The Trees are Down is written by Charlotte Mew who was a popular poetess at the turn of twentieth century, a contemporary of Thomas Hardy, Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf. Mew was born in 1869 in London and was the eldest daughter in a family of seven. While she was still a young girl she lost three brothers. Later one brother and sister were admitted into hospitals for the mentally disturbed. That left Charlotte and her sister Anne and both took a vow not to marry so as to pass on the mental illness to their children. In 1898 her father passed and the two sisters became very attached to each other. In 1926 Anne was diagnosed with cancer and died one year later. This shattered Charlotte went into delusions. She was admitted into a nursing home in 1928 but later that year she committed suicide in the nursing home.
Mew grappled with mental illness, loneliness, death and disillusionment from a very young age and this is reflected in her stories and poems. Though Mew was called “the greatest living poetess” by Virginia Woolf, she also wrote many stories; but she became popular for her poems. Her dressing and demeanour set her apart from others in the literary community. Mew published her poems and stories in journals like Temple Bar, Chap Book, Egoist, Englishwoman and the Yellow Book. But she became popular with the publication of the poem ‘The Farmer’s Bride’ in the Nation in 1912. With this poem she became popular and was introduced to the elite of the literary community. Alida Monro, her friend collected her earlier poems, edited it and published it under the title ‘The Rambling Sailor’ in 1929.
The poem The Trees Are Down is a lament for the trees that were struck down. The lines in the poem are uneven and seem to be unorganized. The longer lines continue to the next line and it is mostly to keep rhythm and understanding of the poem intact. The whole poem brings out the sorrow and the need to allow the trees and animals the right to live and so it starts with a quote from “Revelation”- “Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees”. In the first stanza she is describing what is happening while the trees are being cut. For many days the ‘grate of the saw’ was heard. Along with this ‘swish of the branches’ and ‘the crash of the trunks’ and the ‘rustle of trodden leaves’ was heard. With these words she creates a strong and complete imagery of the trees being cut. The most painful of these sounds were the ‘whoops’ and ‘whoas’ of the people cutting it and their talk and laughter which rose above the sounds of trees being cut.
In the second stanza she painfully states that all have a right to live. She remembered a spring many years before when she saw a ‘large dead rat’ in the drive of her house as she was getting out of her cart. She also recollects that she had thought a rat is ‘god-forsaken thing’ but in the month of May even that lowly creature should be alive. She believed that spring was the celebration of life and seeing a dead rat was aching. In the next stanza she says the work was done and just one lonely bough was left on the rope. The bough was high up and covered with leaves. Since it was the only one she says it was ‘lonely against the sky’. And erelong that was also down. This act of cutting the last lonely bough completed the cruelest act that man can do in springtime and it was akin to the dead rat which she had thought should have been alive in spring.
The spring which was seen all around was present in the trees as well and when they were cut and carted away it was as if half the spring had gone away with the men who had cut the wood. The trees make many sounds when the wind blows and she calls the patch of trees ‘whispering loveliness’ and they were carted away. It is not half the spring that goes with the trees but it is her heart as well. Her heart had been ‘struck’ when the trees were struck down. The trees were a part of her life; be it when the sun beat down or when it rained or when it was windy or during the May breeze or even during the strong gales that blew form the seas, they were there with her. But now when they were leaving (dying) it was only a ‘quiet rain’. The trees, she says, must have heard the sparrows flying because their home was gone. The creatures in the earth also have lost their protection over their heads and like the poetess herself all the creatures which were dependent on the trees were left homeless and sad. The whole day she heard the angel crying, ‘Hurt not the tree’.
Mathew Arnold the poet and cultural critic wrote almost twenty years before Mew was born in his Dover Beach that people would destroy nature without any sense of guilt and there would very few left who would speak against it. One of the very few voices was Mew who after fifty years after Dover Beach used very simple but vivid words to paint the picture of destruction of nature. Mew emphasises the divine decree not to hurt the tree by referring to the Revelation before the poem and by bringing in the angel in the last lines of the poem. One cannot but see an uncanny similarity between the poem and her life. Like the trees being cut, her siblings were dying around her and finally she was left alone. When all the protection and comfort around her was shredded she lost her mental balance and finally took her life. Why was spring chosen in the poem? Of all the seasons it is the spring season that stands for full bloom of life. When life is cut short at a time when it should be in its full glory, the pain is more. To heighten the pain of cutting trees Mew chose spring season in her poem.