Stevie Smith populated the margins of her poems with idiosyncratic drawings of swimmers and potted plants, ghosts and dogs, howling children and flirting couples. She doodled this art herself, when, as she explained, she was “not thinking too much. If I suddenly get caught by the doodle, I put more effort into it and end up calling it a drawing. I’ve got a whole collection in boxes. Some are on tiny bits of paper and drawn on telephone and memo pads.” Smith insisted that the drawings be published with her poems, even though they do not technically “illustrate” the words on the page. Instead, she chose drawings that seemed to her to illustrate “the spirit or the idea in the poem.”
In some ways, reading Smith’s poetry is like fishing in one of her boxes filled with drawings on loose sheets and tiny bits of paper. As one moves from one drawing to another, one poem to another, the habits of her imagination become familiar. One can identify concerns (death, spinsterhood, sexuality) that appeared early and persisted late, name maneuvers (analysis of myth, parody of family roles) that recur again and again. One learns to recognize the spatialization of her impatience with categories through images of claustrophobia (“Souvenir de Monsieur Poop”), to expect her assumption of the proximity between love and hate (“I HATE THIS GIRL”), to look for the ways in which grief feeds the heart (“So to fatness come”). She moves back and forth among forms—from rapid stanzas with fixed rhyme schemes (“Nourish Me on an Egg,” “Do Take Muriel Out”) to long poems constructed of rhyming couplets (“The Passing Cloud,” “The Hostage”), to looser, more narrative lines (“Dear Karl,” “The Abominable Lake”). Yet the procedure from one poem to another—or one collection to another—does not present itself as neat linear development.
It is possible, however, to sketch out a set of preoccupations that Smith found compelling enough to return to throughout her career. One of the most conspicuous of these concerns is her investigation of inherited stories: fairy tales, narratives from the Bible, legends, and myths. Smith takes as her premise that material culture and literary culture constitute overlapping territories and is at pains in many of her poems to demonstrate the ways in which Western culture has organized itself in response to certain famous stories.
In a late poem called “How Cruel Is the Story of Eve,” for example, she argues the disturbing repercussions that Genesis, with its snake and its apple and its falling woman, set in motion: “What responsibility it has/ In history/ For cruelty.” She goes on to address the collective resistance of skeptical readers, who might call her estimation of the effects of Eve’s story exaggerated: What is the meaning of this legend, she asks, “if not/ To give blame to women most/ And most punishment?”
Smith is interested in stories and images that have saturated the cultural imagination of her society—stories that have defined and continue to influence the position of women, to shape attitudes about animals and wildness, to teach lessons about romance and relationships. Her poems refer back in literary history to William Blake (in her “Little Boy Sick”) and across boundaries of genre when she appropriates fairy tales (in “The Frog Prince”) or Arthurian legends (in “The Blue from Heaven”). As Smith points out, these stories color all human thought and are therefore important to anyone interested in disrupting some of those thoughts.
If Smith’s exploration of inherited stories uncovers some of the ways in which culture grids according to gender or species, her survey of the roles inherited and negotiated within families reduces the scale of the inquiry while maintaining precise attention to instances of ill fit between individuals and the roles in which they find themselves. Adults are irked at having to give up the colors and excesses of childhood (“To Carry the Child”); children with absent fathers are cynical from babyhood (“Infant”). Women with husbands and children weep over frying pans (“Wretched Woman”) or lash out—“You beastly child, I wish you had miscarried,/ You beastly husband, I wish I had never married” (“Lightly Bound”)—while women who refuse to compromise themselves by investing in less-than-adequate relationships doubt their own decisions and worry about isolation: “All, all is isolation/ And every lovely limb’s a desolation” (“Every Lovely Limb’s a Desolation”). Because Smith delights in circling round a situation, sizing it up from all angles, there also are poems that defend solitude—speakers who argue, for example, that the best personal prescription is to “shun compromise/ Forget him and forget her” (“To the Tune of the Coventry Carol”), despite the risks of isolation. The typical attitude of a wife toward her wifehood, a mother toward her motherhood, or a child toward her childhood is discomfort and cynicism. Figures in Smith’s poems are perpetually chafed by the discrepancy between their needs and the roles into which they believe they have been, one way or another, stuck.
For all her self-consciousness about cultural slots, Smith feels no obligation to limit her renditions of them to tragic monotones. Her preference for reading Agatha Christie novels in translation, for example, clearly indicates that she relished the humor of a poor fit. “If you read her in French,” she once remarked, “you get a most exotic flavor, because there never was anything more English than the stuff she’s writing. It’s great fun that the translations are rather poor.” Smith administered her critical, antic judgment to anything in sight, including her own loyalties—to Anglicanism, for example. While she remained personally loyal to the church her whole life, she cheerfully poked poetic fun at the awkward positions into which God forces his underlings.
“Nature and Free Animals”
Smith argues in one early poem, for example, that the human impulse to make dogs into pets has always been prompted by the unbearably cramped space of the will to which people find themselves restricted when they see, on one hand, “Nature and Free Animals” and on the other, God himself. The poem begins with God’s irate pronouncement that humans have committed the one moral error he cannot abide: “they have taught [dogs] to be servile . . . To be dependent touching and entertaining.” Given human pride in legal systems that articulate and protect human rights, to complain that having “rights to be wronged/ And wrongs to be righted” insults a God-given wild dogginess might strike one as ludicrous. However, Smith celebrates the possibility of uninhibited if violent life that animals represent while poking merciless fun at the ways in which human laws and orders actually trivialize death. The person God reprimands in this poem shoots back a feisty self-defense: “Nature and Free Animals/ Are all very fine,” the speaker grants, but with them “on the one side/ And you on the other,/ I hardly know I’m alive.” Squeezed from both directions, humans have no room to exercise either instinct or will, and it is precisely this unpleasant sensation that compels them to make dogs into pets. Having made her irreverent point, Smith undoubtedly chuckled at the anagrammatic joke of resisting God by putting a leash on his name spelled backwards.
