A Quoi Bon Dire?
Seventeen years ago you said
Something that sounded like Good-bye;
And everybody thinks that you are dead,
So I, as I grow stiff and cold
To this and that say Good-bye too;
And everybody sees that I am old
And one fine morning in a sunny lane
Some boy and girl will meet and kiss and swear
That nobody can love their way again
While over there
You will have smiled, I shall have tossed your hair.
The title of this poem is in French, and the best translation I could come up with (by way of a French speaking friend) is “What’s the good of saying?” After reading the poem in it’s entirety, I feel as though the title is especially relevant to my interpretation of it’s content.
The speaker is lamenting the loss of someone – I hesitate to comment on the relationship because after reading it through several times, I still can’t decide whether it’s a lover or a friend or a family member. During my first read, I thought for sure that the “you” was some guy she was in love with who died tragically while they were still young. That’s an easy enough interpretation – poets have been writing about their dead lovers since poetry was invented. However, I did a little snooping on the internet about Charlotte Mew and found out that she lived a pretty tragic life. Three of her siblings died when she was still a child, another two were committed to psychiatric hospitals and stayed there for the entire lives, and her last remaining sister, Anne, whom she seemed inseparable from, died from cancer later on in life. Following Anne’s death, she committed herself to a nursing home for treatment from delusions, but ended up committing suicide there within a year.
While I know some people will argue that researching a writer’s background is not always the best idea before reading their work, I find it hard to separate the two. You could certainly read this poem and interpret it without knowing about Mew’s life; however, after reading the poem once, and then reading up about her life, I found my perception of the poem to be changed entirely. First off, she was surrounded by death for almost the entirety of her life. The “you” in this poem who everybody thinks is dead but her could be anyone. I can’t limit my interpretation to a lover, as I did upon my first read. Yes, she does say in the final stanza “And one fine morning in a sunny lane/ Some boy and girl will meet and kiss and swear / That nobody can love their way again” However, I don’t think those lines are enough to prove that she is 100% talking about a lover. I think that the image itself is more a symbol of human connection, and the ways in which our relationships are fleeting despite the promises we make.
There’s a sense of hopelessness that stains the poem; the “you” is dead, and she’s convinced that they are still alive. Worse yet, she’s growing older and watching the world change without the person she is mourning for with her. Going back to my original translation of the title, she seems to have given up . She watches people from the sidelines, and remains removed from real human interactions. She prefers to stay in a fantasy world where the dead are still alive. “What’s the point”, is the idea that I gathered from this poem. She has already experienced the greatest human connection of her life, and knows in her heart that the decay has set in beyond repair.