Further to my analysis of other poems in the Love and Relationships section of the 2016 AQA GCSE English Literature poetry anthology, and following from an exploration of Porphyria’s Lover by Robert Browning, this is one of the four poems in the selection by a female writer. It compares well with Porphyria’s Lover for many reasons, some of which I’ll explore at the end of this post.
Chronologically, Charlotte Mew is writing after Byron, Shelley and the Brownings, even Thomas Hardy, although she was a contemporary of his by the time Neutral Tones was published. Her poem still has some of the features of more traditional poetry, but her style is certainly much more idiosyncratic and personal than others in the collection – if not because of the content rather than the time that the poem was written and published.
At first glance, we might expect The Farmer’s Bride to be a saucy little romp through the countryside. After all, the countryside was long since a metaphor for all things fertile and vibrant. The Country Wife, for instance, is a play from 1675 in which a city man marries a country girl. Less theatre and more Carry On Countryside. With the pastoral images we’ve explored before, and poems such as A Passionate Shepherd To His Love, you can see why the countryside was seen as a sexy hive of reproduction and earthy women who’d grown up with the birds and the bees. After all, how can you fail to be a saucy minx when you’ve grown up so in touch with nature?! Still, the pastoral image of ripe, comely, bosomy women who are a lot less uptight than their city sisters is an image picked up by Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It among others.
But The Farmer’s Bride is not a saucy tale of sexy milkmaids. No. It is the story of a marriage that is barren ground.
The first thing we notice about the poem is that it is split into six stanzas of irregular length, varying from four or five lines to ten lines. Already, it’s not quite as even as we might expect. It seems like it’d be a really regular poem from the title, but then it wanders off into irregularities in ways that perhaps we feel like Porphyria’s Lover should, but doesn’t. I think to me that this is the first of many signs with the form, structure and rhythm that much is out of the natural order of things. This is continued in the syllabic lengths of the lines, which are often 8 but sometimes much longer, with one line of sixteen syllables. Again, irregularities that pop out and stand out from ‘the norm’. The poem feels like everything started with the idea of regularity, a narrative ballad like many, but deviates and betrays something peculiar beneath the surface.
The rhyme does this too. What starts as one thing, ABBA, then becomes something else CDCDD. There are couplets woven into a rhyme scheme that is nothing like a pattern. It feels like it wants to be one thing and then is another. It becomes couplets at first, but doesn’t stay that way. I think there’s something very interesting in that, especially when you consider the content about a farmer and his bride, a couple no less, but a couple who are not a couple. No matter how he tries, his bride is not his wife and he has to keep her imprisoned to keep her at all. I think the use of these occasional couplets picks up on the idea. The final stanza of the poem also picks up on rhymes that have been used before, like ‘there’ ‘stair’ and ‘hair’ from stanza two, and ‘down’ and ‘brown’ from stanza five.
For the rhythm, it’s the same again. It has a kind of baseline of eight syllables per line, which are kind of an iambic tetrameter, as you can see here:
At HARvest TIME than BIDE and WOO
but then there are much more complex rhythms at work in places, for instance in:
SHY as a/LEVeret/SWIFT as he
STRAIGHT and/ SLIGHT as a/YOUNG larch tree
which has three dactyls per line. which as a real sense of movement and motion.
As there are so many exceptions to the rhythm and rhyme, it feels more natural to analyse these where they happen in the poem and to consider why Charlotte Mew is doing it, but overall, it’s a poem that has a loose baseline and then many moments that deviate from this, where she varies line length, rhyming patterns and syllabic emphasis. One of the things you have to do is work out why she does this: it is very much in contrast with everything Browning does in Porphyria’s Lover which is SO regulated and metered, eerily so for such a creepy narrator. This narrator kind of does the opposite. It has a normal framework and baseline and then it kind of runs away with itself. Given the content and the final lines, I think for me that it does so because the passions, temper, thoughts and urges of the narrator are not under control. I can’t decide truly whether I think it’s a normal baseline with deviant patterns, or a deviant baseline which tries to be normal. I think the first, to be honest. It has more “regular” than not, and the bits where it becomes irregular in terms of lines, meter and stresses are the bits where the poet seems to be doing it for particular effects. We’ll explore these in more detail as we explore the language.
