I’ve wanted to visit Nunhead Cemetery ever since I discovered Charlotte Mew‘s poem (printed below) about a man struggling with issues of death and lost faith and unfulfilled dreams and lost love.
On this latest trip to London I made sure to go there. Now, I want to share with you a few of my reflections and also encourage you to read the poem itself and share your reactions.
- Now that I’ve been to Nunhead, I can more fully appreciate the poignancy of the poem’s setting. Today the whole place is overgrown; in Mew’s time it must have been more kempt, but likely beginning to get wild around the edges. I imagine Charlotte Mew feeling the chaotic wildness encroaching as she visited Nunhead. I think she captures some of that sense in her poem.
- Nunhead Cemetery opened in 1840. Mew didn’t write until late in the century, and I am guessing that by then perspectives on death were beginning to change, as early and sudden death were becoming a little less common. Our tour guide told us that the Victorians accepted and even “celebrated” death, because they were so familiar with it. But Mew certainly is NOT comfortable or accepting. Her narrator is at a crossroads; despairing, lost, faithless.
- Charlotte Mew battled mental illness throughout her life. I imagine her suffering lent a special depth and vibrancy of feeling to her writing. I love her passion and lack of inhibition. Her writing reminds me of Van Gogh’s paintings.
Please read, and then share your thoughts!
In Nunhead Cemetery
It is the clay what makes the earth stick to his spade;
He fills in holes like this year after year;
The others have gone; they were tired, and half afraid
But I would rather be standing here;
There is nowhere else to go. I have seen this place
From the windows of the train that’s going past
Against the sky. This is rain on my face –
It was raining here when I saw it last.
There is something horrible about a flower;
This, broken in my hand, is one of those
He threw it in just now; it will not live another hour;
There are thousands more; you do not miss a rose.
One of the children hanging about
Pointed at the whole dreadful heap and smiled
This morning after THAT was carried out;
There is something terrible about a child.
We were like children last week, in the Strand;
That was the day you laughed at me
Because I tried to make you understand
The cheap, stale chap I used to be
Before I saw the things you made me see.
This is not a real place; perhaps by-and-by
I shall wake – I am getting drenched with all this rain:
To-morrow I will tell you about the eyes of the Chrystal Palace train
Looking down on us, and you will laugh and I shall see what you see again.
Not here, not now. We said “Not yet
Across our low stone parapet
Will the quick shadows of the sparrows fall.
But still it was a lovely thing
Through the grey months to wait for Spring
With the birds that go a-gypsying
In the parks till the blue seas call.
And next to these, you used to care
For the Lions in Trafalgar Square,
Who’ll stand and speak for London when her bell of Judgement tolls –
And the gulls at Westminster that were
The old sea-captains souls.
To-day again the brown tide splashes step by step, the river stair,
And the gulls are there!
By a month we have missed our Day:
The children would have hung about
Round the carriage and over the way
As you and I came out.
We should have stood on the gulls’ black cliffs and heard the sea
And seen the moon’s white track,
I would have called, you would have come to me
And kissed me back.
You have never done that: I do not know
Why I stood staring at your bed
And heard you, though you spoke so low,
But could not reach your hands, your little head;
There was nothing we could not do, you said,
And you went, and I let you go!
Now I will burn you back, I will burn you through,
Though I am damned for it we two will lie
And burn, here where the starlings fly
To these white stones from the wet sky – ;
Dear, you will say this is not I –
It would not be you, it would not be you!
If for only a little while
You will think of it you will understand,
If you will touch my sleeve and smile
As you did that morning in the Strand
I can wait quietly with you
Or go away if you want me to –
God! What is God? but your face has gone and your hand!
Let me stay here too.
When I was quite a little lad
At Christmas time we went half mad
For joy of all the toys we had,
And then we used to sing about the sheep
The shepherds watched by night;
We used to pray to Christ to keep
Our small souls safe till morning light – ;
I am scared, I am staying with you to-night –
Put me to sleep.
I shall stay here: here you can see the sky;
The houses in the street are much too high;
There is no one left to speak to there;
Here they are everywhere,
And just above them fields and fields of roses lie –
If he would dig it all up again they would not die.