The Trees Are Down by Charlotte Mew
– and he cried with a loud voice: Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees – -Revelation
They are cutting down the great plane-trees at the end of
For days there has been the grate of the saw, the swish of
the branches as they fall,
The crash of the trunks, the rustle of trodden leaves,
With the ‘Whoops’ and the ‘Whoa’, the loud common talk,
the loud common laughs of the men, above it all.
I remember one evening of a long past Spring
Turning in at a gate, getting out of a cart, and finding
a large dead rat in the mud of the drive.
I remember thinking: alive or dead, a rat was a
But at least, in May, that even a rat should be alive.
The week’s work here is as good as done. There is just
On the roped bole, in the fine grey rain,
Green and high
And lonely against the sky.
(Down now! -)
And but for that,
If an old dead rat
Did once, for a moment, unmake the Spring, I might never
have thought of him again.
It is not for a moment the Spring is unmade to-day;
These were great trees, it was in them from root to stem:
When the men with the ‘Whoops’ and the ‘Whoas’ have carted
the whole of the whispering loveliness away
Half the Spring, for me, will have gone with them.
It is going now, and my heart has been struck with the
hearts of the planes;
Half my life it has beat with these, in the sun, in the rains, In the March wind, the May breeze,
In the great gales that came over to them across the roofs from the great seas. There was only a quiet rain when they were dying;
They must have heard the sparrows flying,
And the small creeping creatures in the earth where they were lying – But I, all day, I heard an angel crying:
‘Hurt not the trees.’
Question: Write a critical analysis of The Trees Are Down by Charlotte Mew. In ‘The Trees Are Down’ poet Charlotte Mew seems to be using the trees to symbolize Nature’s being the price of human progress. The poem also seems to have been influenced by the Romantics, through Mew’s detailed description of the trees being cut down, and her personal reaction to this act – she refers to mankind’s indifference towards Nature, and the sadness this causes her, in this poem, where her main focus is man versus Nature, and loss, or death. Mew begins with a carefully chosen, highly significant quote from the bible, with the angel calling out “Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees – “, indicating that she believes the cutting down of trees is wrong, also hinting at what the rest of the poem is about. Mew also uses repetition to convey her viewpoint, by applying the last part of the quote in the last line of this poem, again. A sad, somber mood and tone have, thereby, been set, and prevail through the entire poem, underneath her vivid descriptions and the images aroused in the readers’ minds. She then goes about describing what is happening, “They are cutting down the great plane-trees…” where “they” is used to separate herself from those committing these wrongful acts, and “great” as an adjective to describe the trees, implying her deep respect for Nature, and even comparing it to something holy, perhaps even suggesting that Nature is divinity, further reminiscent of the Romantics, who believed, among other things, that closeness to Nature was closeness to God.
The next few lines are heavy with onomatopoeia -“swish of the branches”, “crash of the trunks”, “rustle of trodden leaves” – coupled with “the loud common talk, the loud common laughs of men, above it all,” whereby Mew is able to paint a picture of what is going on (the cutting down of the trees), the way she sees it, from her vantage point. With the last couple lines of this stanza, about the “loud common” men, Mew expresses her anger towards the men who cut down the trees, without thinking twice. It is interesting to note that Mew never blatantly calls the men common, rather it is their actions that she directs her distaste towards. In what seems to be a moment of nostalgia, Mew delves into the past, in the second stanza, discussing a memory of a Spring long past; she explains how she found a dead rat, and felt “at least, in May, that a rat should be alive,” to enjoy the warmth of the sun after the cold winter, to see the flowers bloom once more, to enjoy Springtime. She expresses her sympathy for the rat, even though it is a “God-forsaken” rodent, as she feels that nothing should be dead in spring; it is a season for life and birth. Not only does this reiterate Mew’s Romantic leaning in this poem, but it also supports her respect for Nature. Returning to the present in the next couple stanzas, Mew directs her attention to the last remaining tree, expressing her sadness for the devastated wood, as the very essence of the rejuvenating Spring season, “in them from root to stem,” is being taken away from her.
She takes on a bitter, yet wistful tone while describing the last, lonely tree, standing “Green and high/And lonely against the sky,” saying that this sight “unmade the Spring” for her. Again, Mew refers to the trees as “great” – these were old, time-worn trees, cut down by men who did not care about what they were doing, they only cared for the paycheck that awaited them once they finished, and her sadness, along with Nature’s beauty, are emphasized in the last line of the fourth stanza, when the men “have carted the whole of the whispering loveliness away/Half the Spring, for me, will have gone with them.” Mew’s heartwarming choice of words effectively convey the sadness she feels – “my heart has been stuck” – while the trees are being cut down, and after they have been taken away, carrying on into the fifth and final stanza, where she discusses the trees, themselves. She deeply appreciates these trees – an appreciation which is the outcome of having these trees as a part of almost half of her life. She says, “Half my life… with these, in the sun, in the rains…/In the great gales that came over to them”, explaining how these trees have weathered all kinds of storms, seen all kinds of seasons (literally and figuratively), and for half her life, she has witnessed them do so, and their being cut down by men who do not understand their purpose (not just for beauty, but for shelter for the “the small creeping creatures in the earth”), men who have cut them down amidst their coarse jokes and laughter and common talk, without a thought towards to repercussions of their actions, angers and saddens her even more.
The fact that the trees have not been given the respect they so deserve also aggrieves her, and it is here that the men and what they have done can be said to take on a more universal symbolism, perhaps that of man acting without actually realizing his loss and the damage he causes to the natural world and himself, oddly reminiscent of how, during the Industrial Revolution, mankind became more interested in the new sciences and progress – that is, ways of making “easy money”, and fast, and stopped taking the time to appreciate the arts, and the world in which they lived. Forests were cut down, countryside was destroyed so that railroads and factories could be built and set up, and this is still being done, today! While the trees are cut down, Mew looks on, (“there was only a quiet rain when they were dying…/But I, all day, I heard an angel crying:/’Hurt not the trees.’”) silently mourning this terrible example of man’s disregard for the world he lives in.
Mew establishes herself as a proto-Modernist with Romantic tendencies in this poem, while she mourns the loss of Nature and talks about man’s misfortune and inability to see the harm caused by his actions, both to the natural world, and to his existence, as well. Charlotte Mew seems to be one of the few people that Matthew Arnold, for example, mentioned through his poem Dover Beach, in which he, like many other Romantics, predicted a time when the destruction of glorious Nature would be a common practice, and there would be few left, who genuinely cared about Nature. It is interesting to note that that poem was written almost twenty years before Mew was born, and she addresses the same topic, theme-wise, in this poem, written almost fifty years after Dover Beach, further emphasizing the universal aspect of the theme and issue raised. In this five-stanza long poem, Charlotte Mew uses simple words to paint vivid images in her readers’ minds, to show them what she is witnessing and to explain how she feels about it.
We may say that her silently mourning the cutting down of the trees shows that she understands that such acts are needed in order for humankind to progress, but, in her simple, effective choice of words, she seems to beg the question to what extent, when God, Himself, has said not to hurt our environment unjustly, in this poem. It can almost be said that while lamenting this loss, she becomes one with Nature as she feels its pain and condemns the never-ending greed and hunger that resides in mankind, in this poem.