Charlotte Mew - Fin de Fete

March 04, 2021

Charlotte Mew's short, lyrical poem, Fin de Fete, is a goodbye from the 'speaker' of the poem to, one assumes, a former lover. The 'speaker' of the poem, of course, is not necessarily the poet; the poem not necessarily biographical. The personnae of poetry can be as fictional as those in novels. This seems worth pointing out in the context of some critical analysis that overuses what the writers believe they know about Charlotte Mew's life to interpret her poems.

The word 'fete' in the title translates as 'party or celebration' in French, but 'to fete' in English, derived from the French, also has the additional, if connected, meaning, of  'to admire or praise someone'. Perhaps too, then, in this poem, as well as the idea of the 'end of the party' as a metaphor for the end of an exciting relationship, there is also a sense in which the 'speaker' has lost their 'admiration' for their former lover. 

The poem is a conversational address, structured in three quatrains, from the speaker to an unidentified person, whom we learn little about - the metaphor of 'a lonely head' is the only detail of description given, and that comes in the final stanza. The address begins with the word 'Sweetheart,' but, as the poem develops, the reader may soon suspect this endearment is ironic. The line 'it's Goodnight at the door' suggests a brutish brush off from the speaker to a former object of their love. What is more difficult to ascertain are the terms on which the relationship is being ended. The 'day' (or the affair, if 'such a day' is taken to be a metaphor for the whole relationship) is over, but after 'such' a day, suggesting the relationship was fulfilling, should there be bitterness in the aftermath? Here is where precise interpretation is difficult.  A 'score' is Victorian slang for a debt, according to the Dictionary of Victorian London (a number of Charlotte Mew's poems show her taste for the vernacular. Consider the brutish men chopping down the trees in 'The Trees are Down' with their 'Whoops' and 'Whoas') and the speaker says that 'one mustn't grudge the score', which suggests that the rejected lover shouldn't feel bitterness. However, could this be intended ironically and who exactly is the spurned lover? Although the speaker is the person saying 'goodbye', we don't know the circumstances or whether it is the speaker who has effectively been rejected, forced into a 'goodbye'. Do we interpret 'it's all to pay' as meaning there is nothing to pay in terms of reparations for emotional damage (this is all there is to pay - we leave at the door on good terms) or nothing has been paid (everything is still needing to be paid, even though the relationship is now over)? The imperative phrase, 'Here, then', suggests something being given, but what? We can interpret from these lines that a relationship is ended, but not precisely the manner of closure. 

The tone is also ambiguous. The initial quatrain could be read as bitter or sardonic, or, alternatively, as jaunty and bold. The short, punchy lines, simple abab rhyme scheme and monosyllabic rhyming words ('score' / 'door') give the speaker's departing words a breezy dismissiveness, the sense the speaker is tossing out a bitter-sweet kiss-off to their former lover. However, we can also point to the alliterative s's in this first stanza, spat out by the speaker- the 'sw' in 'sweetheart', the su in 'such', the sibilant 's' sound moving through the sentence in 'mustn't' and 'score' and continuing into the 'its' sounds in the final two lines of the stanza - as evidence of a hissing 'goodbye' delivered with barely restrained anger. It is 'goodnight at the door', but is the speaker really putting the past behind them? 

The second stanza also starts with a 'goodbye' and feigns pleasantnesss - 'good dreams to you', but the speaker, using a hyphen to abruptly change tack, overides the idea of a short and amicable goodbye with the line beginning 'Do you remember?' and continues to dig into the now finished relationship. The repetition of the word 'good' (three times in two lines), therefore, creates a sense of irony, if this is, in fact, no goodwilled goodbye. The poem at this point takes a darker and more dreamlike turn in its imagery and allusions. The 'picture-book thieves' are thieves from a picture-book (not thieves who stole picture-books) and Charlotte Mews may be referencing the illustrated picture book story of the 'Babes in the Wood' by Randolph Caldecott in 1879. In this nightmarish children's fable, two children are handed over to ruffians who take them into the woods to kill them. The lexis in the last 3 lines of the second stanza appear to paint a picture of serenity and innocence: 'children', 'sleeping', 'birds' and 'leaves', but the meaning beneath the seemingly pretty imagery is that the children were murdered. What is the significance, then, of the speaker alluding to this partiular story in their goodbye speech? What does it also suggest in the third stanza when the speaker says 'so' (meaning 'in this way' rather than 'and therefore') 'you and I should have slept' ? Far from it presenting a peaceful, gentle image of lovers sleeping, it seems to  indicate the speaker's feeling that it would have been better if they had finished their relationship by dying together, like the children; perhaps then, a macabre suggestion of a suicide pact. 

In addition to the change in line length between the first and second stanzas one can also compare the change in the vowel sounds of the rhyming words in each stanza. The short vowel sounds of the first stanza, the 'or' sound of 'score' / 'door' are replaced by the longer drawn out vowel sounds of the second stanza, the 'ee' and 'oo' sounds in 'thieves' / 'leaves' and 'you' / 'through'. The snappiness of the vowels in the first stanza matches the tone of the initial breezy goodbye, but the longer vowel sounds give a more sinister and threatening sound to the protracted lines describing the story of the murder of children in the second stanza. (Sylvia Plath too recognised the malevolent power of longer vowel sounds in poems such as 'Daddy.') 

The dark fable woven into a goodbye message to suggest mutual suicide gives the poem a gothic air, similar to other poetic monologues, such as Browning's 'My First Duchess', where we are invited to analyse the psychology of the narrator through their relationship with other primary characters.  In 'Fin de Fete' we learn little about the lover, but we do start to learn about the speaker. These gothic elements are continued into the third and final stanza. In the penultimate line, an image of a 'waving bough' is described outside the bedroom window. A 'bough' is the main section of a tree, but the word also means gallows, an instrument of execution. Furthermore, the bough, if one assumes some element of personification, is also 'waving', presumably goodbye. The 'shadow' of the bough falling across the former obect of love has connotations of  death too and we can start to see the 'fin' of the relationship in the title of the poem is dressed in morbid and somewhat menacing imagery. The descriptions of sleep and dreams can now be recognised as an extended metaphor for death. In this context, the juxtaposition of a 'lonely head' and the  'waving bough' (a shadowy gallows) sounds threatening.  The speaker's former lover has been depersonalised and reduced to a body part - an isolated or 'lonely' head (where once it lay next to another head). The 'bough' is an instrument of death, or, at least, a partial symbol of it. The speaker's exclamation of 'oh', then, has a sinister tone to it and the sense that this might, after all, be a poem about revenge, a 'grudge', becomes apparent. If one returns to the idea of a 'score' (a debt) to be paid in the first stanza, it raises the question of whether the speaker does, in fact, want to take payment for whatever led to the end of the relationship. The final image in the stanza is that of the moon and the 'moonlight over your bed.' The moon, a feminine symbol, represents the dark side of nature and her light, in this case, falls across the former lover's 'bed', a place of former intimacy. At this point the poem's gothic elements, love, rejection and revenge fall into place. They are not explicitly stated, but hinted at through imagery and symbolism and the idea that this is a dark poem about the death of a relationship becomes clearer.

March 2021

Chris H


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