The Death of a Poet

Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald wrote ‘The Death of a Poet’ in 1980 or 1981, intending it to form part of a group portrait of the writers published by Harold Monro’s Poetry Bookshop in Bloomsbury. In the event, however, she wrote a biography of Charlotte Mew, Charlotte Mew and Her Friends, which was published, and reviewed in the LRB in 1984 – and will be reissued this summer.

In 1927 Charlotte Mew was 58 and living with her sister Anne, a decorative painter, at the Hogarth Studios near Tottenham Court Road. Alida was Harold Monro’s wife, and a friend to both Mew sisters. Sydney Cockerell was the director of the Fitzwilliam Museum. Evelyn Millard had become a friend of Anne Mew’s when they were students at the Female School of Art in Queen Square. (Now an actress, she played Cecily Cardew in the first performance of The Importance of Being Earnest.) Lucy Harrison had been Charlotte Mew’s headmistress at the Gower Street School.

By the summer of 1927 Anne Mew had wasted away. When her eyes fell shut they looked as though they were sealed into her face, and would never open again. Alida wrote to Harold Monro that ‘they ought to put her to sleep.’

One evening, summoned urgently by Charlotte, she found Anne sitting by the gas fire, only just able to speak. Something had to be found to talk about. Alida tried her last journey through France – she had been taking Harold to a clinic in Switzerland; the taxi-drivers and the porters at the Gare d’Orléans had robbed her as always. This seemed to amuse Anne. Perhaps she recalled her trip, nearly twenty years ago, where she had sketched the fish market while Charlotte resolutely made Madame scrub out their room at the pension, and they had both lost a few francs together at the tables. When Alida left, Charlotte followed her out and told her the doctor had said there was no further hope.

Poor little Mew it is more tragic than I can tell you – Her rough little harsh voice and wilful ways hiding enormous depth of feeling – now she will be entirely alone and her relation with Anne has been one of complete love, and I imagine the love of sisters (or brothers) more marvellous than any other as there can be no fleshly implications or sexual complexities. Alas –

On 18 June Anne died. ‘It was over at midnight on Saturday,’ Charlotte wrote to Sydney Cockerell, ‘and now she can never be old or not properly taken care of or alone.’ Nor, she might have added, would Anne ever have to be ‘wonderfully cheerful’ again, or answer brightly to enquiries, or be pitied as someone whose gift for painting had sadly come to so little.

Nobody can nurse someone they love through their last illness without guilt – guilt for staying alive, and guilt for all the things that were never said or done. This, for Charlotte, became part of the obligation she had recognised for thirty years and which she called ‘getting my nerves under control’. The only one of her brothers and sisters left alive now was Frieda, who would never leave the Isle of Wight county mental hospital. The house of her childhood had become as quiet as she had predicted.

When we were children old Nurse used to say,
The house was like an auction or a fair
Until the lot of us were safe in bed . . .

Her cousin Ethel, however, was still in London, and so were some of the friends she had known since schooldays. These took her into their homes, and she disappeared for a while behind their closed ranks.

As usual, she went first to Ethel Oliver. The Professor had retired from his curatorship at Kew, and the family were now at 2 The Grove, Isleworth. Here Charlotte’s desire was not to be any kind of a celebrity. But the quiet suburb was not altogether safe. Lady Ottoline Morrell called, with the best intentions. Charlotte hid. Lady Ottoline left flowers and a message with the housekeeper. Charlotte wrote that she could only go to London by appointment. Lady Ottoline motored down to Isleworth once again, and sent a letter, ‘but as it hasn’t been answered,’ Charlotte wrote, ‘I hoped you would understand as everyone else has been good enough to do without my saying so that I am only seeing and writing to old friends. I came here to some – for quiet.’ She scented patronage, and perhaps it was not a bad thing for her to be angry. But she told Sydney Cockerell that what she wanted most of all was to go away by herself, though she had no idea where that could be.

By the beginning of September she was back in London, at the old studio; the gas fire, the two chests full of papers, the folding screen decorated by Anne, the little plaster head of a baby which she had kept through all their removals, the windows from which they had both looked down to watch the children playing and the Punch and Judy.

I remember rooms that have had their part
In the steady slowing down of the heart . . .