As I’ve said already, the title hints at something pastoral. The farmer himself is a person who cultivates, under whose hands things grow and flourish. As we come to see in the poem, this is not at all what happens with his new wife. It’s also a very evocative word because the farmer is associated with all that is natural, all that is rural. This is not someone with sophisticated wiles and behaviour. You say ‘farmer’ and there’s an image of someone physical, someone who works with his hands, someone who lives in a world where “the birds and the bees” are very much part and parcel of who they are and what they do. And then, the subject of this poem, his “bride”. Like Curley’s Wife, she is his property, she is only seen in terms of her husband: the possessive apostrophe makes that clear (the same as in Porphyria’s Lover of course, except that in the Browning poem, Porphyria is in possession of the narrator, and the subject of the poem is him, whereas in this poem, the farmer is in possession of his wife, and she is the subject of the poem, not him)
However, unlike Porphyria’s Lover and Curley’s Wife, this woman has never got any further than being his “bride”. And according to the first line of the poem, they have been married for three years, so she should be his wife, not his bride. We learn that the marriage has never been consummated: he has never touched her. She is forever his bride and never his wife. The word “bride” has all of these unspoken associations with what will come after the ceremony, when she moves from being a “maid” to being a “wife” – it’s a word that is rich with meaning.
But there is none of this in their relationship: their relatioship is barren and fruitless.
In the first line, we become more aware that this is a persona narrator. As the poem continues, we realise that the Farmer himself is the narrator of the poem and that Charlotte Mew is writing in character. For this reason too, it compares easily with Porphyria’s Lover, where Browning chooses to do the same thing. Whilst we get no sense of Mew in the poem, just as we had no feeling of Browning in his, we are then asked to believe in the narrator and their experiences. A key feature of this poem is how Mew creates this voice, and how successful she is at being their mouthpiece.
One of the ways she creates this voice is by using the first-person narrative, just as Browning did. In the first line, we have the “I” that marks this. This poem also weaves between the past and the present as Browning does, coming up to the current moment in the same way by the final verse. All the past tense moments, then, benefit from the persona’s hindsight and ability to reflect on things that happened in the past. The present tense gives it a sense of immediacy and we also wonder about the future for the character, just as we do with Porphyria’s Lover.
As the poem opens, the character reflects on how he met his bride, three summers ago. The passage of time is evident in this poem, and you’ll find many seasonal references that help move us on. The seasons are very symbolic too – the summer being the period when things ripen. We realise too that times have changed, but here, it is the man who “chooses” his wife: she has little to do with it. It’s important to remember that in these times, it was not a partnership, by any stretch of the imagination. A woman’s role was to obey her husband and to serve him. She was his property. Still, the poem was written at a time when women were beginning to campaign for the vote, when women’s rights became a central political issue. To me, the poem raises very interesting questions about the necessity of a woman to obey and be ruled by her husband, and its ending makes me very uncomfortable about the future for the Farmer’s Bride – the more she refuses her husband, the less tolerant he is. By the final line of the poem, there’s a very uneasy tone about the future for this woman, who has already been imprisoned by her husband. The poem forces us to consider the traditional roles of men and women within a marriage, and remember that it’s only very recently (in 1991) that men could be convicted of raping their wives. At the time of the poem, the right of a husband to do what he liked to his wife in the bedroom was enshrined in law. But that said, I think Charlotte Mew is very good at capturing the uneasiness of a man who is in the position where he must force his wife to consent.
So from this ‘ripe’ and ‘fertile’ beginning where our previous understanding of the pastoral might lead us to think this will be a sexually suggestive countryside romp, we begin to understand that all is not right.
The second line says, “too young maybe” which suggests an element of regret from the farmer – perhaps the reason she was so skittish about fulfilling her marital duties. It’s perhaps also the reason why, so far, he has left her alone. The heavy iambic beat, essentially monosyllabic diction and the rhyme of “but MORE’S to DO/at HARvest TIME than BIDE and WOO” gives the lines a speed which emphasises the haste of his decision. He had no time to sit about courting her, flirting with her, “wooing” her. The marriage was a hasty one. Even in these lines, there’s a sense of earlier pastoral poems where shepherds are encouraging their girlfriends to get busy with them. “Gather ye rosebuds whilst ye may…” is the over-riding gist of many pastoral poems. Get a move on before you’re past your prime, ladies. Otherwise nobody will want you and you’ll go to your grave a virgin where the worms will have their wicked way with you. Nothing like old poets to encapsulate the fervid reasoning of young men whose girlfriends are not putting out.
