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Róisín Tierney
Róisín Tierney

Róisín Tierney is an Irish poet living in London.  Her debut collection The Spanish-Italian Border is published by Arc Publications.  In 2012 she won the Michael Marks Pamphlet Award for Dream Endings (Rack Press, 2011).  Her work also appears in several pamphlet anthologies; Gob by Deegan’s Riposte (Donut Press, 2004), Ask for it by Name (Unfold Press, 2008), and The Art of Wiring (Ondt & Gracehoper, 2011), as well as in many magazines including Poetry Ireland Review, Magma, Horizon Review, The London Magazine, and The Lampeter Review.


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Poets Reading Poets 4


The Farmer's Bride

Charlotte Mew

 

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’s beautiful poem about a doomed marriage has always struck me as both emotionally fluent and verbally eloquent.  The poem, and the characters in the poem, challenge some of our accepted notions about man-woman relationships, and even provides a corrective for our own relationship with nature.

 

          Formally rhymed and structured, it may seem old-fashioned at first, but I always feel after reading it that I have been lifted gently up and then set down again, just as gently, only this time with my feet resting more evenly on the earth, more in balance, my inner equilibrium restored.

 

          The poem opens thus, in the rueful voice of the farmer:  

 

                    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…

 

And we learn that these businesslike marriage arrangements have eclipsed her light:

 

                    Like the shut of a winter’s day. 

                    Her smile went out, and ’twadn’t a woman –         

                     More like a little frightened fay.

 

Or frightened the life out of her, more like.    

 

          The use of dialect throughout the poem is unusual for Mew, and risky generally.  Without gravitas, such a technique can easily lead to pastiche, and for that reason has often been employed in comic poetry.  Used correctly (and even some of our contemporary poets use dialect, Daljit Nagra, for example), it can lead to a genuine representation of speech as spoken and help to open a window onto a world, or worlds, unfamiliar to many of us.

 

          Our reluctant bride runs away: “But sure enough she wadn’t there/ Lying awake with her wide brown stare.” Then she’s chased, like a wild thing: “We chased her, flying like a hare/ Before our lanterns.” And eventually she’s brought home and placed under lock and key. What an analogy for marriage!

 

                    All in a shiver and a scare                                      

                    We caught her, fetched her home at last

                    And turned the key upon her, fast.

 

          Throughout the poem, our young bride, and we know she was too young, is aligned with the animals, with nature, and turned firmly against the world of men:

 

                    Happy enough to cheat and play 

                    With birds and rabbits and such as they,

                    So long as men-folk keep away

 

Her closeness to the beasts reinforces her primal, instinctual nature: “The women say that beasts in stall/ Look round like children at her call…” And we are left in no doubt that, feral though she may be, may have become, she is very desirable.  In the farmer’s voice:

 

                    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? 

 

          There have been many descriptions of women who reject sexuality throughout the ages or at least conventional heterosexual engagement.  In ancient mythology we have the myth of Diana, the virgin huntress.  In Christian culture we have the female saints, often willing to undergo tortures rather than submit to a marriage they did not want. These two stereotypes have – at least, I think – some kindness about them, in that the women portrayed are often marked out as powerful or magical or holy in some way.  Then we have the Freudian/post-Freudian view, crueller surely, in which women who reject the sexual advances of men are described as cold, frigid, full of hate.  

 

          Nowadays, we are (though still partly under the spell of post-Freudianism) more likely to recognise the effects that sexual abuse can have on an individual’s later sexual relations.  And we are also, at last, coming to terms with the reality that people can be differently oriented.

 

          Our poem is not a poem about sexual abuse, although the farmer’s bride was too young; and it is strongly suggested that this fact, for which the farmer takes responsibility “Too young maybe – but more’s to do/ At harvest time than bide and woo –” is what triggers her fear. The farmer desires her, but does not force himself upon her.

 

                    She sleeps up in the attic there

                    Alone, poor maid.  ‘Tis but a stair

                    Betwixt us.  Oh! My God…        

 

          Nor is there any evidence that the poem is about homosexuality, although Charlotte Mew herself vowed never to marry (for fear of passing on insanity - two of her siblings were committed to institutions), seems to have fallen in love (unrequited) with a woman at least once, and surely would have felt sympathy for any woman who wished to remain unwed.  But our bride is firmly aligned, not with other women, but with the pre-human, animal world: the world of natural instinct, as opposed to that of human convention.  It is this deep, instinctual, emotional authenticity that makes her unable to accept a marriage of convention, whatever the cost.

 

          A dramatic monologue like this maintains its heightened sense of drama through the unmediated voice of the speaker rushing towards its dramatic conclusion.  Mew’s poem is an artful, touching and superb example of the form.  I mean that particularly in the sense of its emotional control intensifying towards its climax.  It is at times poignant, and we feel for both farmer and bride in the penultimate verse, when he speaks about the barrenness of their marriage: “What’s Christmas-time without there be/ Some other in the house than we!” Here we, along with him, foresee a future where neither of them will be happy.  Yet, somehow, she, the too-young-bride, has won, has refused to allow her own nature to be conquered, has refused, in her instinctive and unthought-out way, to submit.  

 

          The last two lines of the poem reassert through physical description, not just the farmer’s desire, but his bride’s sheer otherness, and it does so with breathtaking force: “The soft young down of her, the brown,/ The brown of her – her eyes, her hair, her hair!”  


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