Outside, she was one of the white-haired tiny elderly ladies of the quartier, subsisting largely on tea and cigarettes, no longer buying flowers for her room, and carrying her rolled umbrella at a certain angle, as though on the defensive.

By September Cockerell, who had not seen Charlotte since the death of Anne, considered that she must be on a fair way to recovery and might like to be asked out for a treat. Which of London’s entertainments would be the most suitable? Not the Matisse exhibition, for he could not believe that there was anything to be said for pictures so hideous, not, perhaps, the Treasures of Ur at the British Museum, better, perhaps, to have a quiet gossip together. They sat over lunch at the Gobelins, Sydney’s favourite dull restaurant, until three o’clock, and parted at Mudie’s Circulating Library.

Somewhat to the relief of the household at Cambridge, Cockerell, who rarely left his Museum for long, was now preparing for an expedition to the classical sites, his first visit to Greece. His wife, Kate, had been an invalid for many years and it was out of the question for her to go, but it was arranged that during his absence Charlotte should come on a fortnight’s visit to Sheffield Street. The two women were longing to see each other. With Charlotte, Kate never felt awkward or clumsy. ‘She was one of the few women I have known, with whom I could be quite intimate without the fear of being laughed at.’ They understood each other well, and they understood Sydney perfectly. They both knew that he needed, among the carefully allocated minutes of his life, to take out a ladylike, artistic, not too young woman, and to brighten her day, and to notice what she was wearing, and make much of her, before hurrying off to King’s Cross. Kate had already considered which of them might be asked to look after Sydney if he became a widower: Dorothy Hawksley, a capable lady sculptress. She could talk to Charlotte about this, as she could about so many things.

The visit ended on 11 October, and this time when Charlotte reached Hogarth Studios she found a stray cat waiting for her. It was prepared to depend on her for its daily milk, and she felt pleased, unreasonably perhaps. She found it difficult to follow the advice given to mourners; it wasn’t worth turning out the place and cleaning it just for oneself, and books she had always found a poor drug if anything else was at hand. She chain-smoked, but would not have agreed with that most disillusioned of poets, Lascelles Abercrombie, that the best things in life are its poisons. In the silence of the studio, she wrote to Kate, the power of lucid expression seemed to desert her. ‘Il faut écouter le coeur when there’s nothing else to listen to.’

When Christmas came, Charlotte sent out her cards. There was no need for her to go round the Bookshop now, as in the old days, to help colour the rhymesheets and cards with water-paints, but she still felt the intoxication of the lighted greengrocers’ shops, and, as she told Florence Hardy, ‘couldn’t outgrow the snowflakes’. Perhaps because of this, and the memory of nursery Christmases, she realised, when January came, that she did not want to live through another year without her sister.

She did not want to, nor even expect to. This is clear enough from the will she made on 3 January. Instructions are given for Anne’s grave in the Fortune Green cemetery, but only if ‘at the date of my death no stone has been erected’, that is to say, before the seven or eight months allowed for the ground to ‘settle’.

The inscription on the headstone was to be a line from Dante’s Purgatorio: ‘Cast down the seed of weeping, and attend.’ With these words Beatrice checks Dante, not long after the chilling moment when she asks him how he dares to enter the Earthly Paradise, since that is a place where human beings are happy. He must put away tears because they arouse forgiveness, and this is the time of reproach. Reproach, because the delusions of guilt had grown irresistibly and it seemed now to Charlotte that she could have saved her sister, but had not. In the first place, she had never given instructions that a vein should be opened, and it was possible that Anne had been buried alive. She made a provision that her own main artery should be severed by a qualified person, for the usual fee, before she was placed in the coffin, but this safeguard could only torment her further, because it had not been done for Anne.

About Anne’s gold watch she could not make up her mind, and had to leave the decision to her friends. Most of her own possessions were in store; her diamond brooch was to go to Kate Cockerell, with some china (‘chose some nice pieces,’ Sydney recorded later in his diary.) More than two thousand pounds was to be invested for the benefit of Frieda, to clothe and keep her in the asylum, where, as it turned out, she survived for more than thirty years longer.