We also begin to pick up on the dialect of the character narrator in the fourth line, “when us was wed”, which gives it a rustic, rural sound and a genuine quality to the persona. It’s one of the ways that Charlotte Mew creates an authentic voice for the Farmer. I nearly wrote “Young Farmer” then, but we have no sense of how old the farmer is – who knows what the source is of her fear? In the fourth line, we also get to the heart of her problem, “she turned afraid”. Was she afraid of what would happen on the wedding night? In those days, there was no such thing as Sex Education. Nobody gave young girls science lessons about how flowers reproduce that led into how bunnies reproduce… (as I did! Yes, I am THAT old). And no internet existed where people could find out what things meant without embarrassing themselves. In 1902, What A Young Wife Ought To Know told women that:
“From the wedding day, the young matron should shape her life to the probable and desired contingency of conception and maternity. Otherwise she has no right or title to wifehood.”
You’ll have sex, conceive and have a baby. And if you don’t, you have no right to call yourself a wife. You can find a very insightful article about views of the wedding night from around the period of the poem here. Be warned… it’s a world apart from our world now.
We find out the very nature of her fears in line five: love and me and all things human. It’s like she is a changeling in many ways, and we get the sense from here on in that she is almost not of this world. Later, he calls her “a frightened fay” (fairy) and she seems more animalistic than human, never speaking to him and only ever speaking with the animals.
In the first verse, we’ve also got a simple simile that sums up their relationship and her changing behaviour, like the shut of a winter’s day, and when he says her smile went out, we get the impression that she was “summer” before in comparison, that she smiled. As a simple maid, she was happy; as a married woman, she is not. By the end of the first verse, she has “runned away”.
We get lots of these moments of dialect established in stanza one, from the “us was wed” and “twadn’t”, along with “fall” and “runned away”. These moments intensify our acceptance of the persona as narrator – he becomes more convincing because of this accent.
This is continued throughout the poem, and is certainly evident in stanza two with “her be” and “abed”.
Stanza two begins to show us a little more about the Farmer’s Bride: she feels more comfortable with the sheep. When he says she is normally to be found at night “lying awake with her wide brown stare”, she seems almost haunted, too terrified to even go to sleep. The fifth line in this stanza is highly irregular, shifting the two couplets and introducing a new rhyme with “down” but also giving us a sixteen-syllable line,
so OV/er SEV/en AC/re FIELD/and UP/aLONG/aCROSS/the DOWN
which runs to me like a metronome (tap it out!) speeding up, giving this line a great sense of movement as “the chase” takes place. It is evocative of the images in sonnets of the girl being a “white hart” (deer) and the man being a “hunter” who must pursue her and win her “heart” (like the play on words?) and she’s even taken on the form of a “hare” almost – another aspect that makes me think of a changeling or a witch even. Couple this with the mention of a “leveret” (baby hare) later and you’ve got two comparisons with a hare. Is it just speed that makes her hare-like? (and given the pun on her “hair” in the final lines too). What else do we know of hares? They are often solitary, not living in social groups like rabbits do. They’re also shy and less likely to interact with humans. But hares in British mythology are often linked to witches, which gives her another supernatural element too. You will also find sculptures of the “three hares” in Northern Europe, where it has associations with fertility rites and lunar cycles. In Greek and Roman myth, the hare was a symbol of fertility (as well as the rabbits!) and spring time and birth. Believe it or not, the “three hares” motif is most often found in churches linked to the dialect in this poem and wikipedia, somewhat reliably, informs me that hares were linked to the idea of virginity as it was believed hares could reproduce without sex. It’s just very curious to me that of all the images that Charlotte Mew could have picked up on, this is the one she does. I think that makes it worthy of analysis.
When they find her in stanza two, she is in “Church-town”, as if the church will perhaps protect her, reminding us that in the eyes of the church, it is the woman’s duty to fulfil her marital vows. By the end of the stanza, the Farmer and his friends “turn the key” upon her and thus the start of her imprisonment.