Not being one to shy away from the unorthodox destinations toward which her unorthodox theories point her, Smith accepts the fact that her celebration of animals must accommodate violence. Thus, in a poem called “The Zoo,” a lion “sits within his cage,/ Weeping tears of ruby rage” because he has been deprived of his natural capacity for violence. “His claws are blunt, his teeth fall out,/ No victim’s flesh consoles his snout,” the speaker reports sympathetically, concluding that it is no wonder that “his eyes are red/ Considering his talents are misused.” Smith gives God due credit for having bestowed on the lion “lovely teeth and claws/ So that he might eat little boys.”
Oddly as such a compliment rings, other of Smith’s treatments of animals suggest that it is not an entirely backhanded one. The reader may wince at being made politely to admire the lion’s gift for making snacks of little boys, but when one is presented with the alternative of allying oneself with pet owners as depicted in poems such as “Jumbo,” the crunching of bones begins to have a certain raw dignity:
Jumbo, Jumbo, Jumbo darling, Jumbo come to Mother.But Jumbo wouldn’t, he was a dog who simply wouldn’t botherAn ugly beast he was with drooping guts and filthy skin,It was quite wonderful how “mother” loved the ugly thing.
What Smith ridicules here is not the ugliness of Jumbo but rather the human compulsion to assert its will even over such a mangy beast. Jumbo’s unwillingness to be bothered with his yodeling “mother” is a caustic enough comment on humans’ clumsy interference with naturally occurring systems in which dogs, with wonderful indifference, eat dogs. Smith takes clear delight, however, in pushing the caricature one step further. In linking humans’ desire to lord it over the likes of Jumbo with the sacred job of mothering, she insinuates that perhaps people are not as far removed from the harshness of nature as they wish to believe.
“A Mother’s Hearse” and “The Wanderer”
Crass as one may find such an intimation, Smith doggedly pursues the possibility that “the love of a mother for her child/ Is not necessarily a beautiful thing” (“A Mother’s Hearse”). “Mother, if mother-love enclosure be,” one child protests, “It were enough, my dear, not quite to hate me.” While another Brontë-like waif trails about tapping at windowpanes and crying that “you have weaned me too soon, you must nurse me again,” the speaker corrects the misapprehension of the unhappy ghost. Would she indeed “be happier if she were within?” Smith guesses not: “She is happier far where the night winds fall,/ And there are no doors and no windows at all” (“The Wanderer”).
Just as God and beasts are understood to restrict the possibility for human action by having prior claim on both divine instruction and animal instinct, claustrophobia of the will looms over the enterprise of motherhood. What Smith seems, in fact, to be suggesting is the unattractive possibility that domination is one of the primary (and primal) motivations of humankind. The desire to dominate warps even the best-intentioned of projects and even love.
“Papa Love Baby”
If mothers threaten to smother their little darlings, the conspicuous absence of paternal will allows children to rule in worlds of lopsided power. The gigantic quantity of control one presumes that parents wield over their toddlers, for example, dwindles rather rapidly in “Papa Love Baby” when the child administers judgment:
I sat upright in my baby carriageAnd wished mama hadn’t made such a foolish marriage.I tried to hide it, but it showed in my eyes unfortunatelyAnd a fortnight later papa ran away to...
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Stevie Smith 1902–1971
(Born Florence Margaret Smith) English poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, and scriptwriter.
Noted for her light, comic verse, Smith's work is characterized by her unique use of sound and meaning. Her poems—many of which combine elements from nursery rhymes, songs, and hymns—are characterized by a simplicity of diction and a youthful, lively wit. However, critics maintain that this uncomplicated style often belies Smith's incorporation of dark, profoundly serious themes, in particular her preoccupation with religion, suicide, and death.
Born in Hull, Yorkshire, in 1902, Smith moved with her mother, sister, and aunt to the London suburb of Palmer's Green, a place she would reside in for the rest of her life. After completing high school and attending the North London Collegiate School for Girls, she became a secretary at George Newnes, a magazine publishing firm. In her twenties Smith began to write poetry which eventually appeared in Granta magazine. She published her first novel, Novel on Yellow Paper, in 1936 and her earliest verse collection, A Good Time Was Had by All, one year later. In 1953, Smith retired from Newnes and devoted the rest of her life to writing. She died from a brain tumor in 1971.
A Good Time Was Had by All is characterized by short, humorous verse often accompanied by childlike sketches of people and animals. In this initial volume Smith incorporated themes that would be present throughout her work, primarily a rejection of traditional Christian doctrine and a lifelong preoccupation with suicide and death. Also, A Good Time Was Had by All evinced stylistic considerations that are deemed emblematic of her poetry, in particular the concise, economic use of form; the mixing of archaic and modern subjects, imagery, and language; and the use of light, amusing verse to convey dark, serious themes.
Although Smith's early poetry attracted considerable attention for its unique style and penetrating themes, critics ignored much of her later work, often categorizing the poems as insignificant. Regardless of the mixed reaction, she was commended for her use of sound and rhythm and was noted for the oral interpretation of her work, often chanting her poems or setting them to popular songs. With
the recent reissue of several of Smith's poetry collections and the publication of Me Again: Uncollected Writings of Stevie Smith (1981) commentators have favorably reevaluated her work and have praised its truly original voice.
A Good Time Was Had by All 1937
Tender Only to One 1938
Mother, What Is Man? 1942
Harold's Leap 1950
Not Waving but Drowning 1957
Selected Poems 1962
The Frog Prince 1966
The Best Beast 1969
Scorpion and Other Poems 1972
Collected Poems 1975
Selected Poems 1978
Me Again: Uncollected Writings of Stevie Smith (poems, essays, short fiction, and letters) 1981
Other Major Works
Novel on Yellow Paper (novel) 1936
Over the Frontier (novel) 1938
The Holiday (novel) 1949
SOURCE: "Frivolous and Vulnerable," in New Statesman, Vol. LXIV, No. 1646, September 28, 1962, pp. 416, 418.
