Victorian Poetry 40.3 (2002) 217-240
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"The strangest pain to bear":
Corporeality and Fear of Insanity in Charlotte Mew's Poetry
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? 1
The 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 continually 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, [End Page 217] 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 Collected Poems and Prose (1981) and an impressive biography by award-winning 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 ominously 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...