With this poem, The Farmer’s Bride, Charlotte Mew tells the tragic love story of a farmer and his wife. The story is tragic because it is not really a love story at all, but rather the story of a man obsessed with his wife and a woman afraid of her husband. Mew tells this story through the voice of the farmer, and thus allows the readers to feel empathy for both the farmer and his wife alike.
Explore The Farmer's Bride
The Farmer’s Bride Analysis
Three summers since I chose a maid,
Too young maybe—but more’s to do
At harvest-time than bide and woo.
When us was wed she turned afraid
Of love and me and all things human;
Like the shut of a winter’s day
Her smile went out, and ’twadn’t a woman—
More like a little frightened fay.
One night, in the Fall, she runned away.
This stanza of The Farmer’s Bride reveals that the farmer has been married to his wife for three years. He says that he chose a maid, and then he admits that she was probably too young. Mew’s time and birthplace can offer some insight into why this maid was so young. Born in the late 1800s in London, Mew knew that men could marry women as young as twelve, though it was less common than in past generations. Still, women did not have the rights that men had, and they often were not at liberty to choose a spouse. Rather, their family chose a spouse for them. In this case, it would seem that a poor girl was married to a poor farmer. The speech and the incorrect use of the English language suggests a lower socioeconomic level. This young girl may have been as young as twelve. Whatever her age, the speaker admits that she was probably too young to marry. He also admits that he did not have time for her during the harvest season. The poor girl became very afraid after the two were married. This subtly implies that the girl’s only interaction with her husband was during a sexual encounter. A young girl of twelve or thirteen would be unlikely to have been physically mature enough to enjoy a sexual experience. Being still a child, she was thrust into an adult relationship, and that is when she became afraid “of love and…all things human”. She became a frightened little creature, and the farmer realized that his wife was not so much like a woman as she was like “a frightened fay (fairy)”. Then, one night, she took off.
“Out ’mong the sheep, her be,” they said,
’Should properly have been abed;
But sure enough she wadn’t there
Lying awake with her wide brown stare.
So over seven-acre field and up-along across the down
We chased her, flying like a hare
Before out lanterns. To Church-Town
All in a shiver and a scare
We caught her, fetched her home at last
And turned the key upon her, fast.
With the help of friends, the farmer searched for her until he found her and brought her home again. It is curious that the farmer does not, even for a moment, question why she ran away. He doesn’t stop to think about what she must have been feeling as she moved from child to wife. He did not wonder if she was afraid or angry or sad. Rather, he focuses on his own feelings, that he was “all in a shiver and a scare” when he couldn’t find her. Then he says, “We caught her, fetched her home at last and turned the key upon her, fast”. The words he uses to describe the way that they took her and brought her home makes it sound like he is talking about an animal rather than a human. He did not find her and talk to her to ask her why she had run. He did not speak tenderly to her or try to make her feel comfortable. Rather, he simply “fetched” her home and locked her up like he would a runaway animal.
She does the work about the house
As well as most, but like a mouse:
Happy enough to chat and play
With birds and rabbits and such as they,
So long as men-folk keep away.
“Not near, not near!” her eyes beseech
When one of us comes within reach.
The women say that beasts in stall
Look round like children at her call.
I’ve hardly heard her speak at all.
In stanza 3 of The Farmer’s Bride, after having run away, it appears that the girl became frightened of men. She did not try to make another escape. She did all that she was expected to do around the house, but she was clearly frightened. The farmer describes her as a “mouse”. This is the second time that he has described his wife as an animal rather than a human being. This is the driving force behind the lack of communication and understanding between the two. The farmer did not understand that she was but a child when she came to him. He did not understand that she was afraid and that she needed to feel safe and secure and loved. He never communicated with her as if she were another human being. Rather, he viewed her as a creature that he owned. He expected her to do her duty around the house, and to do her duty to him as a husband. Beyond that, he does not seem to have value for her as a human being. This relationship with her husband has led her to become afraid of men. It is clear that her fear has been heightened since the night that she ran away. While she is happy in the presence of animals, if a man so much as looks at her, “her eyes beseech” him to stay away from her. This intense fear of men is the result of a child being expected to behave as a grown woman. Her experiences with her husband have left her scarred and terrified of men. The voice of the farmer reveals that he is entirely unaware of this. He sees her reactions to him, but he does not try to uncover any reasons for them.
Shy as a leveret, swift as he,
Straight and slight as a young larch tree,
Sweet as the first wild violets, she,
To her wild self. But what to me?
This stanza of The Farmer’s Bride reveals that the farmer still greatly admires his wife, though she fears him. He seems enchanted by her, and describes her as being “sweet as the first wild violets”. But he deeply mourns the fact that she is nothing to him. She may be sweet and shy and innocent, but to him, she is nothing but fearful. The tone of this stanza reveals that the farmer is still thinking about his own feelings without any regard for hers. He is not concerned that she is fearful. He does not seek to ease her fears for her own sake. Rather, he wants to know what good a wife is to him if she will not let him near her. It is this kind of selfish interest that drove her to fear him in the first place, but he is unaware of this.