[A major poet of the post-World War II era, Larkin was also a novelist and critic. In the following essay, he favorably reviews Selected Poems.]
Finding Stevie Smith's Not Waving But Drowning in a bookshop one Christmas some years ago, I was sufficiently impressed by it to buy a number of copies for random distribution among friends. The surprise this caused them was partly, no doubt, due to the reaction that before the war led us to emend the celebrated cigarette-advertisement 'If So-and-So [usually a well-known theatrical personality] offered you a cigarette it would be a Kensitas' by substituting for the brand name the words bloody miracle. But equally they were, I think, bothered to know whether I seriously expected them to admire it. The more I insisted that I did, the more suspicious they became. An unfortunate episode.
Not that I blame them. I am not aware that Stevie Smith's poems have ever received serious critical assessment, though recently I have seen signs that this may not be far off. They are certainly presented with that hallmark of frivolity, drawings, and if my friends had been asked to place Miss Smith they would no doubt have put her somewhere in the uneasy marches between humorous and children's. She has also written a book about cats, which as far as I am concerned casts a shadow over even the most illustrious name. Nevertheless, her poems, to my mind, have two virtues: they are completely original, and now and again they are moving. These qualities alone set them above 95 per cent of present-day output.
Her mode of writing, broadly speaking, is that of the faussenaïve, the 'feminine' doodler or jotter who puts down everything as it strikes her, no matter how silly or tragic, in a kind of Gertrude Stein-Daisy Ashford-Lorelei Lee way. This method derives from her novels, those strange monologues (beginning in 1936 with Novel On Yellow Paper, or, Work It Out For Yourself) by a girl called Pompey or Celia, who works in some office or ministry, has childhood memories of the Humber, and at times breaks out into poems that are subsequently reprinted under the name of Stevie Smith.
I must admit I cannot remember a single thing that happens in any of them, but looking at them afresh I am struck now, as then, by the ease with which they skitter from 'Phew-oops dearie, this was a facer, and a grand new opening gambit that I hadn't heard before' to 'I feel I am an instrument of God, that is not altogether the Christian God; that I am an instrument of God that must calcine these clods, that are at the same time stupid and vulgar, and set free this God's prisoners, that are swift, white and beautiful and very bright and flaming-fierce.' The accent of The Holiday (1949) is unremittingly artificial, yet the extraordinary scene at the end where Celia writes her uncle's sermon and begins to read it to him catches the attention in a way that suggests it is a key passage:
There is little landscape where you are going and no warmth. In that landscape of harsh winter where the rivers are frozen fast, and the only sound is the crash of winter tree-branches beneath the weight of the snow that is piled on them, for the birds that might have been singing froze long ago, dropping like stone from the cold sky … The soul, frivolous and vulnerable, will now lie down and draw the snow over her for a blanket. Now she is terrified, look, the tears freeze as they stand in her eyes. She is naked in this desert, she has no friends, she is alone.
This is not the note of a comic writer, and it is a note that sounds throughout her work again and again.
When one turns to the 'poems and drawings' (it is not easy to get hold of A Good Time Was Had By All or Tender Only To One, the pre-war volumes), it is a tossup whether one is too irritated by the streak of facetiousness ('Kathleen ni Houlihan Walking down the boule-igan Ran into a hooligan' etc.) to find the pieces which carry the unique and curious flavour for which they come to be sought. There are, to be frank, a few poems in every book that should never have got outside the family. Nor do the drawings help: a mixture of 'cute' and 'crazy', they have an amateurishness reminiscent of Lear, Waugh and Thurber without much compensating felicity. But one does not have to read far before coming on...
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SOURCE: "Did Nobody Teach You?" in Encounter, Vol. XXXVI, No. 6, June, 1971, pp. 53-7.
[Enright is an English author who has spent most of his career abroad, teaching English literature at universities in Egypt, Japan, Berlin, Thailand, and Singapore. The author of critically respected works in a variety of genres, he is best known for his poetry, which is conversational in style and often reflects his humanistic values through portraits of Far Eastern life. According to William Walsh, "Enright is a poet with a bias toward light and intelligibility, " and his critical essays are frequently marked by sardonic treatment of what he considers the culturally pretentious in literature. In the...
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SOURCE: "Stevie Smith," in Eight Contemporary Poets: Charles Tomlinson, Donald Davie, R. S. Thomas, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, Thomas Kinsella, Stevie Smith, W. S. Graham, Oxford University Press, 1974, pp. 139-58.
[In the following essay, Bedient provides an overview of Smith's poetry.]
Stevie Smith had a wonderfully various mind and her work is a forest of themes and attitudes. In large part it was her intelligence and honesty that led to this—to the protean, compound substance we all are. She was rather fierce about the truth—a modern peculiarity. The encouragement the age gives to both acceptance and doubt, the way it leaves us with the museum of everything...
(The entire section is 6620 words.)
SOURCE: "A Memorable Voice: Stevie Smith," in Preoccupations: Selected Prose, 1968-1978, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1980, pp. 199-201.
[Heaney is a well-known Irish poet and editor. In the essay below, originally published in Irish Times in 1976, he praises the "memorable voice " of Smith's poetry.]
Always inclined to the brisk definition, W. H. Auden once declared that poetry was memorable speech. The Collected Poems of the late Stevie Smith prompt one to revise that: poetry is memorable voice. The unknown quantity in my response to the book was the memory of the poet's own performance of her verse, her voice pitching between querulousness and keening, her...
(The entire section is 864 words.)
SOURCE: "Delivered for a Time from Silence," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1977, pp. 314—30.
