Charlotte Mew is a lesser-known poet of the 19th century, nonetheless, her poem ‘Rooms’ is a wonderful example of that period of verse. Throughout the poem, it is quite easy to read in details of Mew’s personal life, such as the death of her siblings, the incarceration of others in a mental hospital, and the life she lived with her sickly sister before she died of cancer and Mew herself committed suicide. The rooms in ‘Rooms’ are prisons. They’re scattered throughout the world and her life, and each one confines and controls her. It’s not until they’re both dead, Mew, and her sister, that they gain some amount of freedom out in the sun and rain in their graves.
In the first part of ‘Rooms,’ the speaker begins by recalling some rooms she’s been in throughout her life. One in Paris, one in Geneva, and possibly another that smelled of seaweed. It’s in the latter that she lies with someone else (perhaps a reference to her sister who she cared for while dying of cancer). The room is a symbol for the broader restrictions that were placed on Mew throughout her life and the dark periods of her life that eventually lead to the end of the poem, and a wish for the only freedom she can think of—death.
In ‘Rooms,’ Charlotte Mew primarily explores the theme of confinement. She uses the idea of a room in order to depict how confined and controlled she, or at least her speaker, was throughout her life. From place to place, she found herself in disappointing and depressing rooms that eventually led her to the one she’s in now. One that smells of seaweed and is assailed by the tide. There, she lays with another, who is as equally trapped as she is. Mew’s speaker is confined in every way that a woman in the 19th century could’ve been.
Structure and Form
‘Rooms’ by Charlotte Mew is a ten-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. The lines follow a loose rhyme scheme of AABCDDEFEG. Upon an initial glance at the text, it’s clear that many of the lines are around the same length, around ten syllables long. But, there are two, lines seven and eight, that are noticeably longer than the rest. Line seven is exactly twice the length of the majority of other lines.
Mew makes use of several literary devices in ‘Rooms.’ These include but are not limited to anaphora, alliteration, and enjambment. The latter, enjambment, is an important formal device that appears when a poet cuts off a line before the natural stopping point of a phrase or sentence. For example, the transitions between lines seven, eight, and nine. Readers have to move down to the next line in order to find out how the previous ends.
Alliteration is another common device that is concerned with the use and reuse of the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “steady slowing” in line two and “ceaseless” and “sound” in line five. There is another example in line four with “seaweed smell.”
Anaphora is another kind of repetition, one that is focused on the repetition of a word or words at the beginning of lines. For example, “The” at the start of lines three and four. This technique often helps to fuel another accumulation.
I remember rooms that have had their part
In the steady slowing down of the heart.
The room in Paris, the room at Geneva,
The little damp room with the seaweed smell,
And that ceaseless maddening sound of the tide—
In the first lines of ‘Rooms,’ the speaker begins by referring to important rooms throughout history, or at least her personal history. They’re ones, she says, that have had a “part” in “slowing down…the heart.” It’s unclear at first what exactly she means by this, but the following lines help to illuminate her meaning.
She brings in two such rooms in the next line, the one in Paris, France and the one in Geneva, Switzerland. It’s unclear if the following lines refer back to these same rooms or others, but in the end, it doesn’t matter as much as the overall image of “rooms” that she’s interested in conveying. It is possible, though, that these two rooms relate back to specific moments in Mew’s life, for example, when she traveled to Paris to meet Ella D’Arcy with whom she wanted to pursue a romantic relationship but was rejected.
There’s one that had a “seaweed smell” and the sound of tide outside. These are beautiful examples of images that are incredibly useful for the reader. It’s obvious that these places are evocative of a specific time in the speaker’s life. They slowed down her heart, something that feels innately negative.
Rooms where for good or for ill—things died.
But there is the room where we (two) lie dead,
Though every morning we seem to wake and might just as well seem to sleep again
As we shall somewhere in the other quieter, dustier bed
Out there in the sun—in the rain.
In the sixth line, it’s solidified that the speaker is not looking back over these rooms with an intense feeling of nostalgia. She’s feeling something much closer to sorrow and depression than wistful longing. It’s very easy to connect the image of “rooms” and a feeling of disappointment to Mew’s own life, the incarceration of two siblings in an insane asylum, and the deaths of three brothers and sisters. She was left alone with one remaining sister she had to care for. These dark personal experiences might connect to the following lines when the speaker describes the “room where we (two) lie dead.”
The word “dead” is juxtaposed with “wake” in the following line, but the poet doesn’t give the reader time to feel optimistic. Instead, she says that “we seem to wake” but might as well go back to sleep again. Life feels meaningless and incredibly lifeless. Mew also blurs the line between the living and the dead as if the speaker isn’t sure where she is at any one time.
There is a turn, or volta, at the end of ‘Rooms.’ Now, she imagines herself and perhaps her sister as well, resting in a “quieter, dustier bed,” or a grave. Out there, they’d be in the “sun—in the rain,” a kind of escape from the rooms of their lives.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Rooms’ should also consider reading some related poems. These include ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’ by Sylvia Plath, ‘To the Indifferent Women’ by Charlotte Anna Perkins Gilman, and ‘The Women in Black’ by Hala al-Dosari. The latter is a powerful poem about the equal rights movement in Saudi Arabia told from the perspective of a little girl. ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’ is likely told from Plath’s perceptive. In it, she speaks to her former lover about their relationship, wondering whether it really existed or was a figment of her imagination. ‘To the Indifferent Women’ is addressed to the “indifferent women” who sit idly in their homes, only concerned with those that are directly, physically, near to them.