A reflection on Charlotte Mew’s Poem ‘The Call’
From our low seat beside the fire
Where we have dozed and dreamed and watched the glow
Or raked the ashes, stopping so
We scarcely saw the sun or rain
Above, or looked much higher
Than this same quiet red or burned-out fire.
Tonight we heard a call,
A rattle on the window pane,
A voice on the sharp air,
And felt a breath stirring our hair,
A flame within us: Something swift and tall
Swept in and out and that was all.
Was it a bright or a dark angel? Who can know?
It left no mark upon the snow,
But suddenly it snapped the chain
Unbarred, flung wide the door
Which will not shut again;
And so we cannot sit here any more.
We must arise and go:
The world is cold without
And dark and hedged about
With mystery and enmity and doubt,
But we must go
Though yet we do not know
Who called, or what marks we shall leave upon the snow.
Charlotte Mew (1869-1928)
The poem above is written by Charlotte Mew, who was born in London in 1869. As is true for many writers, in her poems and short stories, we can recognise a lot of themes that dominated her life. Mew was born into a family of seven children, and while she was still a child, three of her brothers died. Later, two other siblings were committed to mental health hospitals in their twenties, and this is where they spent the rest of their lives.
This made Charlotte and her sister Anne decide never to marry and have children, so that they wouldn’t pass the trauma they had experienced on to her children. And so in her work we can see the themes of loss: death, loneliness and disillusionment.
The title of the poem above is ‘The Call’, and I thought, especially reading the end, it may be appropriate after the days of snow we had last week. It starts off rather static, inside a house, sitting beside the fire.
But then, there is something that happens, and so, as we hear they ‘cannot sit here any more’. They, whoever they are, need to go out into the cold and dark. Leaving the security and warmth of home, to go into the unknown. They feel they must go, not knowing how or why, or what will lie ahead of them ‘what marks they shall leave upon the snow’.
I think those last lines, is something many of us can relate to. That sometimes we feel a restlessness that urges us to ‘go’, without precisely knowing what it means or where it will lead us. For me, this has been most clear, and I know this is going to sound a bit strange, but in going to church. My parents never went to church, and still only do very occasionally, but from a young age, I was drawn to go. First with a friend to Sunday School, and later to church itself. No matter where I moved, as a student and later when I was working in Berlin, the first few Sundays in a new place, I quite enjoyed sleeping in, but after a few weeks, I felt this draw to go to Church on a Sunday morning. I know, it’s very hard to believe!
To be honest, not that much has changed. Even here, during Exeats and holidays, I cannot imagine myself not going to Church. Don’t ask me why or how, but I feel that I must go. Not as an obligation, or because I am afraid God doesn’t like me if I don’t, but there is something calling me to go. And probably that’s why I ended up being a priest, because there is something within me that wants to respond to the urge to go.
I think that is true for all of us. Not to be a priest or to go to Church, but I think within each of us there is something that feels we must go at some point in our lives, out into the unknown, but knowing that we cannot stay.
Where will it lead us? We don’t know, as we don’t know what marks we shall leave upon the snow. However, it is important to go and to trust that voice within us; the voice that tells us to go, no matter how scary it may seem. How to start? Woody Allen has been quoted to say that “Showing up is eighty percent of life”. That sums up the poem rather well, I think. Eighty percent of life is getting away from the cosy fire, into the cold unknown.
As soon as we do, and many of us will have experienced that last week, we realise that after our initial apprehension, the snow is not only cold, but very exciting and great fun too. And I am pretty sure not many of us will regret having given it a try!