[Below, Helmling commends the stylistic and thematic diversity of Collected Poems.]
Although Stevie Smith's reputation has been growing for years, her readers typically retain the impression of a talent that appeared suddenly and recently, even if their first encounters with her occurred long ago. Her simplicity, her directness, her charm, that wickedly knowing naiveté which, seeming so narrow, nevertheless embraces extremes of delight, melancholy, impatience, and anger: these things have a way of taking the mind by storm. There are other contemporary poets...
(The entire section is 5190 words.)
SOURCE: "Stevie Smith and the Gleeful Macabre," in Contemporary Poetry, Vol. 111, No. 4, 1978, pp. 36-49.
Florence Margaret Smith, who retained her nickname Stevie throughout her adulthood and published under its androgynous rubric, reveled in incongruities. Her poetic speakers shift from male to female, conformist to nonconformist, simple to complex, and adult to child; at times, indeed they are both alive and dead. She frequently set her poems to well-known tunes and sang them rather tonelessly to willing listeners, and she often appended sketches whose relationship to the text is problematical. Her syntax is odd, her rhymes unexpected, her numbers idiosyncratic, and as a result her work is...
(The entire section is 2929 words.)
SOURCE: "Daddy, Mummy and Stevie: The Child-Guise in Stevie Smith's Poetry," in Modern Poetry Studies, Vol. 11, No. 3, 1983, pp. 232-44.
Critics agree that in Stevie Smith's work "cleverness and innocence … are curiously and winningly combined." They also agree that she is a difficult writer to peg—she is "unhousled," "unplaceable," and "open to every likelihood and perhaps finally partial to none." Commentators on Smith's poetry fall back on adjectives such as "sprightly" and variations of the catch-all "charming." While they never dare utter "eccentric old dear," it seems to be on the tips of their tongues. Like most critics who attempt to deal with Stevie Smith, the anonymous reviewer...
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SOURCE: An introduction to Stevie Smith: A Selection, edited by Hermione Lee, Faber & Faber, 1983, pp. 17-31.
[Lee is an English educator and critic. In the following essay, she offers a thematic and stylistic analysis of Smith's poetry.]
Like much of Stevie Smith's work, this poem ('The Hostage') makes a reasoned, humorous, and dignified case for welcoming Death, as Seneca and the Stoics did. But it is a useful starting point in other ways, too. The lady's unexplained dramatic situation ('You hang at dawn, they said') is one of many mysterious journeys, fatal or fortunate quests, in Stevie Smith's poems and fictions. Her characters are perpetually saying goodbye...
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SOURCE: "Stevie Smith," in The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Poets: Eleven British Writers, edited by Jeni Couzyn, Bloodaxe Books, 1985, pp. 33-40.
[Couzyn is a South African poet and dramatist. In the following essay, she addresses autobiographical aspects of Smith's poetry.]
Of the house in North London where she lived from her fourth birthday until her death at sixty-eight, Stevie Smith has written:
It was a house of female habitation,
Two ladies fair inhabited the house,
And they were brave. For although Fear knocked loud
Upon the door, and said he must come in,
They did not let him...
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SOURCE: "Play, Fantasy and Strange Laughter: Stevie Smith's Uncomfortable Poetry," in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 3, Autumn, 1986, pp. 85-96.
Miss Pauncefort sang at the top of her voice
(Sing tirry-lirry-lirry down the lane)
And nobody knew what she sang about
(Sing tirry-lirry-lirry all the same)
Stevie Smith's off-key, enigmatically childish poetry has always irritated as much as charmed her critics. It fits no obvious category and, though Smith's popularity as a novelist as well as a poet has continued to grow since her death in 1971, her critical reputation remains ambiguous and unconfirmed....
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SOURCE: "Stevie Smith and the Anxiety of Intimacy," in The CEA Critic, Vol. 53, No. 2, Winter, 1991, pp. 22-31.
[Upton is an American poet, educator, and critic. In the following essay, he analyzes the defining characteristics of Smith's verse, in particular her "anxiety over intimacy and self-disclosure."]
By enacting separation and difference, Stevie Smith dramatizes a portrait of the poet as a destroyer of habitual assumptions about affiliation. Her most compelling and characteristic movements are departures rather than arrivals, endings rather than beginnings. Characteristically, her speakers demonstrate an anxiety over intimacy and selfdisclosure.
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SOURCE: "Stevie Smith's Voices," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 33, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 24-45.
[Below, Stevenson explores the modes of expression in Smith's verse, maintaining that the "multivoiced character" of many of her poems "arise[s] from her emphasis on contending voices and her echoes of specific literary traditions and texts."]
Among tales of sixties poetry festivals, jazz-infused events that sometimes drew crowds in the thousands, one finds the legend of a woman in her sixties, small and frail, wearing schoolgirl dresses and white stockings, often sharing the stage with a much younger, denim- and leather-clad male gang. Such a setting (like that of a...
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Barbera, Jack; McBrien, William; and Bajan, Helen, eds. Stevie Smith: A Bibliography. London: Mansell Publishing Ltd., 1987, 183 p.
Catalogues Smith's poetry, literary reviews, and essays. The editors maintain: "In addition to its function as an aid in locating her publications and the material written about her, our bibliography in itself documents the extent of those writings and is an outline of her career."
Barbera, Jack, and McBrien, William. Stevie: A Biography of Stevie Smith. London: Heinemann, 1985, 378 p.
(The entire section is 642 words.)
Smith, Stevie (Vol. 25)
Stevie Smith 1902–1971
(Born Florence Margaret Smith) English poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, and scriptwriter.
Smith is most noted for her light, comic verse and unorthodox writing style. Her poems—many of which combine elements from nursery rhymes, songs, and hymns—are characterized by a simplicity of diction and a youthful, lively wit. They are not, however, whimsical or fey. Underneath their surface gaiety lurks a stunning intellectual clarity. Obsessed with thoughts of death and religion throughout her life, Smith's poems fluctuate between moods of dark, cynical speculation and frivolous abandon.
