A Farewell by Charlotte Mew

Remember me and smile, as smiling too,

I have remembered things that went their way –

The dolls with which I grew too wise to play –

Or over-wise – kissed, as children do,

And so dismissed them; yes, even as you

Have done with this poor piece of painted clay –

Not wantonly, but wisely, shall we say?

As one who, haply, tunes his heart anew.

 

Only I wish her eyes may not be blue,

The eyes of the new angel. Ah! she may

Miss something that I found, – perhaps the clue

To those long silences of yours, which grew

Into one word. And should she not be gay,

Poor lady! Well, she too must have her day.

 

After the recommendation, about this time last year, from a fellow bookworm, I finally got around to ordering Charlotte Mew’s Collected Poems for summer reading. Scarcely two pages into the volume, I came across this goose-bump-inducing goodbye to lost love. Its resignation and melancholy strain first moved me, but it is the strength and integrity of its jilted voice which left a lasting impression.

This poem is characteristic of Mew’s style, especially in her earlier poems, where the ‘I’ voice which throbs through the verses with a yearning hopelessness doesn’t compromise the ability of the poem as a whole to offer a removed and profound commentary on some aspect of human nature, not exclusive to the experience of the melancholy voice with whom we’re so intimately positioned. In its undeceived outlook, its veiling of strength with apparent submission, and its subdued, knowing frankness, this poem is classically Mew.

Unlike many poems in which the process of acceptance is enacted through the verse, the speaker of ‘A Farewell’ has already made their peace with the loss of their beloved. Perhaps the most striking feature of the poem’s tone is its maturity, its resignation, its knowledge of the inevitability of the thing. A maturely sympathetic understanding that she has been guilty of the same action (‘as smiling too, / I have remembered’) allows the speaker the hope that the addressee can also ‘smile’ on her in remembrance. But the doubling up of the verb, as the imperative ‘smile’ applying to the addressee and the participle ‘smiling’ in relation to the speaker, in such close quarters in the very first line also pictures the two standing side by side, mirroring one another’s smiles. This is a somewhat sadder image: an accepting, thin-lipped smile of reassurance and absolution pitched against the genuinely happy, departing beloved.

That this is simply what ‘children do’, that certain ‘things … went their way’ flags the speaker’s acceptance of the break as inevitable. They had already picked up on ‘the clue’ and guessed that ‘those long silences of yours’ meant ‘one word’, which probably wasn’t good news. What is that ‘one word’? ‘Unrequited’? ‘No’? ‘Unfaithful’? Or is it the ‘word’ of a meta-language, the single communication that love has faded?

The paradox that these silences ‘grew’ into something as small as ‘one word’ suggests a waxing and waning, a build-up followed by a realisation and a retreat. The enjambment of the weak run-on line (‘which grew / Into one word’) is a rhythmic echo of this climax, but what is clear is that, aside from this momentary reconstruction in the poem, the peak of emotion is past, the growth in the meaning of silence has been condensed into one message, received and accepted, and this is not a poem about the anger or hurt of that climax, but the subdued melancholy of the letting-go which follows.

There is, nonetheless, a deep sadness underlying this acquiescent renunciation. The simile of a child fondly dismissing their favourite toys because they must enter the adult world, the image of a little girl kissing her dolls with the love in ‘as children do’ reminds us of the innocent and unconditional love which is being left behind for one party to progress. With the picture of human reliability which ‘A Farewell’ paints, Mew suggests that we might be ‘over-wise’ (that is, too wise for our own good) to leave our dolls in favour of finding love from their animated and sentient counterparts. The natural progression of ‘and so’ isn’t enough to combat the wistfulness and dejected yearning of the last stanza’s first word, ‘only’ – the supressed pain of a breaking heart visible in this modest wish that ‘her eyes may not be blue’.

The whole seems infused with a depressing recognition that lovers will always be unfaithful, they will always move on and leave another behind. This, of course, is only true in a one-sided sense, and as such the poem might be read as a critique of the power dynamics in heterosexual relationships in the early 20th century (dating back to time immemorial). The ability and prerogative of one party to call the shots, to ‘wisely’ extract themselves when things get messy, to find a ‘new angel’ when he gets bored. A man ‘tunes his heart anew’ (the use of the ‘generic’ pronoun ‘his’ here is, I think, no mistake) with an autonomy that the speaker and (other) women are denied. They may control their response only, ‘remember’, ‘smile’, and ‘wish’, where the man holds the power to ‘dismiss’, as a dissatisfied employer or demanding king.

As such, the poem’s final stanza is a statement of sisterhood, a recognition that the new lover too will ‘have her day’ and may as well enjoy her limited time in the spotlight because she, like all other women, is no more than a ‘doll’ of ‘painted clay’, the ‘angel’ in the house, the idealised picture of woman which can be cast off at will if her reality interferes.

But looking at Mew’s own life might offer a more complex reading. There’s evidence to suggest that Mew had and wanted little experience of heterosexual relationships, and we might see her lament rather as a consideration of her own one-sided experience of love. Mew seemed to offer and demand an intensity of affection which the women with whom she fell in love couldn’t, or wouldn’t, return. The overwhelming sense of inevitability might come from the feeling that that love in her own life always brought unfaithfulness and disappointment.

Despite the poem’s sombreness, Mew leaves us with strength, dignity, and resigned self-content. Comparing the jilting lover to a child, suggesting their action is ‘over-wise’, speculating that the ‘something that I found’ is likely to be missed by another all compile the speaker’s superiority, insight, and intelligence – this is what lingers. There’s a self-assurance in her own expressive powers in the familiar tag question, ‘shall we say?’, as though the speaker is resorting to a place (her poems and by extension her readers) where she knows she will be appreciated. This is a voice, too, which won’t allow itself to be hurt. The comparison with a child grown ‘too wise’ seems to work on more than one level, as though the speaker, too, were still this child, precociously aware that one must grow up, and that one must accept heartache. Her knowing resignation affords a sturdy dignity, and though ‘this poor piece’, she is nonetheless made of ‘painted clay’: though fragile in the hands of another, her emotions are not readable to them, nor is she made of penetrable or (once set) mouldable stuff.

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