Charlotte Mew: Complete Poems
edited by John Newton
Penguin Books £7.99, pp176
Charlotte Mew has defied Virago-ish reclamation of the 'forgotten woman' kind, partly because she is so spiky and peculiar and fails to fall into any genre.
She lived a straitened, strange existence between 1869 and 1928, and was briefly an 1890s New Woman. Her work appeared in the rakish Yellow Book, a journal boasting Aubrey Beardsley as its art editor and Henry James as a contributor. In 1916, Mew became not quite a Bloomsbury poet, published by the philanthropic Poetry Bookshop where there was a poets' meeting room run by Harold Monro. This collection, The Farmer's Bride, sold scarcely a quarter of its print run.
She was also nearly what might be called a lesbian, but found her passions unrequited.
Mew's poems range from the faintly fey Victorian elegy to the fierce, surprising, chaotic song of desire, searching, fear of ageing and death. She is said to have influenced T. S. Eliot; Ezra Pound published her in the Egoist; Virginia Woolf thought her very good and unlike anyone else.
She is at times a Georgian, a Modernist and a high Victorian, but refuses to stay put, just as she scampered away from literary cliques and tea parties at Ottoline Morrell's.
One of Mew's poems is currently featured on the London Underground; 'Sea Love' is not one of her best, but Thomas Hardy liked it, and transcribed it for himself. Her most beautiful, strange lyrics - 'In Nunhead Cemetery', 'Madeleine In Church', 'The Fete' - are a fascinating collision between Browning-esque monologues and a modernist fractured consciousness.
Editor John Newton supplies a clean, sensible edition with an informative, decently accurate introduction in which he suggests that Mew might be a forgotten genius of the twentieth century.