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"The Farmer's Bride": Female Poetry and Dramatic Personae

Female poetry has often been criticized for the specificity of the topic of femininity that has been argued to indicate a lack of relevance or relatability. The notion of a female poet writing in an absolute, assertive public voice was deemed improbable by the domination of male voices in the sphere of public speech. Female poets have turned to the use of dramatic personae in the narration of their poems to call into question the unrelatability of the female voice.

Women poets struggled to have their lyric voices viewed as representative, being unable to rid what Cora Kaplan described as the “explicit sexing”: wherein a male voice is readily seen as a firm, objective commentary on human experiences (Kaplan, 2005, p. 83). Kaplan goes on to explain in the novel Gendering Poetry that many female poets viewed the use of dramatic personae as a way to transcend the apparent limited scope of femininity, opening them up to a range of perspectives not even necessarily limited to human experiences; “It provides subversive opportunities to invert or challenge the status quo by bringing marginalized voices to the fore, a way of making what is conventionally seen as weak appear strong” (Kaplan, 2005, p. 85).

Figure 1: Portrait of Charlotte Mew, British poet in the Victorian era.

Charlotte Mew explores the possibilities offered by dramatic personae in her poem The Farmer’s Bride. Mew exploits the authority readily given to male speakers, writing the poem from the perspective of the farmer, creating a juxtaposition between his voice and the silence of his bride. Although the title would suggest a focus on the bride, the poem itself is heavily concerned with the farmer’s own sentiments, even as he details his bride’s mental decline. When he narrates that his wife has run away, the farmer’s main worry in searching for her is that he has got “in a shiver and a scare” (Mew, l.17). All the stanzas bar the last end in rhyming couplets, highlighting his authority over the version of events. Mew flaunts the silence of the repressed wife in an attempt to highlight the distressing effects of the patriarchal society.

Through the poem, Mew magnifies the recurring issue of women being regarded solely as objects in poems, rarely active subjects. The farmer’s bride in Mew’s poem is not only objectified but is overtly dehumanized. In the first stanza as the farmer recounts his wife withdrawing from his touch soon after their marriage, he pronounces that she “t’wasn’t a woman” and likens her to a “frightened fay” (Mew, ll.7-8). When the wife runs away she is hunted like an animal; “We chased her, flying like a hare” (Mew, l.15).

Kathleen Bell argues in Kicking Daffodils that Mew attempts to “shift the danger from female to male sexuality”, and she does this by undercutting the poem with irony (Bell, 1997, p. 15). The persona cannot grasp that his wife lives in fear of marital rape, and as the poem continues his implied sexual frustration becomes increasingly predatory. In the penultimate stanza, the slowing down of the rhythm that had been established in previous stanzas builds up the suspense as the persona announces his wish for a child. This deceleration of pace is achieved by the assonance of the vowel ‘o’ littered throughout the stanza: “The short days shorten and the oaks are brown” (Mew, l.34). The structure of the poem then begins to break down in the final stanza. The syntax becomes confounded as the lines are disjointed by heavy punctuation and caesura; ‘’Tis but a stair/ Betwixt us. Oh! My God!’(Mew, ll.43-44). The heavy rhyming employed; ‘there’, ‘stair’, ‘down’, ‘brown’ (Mew, ll.42-45); points to the psychological disturbance of the farmer.

Figure 2: "Unequal Marriage" by Vasili Pukirev

The final stanza is the only one that does not end in a rhyme, made even more noticeable by the fact that the final line follows two sets of rhyming couplets, and this leaves the poem with a sense of unfulfillment. Readers are left with the fear that the farmer will concede to his desires. By the end, the farmer has fully objectified the bride, seeing her as no more than “soft” and “young” and focusing on the images of her hair and eyes (Mew, l.45). Alicia Suskin Ostriker views Mew's poem as a challenge to the dilemma faced by women of being objectified in the eyes of the other sex, and not having the ability to participate in the mode of discourse. Ostriker remarks in Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America that “it is the bitter truth that the power to speak may rest not only on economic, political, and legal power but on ordinary physical strength” (Ostriker, 1987, p.69).

Mew also challenges the undeserved authority freely given to male voices, by intentionally crafting her male persona as an unreliable first-person narrator. Initially, Mew has readers sympathize with the farmer by constructing the perception of him as him being naïve through his simple language. This naivety, however, is revealed to be self-interest as he shifts the focus from his wife’s fear to the effect it has on him. Mew’s persona deems himself a victim which is undercut ironically by the authority wielded by him in the poem, the juxtaposition of his wife’s silence, and his status as part of the community expressed in the use of the pronoun ‘we’- “We caught her” (Mew, l.18). The sympathy in his voice is overpowered by his predatory nature, and our confidence in his reliability as a narrator collapses. This is paralleled by the breakdown of the poetic form, starting initially as a loose adaptation of the ballad style and ending with irregular line lengths, rhyme schemes, and rhythm.

Figure 3: Drawing of Charlotte Mew by David Levine

Charlotte Mew utilises dramatic personae in her poem The Farmer’s Bride as a device for social commentary regarding the status of women confined to objectification. Mew highlights this objectification through the ironic perspective of a male authoritative voice overseeing the decline of his wife. The dramatic monologue is explicitly chosen as the poetic form as a response to the general resistance surrounding accepting a female lyric voice as representative and insightful into general human experiences. Through her dramatic personae, Mew is able to explore diverse perspectives and subversively bring underrepresented voices to the forefront.

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Megan Maistre

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