Week 368: The Farmer’s Wife, by Charlotte Mew

Charlotte Mew (1869-1928) was described by Thomas Hardy as ‘the best woman poet of her generation’. With all respect to Mr Hardy, I don’t find the label ‘woman poet’ helpful: to me there are just poets, good or not so good, and surely we are now at a stage where gender in such matters should neither disadvantage you in any way nor on the other hand earn you any extra brownie points. And I think this poem is remarkable for its empathy not just with the feelings of the frightened woman but with the erotic frustration of the man, who despite being a practical son of the soil apparently has more delicacy than some men of his time might have had in the circumstances – yes, he brings her back and locks her in when she runs away, but at least he doesn’t force himself on her – she sleeps alone in the attic. And we assume that the beautiful lines in the last stanza evoking the onset of a frosty winter are intended as expressive of his sensibility too, not just the poet’s.

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 ’twasn’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 wasn’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 our 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 stay 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 gray 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! 

Charlotte Mew