A Quoi Bon Dire by Charlotte Mew
Seventeen years ago you said
Something that sounded like Good-bye;
And everybody thinks that you are dead
So I as I grow stiff and cold
To this and that say Good-bye too;
And everybody sees that I am old
And one fine morning in a sunny lane
Some boy and girl will meet and kiss and swear
That nobody can love their way again
While over there
You will have smiled, I shall have tossed your hair.
A Quoi Bon Dire was written by a British poet named Charlotte Mary Mew in the early 20th century. She committed suicide in 1927 and her literary output was limited, but almost everything she wrote was quirky and interesting. She deserves to be better known.
So today I am doing my part. “A quoi bon dire” translates as “what good is there to say?” or, more loosely, something like “What good are words?” I love this poem because it reveals with simplicity and beauty how the persona and her beloved have transcended time, death, and language.
Stanza one: while there is poignancy in the apparent death of her beloved 17 years ago, the persona moves past that “fact” to her reality. He said something that sounded like goodbye, but it wasn’t really goodbye. Everybody else thinks that he is gone, but she knows better.
Stanza two: again, the persona acknowledges the passage of time and her own physical deterioration, but immediately goes beyond that state. Not only does her beloved still live, but she knows that he still sees her as she was 17 years ago! As if they still somehow communicate with each other. As time and conventional language has become meaningless for him, so it has become meaningless for her, too.
Stanza three: positive images of morning and sunshine open the final verse, and the couple who will meet on that future morning are also a memory, perhaps, of when the persona and her lover would meet in days far gone by. So there’s a nice feeling of coming full circle even as we transcend time’s cycle: the persona says good-bye to those who see that she is old and joins her lover at last in the final two lines.
As we might expect from the title, speech is both significant and insignificant in the poem. What sounds like “good-bye” is not really good-bye; what everyone else calls “death” is not really death; what seems “old” is not really old; and the unique love that is sworn in the final stanza is unexceptional. Note also that as we read A Quoi Bon Dire, the speech verbs move from past tense (“you said”) through the present (“I . . . say”) to the future (“some boy and girl will . . . swear”), again suggesting that all time is encompassed and transcended.
Finally, the use of pronouns is really quite remarkable. The chiasmus (repetition in reverse order) we see embedded in the first two stanzas strongly communicates an enduring, reciprocating relationship that separates the lovers from everybody else:
A. And everybody thinks that you are dead
B. But I.
B. And everybody sees that I am old
A. But you.
At the same time (and this is truly brilliant) the pronouns “you” and “I” remain consistently separated from each other until the last verse. They do not appear in the same line until the poem’s final line, and note that at that moment, spoken language disappears. The beloved smiles, and the persona runs her fingers through his hair, but neither speaks. Where they find themselves now, together “over there,” they have no further need for words.
Perhaps they never needed words.
Today the woman I love celebrates her birthday. We met in August 1985, so our relationship approaches its 30th anniversary, but I share this poem today as testament to feelings for each other that cannot be measured or contained by days or years. For some time now, we have lived under the shadow of my illness, but I offer this poem today as a promise that our love will not be bound by life or death or time or words. No matter what the future holds, my love, we shall never be parted.
Incline your head and you will always hear my laughter. Lift your hand and I will let you toss my hair.