleine knows that this path is closed to her, because Christ
does not appear in a physical form to her. Always grounded in the body,
Madeleine theorizes that physical contact alone enabled the redemption
of Mary: "She was a sinner, we are what we are: the spirit afterwards, but
first, the touch" (1. 199). Her repetition of "we are what we are" signals her
resignation but also her struggle to achieve self-acceptance. She wants
desperately to accept herself; to do this, she must reject Catholicism's tra-
dition of fear and ignore society's perception of her as one of its "scuttled
ships" (1. 26). But at the same time, she wants to be saved by Christ and
made acceptable to others. As Fitzgerald states, "She is willing to believe
and willing to disbelieve, but not able to do either" (Fitzgerald, p. 124).
Despite her yearning, she simply cannot convince herself to sublimate her
preoccupation with the physical and focus on the abstract spiritual rewards
promised to virtuous women by conventional Christianity. She doubts "1/
there were any Paradise beyond this earth" (1. 38, italics mine). She la-
ments the pain many people suffer and states boldly that "one cannot see /
How it shall be made up to them in some serene eternity" (11. 113-114)-
Chances for happiness on earth, Madeleine muses, should not be forgone
in hope of heaven, but neither can the hellish experiences on earth be
redeemed by death. Mew presents an ultimately bleak view of death:

But this place is grey,


And much too quiet. No one here,
Why this is awful, this is fear!
Nothing to see, no face,
Nothing to hear except your heart beating in space
As if the world was ended. Dead at last!
Dead soul, dead body, tied together fast. (11. 139-145)

Madeleine intends to rage against the dying of the light, but as she ap-
proaches it, she grows ever more despondent regarding the end of life. Her
years on earth have passed too quickly and without fulfillment. Her mis-
placed desires have ended in disillusionment and decreased social status.
She has aged quickly, seeing the "ghost" of her elderly mother in her mir-
ror, indicating that she fears losing her sense of self , her sanity (1. 96). She
is alone again, having lost all of her lovers. In this moment of desperation,
she has sought Christ's assurance regarding death, convinced the entire
time that he cannot give it to her: "Tell me there will be some one. Who?
/ If there were no one else, could it be You?" (11. 158-159). Recalling again
how Christ never "seemed to notice me," Madeleine absorbs the silence

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238 / VICTORIAN POETRY

with which her desperate plea is met (1. 221). Christ offers her neither
comfort nor an affirmation of faith. She leaves as she came - in doubt.
Doubt, ultimately, overshadows Mew's attempts at locating stability
and peace through her poetry's speakers. Steered by this doubt, the speak-
ers instead reveal Mew's doomed efforts to subdue her fears regarding her
body and its conflicting messages. But in her poetry, Mew creates a tool for
survival, a substitute Christ into which she can temporarily deposit her
frustrations and desires. She undoubtedly fears her own physicality and its
threatening power over her. Mew's gift to future poets and audiences is her
ability to voice her struggle over this fear in the form of intricate, innova-
tive verse.

Notes

1 Charlotte Mew, Charlotte Mew: Collected Poems and Prose, ed. Val Warner (Lon-
don: Carcanet Press with Virago Press, 1981 ). All poems cited are from this edition
and are cited as Warner. Parenthetical citations refer to line numbers according to
my count.

2 John Freeman, "Charlotte Mew," The Bookman 453, no. 76 (June 1929): 145-146.
3 Lorna Keeling Collard, "Charlotte Mew," Contemporary Review 137 (April 1930):
501-508.

4 Penelope Fitzgerald, Charlotte Mew and Her Friends: With a Selection of Her Poems
(Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1988), p. 44
5 Lucy Bland, Banishing the Beast: Sexuality and the Early Feminists (New York: The
New Press, 1995), p. 240.
6 Fitzgerald, p. 2 1 1 . Many Victorians feared premature burial; it was not uncommon
for survivors to ask that a vein or artery in the deceased be cut in order to ensure
that death had irrevocably occurred.
7 Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (New York: W.W Norton, 1981), p.
75.

