The Farmer’s Bride was written by Charlotte Mew and published in 1912. Mew was born in London in 1869 and died (by suicide) in 1928.
She is believed to have been homosexual. Unlike homosexuality for men, female homosexuality wasn’t illegal. This isn’t because it was approved of; it was because most people didn’t believe such feelings between women could exist. Women who were homosexual would be outcasts from society, so they generally hid their sexuality.
At the time when the poem was written, women had very little power. They did not have the same employment opportunities as men, so they often married for financial security. Divorce also wasn’t socially acceptable. This meant that many women had to stay in unhappy marriages.
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.
“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 our 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.
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.
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?
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!
She sleeps up in the attic thereCharlotte Mew
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!
A farmer tells of how he married his wife three years previously. He says that she was young and that it was a marriage of convenience rather than love. He complains that after they got married, she seemed afraid of him. Eventually, she ran away. He and others in the community chased after her and caught her in the fields, then brought her back to the house.
Locked up at home, she is very quiet, scared of her husband and other men coming to the farm. She only speaks to the animals, who are trusting and full of love for her. The farmer is angered that she doesn’t show the same affection for him.
It is now winter. The farmer complains that his wife hasn’t given him a child. He thinks about her sleeping in the attic and longs to sleep with her. It is hinted that he will soon force himself upon her.
The poem’s key message:
The poem demonstrates the oppression of women in marriage and wider society. The young wife is treated more like an animal than a human. She has no freedom to escape from the confines of her married life.
Mew uses animal imagery to show how the farmer views the young bride. When she ran away, the farmer states:
“We chased her, flying like a hare”
This simile gives the impression that she is prey and the men are predators hunting her.
When he lusts about her, he thinks of her with animal imagery:
“The soft young down of her; the brown,
The brown of her.”
The word “down” refers to down feathers, the soft layer of feathers beneath the tougher outer layer on waterfowl (e.g. ducks, geese and swans). They are typically located on the chest or belly of the waterfowl. This shows him lusting after her body while also taking away her humanity.
Nature imagery is also used to show his disapproval of her. He describes how she is:
“Sweet as the first wild violets, she,
To her wild self. But what to me?”
The repetition of “wild” in this quote demonstrates how she doesn’t act how he expects a wife to behave. It makes it sound like he wants to tame her from this “wild” behaviour. He also complains that she is quiet “like a mouse” and “Shy as a leveret” (a young hare). He thinks that she should be more loving towards him. The reader, however, fully sympathises with her because it is obvious how controlling and intimidating the farmer is.
|Unhappy relationship||The farmer is unhappy with his wife. He acknowledges that she “does the work around the house/ As well as most”. However, he feels she should also smile and speak lovingly towards him, with the same affection she shows to the animals. He says she “twasn’t a woman”, meaning that she doesn’t behave as he expects a wife to. He is also unhappy that they haven’t had any children.|
The farmer’s wife lives in fear of her husband. We only see the poem from the farmer’s perspective, so we don’t see all the reasons for her fear. However, the fact that she is chased down and locked up when she tries to run away shows how much she is controlled and restricted by her husband.
|Nature||The couple are surrounded by nature on the farm, and it is through nature that the farmer tries to understand his wife. He compares her, to gentle animals such as hares, mice and ducks to to emphasise her gentleness or meekness. Also, he complains about her being like a “wild” flower, showing how she needs to be tamed to be the type of wife he expects.|
Through nature, the farmer’s wife finds comfort in her life. She is “Happy enough to chat and play/ With birds and rabbits and such as they”. The farmer is jealous of the attention that she shows to these animals. Possessively, he thinks that she should give all her love and affection to him.
|Desire and Longing||At the end of the poem, we see the farmer’s sexual desire for his wife. He calls her a “maid”, short for ‘maiden’ which suggests that she is a virgin. He loses control as he thinks of her body: “Oh! my God…her eyes, her hair, her hair!” When he talks of their distance being “but a stair”, he hints that he will soon go up to the attic to force himself upon her.|
|Quote||Why is it important?|
|“When us was wed she turned afraid”||This shows that she only became fearful of him once they were married. It suggests that he has made her afraid of his behaviour. Also, it might hint at societal expectations and pressures, or aspects of their relationship that she wasn’t aware of before marriage.|
|“We chased her, flying like a hare”||She is not allowed to leave him and is “chased” like she is prey and the men are predators.|
|“her eyes, her hair, her hair!”||This obsessive repetition suggests that the farmer’s lust and desire have become uncontrollable as he thinks about her body. He hints that he will soon force himself upon her.|