Although definitely not confessional, Smith's novels, like much of her poetry, are somewhat autobiographical. Novel on Yellow Paper, Over the Frontier, and The Holiday have as a central character a young girl who, like Smith in her youth, works in a London office and lives in a suburb with an aunt. These novels, like Smith's poetry, are full of humor but are also strung through with notes of despair and portraits of lonely people aware of the quick, sometimes brutal movement of life. With the recent republication of several of Smith's early works and the publication of Me Again: Uncollected Writings of Stevie Smith, new comment on this unusual writer is beginning to appear. Critics are once again expressing their feeling that Smith's work is difficult to classify. Many are also reiterating the belief that it is nonetheless among the most intriguing and original of its day.
(See also CLC, Vols. 3, 8; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, Vols. 29-32, rev. ed. [obituary]; and Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)
Stevie Smith had a wonderfully various mind and her work is a forest of themes and attitudes. In large part it was her intelligence and honesty that led to this—to the protean, compound substance we all are. She was rather fierce about the truth—a modern peculiarity. The encouragement the age gives to both acceptance and doubt, the way it leaves us with the museum of everything without much trust in any of it, made her at once diverse and sardonic. '… we are born in an age of unrest', observes Celia, the narrator of her third novel, The Holiday (1949), 'and unrestful we are, with a vengeance.' Evidently Smith was prone to be sardonic anyway. Perhaps because her father had deserted to a life on the sea when she was young, she was quick to turn 'cold and furious' about anything selfish or unjust. Calling the heroines of her novels after Casmilus, 'shiftiest of namesakes, most treacherous lecherous and delinquent of Olympians', she seems also to have been nagged by a sense of unworthiness that may have gained strength from the same experience. In any case, fatherless, she would be 'nervy, bold and grim'; she would fend for herself. And clever as the next person, in fact cleverer, she would be nobody's fool, nor suffer foolishness. All this gives a wickedly unstable and swift slashing quality to her work. She herself is not to be trusted—except to be formidable, unpredictable, remorseless. To a degree, however, Death stood in for Smith's father; she looked up to it, ran to it when she was hurt, needed its love. In Novel on Yellow Paper (1937), the heroine, Pompey, is sent to a convalescent home at age eight and there appalled by a maid's 'arbitrary' motherly feeling; 'it was so insecure, so without depth or significance. It was so similar in outward form, and so asunder and apart, so deceitful and so barbarous in significance.' Soon after, she becomes afraid for her mother, who suffers from heart disease—and terrified once again for herself, since there is nothing she can do: she is reduced to 'fury and impotence', 'a very hateful combination'. Thus startled into distrust of life, she discovers the great trustworthiness of death. 'Always the buoyant, ethereal and noble thought is in my mind: Death is my servant.' Let life do its worst, the black knight can be summoned. Indeed, what could be more liberating for the mind, keep it 'so quick and so swift and so glancing, and so proud'?
Thus allied, this clever poet was free to dance around life rather mockingly. (pp. 139-40)
Smith's combination of honesty and 'wicked bounce' makes her work a tonic. Considering the risks she ran, she wrote remarkably few poems that are clever or zany for their own sake. If her novels are too clever by half, the poems are as clever as they should be—clever beyond reasonable expectation. Much as she plays with her moods and insights, much as she remains sprightly and astonishingly inventive in poem after poem from the first volumes of the late Thirties to the posthumous Scorpion and Other Poems (1971), her work has almost always the dignity of disciplined seriousness. Of course like the sketches that often accompany them, many are slight—but they are frankly hors d'oeuvres, and justified by their unique tone or epigrammatic incisiveness. (p. 140)
Smith's secret bethrothal to death [did not] keep her from delight in life—from loving friends or the earth with 'the waters around [it] curled'. Indeed, she was blessed with a capacity for careless, innocent joy—an 'instinctuality', in words from The Holiday, that brought 'with it so much glee … so much of a truly imperial...
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From the first poems in [her Collected Poems], Smith's jingling eccentric rhythms and faux naifs social observations seem as finished and as edgy as the later, more familiar poems. The pieces are blunt, whimsical with an acidic toughness that belies their nursery-rhymed, chatty forms. Consciously resembling Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience, Smith's poems purport to be innocent, or at least unaware of the final reaches of their suggestiveness. (Like Blake, too, she illustrates her own poems—with wobblingly childish line-drawings.) But the tightness of her forms avoids external emotionalizing or sentiment: the prancing rhythms and the obsessive, even nonsensical rhymes make the childishness of the form more penetrating, more subtly half-familiar, than a booming rhetoric or a free-verse profundity would do. And like Theodore Roethke, for instance, who in his "Lost Son" poems returns to nursery rhymes and to clinking rhythms in order to increase the terrors of childhood in the philogenic adult mind, Smith uses the childishness of the form to deal with adult obsessions. Surprisingly, the result is neither coy nor sentimental…. (pp. 448-49)
Pithy and compassionate, jauntily conversational, modest in their specific gravity and in their refusal to overreach in rhetoric or in gesture, Smith's poems stay at home, worrying the everyday circumstances and demanding a clear look at the spiritually unavoidable. And the mystery seems always to seep through the closed door, the telephone, the mailslot: Smith is, consciously, an Emily Dickinson figure, caught like Dickinson in the modern tug between the self-denigrating faith of an Edwards and the congratulatory self-reliance of an Emerson. For Smith the tension is even greater, if that is possible, because the terms of the split have become culturally more overt. In this tension she may become silly at times, but even that occasional tone of forced whimsy also bespeaks her tautly honest sense of the modern importance of the single individual. And like the obsessive internal rhyming of Sylvia Plath's best (late) poems, Smith's formal integrity saves the poems from self-indulgence and deepens the terror of the quotidian…. (p. 449)
Stephen Tapscott, "Book Reviews: 'The Collected Poems of Stevie Smith'," in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1978, by the University of Georgia), Vol. XXXII, No. 2, Summer, 1978, pp. 446-50.
