A critical analysis of a tender poem of love and death
Charlotte Mew (1869-1928) was a popular poet in her lifetime, and was admired by fellow poets Ezra Pound and Thomas Hardy, among others; the latter helped to secure a Civil List pension for Mew in 1923. ‘A Quoi Bon Dire’ was published in Charlotte Mew’s 1916 volume The Farmer’s Bride. The French title of this poem, ‘A Quoi Bon Dire’, translates as ‘what good is there to say’. And what good is there to say about this short poem? We think it’s a beautiful example of early twentieth-century lyricism, and so below we’ve shared the poem, along with a short analysis of it.
Seventeen years ago you said
Something that sounded like Good-bye;
And everybody thinks that you are dead,
So I, as I grow stiff and cold
To this and that say Good-bye too;
And everybody sees that I am old
And one fine morning in a sunny lane
Some boy and girl will meet and kiss and swear
That nobody can love their way again
While over there
You will have smiled, I shall have tossed your hair.
The poem, in summary, is divided into three clear stanzas. The first sees the speaker addressing her loved one who died seventeen years earlier, saying ‘Good-bye’ to the world. But although the rest of the world sees the loved one as dead, the speaker of the poem has kept him alive in her memory, and, indeed, still sees him as alive (I say ‘him’ because of the boy and girl later referred to in the poem; but it’s worth mentioning that such an assumption must be balanced by the fact that Mew herself fell in love with a fellow writer, May Sinclair, though the love was not reciprocated).
The second stanza then reveals that the speaker herself is now close to death, ‘grow[ing] stiff and cold’. But her loved one, she knows, does not view her as old, even though everyone else does. The two lovers, we surmise, have stayed young in each other’s eyes.
The final stanza then shifts to consider another pair of young lovers who are starting out on love’s journey together, and ‘will meet and kiss and swear / That nobody can love their way again’. All lovers think their love is truer and stronger than everyone else’s. But, ironically, this is what makes all lovers the same. And while these other young lovers are kissing the pledging themselves to each other, the speaker and her loved one are reunited in death, ‘over there’.
These last two lines are more enigmatic than the rest of the poem. Does ‘over there’ suggest that the dead lovers will appear as a ghostly couple near where the (living) boy and girl are meeting and kissing? Or does it suggest ‘over there’ as in ‘over on the other side’, in the afterlife, our two lovers are having their reunion? The use of the future perfect tense in that final line complicates any straightforward interpretation or analysis: ‘You will have smiled’, nor ‘You will smile’; ‘I shall have tossed your hair, not ‘I shall toss your hair’. Although the boy and girl’s actions are described in simple future tense (‘will meet’), the tryst between the speaker and her lover is in the future perfect tense. This is puzzling, and (we think) lends the end of the poem its haunting beauty. It suggests that, although this smiling and hair-tossing will take place again, it is already a thing of the past, and the shades that will take part in this act of rendezvous are mere ghosts of the past; a new generation of young lovers has already taken their place.
Viewed in light of such an interpretation, the poem’s title, ‘A Quoi Bon Dire’ – ‘what good is there to say’ – starts to make more sense. Poised between a question and a statement, Charlotte Mew’s tender poem suggests that love will transcend death and lovers will be reunited in the next life. Is there any good to say? Yes, this is what good there is to say. That title poses a question but also, perhaps, its own response.
Mew’s own death was altogether more tragic. In 1928, following the death of her sister and fearing the onset of mental illness, she took her own life by drinking Lysol. Thomas Hardy thought her the finest woman poet of her day; ‘A Quoi Bon Dire’ shows exactly why.