Charlotte asked to be buried in the same grave as Anne. An almond tree was to be planted over them. This would have been a symbol of hope, but Charlotte added, with one of her characteristic changes of mind (always marked by a toss of the head), ‘or some dwarf tree’. There is no tree of any kind there now, only daffodils, planted in recent years.

There remains the question of unpublished writing, and the manuscripts which Charlotte used to pull out, apparently at random, defiantly using them as spills to light her cigarettes. Alida, who inherited the two chests, believed that most of the papers she had seen in them had disappeared, but the fact is that they were both specifically bequeathed to her ‘without the contents’. Anything which has not been destroyed can be found, and it is possible that in time the manuscripts will be recovered and readers will have more to judge from than The Farmer’s Bride and The Rambling Sailor, a play that never reached the stage, and a handful of essays and short stories.

The witnessing of the will did not bring Charlotte peace of mind. The obsession with live burial – not, after all, such an uncommon one – gave way to another delusion, still more painful. Anne had not died of cancer, but of a germ, which was still present in the studio, infecting everything which could be touched. The germs, Charlotte thought, must be the black specks which she saw everywhere, on her books and clothes. Before the Clean Air Acts, everything in London, as soon as the winter fogs began, was black, or blackish, by the end of the day. Charlotte, always immaculate in white shirt-blouses, had once called laundry ‘the curse of civilisation’. But unluckily the language of hygiene – contamination, impurity, resistance, fight – recalled the Evangelical language of guilt which Nurse Goodman had taught the Mew children long ago in Gordon Square. The room itself was sinful. As best as she could, Charlotte tried to wash her soul white.

In her distress, she turned to the doctor who had been called in to attend Anne during her last illness. Dr Horatio Cowan practised just round the corner, in Fitzroy Square. In an attempt to soothe his patient, he sent some of the black specks to be examined under a microscope. They were soot. Seeing he was not believed, he recommended Charlotte to a mental specialist.

Neither Sydney Cockerell nor Alida was within call. Sydney was much occupied. Word had come that Hardy was sinking fast, and Cockerell, as literary executor, kind friend and general busybody, had everything to do at Max Gate. With the funeral ceremony to arrange, Florence Hardy to sustain, and above all a great bequest of papers to tap for his Museum, he was excited and absorbed even beyond his usual measure. When, however, in the throes of sorting out he came across a copy of ‘Fin de Fête’, written out by Hardy himself (with typical economy) on the back of a British Museum slip, he sent it to Charlotte at once. It was probably the most helpful thing he could have done. The pernickety fairy godfather was justified at last. ‘The poem which no one else I think thought other than jingle’, as Charlotte wrote to him in thanks, had been the one which the great man had hoarded away. Unfortunately it was not the search for recognition which destroyed her, but the search for an object of love.

The ‘specialist in mental disorders’ to whom Dr Cowan had sent Charlotte was not a psychiatrist. The consultation was simply to see whether she could be certified, and his opinion was that she could not. Dr Cowan therefore urged her to enter a mental home as a voluntary patient, but she resolutely refused.

Theirs is the house whose windows – every pane –
Are made of darkly stained or clouded glass . . .

The clouded glass, as she had written in her pitiful asylum poems, cut off the inmates, who looked out at the powerful world of passers-by as something quite inexplicable, while they, in turn, were not anxious to look in.

And if some night
When you have not seen any light
They cannot move you from your chair
What happens there?
I do not know.

So, when they took
Ken to that place, I did not look
After he called and turned on me
His eyes. These I shall see –

She was, however, persuaded to leave Hogarth Studios and to book a room in a nursing home at 37 Beaumont Street. The matron was a Miss Lutch, and the view from the window was of nothing but of walls and drainpipes and a little sky. There is something incomprehensible about the choice of this place.