The kind of poet Stevie Smith is begins to emerge from a close look at the Collected Poems. She does not develop, in any helpful sense of the word: the first handful of poems announce her concerns as clearly as do the final, posthumous poems. The consistency of technique and craftsmanship is as sure in 1937 as it is in 1969. To say that, though, is to acknowledge the inconsistency too, in that quite often the reader is left wondering whether Stevie Smith knew or cared when she had written a poem not quite true to her Muse. The answer to that sort of nagging doubt is probably that she knew but didn't care all that much. There is a deliberate carelessness in much of her writing which reflects her own rather cavalier attitude both to the world and to poetry, and this carelessness is something the reader has to confront, because it becomes, oddly enough, one of her peculiar strengths…. Stevie Smith is sufficiently sure of herself to throw at her audience quite a lot of what, in another context, she calls 'balsy nonsense', in the knowledge that, when she has to, she can redeem herself. This process of giving with one hand what she takes away with the other operates through all her work, and it is one which is itself disturbing for readers and critics. We do, after all, like our poets to develop, and to take themselves seriously. But the tendency to see all poets in terms of growth towards maturity, however natural and understandable, is not always illuminating: Keats has suffered because of it, so too has John Clare. Clare in fact provides a useful pointer in the argument, in that he has endured a fate similar to Stevie Smith's at the hands of critics prepared to acknowledge his presence but unwilling to absorb him into their patterns of critical discourse. You will not find Clare getting much of a mention in surveys of the Romantics and Victorians, and this is as much a hint as to his true stature as an indication of his supposedly minor significance. Furthermore, Clare evinces the same sort of inconsistency. Stevie Smith likewise stands outside any tradition of the day, and in so doing acts as a comment on what is happening elsewhere; she becomes a touchstone, just as to read Clare is to see him apart from his contemporaries and to see them in a new light.
The comparison with Clare is especially illuminating if we think of Clare's asylum poetry, where his lyricism achieves its fullest and most self-contained flight. Song after song spills out of the notebooks in a profusion that seems to challenge the rigours of critical analysis. It is in the aslyum poems that Clare comes closest to Blake. It seems to me significant that Blake, too, can be heard behind and through several of Stevie Smith's poems, and these allusions help to clarify the nature of the critical problem. For, alongside the innocence of Clare, alongside the small cluster of recurrent preoccupations which mark Clare's work and Stevie Smith's, there is the simple directness of Blake as he appears in the Songs of Innocence and of Experience. (pp. 42-3)
Stevie Smith cultivates a particular type of simplicity which has its echoes of Blake especially, but the temptation to move towards greater abstruseness and complexity is always there, and a number of poems can be seen to fail when they succumb in this way: The risks of simplicity, so far as the poet is concerned, are enormous, particularly in an age which distrusts what is simple, which easily perceives when the simple becomes the simplistic. The arch, the knowing, the coy—simplicity attracts such labels. It seems to me that one of Stevie Smith's most important qualities is her...
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The most striking characteristic of [Stevie Smith's] work is the rhythm, a speech rhythm slipping naturally into metre and out again, a rhythm so strong that it overrides considerations of syntax and punctuation and—in releasing language from its formal structures—finds new forms, new tones. Language thus released from traditional bonds and held tenuously in new bonds of rhythm, doggerel rhyme, assonance, and tone of voice, becomes capable of a range of expression unusual in more traditional usage—though she forfeits certain formal effects, of course.
As she treats language, so she treats our common reality. Her fanciful vision illuminates our world and elements of our common experience. It...
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The impression of Stevie Smith in [Me Again: Uncollected Writings] is overwhelming, almost too much so: it is not so much a question of her putting a head round the door and trilling Whoopee here I am again, as of plumping herself down in one's lap. That is an impression she would not have wished to make. She was not only an intensely professional writer but a sort of Parnassian, whatever contrary impression the idiom of her poems may give. Her sweetest songs were those which tell of saddest thought, but tell of it by odd contraries….
The originality of her poems seems like isolation made visible. They are childish in the sense in which Henry James's children are childish, little images of...
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She once ended a letter with 'lots of buoyant love and hollow laughter'—words that set the tone for this volume of Stevie Smith's uncollected writings. It consists of reviews, essays, poems, stories, letters and a radio play. The letters are lively, witty and affectionate; it is they, with the reviews and essays, that are the most worthwhile things in [Me Again: Uncollected Writings].
There is perhaps a little too much space given to her evocations of Palmer's Green, the North London suburb where she spent virtually her whole life and which she loved to describe. But on life within the house she is original and celebratory in her own throw-away, ironic manner. (p. 660)
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Stevie Smith said that she was straightforward, but not simple, which is a version of not waving but drowning. She presented to the world the face which is invented when reticence goes over to the attack, and becomes mystification. If you visited Blake and were told not to sit on a certain chair because it was for the spirit of Michelangelo, or if Emily Dickinson handed you a single flower, you needed time to find out how far the mystification was meant to keep you at a distance, and to give you something to talk about when you got home. Eccentricity can go very well with sincerity, and, in Stevie's case, with shrewdness. She calculated the effect of her collection of queer hats and sticks, her face 'pale as sand',...
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Because of the play and film Stevie, many people know a bit about the poet and novelist Stevie Smith. Me Again is a good and welcome book, telling us more. Not much more, because Stevie Smith, though she wrote so clearly out of her own life, never gave much of herself away. But here are her stories and essays, her previously uncollected poems, and a few letters, all in her particular, sharpish voice, full of her particular wit and her particular loneliness….