In stanza three, we get the impression that the Farmer’s Wife is fulfilling all of her other “wifely” duties, and we get a better sense of her personality. The simile “like a mouse” is the third simile of the poem, building on her other-worldliness, her “fay”-like qualities, and her similarity more to creatures than to humans. The poet reiterates that she is scared of men, “so long as men-folk keep away”. She seems to have a magical ability to communicate with the animals, who all feel her distress.
The short verse of stanza four is where she seems to come to life and where we feel that the persona is in love with these aspects of her. She is compared once again with a hare, the leveret is a baby hare, and also with a “young larch tree” and here it reminds me of the Greek legends in a way, where women would change into mythical creatures to escape the clutches of the rather randy god, Zeus. Asteria was one of these, who transformed herself into a quail to escape him. Other times, Zeus’s wives and lovers turned other women into animals as punishment, or to protect them. There’s an over-arching sense of how natural she is, how in tune with nature she is, and when the narrator says, “sweet as the first wild violets”, we see his love for her. Violets are, however, a precocious flower, flowering in February and March, so it also gives us a sense of her youth. The way the stanza moves is interesting too, with the couplets – surprisingly at odds with this poem about his desire to “couple”. It also makes use of the dactyllic rhythm to suggest her speed and give her an energy, lightness and grace, which finishes with the question which grounds him: “but what to me?”
In stanza five, we have very much a movement of time… tick, tock, body clock. Winter is coming. “The short days shorten”. We notice too how the poem has moved into the present tense from stanza three onwards, bringing it in to the current moment. There is a scene not dissimilar to that in Porphyria’s Lover, with the “blue smoke” and the “low grey sky”, but in contrast to the stormy passions of that poem, there is an eerie stillness here, as “one leaf” is suspended in the sky and “falls slowly down”. With the seasons passing comes a sense of urgency, and a sense of renewed ‘coldness’ as the frost sets in, “white with rime” and the narrator ponders on his own fruitfulness (or lack of) as even the trees bear fruit, but he does not. “What’s Christmas-time without there be/Some other in the house than we!” which suggests his yearning for offspring.
By the time we arrive at stanza six, we find a familiar Victorian trope, taken right out of Jane Eyre, where the main male character, Mr Rochester, keeps his wife Bertha locked in the attic. The madwoman in the attic is a familiar character that symbolises the repression of desire and the repression of women. The attic is also often a place where the servants slept, but it’s more to the point, NOT the place that she should be sleeping – in bed with her husband. The narrator seems to have a degree of sympathy for her, calling her “Poor maid”, but the word “alone” seems very ominous to me. Why should she be a poor maid because she is alone? It gives me a vague impression that she is vulnerable and unprotected – although there has been no hint of menace or threat at any point in the poem before now. When you add “just a stair” that divides them and the final three lines which reveal a sort of infatuation, it makes me wonder if he is getting to the point, after three summers, with the sensation of time passing and time moving on, his desire for “someone else” (i.e. children) to be in the house too, where he is no longer going to allow her to resist him. And remember, in those days, no law said that there was any reason he shouldn’t. Still, it’s a horrible thought that his obsessions with her skin, her eyes and her hair, that “only a stair” stands between them. It gives us a sense of her vulnerability.
In terms of comparison with Porphyria’s Lover, you have in the Browning poem a threat made real from a weirdly fetishistic lover and in this poem, a threat in waiting for this poor, vulnerable girl who has no voice. Neither women have a voice in either of these poems, and all we get are the insights of minds driven wild. The repetition of “the down”, “the brown” and “her hair” show how these thoughts are building up and spiralling in the persona’s mind – a little different from the ending of Porphyria’s Lover where his only feeling is that at being a little perplexed why God has not turned up to judge him.
I think this poem has much more of a sense of the feminine though, than Porphyria’s Lover. The Farmer’s Bride is presented sympathetically, as is the Farmer to be fair, though we can’t help but feel concern over where his growing passions will end for his wife. It seems much less of the strange Gothic melodrama of a violent man stirred to crazy behaviour and more of the turn-of-the-century malaise about the role of women. The two poems sit easily together though, for many poetic reasons as well as the similarities of content and presentation.
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