If you’ve ever listened to The Beatles song In My Life then you’ll appreciate the sentiment of this poem.
Mew compartmentalises romantic relationships into separate rooms, reflecting on their role and impact in her life. While she visits previous relationships nostalgically, she ends up remembering why they died. However, she finally tells us about the room/relationship she commits to forever, which is flecked with memories of passion, but seems to be based on much more than that.
I remember rooms that have had their part
In the steady slowing down of the heart.
The room in Paris, the room at Geneva,
The little damp room with the seaweed smell,
And that ceaseless maddening sound of the tide—
Rooms where for good or for ill—things died.
But there is the room where we (two) lie dead,
Though every morning we seem to wake and might just as well seem to sleep again
As we shall somewhere in the other quieter, dustier bed
Out there in the sun—in the rain.
Charlotte Mew (1869-1928)
Oh no, poor Charlotte Mew. What a rotten life! These poets do seem to go through the mill. It really makes you wonder whether I will ever have a chance to make it big living a middle class, mundane existence! You can read my executive summary here, but for a bit more detail try this or this.
From a large family of seven children, Mew would witness three brothers die while she was still a child, another was committed to a mental asylum alongside one of her sisters – both for schizophrenia. As a result of this history of mental illness, both her and the remaining sister decided not to marry so they wouldn’t pass on these issues to their children.
It is also believed that she was a lesbian, in a time when it was definitely not cool to be a lesbian. However, it is unclear as to whether she ever realised her sexuality with a lesbian relationship. It sounds a bit to me like critics have put two and two together when learning that she used to wear tailored men’s suits and decided that made her a lesbian. There is certainly not enough for us to link this poem to any specifics.
Although she enjoyed some success with her poetry and writing in general, it was not enough to save her from financial problems that left the family fairly destitute when Mew died. After being forced to sell their house, her sister fell ill, which caused Charlotte to sink into depression and then she committed suicide after her sister passed away.
Hopefully this makes you a little grateful for your existence. If not, I’ll add the final struggle she had to deal with: she was 4″10 (147cm) tall! Insensitively this has made me picture her as one of those ventriloquist’s dummies, in her little suit. Sorry, I am ashamed of myself. I’ll leave you to guess which one is really Mew:
For the first time in this section of Songs of Ourselves we actually have a poem that fits the section heading completely.
It focuses on the different types of love experienced in life and how they impact upon our lives. However, it ends with particular emphasis on the love realised with age and wisdom that puts all prior experiences in the shade.
We begin with the poetic voice immersing us in a nostalgic look back at the relationships that have played a part in her life. These are positioned as things that have slowed her heart, which could be taken as a negative, but that I would suggest represent love progressing from something fiercely passionate to a more sedate and comforting emotion.
Relationships are imagined as rooms, I’ll explore why in the next section. In each room there seem to positive memories, but her nostalgia is disturbed from the realities of the problems within the relationships that brought them to an end.
The final four line reflect on the final relationship or room that is much more substantial than those of memory. The poem becomes personal as ‘we’ are addressed telling us that this is meant for this lover. Although she talks about them being ‘dead’, I think this is meant to represent the end of the emotional turmoil of seeking love and rather represents the finality of the relationship – no chance of adding another room to her house. Within this relationship we have flashes of the passion that was a precursor to a deeper love, but it is the stability and security of the relationship that is really focused upon.
Language and techniques
What on earth do rooms have to do with romantic relationships? Well, the way I view it rooms represent a private and sheltered place. Four walls shut out the rest of the world and whatever dangers or harshness exist there.
Being in a couple gives you someone who is on your side, who will protect you and make you feel secure. Without this we all feel a little vulnerable and self-conscious.
The poem immediately thrusts us into a nostalgic daydream from the poetic voice with ‘I remember’. Each of the different relationships have developed her personally and ‘had their part’ in creating the person she is today. The gentle sibilance of the ‘steady slowing’ of her heart that they have contributed to should suggest to us that this is a positive impact. Normally we’d be quite concerned if our hearts began to slow down, but here Mew is positioning the slowing as a calming of youthful passions to a more meaningful type of love.