Several of the short stories in Me Again—and they are very good, perhaps the best things in it—are classics of the visitor's point of view. Here are quarrelling, loving couples, and marvellous monstrous children; the...
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The uncollected work assembled for "Me Again" is not a case of spinning a deceased artist's old notes to the milkman into timely gold. This collection, though imperfect, holds treasures….
Stevie—nee Florence Margaret—Smith constantly "blurred distinctions between one form of writing and another." She quoted her poems in her stories and essays, transplanted ideas (sometimes word for word across years) from her essays to her book reviews and drew heavily from her own life in almost everything she wrote.
The stories in "Me Again"—and these are all of Stevie Smith's stories—are an uneven lot. The opener, "Beside the Sea," has shining moments but fails in its stilted speech and...
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Anyone who is what Sylvia Plath called herself—a "Smith-addict"—will find [Me Again: Uncollected Writings of Stevie Smith] completely absorbing….
The final item in this collection—the radio play—at first appears to be a hoax, a poetry reading masquerading as drama. Gradually, however, it transpires that the Interviewer is Death, the author's "earliest love." From then on I was spellbound. One speech begins, "There is little laughter where you are going and no warmth." It reads like a translation from Rilke. A few moments such as this fully compensate for a prevailing defect that is signaled to us by the very title of the book.
Elizabeth Lutyens said that Miss Smith...
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[The] heroine of "Novel on Yellow Paper" muses to herself, by way of alleviating—or tabulating—the "orgy of boredom" to which her soul is committed: though the voice, the quirky, rambling, ingenuous, stubborn, funny-peculiar voice, could as easily be that of any other Stevie Smith heroine. In fact, Pompey Casmilus—christened Patience—is the narrator of both "Novel on Yellow Paper" and "Over the Frontier"; and the slightly more subdued Celia of "The Holiday" is clearly a close relation. And each chatty voice bears a close resemblance to that of Stevie Smith's own in her numerous essays, reviews and BBC talks.
Since her death in 1971 at the age of 69, Stevie Smith has been honored by...
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Smith, Stevie (Vol. 3)
Smith, Stevie 1902–1971
Stevie Smith was a British poet and novelist best known for her humorous light verse. She often accompanied her poems with drawings and sometimes set them to music based on Gregorian chant or hymn tunes. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18.)
[Stevie Smith's poetry is severe,] simple, bracing, impersonal. If 'this is truly Greek, and what the Greek is', then Stevie Smith is somewhat Greek. If to be classical is not to be (in a number of senses of that peculiar adjective) romantic, then she is in some senses classical. Like these adjectives, she is equivocal, not half as simple as she seems. For instance, there is a sparsity of great expectations in her out-look, or so it would appear….
[While] you can usually dart through Miss Smith's poems with immediate enjoyment, some of them are deep and (though they make no overt demand in this direction) deserve and repay considerable thought….
If classicism is avoidance of the romantic, then one can adduce her best-known because most obvious attributes: the perverse off-rhyming (she goes out of her way to rhyme impurely, but at other times thumps down on the most obvious if pure rhyme), the inevitably comic and deflatory effect of rhyming English words with French, and the bathos which … she had to work for….
Steve Smith's Christianity—she described herself as an agnostic Anglican, and she seems to me to have known a lot about Christianity, what it was, or what it could be—was no Phantom Spiritual State, no theological preserve or Sunday subject, but very much part and parcel of everyday life. Perhaps the sensed kinship with George Herbert resides here.
'Unromantic' too are her reservations on the subject of Love. Or Love as it is generally written about….
For all the dippiness, she was a moralist firm in degree and central in kind, and a moralist in the best sense, for she felt while she judged. The engaging combination of overt sternness with underlying gentleness is shiningly present in 'Valuable'….
As for eccentricity and quaintness, Miss Smith's themes are commonly the large ones, central to the human condition. Extremely interesting, and sufficient to dispose of any suggestion of her being a 'naïf', are her reflections on death and suicide….
In its essence Steve Smith's poetry is uncluttered, and hence must leave out, for instance, the reservations and modifications and clarifications which a denser and slower-moving writing admits. But it leaves out what it could not accommodate and still be the kind of poetry it is: and that is all it leaves out. A reader may well prefer other kinds of poetry, of course, but he cannot make out that her poetry is one of those other kinds which has somehow 'gone wrong'. When it succeeds, it obeys its own laws, and they are not unduly restrictive…. At the worst her poems are rather dull, and one asks 'So what?': that is the way of failing of her kind of poetry. I think she fails surprisingly rarely, especially if we read the poems in bulk, when among themselves they provide their own qualifications and refine their arguments.
D. J. Enright, "Did Nobody Teach You?: Stevie Smith" (1971), in his Man Is An Onion: Reviews and Essays, Chatto & Windus, 1972, pp. 137-48.
Now that Stevie Smith's poems are collected (Two in One came out towards the end of ), it's possible to see her true character and to counter a few fallacies attached to her reputation. Far from being a naïve writer, faux or otherwise, she was highly sophisticated, making use of a great European tradition—that of Märchen or magical folk tales. Her verse is closer to the Brothers Grimm and Wilhelm Busch than it is to English Nonsense Poetry. Her Anglicanized irregularities were very subtly carried-out: her unshockable eye and brilliant ear enabled her to cover almost all the unmentionable topics in poems which would hardly offend Headmistresses or the Festival of Light. For her, God had neither died nor gone away, but lived next door and was a very bad neighbour. She talked to Him about His Catholic Church and His atrocities. She remained on the side of the progressives, but without much faith in the future. Her poetry satisfies that love of the familiar and the accidental which people bring from their childhoods. Her ghostly narratives and comic rhymes coax their readers into seeing how deep the world about them is. Few other poets made their public performances such occasions of pleasure. It's to the credit of both poet and audience that the communication was always so strong and so genuine.
