The Changeling

Have you heard the name Charlotte Mew? I hadn’t until I came upon it in Herbert Monro’s 1920 Some Contemporary Poets  this month. Last post I presented Walter J. Turner, another now-forgotten early 20th century poet found in Monro’s book-length survey of his era’s British poetry. While I doubt we will ever see a full-fledged W. J. Turner revival, with Mew I think there’s room for growth in interest. She’s that unusual and that good.

I’ll probably spend more time on what I’ve found out about Mew when I present another piece, but to hit some highlights: she cut a notable figure even among the unconventional artists of Bloomsbury, wearing tailored men’s suits and displaying a wide-ranging intellect. Mew was both parodied for her eccentricities and praised. Among her literary admirers: Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, Sara Teasdale, Ezra Pound, Siegfried Sassoon, Walter de la Mare, and Harold Monro himself, who published her first collection of poetry.

Charlotte Mew

Maybe she looks like Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka, but read/listen anyway…

 

Why haven’t I (and likely you) heard of her? Fame forensics is a fraught subject. She’s one of those authors that straddles the centuries, though she didn’t start publishing poetry until the 20th. Some of her subject matter looks backwards, and individual lines will sound like they could be from a Victorian-era poet. Even so, her poetic style is her own. She uses uneven line lengths and unstable rhyme schemes, yet they don’t fall into doggerel. Mew died in 1928 and was not active in publishing in the last years of her life, so as Modernism was taking over she may have been just a bit “yesterday’s papers.” She may be one of those cases where her career didn’t rise high enough and maintain sufficient altitude to carry her glide-path into the second half of the 20th century. But like her admirer and champion Hardy, Mew is another one of those poets who at first, in some superficial respects, can seem old-fashioned, yet her core outlook is modern and unconventional. If one comes upon her work today and doesn’t expect her to sound like T. S. Eliot or Wallace Stevens, her uniqueness can still deserve your attention.

“The Changeling”  is a fairy story of the chilling variety, more “Belle Dame sans Merci”  than Disney. It’s Peter Pan meets Tam Lin! Like some other Mew poems I’ve already read as I start to look at her work, it’s extraordinarily easy to see modern psychological and sociological analysis in it’s situation. The narrator’s outsider sensibility is right there from the start, and the lure of the old wild natural world makes the order of the urban home and nursery regimen seem like a riot against that.

It’s Peter Pan meets Tam Lin!

Despite there being no regular line lengths or stanzas, I found it reasonably easy to set Charlotte Mew’s “The Changeling”  as if it was a folk song of the “Tam Lin”  variety. Alas, as is the case with many of my favorite old ballads, the result is lengthy by song standards. To compensate and decorate the time while you hear Mew’s tale unfold, I’ve added things that a handful of adventuresome British Isles folk-revivalists might have added 50 years ago: there’s tambura, sitar, and my first effort at playing tabla drums.*

So brew up some tea or elfin grot and listen to “The Changeling”  with the player gadget below.

 

 

 

 

*I tried an inexpensive electric sitar a few years ago, but never got the hang of it. I now play sitar and tambura using a MIDI guitar, retuning when desirable. For my attempt at tabla today, I didn’t use a drum controller or pads, but instead triggered the drum hits and pitches with my MIDI guitar as well. As I should always do, I offer my apologies to the real masters of those instruments who have given me much listening pleasure over the years.  On the other hand, my 9 minutes or so today is a short piece compared to many traditional South Asian numbers.

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When I Was a Young Girl

When I look at a more well-known poet or poem, I often find someone else less well-remembered connected with them. This sort of thing naturally intrigues me. Are we overlooking something of interest? Does this lesser-known person change our understanding of the more well-known poet?

I’ve noted earlier this month that Carl Sandburg won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1918 collection Cornhuskers—but that’s not the full story. For some reason, they decided to give out two awards for poetry that year, and another poet’s 1918 work was the co-recipient: Margaret Widdemer’s Old Road to Paradise.

Huh? Who?

I don’t aim this project to literary scholars, who likely know more than I do about the poets whose words I use, but there are indications that Widdemer’s name would stump them too, even those whose field includes the Modernist era. From a look through Widdemer’s Old Road to Paradise  this can be partly ascribed to Widdemer not writing in the Modernist style that triumphed as the century continued. Furthermore, Widdemer’s outlook, though feminist, is middle-class and lacks the bohemian allure of Millay or even Sara Teasdale (the poetry winner the previous year). As time passes, rebels and poètes maudite often retain their outsider excitement while losing their air of present danger, and Widdemer offers none of that. And while I’m hesitant to judge from a skim through one book, a further issue is that she may not be very good.

pre-war-lady-by-margaret-widdemer

Widdemer also had a successful career as a popular novelist between the wars.