8 Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady (New York: Penguin, 1985), p. 112.
9 The notion of "race" in these discussions could refer to a number of things. Some-
times it did refer to skin color, but at other times it suggested Englishness or "civi-
lized" populations.
10 Quoted in Angela Y. Davis, Women, Race and Class (New York: Vintage Books,
1983), pp. 213-214.
1 1 Whether Mew's acceptance of eugenics indicates racist convictions cannot be de-
termined based on existing writings. No Mew scholars have approached this sub-
ject to date.
1 2 Mary C. Davidow, in her unpublished dissertation on Mew ("Charlotte Mew: Biog-
raphy and Criticism," Brown University, 1960), suggests that she had an affair with
Thomas Hardy. However, this speculation has absolutely no support and any at-
tempt to read their friendly, even-toned correspondence as impassioned seems mis-
guided at best. Davidow's later work on Mew attempts to diffuse arguments of

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JESSICA WALSH 1 239

homosexuality by contesting the aforementioned stories about May Sinclair (see


"The Charlotte Mew - May Sinclair Relationship: A Reply")- That said, Davidow's
dissertation continues to be a valuable resource for scholars because it includes
transcriptions of Mew's correspondence as well as interviews with surviving rela-
tives and acquaintances.
13 Fitzgerald (p. 70) has suggested that Mew was so distressed and offended by the
Wilde trials that she left off publishing with The Yellow Book because the journal
was associated with the Decadents.

14 Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York:
Routledge, 1990).
15 See, for example, "The Farmer's Bride," which is discussed below.
16 Suzanne Pharr, Homophobia, a Weapon of Sexism (Inverness, California: Charon
Press, 1988), p. 50.
1 7 Discussion of this term seems to originate with Radicalesbians, "The Woman-Iden-
tified Woman," in Radical Lesbians, ed. Anne Koedt and others (New York: Quad-
rangle Books, 1973).
18 Laura Stempel Mumford, "New Woman," in Victorian Britain, ed. Sally Mitchell
(New York: Garland, 1988), p. 539.
19 For example, Mina Murray pokes fun at the New Woman in chapter 8 of Dracula,
describing herself and Lucy as gluttons that day at tea: "I believe we should have
shocked the 'New Woman' with our appetites! Men are more tolerant, bless them!"
20 Eleanor Marx-Aveling and Edward Aveling, Thoughts on Women and Society (1887;
New York: International Publishers, 1987), p. 23.
21 Bland, pp. xviii, 17-18. A good example of this situation was the Men's and Women's
Club, a group of intellectuals who met regularly to discuss sexuality, socialism, and
other issues. But in spite of the repeated urgings of Henrietta Muller, the group
refused to discuss explicitly how women experience and respond to desire. Karl
Pearson, the leader of the group, was also a major figure in eugenics.
22 Alida Monro, Introduction to Collected Poems of Charlotte Mew (London: Gerald
Duckworth, 1953).
23 Her letter does not survive, but Harland responds to it in a pleading tone, as tran-
scribed in Davidow's "Biography and Criticism": "I don't mean in the least that you
should change the substance of the part in question. On the contrary, I think that
is wholly admirable, and I should be sorry to see it touched. . . . No doubt I weary
you: but I should not do so if it weren't for the very great admiration your story as a
whole has compelled in me. . . . All that I say, I beg you to understand, is said only
by way of suggestion. . . . You see, I regard 'Passed' as a very important literary
achievement; so I am anxious that you should make it as nearly perfect as possible,
before we fling it to the critics. They will be sure to abuse it, in any case: but we
don't want to let a single word stand in it which they could abuse with justice."
24 "Charlotte Mew," British Women Writers (New York: Continuum Publishing Co.,
1989), p. 462.
25 Desire for segregation of the mentally disturbed was so great that one of the editors
who reviewed "Ken" refused to publish it because he believed it was contrary to the
public good. See Fitzgerald, p. 47.
26 Suzanne Raitt, "Charlotte Mew and May Sinclair: A Love-Song," CritQ 37, no. 3
(1995): 12.

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240 I VICTORIAN POETRY

27 Linda Mizejewski, "Charlotte Mew and the Unrepentant Magdalene: A Myth in


Transition," TSLL 3 (1984): 290.
28 Marina Warner, Alone of Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary (New
York: Knopf, 1976), p. 225.
29 Henceforth, for the sake of brevity, I will refer to Mary Magdalene simply as "Mary."

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