The Trees Are Down

JANUARY 2006: POETRY

and he cried with a loud voice:
Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees

Revelation

They are cutting down the great plane-trees at the end of the gardens.
For days there has been the grate of the saw, the swish of the branches as they fall,
The crash of the trunks, the rustle of trodden leaves,
With the ‘Whoops’ and the ‘Whoas’, the loud common talk, the loud common
laughs of the men, above it all.

I remember one evening of a long past Spring
Turning in at a gate, getting out of a cart, and finding a large dead rat
in the mud of the drive.
I remember thinking: alive or dead, a rat was a god-forsaken thing,
But at least, in May, that even a rat should be alive.

The week’s work here is as good as done. There is just one bough
On the roped bole, in the fine grey rain,
Green and high
And lonely against the sky.
(Down now! –)
And but for that,
If an old dead rat
Did once, for a moment, unmake the Spring, I might never
have thought of him again.

It is not for a moment the Spring is unmade to-day;
These were great trees, it was in them from root to stem:
When the men with the ‘Whoops’ and the ‘Whoas’ have carted
the whole of the whispering loveliness away
Half the Spring, for me, will have gone with them.

It is going now, and my heart has been struck with the hearts of the planes;
Half my life it has beat with these, in the sun, in the rains,
In the March wind, the May breeze,
In the great gales that came over to them across the roofs from the great seas.
There was only a quiet rain when they were dying;
They must have heard the sparrows flying,
And the small creeping creatures in the earth where they were lying —
But I, all day, I heard an angel crying:
‘Hurt not the trees.’

Charlotte Mew was not famous in her own time, although by the time she died, Thomas Hardy had called her the “best female poet” then writing. Her reputation was modest. Only one collection of poems, The Farmer’s Bride (1916), appeared in print during her lifetime. Born into a middle-class London home when women had few economic options except marriage, Mew chose not to marry. Mental illness ran in her family, and she believed what the eugenics movement was teaching–that mental illness descended matrilineally, and that it was therefore incumbent on Christian women to remain single. Her choice was complicated, and it had dire economic consequences. She and her sister were so poor that sometimes they could not afford the penny for the gas heater in the basement. At age 59, mourning the death of her sister the year before, Mew committed suicide by drinking Lysol, a creosote cleaning solution used for especially stubborn household dirt. Mew cleaned herself to death. In the poems, Mew’s vexed relationship to dirt, taint, and sin often figure as a complication of a Catholic upbringing that positioned cleanliness next to godliness. The poems themselves reflect Mew’s preoccupation with unhappy domestic situations, moral indeterminacy, and the anguish of conflict between the innocence of nature and the corruption of human agency.