Alida, worn out with the move to Great Russell Street, and finding that her bank balance, including the takings from the shop, amounted to £7. 12s, had gone down to Selsey for a rest. She could not afford a taxi from the station and had to arrive on the front board of a tradesman’s van; at the cottage, Crabtree House, there were still no curtains, and when Ethel Smyth came down on a visit, a bathmat had to be hung across the window while she washed. Meanwhile, Harold had left the Swiss clinic. Alcoholic, ill, blackmailed by young male prostitutes, but always maintaining a sad Scottish dignity, he was entering the last period of horror which, as he noted himself, began gently. To make his life easier, Alida was prepared to do not less than everything. In London she dealt with printers, blockmakers, travellers, unsatisfactory assistants and ‘horrible’ creditors, at Selsey she cleared the garden of weeds. She suffered, on his account, the humiliation of his drunken weekends. She even continued to send him samples of curtain material in the hope he would choose something at last. Optimism comes close to heroism here. All the omens were against them. The new Bookshop, they both knew, would never have the success of the old; Bloomsbury was in the ascendant, and in that dry atmosphere poetry could not flourish. But they were united in the belief which Harold had once expressed so nobly – that if it was possible to conceive a world without poetry, he would not wish to be an inhabitant.

Alida kept urging him to get on with the correspondence. He did his best. On 20 February he sent Charlotte Mew her royalty statements. There had never been anything like confidence between them, and she replied formally. But heaven knows what it must have cost these two people, at this stage of their lives, to exchange a business letter.

On the same day Charlotte wrote to thank Evelyn Millard, who had sent her a book of religious poetry, with marked passages, for bedside reading. ‘Faith is given us like every other good gift and if we haven’t got it we can but pray for it but one faith I have, and that is in the wonderful everlasting loving-kindness of my friends who have borne so much and done so much for me – and where that comes from I cannot doubt.’ Struggling not to lose headway, she got up every day and dressed, and went out for a little. But Alida, back from the country, was dismayed at the Beaumont Street room. The poet to whom London’s trees and tree-shadows had meant so much was sitting ‘surrounded by no trees, no birds, nothing but grey bricks and a greyer life’. And four days after her letter to Evelyn, on 24 February, Sydney Cockerell found her totally withdrawn, ‘in a state of great depression, with nothing and nobody to live for’. This was on a very fine spring evening, of the sort which had always moved her.

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.

Sydney, however, could not cajole her. It was not the moment for a nice luncheon, or a Charlie Chaplin film, or even Mudie’s. With a timetable even more strict than usual, he had to catch the 4.30 to Dorchester, where Florence was reading Hardy’s memoirs aloud to him in instalments.

After he had gone Charlotte wrote to Kate, congratulating her on a slight recovery. ‘Yes one can bear hard things under the open sky,’ she added,

but for weeks now I have seen little of it except through a window. You do not know how much or with what affection I have thought of you. What you gave me at Cambridge that fortnight can’t be told this side of silence – For myself I won’t say much. I just tried my best to keep going and broke down – It was so lonely – I try still but it is lonelier here – you understand – and a little I hope – how I think of you.

The last visitor of whom there is any record was Ethel Mew, Charlotte’s cousin, still an art teacher at Notting Hill High School. Ethel recalled that ‘a long time ago’ Charlotte had spoken of ending her life by taking poison, but that ‘recently she had said that she would not do it.’ The ‘long time ago’ was perhaps Charlotte’s adolescence, when Lucy Harrison, on whom her first intense passion was fixed, withdrew herself out of sight and reach. After that had come the rejection by Ella d’Arcy, the rejection by May Sinclair, and now the loss of Anne, who had taken their childhood with her.

Death, in Charlotte Mew’s dreams and metaphors, had been an identification with the sky at sunset – ‘when you are burned quite through you die’ – or a walk down a dim street where, at lamplighting time, she would meet herself, or a rambling sailor waiting for her on every quay. These images, projected at random from the buried self, create the poem in their own right. They are romantic images; but death was also ‘the whole dreadful heap’ which she had witnessed often enough, and the time when she would not have to think any more, or even be.

‘I mean to go through the door without fear,’ she had also written. She had always assumed that she would know when the right moment had come. Just before one o’clock on 24 March she went out for a few minutes and bought a bottle of lysol, a disinfectant which contained enough creosote to be a corrosive poison. She poured half the bottleful into a glass on the washstand and drank it. At the inquest (the reporters did not get her name right and she was described as ‘Miss New, a writer of verse’) she was said to have been found lying fully clothed on the bed, ‘conscious and muttering to herself’. Dr Cowan and Miss Lutch entered the room together. The doctor administered olive oil, and Charlotte came round sufficiently to say: ‘Don’t keep me, let me go.’ Then she lost consciousness, and died at three o’clock that afternoon.