In Memoriam: An Elegy for Charlotte

What fictional death have you never got over? That’s the question asked of our editor Jane Arthur by poet Chris Tse, guest curator of the ‘In Memoriam‘ event at last weekend’s LitCrawl in Wellington, a literary festival with a difference. Jane chose Charlotte from E.B. White’s enduring classic, Charlotte’s Web, and wrote this poem for her.

O arachnid

O literate departed

Carlotta, Lottie, Charlie

Charlotte A. Cavatica

O Charlotte and your wordy web

O you, barn spider, who were at least four times better than any human,

having four times more legs than most of us. And hundreds more babies.

Five hundred and fourteen babies, Charlotte.

Five hundred and fourteen motherless babes.

O arachnid

O literate, beloved departed

The first time we met was because of friendship,

because you heard you were needed.

You weren’t there, then you were,

telling the lonely pig you’d be his friend.

You were kind but blunt

when telling the pig he couldn’t spin a web,

when he thought if you could,

of course he could,

in the way that men do.

O, sister.

O Charlotte, you never tiptoed around the realities of life –

that we need to eat, that we die.

But still, you knew great change

can be made by one small woman

and so you determined to save that pig’s life.

And the way you did it was with kindness and trickery,

for, quoting you,

‘If I can fool a bug… I can surely fool a man.’

You used to say:

‘I’m in this thing pretty deep now – I might as well go the limit.’

You used to say:

‘I can’t arrange my family duties to suit the management of the County Fair.’

Many of us know all too well what you meant, Charlotte.

You saved a life and still the world didn’t go easier on you.

You saved a life through your pregnant exhaustion, and yet.

It’s hard for mothers.

Charlotte, you were persuasive and pacifist.

You used words to sway rats and men.

You built webs and built webs and built webs and built webs.

You gave literally all you had.

And in spite of everything, no one even noticed you.

I’m here to say, in front of this gathering, I did. We did! The kids did.

You said, ‘I think I’m languishing, to tell you the truth.’

And then:

Five hundred and fourteen babies, Charlotte.

Five hundred and fourteen motherless babes.

You died alone.

The others left you at the County Fair and returned to the farm, as you wished.

You died, content and alone.

O Charlotte

O arachnid

O literate beloved

’Tis better to have loved and lost

you, Charlotte,

than a living, flesh-and-bones love – sorry,

but our grief for you ends quickly

in a paper flash

when we open the cover of your story

and resurrect you again

and again and again.

Maybe one of the spiders I kill without thinking

is a descendant of yours.

Charlotte, I’ll think of you and the lessons you taught

about life, death and sacrifice

next time I squash an arachnid,

O literate, late beloved.

Jane Arthur
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Jane Arthur co-owns and manages GOOD BOOKS, a small independent bookshop in Pōneke Wellington. She twice judged the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, in 2019 and 2020. Her debut poetry collection, Craven (VUP) won the Jessie Mackay Prize for best first book of poetry at the 2020 Ockham NZ Book Awards, and her second collection, Calamities! (THWUP) was longlisted for the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry in the 2024 Ockham Awards. Her debut children's book, Brown Bird (PRH) is due for release in May 2024. Jane is also co-founder of The Sapling.