A Quoi Bon Dire?
by Charlotte Mew (1869 – 1928)
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 current debate over safety of vaccines feels like lunacy when you read the biography of Charlotte Mew. We have forgotten the devastation of common diseases on families prior to vaccines being developed. Vaccines for common childhood illnesses would have been a life changer and a miracle for her family. Born into a middle class family in London in 1869, Charlotte was the second to last of seven children. Childhood illnesses killed three older brothers and her mother in quick succession before Charlotte was ten and two older siblings were so debilitated physically and mentally that as teenagers they were committed to psychiatric institutions where they would spend the rest of their short lives. Following their father’s death in 1898 Charlotte and her only remaining sibling, her younger sister Anne fell into poverty. Mew’s writing, although having succeeded to reach a fairly good audience, earning her praise from the literary community in London, did not generate enough income to support her and her sister. Only a small government pension prevented the two of them from being homeless despite having to take on boarders and eventually sell the family home. The two sister’s scraped by until Anne was diagnosed with cancer. Charlotte nursed her until her death in 1924. Neither sister ever married or wanted children, given their experiences of loss and grief.
Mew’s poetry is an expression of the trauma Mew experienced —death, mental illness, loneliness, poverty and disillusionment— these became her primary themes. An unconventional short story writer as well as poet, she confronted issues that were controversial and provocative for her time, including prostitution, sexism, lack of women’s rights. Yet, despite it all, there is a spark of hope that runs around the edges of her poetry. Both of the poems I shared today are touching in their clever use of rhyme and meter. Each of these brought a smile to my face and I hope yours.