 

Particularly for me, and for the Parlando Project, Millay and Teasdale’s words just want to sing off the page. Widdemer’s, though rhymed and following metrical schemes, generally don’t. There is a flatness to subject matter and a conventionality of imagery that fails to grab me as well. I would have loved to have picked up Old Road to Paradise  and found something as interesting as Fenton Johnson, Edward Thomas, or Anne Spencer; but not this time.

Margaret-Widdemer
Margaret Widdemer

 

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing there. Widdemer seems a level-headed person, and she is writing from a woman’s point of view that has fewer representations in the literary cannon of her era. What little I know of her biography says she worked to advance poetry and literary efforts. Could I find something to use? As I paged through Old Road to Paradise   I marked “When I Was a Young Girl”  as a possibility.

Why did this one stand out? It seems based on a folk song, but while it takes lines and tropes from folk songs, it presents an alternative viewpoint to the songs it borrows from. Since the post-WWII folk song revival, folk song has been even further associated with bohemianism and adventuresome living, even though the traditional texts used most often tell of sad ends.

From its title and often refrained first line, the folk song we can most easily connect with Widdemer’s poem is the female version of “The Unfortunate Rake”  a 17th Century song with dozens of popular folk song variations, including the American cowboy song “The Streets of Laredo.”  With the “When I Was a Young Girl”  title it’s been sung by Feist and Marlon Williams, and back in the 20th Century by Julie Driscoll and Nina Simone. The general plot of these variations is that a young person is dying after a short, intense life of drink and venereal disease. The too short life of pleasure is valorized even if the song’s singer often remarks that they know they are doomed to hell. No wonder this song has remained popular—both sinners and saints, and listeners on a journey from either pole to the other, can find something in the tale!

Widdemer starts as some of these folk songs do, by telling of the excitement of their youth before the song’s present moment, though in her more circumspect telling, the young girl’s adventures are in daydreams and fantasies, including (in another folk song reference), a longing to run off with the “raggle-taggle gypsies.”

I used a minor key melody for this, not unlike that used in the folk song. I won’t spoil the ending Widdemer puts on her version of this story by foretelling it here, but it’s not where that folk song and its variations take you. To hear it, use the player below.

 

I Was Reading About Jesse James

When I was growing up and learning songs from Jerry Silverman’s folk songbooks, there was song called “Jesse James”  included in many collections and sung by a wide variety of singers—and any song that has been sung by the Kingston Trio and Nick Cave, by Van Morrison and the Pogues, by yes, by both Peter Seeger and Bob Seger, has to be the very definition of a “folk song.”

Pete SeegerBob Seger

Both these guys have sung thoughtful songs, but sometimes you need to think beyond the song yourself

 

Though “Jesse James”  takes some of its spirit from older English ballads celebrating legendary medieval populist outlaw Robin Hood, this American song is more about betrayal (James was killed by a gang associate in his own living room) and about telling us what an all-around bad-ass James was. We’re told he “killed many a man” (never why or how, though bravery is claimed) and that he robbed banks and railroads (but he “gave to the poor” and would “never rob a mother or a child”).

You can see how this sort of thing has a wide appeal. A tale of revenge on the rich and the powerful appeals to many, and banks and railroads were particular targets of late 19th and early 20th century rural populism, but the emotional core of the folk song “Jesse James”  is the betrayal and assassination.  No matter what the variation in the lyrics, there’s lots of mention of James’ cowardly assassin Robert Ford betraying the man who trusted him, shooting him in the back.

Woody Guthrie took “Jesse James’”  structure and melody and produced an incisive, though less popular, version of his own called “Jesus Christ”  which cast Jesus as a rebellious populist betrayed by a disciple—though it had to do without the “killed many a man” factor. So popular is the original “Jesse James”  ballad, that Guthrie likely knew that Jesse James’ action-hero rep would rub-off on his populist Jesus.

So, it was with interest that I followed up on the reality of Jesse James. One can assume that most heroes have feet of clay, portions of their behavior that show faults or inconsistency, but it turns out Jesse James doesn’t have feet of clay—the whole man is made of half-baked clay mixed with ample fresh dung as filler.
 
He’s a nasty piece of work. True, his character shows audacity, but that’s not the same thing as bravery. There’s no evidence I’m aware of that he ever killed an armed man who was opposing him, but lots of connections to killings of prisoners and bystanders. It was somewhat true that seeking cash through his robberies was a side-point to him, but his main motivation was to extend, defend, or to restore human slavery, or to take broad revenge on those who sought to end his career seeking those aims.

If there’s a defense for his actions, it would be some listing of the bad things done by his opponents, but then monsters often breed monstrous actions against them. It’s an argument against monsters, not a defense of the actions themselves.

Today’s piece “I Was Reading About Jesse James”  starts by asking you to think about this. I thought about trimming the piece’s instrumental coda shorter, but I have left it in. Consider the last half to be time for you to begin to ask those questions yourself. To hear the LYL Band ask those questions to music, use the player below.