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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Frost’s October

Early on here I mentioned that I didn’t care for Robert Frost when I was young. When I first was introduced to him he was still alive, but the very image of an old man. I think of him on a cold, windy and monochrome day reading at John Kennedy’s inauguration ceremony, more than 80 years old, more than 70 years older that I was then.

Teachers introduced him as moralist:

“What does this poem tell us?” “What does he mean by the ‘road not taken?” The teachers would ask.

And as a formalist:

“Free verse is like playing tennis without a net.” That was his most famous quote not taken from a poem. All that wild bohemian, beatnik stuff–that’s like cheating!

Meaning in poetry can be problematic. It’s not that poets can’t express original observations or analysis of things, but poetry’s preference for brevity tends to make poems more like a hint than an instruction manual. I wonder how many students ended up hating poetry, thinking the poetry the teacher wanted them to interpret and “understand” was tricking them with irony and obscure metaphor. Frost, as he was taught when I was young, was “meaningful”—but worse than that, he seemed to be held up as someone whose poems were meant to teach good behavior and noble thoughts. As a teenager, I already felt I already had all I needed of that.

It was only a few years ago that I was looking for poems to set to music and sing, and to my surprise came upon the Frost of a hundred years before, the writer of short poems that just sang off the dry page. This sort of thing is very hard to do in English. I know, I’ve struggled to do it. What Frost could do wasn’t just tennis with the net strung up, this was playing grand slam tournament tennis while dancing classical ballet!

So here’s an example of Frost doing that: “October” written in 1913. Frost is a master here of singing vowels. This is less a poem than a singing mediation. Meaning? Well, yes this is one of many poems that look at October as the time of approaching Winter. That this is not a strikingly original thought is not really an issue, because the poem isn’t about the thought, it’s about the moment of that thought, common to many of us, and how to hold ourselves inside that thought. The real, valuable, “meaning” is in the sound and the way of saying it.

Musically I tried to serve that feeling of meditation, and once more I have a tambura drone grounding the melody lines. Dave Moore, who you may have heard reading other pieces here, is playing the keyboard part, which I call your attention to because I think it’s a fine performance on his part.

To hear that performance, click on the gadget below.