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A Short Analysis of Charlotte Mew’s ‘The Farmer’s Bride’

A summary and analysis of Charlotte Mew’s classic poem

Charlotte Mew (1869-1928) was admired by writers as diverse as Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, and Ezra Pound. Her poem ‘The Farmer’s Bride’ was first published in The Nation in 1912 and remains one of her most popular poems – even though the name ‘Charlotte Mew’ has not endured the way that those of her admirers, named above, have. Here is ‘The Farmer’s Bride’ along with a brief summary and analysis of it.

The Farmer’s Bride

Three summers since I chose a maid,
Too young maybe – but more’s to do
At harvest-time than bide and woo.
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 ’twadn’t a woman—
More like a little frightened fay.
One night, in the Fall, she runned away.

‘Out ’mong the sheep, her be,’ they said,
’Should properly have been abed;
But sure enough she wadn’t there
Lying awake with her wide brown stare.
So over seven-acre field and up-along across the down
We chased her, flying like a hare
Before out lanterns. To Church-Town
All in a shiver and a scare
We caught her, fetched her home at last
And turned the key upon her, fast.

She does the work about the house
As well as most, but like a mouse:
Happy enough to chat and play
With birds and rabbits and such as they,
So long as men-folk keep away.
‘Not near, not near!’ her eyes beseech
When one of us comes within reach.
The women say that beasts in stall
Look round like children at her call.
I’ve hardly heard her speak at all.

Shy as a leveret, swift as he,
Straight and slight as a young larch tree,
Sweet as the first wild violets, she,
To her wild self. But what to me?

The short days shorten and the oaks are brown,
The blue smoke rises to the low grey sky,
One leaf in the still air falls slowly down,
A magpie’s spotted feathers lie
On the black earth spread white with rime,
The berries redden up to Christmas-time.
What’s Christmas-time without there be
Some other in the house than we!

She sleeps up in the attic there
Alone, poor maid. ’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!

The speaker of the poem is the farmer who has married a young bride; ‘Too young’, probably, as he now realises, but his mind was on the harvest he had to bring in (tellingly, harvest is the point in the agrarian calendar when things come to fruition, perhaps suggesting that the farmer’s young bride has now ‘ripened’ or matured). The young bride was frightened of her husband, and one autumn she ran away (‘runned away’, in the farmer’s local dialect). The farmer and others go out in search of the missing bride:

But sure enough she wadn’t there
Lying awake with her wide brown stare.
So over seven-acre field and up-along across the down
We chased her, flying like a hare
Before out lanterns.

The word ‘chased’ suggests a hunt, with a defenceless animal being pursued by bloodthirsty predators – and Hare in the Foresttellingly, the animals the bride identifies with are ‘birds’ and ‘rabbits’ (‘birds’ itself offering a twisting of ‘brides’ into another defenceless creature that is often hunted for sport). Compare, here, the spot where Alec d’Urberville rapes Tess (assuming one reads it as rape) in Thomas Hardy’s novel: the woodland area known as ‘the Chase’.

The lines above, with their mention of ‘brown’, ‘down’, and ‘hare’, also subtly prefigure the farmer’s obsession, revealed at the end of the poem, with his young bride’s ‘soft young down’ and ‘The brown of her – her eyes, her hair, her hair!’, with a latent pun on hare/hair.

The bride is recovered and brought back to ‘Church-Town’, where she is locked up in the attic – like the ‘madwoman in the attic’ from Jane Eyre, here is another bride in confinement, though here she is glad to be away from her bridal bed where her husband would lust after her. ‘Church-Town’ reminds us that the marriage between the two of them, though clearly contrary to the bride’s wishes, was blessed by the church and that, under English law, she is required to live with her husband, ‘till death us do part’.

Now autumn comes – the time of the harvest again – and winter approaches. Christmas too. ‘’Tis but a stair / Between us’: the farmer wants to be close to his wife at Christmas-time, so will he respect her wishes and keep his distance, or ascend the stair to her attic room and force himself upon her?

Oh! my God! the down,
The soft young down of her, the brown,
The brown of her – her eyes, her hair, her hair!

There is a manic note in this, verging on monomania: how long will the ‘poor maid’ remain a maid? How long will she be safe from her husband’s lust?

‘The Farmer’s Bride’ is a fine example of what is often called ‘Georgian poetry’: poetry of the early twentieth century (around the reign of King George V, who came to the throne in 1910, and often associated with Rupert Brooke, the war poets, and others such as John Drinkwater) that used rhyme and metre (unlike the almost contemporaneous modernist poets and the Imagists, who often used free verse instead – for example, see T. E. Hulme). The poem’s rural setting also marks it as ‘Georgian’. ‘The Farmer’s Bride’ lends itself to close analysis and addresses many perennial themes of poetry, such as marriage, love, sexual desire, the cycle of the changing seasons, and the relationship (indeed, the clash) between society or social convention and the individual. It’s a poem that deserves to be read and even studied for the way it handles these themes with powerful imagery and superlative metrical skill.

Continue your exploration of early twentieth-century poem with our analysis of Edward Thomas’s ‘Adlestrop’, and discover more of Mew’s poetry with her wonderful lyric about lost love, ‘A Quoi Bon Dire’.

Image: A Hare in the Forest by Hans Hoffmann, c. 1585; Wikimedia Commons.

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About interestingliterature

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Posted on January 15, 2016, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. And this is another fascinating one that is entirely new to me. Thank you!

  2. I hadn’t read this poem before but really enjoyed it. It’s interesting that the poem is sympathetic to both the girl and her husband. You can imagine them, the bride probably no more than a teenager and her husband, bewildered by this fearful girl that he’s married – probably knowing much more about animals and crops than about girls and women.

    I read the bit about Christmas as referring to the lack of children in their marriage – obviously because she’s only a child herself and the marriage unconsummated.

    ‘What’s Christmas-time without there be
    Some other in the house than we!’

    Thanks for sharing it.

    • Alison's Wonderland Recipes

      I noticed that too! I really like that the poet writes it in such a way as to make the reader feel for both the characters. So often I feel like poems that portray unhappy marriages place blame on one or both of the characters. In this case, it’s an unfortunate circumstance, but it’s not really anyone’s “fault.”

      One thing I’m curious about is what British marriage law was at the time this was written. In so many cultures and religions, lack of consummation traditionally made a marriage invalid (in some cases, it still does today). If that was the case in England in the early 1900s, wouldn’t the farmer have to let her go when she ran away?

      • That’s really interesting, and I think you’re right. I believe that failure to consummate a marriage is grounds for annulment even today. I don’t know what the case would have been back then.

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