How might Charlotte Mew's poem "A Quoi Bon Dire" be interpreted?
Charlotte Mew’s poem "A Quoi Bon Dire" begins by addressing an unnamed “you” who
Seventeen years ago . . . said
Something that sounded like Good-bye . . . (1-2)
These lines suggest that the “you” departed in one way or another and also imply that the the unnamed “you” was important enough to the speaker that the speaker remembers the incident after nearly two decades. The vagueness of the second line – especially the words – “Something” and “sounded like” -- is intriguing: why can’t the speaker remember precisely what was said? Does the second line refer to a simple departure or to something more significant, such as death? By raising all these as-yet unanswered questions in the poem’s opening lines, Mew grabs our attention and intrigues us.
In the third line we discover that
. . . everybody thinks you are dead
But I. (3-4)
Is the unnamed “you” really dead? Does the fact that the speaker disagrees with the general assumption suggest that the speaker is deluded, that the others are wrong, or that both may be right in some way? Perhaps (for instance) the “you” is dead physically but the speaker assumes that the “you” lives on spiritually, or at least in the mind and memory of the speaker. The first stanza of Mews’ poem is effective because it raises so many questions and provokes so many thoughts. In these ways, Mews' haunting lyric is an especially engaging poem.
In the second stanza, the speaker refers to her own aging. Was the unnamed “you” old at the point of death? Or was the “you” younger than the speaker is now? Might the unnamed “you” be someone like a dead parent, or was the unnamed “you” someone roughly the same age as the speaker? Not until we reach the end of the poem do such questions seem answered, but the fact that answers are postponed gives the poem suspense and a somewhat mysterious and intriguing tone. Obviously the relationship between the speaker and the “you” was deeply significant to the speaker, but at this point we don’t know why and how.
Finally, in the third stanza, a romantic relationship between the speaker and the “you” seems implied, but even that implication does not become clear until the very last line. Even the final line, however, remains mysterious. How, exactly, and where, exactly, will the “you” have “smiled” and will the speaker “have tossed [that person’s] “hair”? Is the speaker male and the “you” female (as lines 9-11) might suggest? Or might the speaker and the “you” both be female (or both male, for that matter)? The reference to tossed hair in the poem’s final line suggests that the “you” is female, but even this much cannot be said for certain.
In short, this is a subtly suggestive and effectively enigmatic poem – one that engages the reader’s feelings and imagination without ever being too obvious or mundane. It is the kind of poem one continues to ponder even after the reading has stopped.