When I picked my undergraduate dissertation topic (a scary number of years ago now), I startled myself. You see, my plan had been to research Virginia Woolf. I'd read Mrs Dalloway during my second year and I was in a modernist phase. In the event, and not really knowing how I came across her, I alighted on Charlotte Mew. I have no memory of how I got from Woolf to Mew - or even why - but it seemed to be a damn good decision.
I think there are certain moments in your life when you need to cling onto a writer because they offer a sense of security or allow escapism. My third year at university was such a time. Although I'd finally made a friend and found myself actually talking to people, I was living in a house with fourteen strangers who didn't have my sense of being respectful to others. Looking back now, I wonder that one of them didn't get pushed 'accidentally' down the stairs. Anyway, the point is, while I did literally all of my essay and dissertation writing on campus because I hated spending time in the house, the reading was something I did on my bedroom floor.
It was an attic room, a long thin space, and the only reason I'd jumped head-first into a house share. It was gorgeous and I loved it. One afternoon, not long after the household had been fined for a party (which I'd left the county overnight to avoid) I finally knuckled down to reading Charlotte Mew's poetry. I'd done all of the background reading, including Penelope Fitzgerald's wonderful biography, but I'd struggled to find the right 'moment' to properly analyse Mew's poetry line by line. As I read it aloud, the racket from the rest of the house disintegrated. I was sucked in.
I've previously said on this blog that 'Rooms' is my favourite Mew poem - and that's true. But I also mentioned in that post that 'The Trees Are Down' ranks up there too. For some reason, when I think of that afternoon, it's the poem that comes back to me most sharply. I read it over and over, making unnecessary notes in the margins that I don't think I ever looked at once I'd written my dissertation.
Until yesterday, that is. On one level, the poem is about turning points, change. Just at the moment I'm trying to find my courage, just as I had to back then. The poem has the same peculiar resonance it had then. I can only hope it soothes me now as much as it did seven years ago.