A magpie’s spotted feathers lie
On the black earth spread white with rime,Charlotte Mew
Welcome back to Beyond English’s AQA Love and Relationships poetry bonanza. This week, we’re exploring a poem by Charlotte Mew, The Farmer’s Bride. In this The Farmer’s Bride analysis, we’ll be focusing on:
The Farmer’s Bride: Poem Context
The Farmer’s Bride is an Edwardian poem by Charlotte Mew documenting the troubling relationship between an overbearing farmer and his young bride. It was first published in The Nation in 1912 and received much acclaim, making Mew quite well known. Although she was well received by other writers and poets, Mew never received commercial success. She committed suicide a year after the death from cancer of her remaining sibling, Anne. Her poetry typically reflects mental illness, anguish, loneliness and bereavement.
Much of the poem is in iambic tetrameter (eight syllables following an unstressed and then stressed pattern in each line) giving the majority of the poem a simple sing-song phrasing. It is reminiscent of a folk song or ballad. Certain lines of the poem, however, deviate from this standard metre – these include the line ‘So over seven-acre field and up-along across the down’, in which the farmer gives chase to the wife who has run away across the fields. Another line in which the metre changes is the last: ‘The brown of her – her eyes, her hair, her hair!’ This fraught and repetitious line enhances the effect of the farmer’s failing control over his emotions. We are left ominously wondering what the domineering farmer’s next move might be.
The stanzas of the poem are of varying lengths throughout. Most lines work either as a couplet or alternate rhyme, creating either an AABBCC or ABAB rhyme scheme. Where this varies it does so to achieve a particular effect, as in the rhyming triplet of lines 27-29. This accentuates the last line of the stanza: ‘I’ve hardly heard her speak at all’, which stands apart from the rest of the verse because it deviates from the rhyme scheme, thus accentuating the despair and solitude of the narrator’s voice at this point.
The Farmer’s Bride Poem Analysis
The poem is a dramatic monologue, written from the perspective of a farmer frustrated by the young bride who will not have sexual relations with him even though he ‘chose’ her three summers ago. His dissatisfaction with the ensuing domestic arrangements are clear throughout the poem. Although London-born and from a privileged home, Mew exhibits the rural character of her narrator by using a regional dialect. In the first stanza he says ‘When us was wed’ and ‘she runned away’ but then the language becomes more poetic and the narrator loses some of his own voice to the demands of the poem. Mew attempts to maintain the pastoral nature of her narrator through the use of natural and animalistic imagery, showing that he draws his inspiration from the world around him.
The bride is not blamed but nor is her story ever explored by the narrator. While he accepts that she was ‘too young maybe’, he sees little to blame himself for. He notes that there is more to do at harvest-time than ‘bide and woo’ and so shows us his unromantic soul. The choosing of a bride seems to have been looked upon as any other task, which may explain the vexing nature of his marriage.
The poem takes a sinister turn as it becomes apparent that the bride has run away when she should ‘properly have been abed’. The men of the village chase her across the local fields and her panic is evident in the lines ‘flying like a hare’ and ‘in a shiver and a scare’. By the end of the second stanza it is clear that the farmer’s bride is kept in the house since the farmer has ‘caught her’ and ‘turned the key upon her, fast.’
Throughout the poem the bride is compared to animals and natural things that the farmer knows and cares for. She is ‘like a little frightened fay’ (fairy) after the marriage and is compared to a ‘hare’ and a ‘mouse’ and a ‘leveret’ (young hare). When trying to find words to describe how she looks, the farmer relies on natural images again. She is ‘straight and slight as a young larch tree’ and ‘sweet as the first wild violets’ – it is clear the farmer desires her. She, however, will not consent and sleeps in the attic. Reminders of Mrs Rochester in Jane Eyre or Thomas Hardy’s own wife spring to mind here.
In the third stanza, the description of the ‘bride’ delves into the world of fairy tales. She works hard in the home, is locked up like a princess in a tower, and happily chats and plays ‘with birds and rabbits and such as they’. Indeed she seems to enchant the farm creatures: ‘The women say that beasts in stall / Look round like children at her call’. This may be a further reference to the enchantment she holds over her own husband, but he has ‘hardly heard her speak at all’.
The fourth stanza reflects the natural world and the changing of the seasons. The speaker focuses on the Christmas season, one that is all about the celebration of birth. He however, with a wife who will not join his bed, has no joy at Christmas and no children to share it with: ‘What’s Christmas-time without there be / Some other in the house than we!’
By the final stanza the farmer’s self-control is severely strained. He tells us that his wife sleeps above him and he reflects on their proximity in the idea that there ‘tis but a stair / Betwixt us’. She is described as having ‘down’, which is furry, short hair – almost like a small animal, again drawing comparison to the natural world. From here the poem loses control of metre and sense as he repeats the phrases ‘the down’, ‘the brown’ and ‘her hair’ over again. The internal rhymes of ‘down’ and ‘brown’, as well as the repetition, shows a growing frustration and despair on his part. He even exclaims ‘Oh! my God!’ in frustration at his situation and we are left wondering if he will continue to respect his wife’s wishes or whether he will soon take her by force.
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