The Farmer's Bride

by Charlotte Mew

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The Poem

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“The Farmer’s Bride” is a description of a wife, narrated by her husband. The first two stanzas of the poem are written in the past tense, and the last four shift to the present tense to describe the present situation. He first states that he married her three years ago, when she was very young. The proposal and subsequent marriage were rushed; he decided in the summer and married her soon after without spending much time with her, because he was busy with the fall harvest.

As soon as they were married, she became unhappy and afraid of him. The implication is that she was afraid of his sexual advances; he matter-of-factly characterizes her as being afraid of “love and me and all things human.” Since he associates womanliness with sexuality and welcoming smiles, she became more like a “fay,” or fairy, to him, something spiritual and intangible rather than physically present.

Her fear of him and repugnance at her life reached an apex when she fled from home soon after their marriage; they were married “at harvest-time,” and she ran away in the fall. The other farmers presumed that she was merely tending the sheep, though it was night and she should have been in bed. When they found her gone, she led them on a long chase. She was swift as a hare, but they captured her and locked her in her house.

Now, three years later, she makes a place for herself at the farm, doing her housework adequately and communing with small animals. The only thing that brings out her original fear is the presence of men. Her fear is evident in her eyes; she does not voice it, but the husband knows that she does not want him near. The woman remains uncommunicative, except to call the animals, who are very responsive to her. The farmer hears this from the other women on the farm, who see her with the animals but do not seem to speak with her themselves.

The fourth stanza changes tone. Rather than continue his objective description, the speaker begins to characterize his wife sympathetically as shy and slight, sweet and wild. He regrets that these qualities are not available to him and are reserved for herself. There is another turn in the fifth stanza, as the speaker wistfully notes the passing of fall into winter. Looking to Christmas, he laments that this is a family time and they have no children: “What’s Christmas-time without there be/ Some other in the house than we!”

The final stanza brings the buried emotion and repressed sexuality to the fore. He begins with a description of her sleeping alone, a stairway above him, again implying that they are not sexually intimate. All of his love and longing for her surface in the final four lines as he imaginatively grasps at her soft, youthful image.

Forms and Devices

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“The Farmer’s Bride” is a skillful rendering of the dramatic monologue. The farmer, who describes his wife’s actions, reveals more and more of his own feelings and failings until readers know his character and understand the reason for his wife’s behavior. The poem is as understated and evocative as its speaker, a fact that makes his revelations of love and strong sexual feelings, which are unrequited and unconsummated, truly poignant.

The unfolding revelation of the man and woman’s relationship during the monologue complicates what could be seen as a straightforward story of male oppression. Throughout, the husband reveals his inability to recognize his wife’s reaction to his patriarchal power, seen in his choice of her, his capturing and...

(This entire section contains 554 words.)

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locking her in his house, and his defining her in terms of his own needs (“But what to me?”) and projecting his feelings onto her (“poor maid”).

However, his perceptive understanding of her fears and his refusal to force himself on her, together with his outburst of emotion at the end, make him sympathetic. The tensions in the poem between his obtuse conventionality and his unexpected tender patience and respect for her person create a multilayered, sympathetic character. Much of the power of the poem stems from his feelings of anger and frustration at being denied his wife’s affection and his realization of his part in it.

Imagery and similes are used as part of the dramatic irony. The farmer describes his wife in natural similes: “like a hare,” “like a mouse,” “as a leveret,” “as a young larch tree,” “as the first wild violets.” These similes idealize, diminish, and feminize the wife rather than individualize and humanize her. He never speaks her name. The similes show the reader that the farmer sees human beings and their emotions as part of the natural world. He sees love and sexuality as “natural” rather than as socially constructed, so it does not occur to him to cultivate these feelings in his wife.

Further irony is seen in the wife’s escape into nature in order to eschew social expectations. By communing only with animals, she is shunning “all things human.” The statement “I’ve hardly heard her speak at all” emphasizes the farmer’s bitterness at her decision not to communicate with him. She is asserting her own right to choose by positioning herself in nature in order to flee the society of men, and she is strong in this environment. She has authority with the animals; they look to her as children look to adults for assurance and care.

The overall seasonal structure of the poem also shows the speaker’s view of essential human nature. The events are ordered by seasonal chronology: He chooses her in summer and marries her at harvest time. She runs away in the fall, and the distance between them grows as winter passes and they are alone in the house together. In the world in which he lives, it is as “natural” that women submit to being wives as it is that autumn brings the harvest and winter brings Christmas joy for children.

The melodic lines and beautiful natural images belie the uneducated diction and expected roughness of the taciturn, working-class, male farmer. They humanize and underscore the fears and frustrations and unhappiness he relates.