The short days shorten and the oaks are brown,
The blue smoke rises to the low grey sky,
One leaf in the still air falls slowly down,
A magpie’s spotted feathers lie
On the black earth spread white with rime,
The berries redden up to Christmas-time.
What’s Christmas-time without there be
Some other in the house than we!
In this stanza of The Farmer’s Bride, the farmer describes the seasons as they change, allowing the reader to understand that time has passed by with the farmer and his wife in this estranged relationship. Though time passes, the farmer never becomes aware of his own doing in his wife’s estrangement. Rather, he continues to feel self-pity. He asks himself what the point of Christmas is if he doesn’t have anyone to share it with. He specifies that there is no one in the house but he and his wife. He is possibly wishing for children and a family. It does not seem that he will after having such things if his wife will never let him come near her. Still, he does not seek to help her. Rather, he feels sorry for himself.
She sleeps up in the attic there
Alone, poor maid. ’Tis but a stair
Betwixt us. Oh! my God! the down,
The soft young down of her, the brown,
The brown of her—her eyes, her hair, her hair!
This stanza of The Farmer’s Bride reveals why the farmer and his wife do not have a family. She keeps herself away from him by sleeping in the attic as if she were a “poor maid”. The farmer is driven nearly mad by the idea that there was nothing but a staircase in between the two of them. He dreams about her, describing her as “soft” and “young”. He describes her brown eyes, and obsesses over her brown hair, but leaves the reader with no hope of any reconciliation between the two. For his wife is yet a frightened child, and the farmer is unable to look past his own emotions in order to be concerned with hers. This causes a great divide that will not be able to be bridged until the wife seeks to overcome her fears, or until the husband seeks to understand and comfort his wife, thereby helping her to gain an understanding of him as a living feeling human being, rather than just the creature that has brought her much pain.
Analysis of the Form and Diction
The form of The Farmer’s Bride is rather haphazard. There is not a definite rhyme scheme or rhythm. The lack of form along with the uneducated voice of the speaker brings the reader to understand that this is not a knowledgeable and educated person. Because he is also a farmer, the readers are able to see him as someone who is educated in matters of farming, but certainly not in matters of speech or women. Because he speaks as a simple man, the readers can feel empathy not only for the wife but also for the farmer. It is easy to feel empathy for the wife. After all, it is clear that she was a child when she married, and it was likely against her will. The cause for her fear of men seems obvious to everyone except for the farmer himself. When it comes to the farmer, however, the reader is torn between a desire to feel empathy for him, and a feeling of anger toward him.
While he is the cause of his wife’s fear all along, he also seems too simple-minded to be able to understand what he has done to her. It does not seem at all possible for him to come to understand how he might undo the damage he has done, for he does not even know that he has done any damage. He feels he is simply the victim of a poor marriage decision. The reader can see that while his wife is the true victim in the situation, the farmer fully believes that he is the victim, and he goes on feeling sorry for himself because he has a wife whom he cannot sleep with, though he longs to.
Charlotte Mew Background
Charlotte Mew’s life was riddled with pain and loss. During her childhood, three of her siblings passed away. Two of her siblings were labeled insane and sent away to mental institutions. Mew is known to have made a pact with her remaining sister, Anne, that they would never marry. Mew was surrounded by insanity, and she also seemed to be afraid of men. Perhaps she was afraid that she also, might be insane. It is easy to see how Mew may have written The Farmer’s Bride in fear of what it would be like if ever she did marry. Or, perhaps, she had seen marriages like this one, and vowed that she would never enter into that kind of relationship. The reason Mew and Anne gave for their pact, was that they feared passing insanity on to their children. Whatever the reason for their pact, it appears that Mew, like the farmer’s bride, had no interest in men. Perhaps they frightened her, like the subject of this poem. Eventually, when Anne died, Mew did suffer from mental illness, particularly, depression.
Sadly, she ended her own life. Having never married, one cannot say that The Farmer’s Bride relates to her personal experiences in that way. Nonetheless, it is obvious that Mew relates to the farmer’s wife in her dislike for men. Perhaps she also relates to her mental instability. Mew clearly had insight into mental instability and was able to empathize with people like her sisters. Perhaps they were the inspiration for the farmer’s wife. Mew was able to see the care and comfort that the farmer’s life needed, even though the rest of the world looked at her like she was the strangest of creatures. The Farmer’s Bride gives insight into Mew’s mind. Perhaps she did not feel quite normal, but she was able to feel empathy for all kinds of people with differences and mental instability. She related with her sisters, as with the farmer’s wife, and The Farmer’s Bride is her way of shedding light on mental illness. This poem helped her to show the world that some people require more love, comfort, and tenderness in order to function normally in society. In the same way, Mew also sheds light on the damaging effects of the marriage of girls while they are still children. This was not necessarily a common practice during her time, but it did occur from time to time. In generations past, it was far more common for girls of twelve and thirteen to be married. Mew has a way of standing up for women by using the voice of an ignorant and uneducated farmer.