In the third line she considers two specific relationships, which both represents different stages in the development of her idea of love. The love of ‘Paris’ must be seen in the context of Paris’ reputation for romance, passion and lust, while Geneva is less clear, it probably signifies a slightly less passionate affair. These relationships are merged in the poetic voice’s nostalgia and painted as a ‘little damp room with the seaweed smell’. This might not sound particularly appealing, but I see this as the imagery of a romantic escape from the city to the seaside. In addition, the size and quality of the room could reflect on that stage of life where we aren’t able to be flash and splash the cash on luxury. The ‘seaweed smell’ again uses sibilance that makes this imagery deep and rich suggesting it is a memory that is positively rooted and maintained in her mind.
However, this positive nostalgia is immediately dismissed. The rooms are plagued with the ‘ceaseless maddening sound of the tide’. Our seaside get away is now associated with endless change and uncertainty. As the tide changes so to do aspects of the relationship and this is something that is considered ‘maddening’ and thus impossible to live with. This is a reflection on the nature of passion that brings with it the incredible highs and the incredible lows. At one moment the tide is high and everything seems unbelievably wonderful, but then it disappears and you are plunged into utter despair. Sorry guys, this is an inevitability of young love – it’s tough, but you’ll come through it, trust me!
Our poetic voice clearly finds this aspect of her nostalgia painful to recall as she interrupts herself with a dash mid image. She replaces the negative image with a balanced review of her past as having ended or ‘died’ for ‘good’ and ‘ill’ – thus there are certain traces of regret, but these are balanced out by the knowledge that everything has worked out for the best.
Now we move onto the final room. Notice the use of the inclusive first person pronoun ‘we’ to address this poem firmly to a lover, the other occupant of the final room. Mew also adds ‘(two)’ in brackets to demonstrate that this is deeply personal, rather than a ‘we’ of general reflection upon human existence.
This line ends with an image of this relationship ‘l[ying] dead’. The previous use of ‘died’ suggested an end to relationships and we would naturally view death as being a bad thing. However, it is clearly represented as being a positive here. The important point to make here is that death gives the relationship finality and tells us there will be no more rooms for our poetic voice.
In the following line we have confirmation that this death does not represent actual death as they ‘seem to wake’ ‘every morning’. This means that although the finality of death is not actually realised, but they feel like they have reached the end in terms of the development of their love.
We can also relate this back to the earlier idea of the heart slowing down. Relationships based on passion and fire are gone, and now the heart has completely stopped when we have found true love and security with another. The suggestions of waking could also be interpreted as a rebirth of the prior passion in the relationship each morning.
Such is the surety and finality of this relationship and love that the poetic voice feels she ‘might just as well sleep again’ in a ‘quieter, dustier bed’ that represents the grave. This suggests this love will last for the rest of her life.
Finally we have a real lovely expansion of the room = relationship metaphor. In this final love Mew presents the poetic voice as being able to face the harshness of the world as together they will be able to endure ‘Out there in the sun – in the rain’ and thus take whatever life throws at them. This is the ultimate sense of security and love as something that can protect us from burning and from freezing – in other words the extremes of human emotion that often leave us scarred.
There is quite a lot going on here, some of which I’m not comfortable explaining. However, check this essay out for some excellent ideas.
One thing I will mention here is the shape of the poem – bear in mind that this has been slightly disrupted on this page as the eighth line is just a bit too long for my site. We almost have an ebb and flow of the lines, which ties in with the imagery of the seaside that in turn related to the volatile and ever-changing state of passionate love.
However, notice that everything is disrupted by the eighth line where the poetic voice gets carried away with emotion when discussing the realisation of his true love.
The opening of the poem is deeply nostalgic, with brief flashes of forgotten joy mingled with remembered bitterness. However, these diametrically opposed memories are quickly washed over with reason that stems from the joy of having a secure, stable and fully realised loved. The last four lines are a happy recall from nostalgia to the joy of today.