Not for That City

Charlotte Mew

Charlotte Mew

Mew was born in London in 1869 into a family of 7 children. She was the eldest daughter; three of her brothers died in childhood. Later, another brother and then a sister were admitted into mental hospitals in their twenties where they would spend the rest of their lives. That left only Charlotte and her sister, Anne. Because of the history of mental illness in her family, they both made a pact to never marry so that they would not pass the traits on to their children. These traumatic issues dealt with in Mew's childhood are reflected in her poems and stories; they have themes of death, mental illness, loneliness, and disillusionment.

In 1898, Mew's father died, financially crippling the remaining family members. She soon after published a poem, "The Farmer's Bride," which established her literary reputation. She gained immediate popularity for the poem and was introduced to influential people in the community of London. She drew much attention in the outside world because of her unique style and mannerisms: she was a tiny woman with short hair who wore tailored suits and, for some reason, always carried a black umbrella.

After the success of her first published poem, Mew published a collection of poetry called The Farmer's Bride. Despite the success of this book, it did not earn Mew enough money to support the cost of living. In the same year the book was published, the home where she lived with her sister and her mother was condemned. The Mew women were forced to move, and under the stress that the ordeal caused her, Anne fell ill. In 1926, Anne was diagnosed with cancer, and Charlotte took on the duties of raising her full time. Anne died one year later, and Charlotte, unable to deal with losing her only remaining family member whom she was extremely close to, gradually sank into despair. Becoming delusional, she entered a nursing home in 1928 for treatment. However, tragically, she committed suicide there the same year.

Not for That City

Not for that city of the level sun,

Its golden streets and glittering gates ablaze—

The shadeless, sleepless city of white days,

White nights, or nights and days that are as one—

We weary, when all is said , all thought, all done.

We strain our eyes beyond this dusk to see

What, from the threshold of eternity

We shall step into. No, I think we shun

The splendour of that everlasting glare,

The clamour of that never-ending song.

And if for anything we greatly long,

It is for some remote and quiet stair

Which winds to silence and a space for sleep

Too sound for waking and for dreams too deep.

A Personal Interpretation

"Not for That City" is a tragically beautiful poem about life and death. It takes "teenage angst" to a new magnitude; it's about the constant subconscious feeling of wanting to escape the "city." The "city" that is referred to in the poem is life. Life is a never-ending cycle of stress and work and lethargy and ambition and emotion and so much more, much like a city is "shadeless" and "sleepless" and filled with life. Though life is beautiful, with "it's golden streets and glittering gates ablaze," human beings dream of peace: they can only truly rest when "all is said, all thought, all done." Days and nights in the "city" are "white," meaning they blend together, as the "city" never sleeps. Likewise, in life, memories become white, as days blend with days, weeks blend with weeks, and years blend with years. Life becomes a blur, and the stress becomes a "never ending song." So, people wish for a state of peace and calm: some place like heaven. However, the only ticket to heaven is death. They wish for "some remote and quiet stair," a peaceful, painless death, that will lead them to heaven, "which winds to silence and a space for sleep/too sound for waking and for dreams too deep."

Themes

Life & Death

Time & Brevity

Spirituality

Heaven

Freda, Charlotte's youngest sister who was admitted to a mental hospital at a young age, has a compelling story as well. Though Freda didn't write poetry, she spent 59 years locked in an asylum, all lived without speaking a word. Her silence can be considered poetry itself:

http://historyofmentalhealth.com/2014/02/04/february-4-1899-freda-mew/

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“About once or twice every month I engage in public debates with those whose pressing need it is to woo and to win the approval of supernatural beings. Very often, when I give my view that there is no supernatural dimension, and certainly not one that is only or especially available to the faithful, and that the natural world is wonderful enough—and even miraculous enough if you insist—I attract pitying looks and anxious questions. How, in that case, I am asked, do I find meaning and purpose in life? How does a mere and gross materialist, with no expectation of a life to come, decide what, if anything, is worth caring about?

Depending on my mood, I sometimes but not always refrain from pointing out what a breathtakingly insulting and patronizing question this is. (It is on a par with the equally subtle inquiry: Since you don't believe in our god, what stops you from stealing and lying and raping and killing to your heart's content?) Just as the answer to the latter question is: self-respect and the desire for the respect of others—while in the meantime it is precisely those who think they have divine permission who are truly capable of any atrocity—so the answer to the first question falls into two parts. A life that partakes even a little of friendship, love, irony, humor, parenthood, literature, and music, and the chance to take part in battles for the liberation of others cannot be called 'meaningless' except if the person living it is also an existentialist and elects to call it so. It could be that all existence is a pointless joke, but it is not in fact possible to live one's everyday life as if this were so. Whereas if one sought to define meaninglessness and futility, the idea that a human life should be expended in the guilty, fearful, self-obsessed propitiation of supernatural nonentities… but there, there. Enough."

-Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22: A Memoir

"A city is not gauged by its length and width, but by the broadness of its vision and the height of its dreams." - Herb Caen

All the same, the quality of life is not measured by its span, but by the challenges and ambitions and accomplishments faced by the liver. Though life may seem stressful, when on their deathbed a person will look back and see the great city they've spent their lives living; though they slaved and labored over the building of this city, when the beauty and extent of this great city is taken into account, there will be no regrets. It's worth it in the end.

La Perdrix

Death Is Not The End (Bob Dylan) by La Perdrix

“But still it was a lovely thing, Through the grey months to wait for Spring” - Charlotte Mew

Themes of life & death can be found throughout Mew's poetry. In this quote from her Collected Poems and Selected Prose, Mew suggests that there is a life at the end of the tunnel. Life may be winter, but the afterlife is spring: "if for anything we greatly long/It is some remote and quiet stair/Which winds to silence, and a space for sleep/Too sound for waking, and for dreams too deep."
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