Peter Porter, "Experts," in London Magazine, June-July, 1972, pp. 144-49.
Poems about childhood, especially mother and daughter relationships, are sufficiently numerous to enforce the particular importance of childhood in Stevie Smith's range of poetic material. There is a negative side to this, too: many of the childhood poems concern the disastrous outcomes of parental irresponsibility, in which the father is the prime villain, as in "Parents"….
Many of her poems about the obverse affections of children and women are elegantly misanthropic, like so much of modern fiction; some barely escape the criticism of being malicious, but they are usually arrested by a sense of moral affront, of love wasted and hence despicable….
Reading Stevie Smith's books through is a task of sorting her authentic poems from a mass of quisquiliae. Her humorous light verse is delicious, and though one is grateful for a smile in a graveyard, or a mad, bad Byronic rhyme (lent a/magenta) there is often very little else, although her clerihews are as good as some recent attempts at inane brevity….
One often wants not to criticize Stevie Smith's poems, merely to accept them in the spirit or mood they create. They arouse not so much sympathy as a feeling of agreeable association; not so much the sense that one is reading good poems or bad poems but rather that one is experiencing a species of writing so uniquely the distillation of one set of circumstances as to fall outside all literary categories. There are some who rejoice in the sheer dottiness of the writing, her wilfully extravagant eccentricity of manner; others approve the comic invention, and that essential English type, the animal lover, dotes on the cat that galloped about doing good; others enjoy the innocent response to nature, which they see, along with her manner, as refreshingly unliterary; and others, in the Age of Graphics, like the idea of the "higher doodling" which frequently complements the verse.
Stevie Smith's style is, however, remarkably intricate, and the drawings are part of it. She has been compared to Blake; but if she is like Blake, it is a Blake whose innocent visionary control has been hardened by the energy of Lawrence. Her sustained atrabiliousness could only have been possible in her medium of tragi-comic facetiousness. "Gloomth" is played in a deliberately peculiar style which makes it possible to flaunt banalities under the cover of jokes, comic skits, moral vignettes, character sketches, stories. Lines often shock themselves out of a state of doggerel: and just how much art is actually involved in the process of transformation she is always at pains to disguise. Technique is made to appear so much a question of personality it hardly counts. The effect is often picayune, a perverse harbouring of mannerisms, a relish for the zany that can become tiring.
There is an intriguing dimension to Stevie Smith's work. It involves a tension between the colloquial speech of her class—in a setting of disappointment—and an archaic flavour of metre, verse and diction. The antithesis is both socially and artistically significant; she is very much the bard of distressed gentlefolk, of a vanishing ideal England which inherits emotional turgidity….
At her best, Stevie Smith was one of the most musical poets of her generation….
Stevie Smith is a problem-poet to the critic. She encourages him to be too earnest, or too lax. Verse narratives no longer appeal to the critical or poetical imagination as they used to: the repeated poems of religious doubt, the to-die or not-to-die vacillations (not drowning but waving, it could be called), upper-crust loneliness or malefaction, the despairs of the plain-faced, can be tedious at their worst. There is a great deal of moral captioning; many of her poems are as much "the higher doodling" as her drawings. But an interesting intelligence is engaged in her work—and it is a literary intelligence as much as the feeling that came from her despair: feminine, powerful, and far from inconsiderable. Too many people have read only the surface in which she disguised it. And if there are no true, plain love poems, no sonnets, no baroque cultural greetings sent out across the centuries, no masterful samples of orthodox iambic pentameter, it is because she was inscrutably loyal to her inner life and the styles she used to express it. Her career is a moving record of dedication, faithful to no fashion, astute and quirky perhaps, but unflinchingly honest.
"The Voice of Genteel Decay," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), July 14, 1972, p. 820.
Smith, Stevie (Vol. 8)
Smith, Stevie 1902–1971
A British poet and novelist, Smith wrote comic verse revealing a stunning intellectual clarity. Although death is a recurrent theme throughout her work, Smith's concern with mortality does not convey a romantic self-indulgence, but rather a clear-sighted, realistic joy in life's struggle. (See also CLC, Vol. 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18; obituary, Vols. 29-32, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)
Entrancing and sad together, over and over [in her Collected Poems Smith] draws up what isn't so often joy or happiness but a pure delight from her desolation. Above all, she's complete. By this I mean that we have a sense from her work of a whole and coherent world which corresponds to our own, but our own transfigured and revealed by the slightest tilting of things. She might be a female Cavafy, as her many odd anecdotes suggest, their very slightness involving and then haunting the reader. Her people are our people: they have that combination of presence and intangibility of people we meet and know.
She is like Cavafy, too, in her disdain to search for nonexistent clouds of glory….
She learnt to live with the absence of a God she still pined for …; and perhaps it was a sense of the vast and growing empty spaces which put such an edge to her feeling for the concrete: dogs, cats, houses, books, suburbs, hats and baronets were all taken into that sinuous style in which, however apparently garrulous, not a word is wasted. Or perhaps it was death, which possessed her work from the start. Certainty of extinction inhabits these poems, providing the impetus for her other great theme: the importance of art; sharpening and deepening a sense of the ridiculous which is inseparable from her sensuousness. What she knew she loved and what she loved she described. (p. 314)
Peter Washington, in The Spectator (© 1975 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), September 6, 1975.
To read [Stevie Smith's Collected Poems] is to admire the consistency of her poetic enterprise over thirty-five years—a kind of poetic cartooning which amounts to a classic literary record of English cultural life. The calculated technical naiveties are symptomatic of an emotional candour and intellectual clarity which detects mystery but refuses to be mystified, a kind of comic vulnerability before experience. The tough, clear-eyed critical reasonableness is detectible from start to finish beneath the zany verbal japes. (p. 80)
Terry Eagleton, in Stand (copyright © by Stand), Vol. 17, No. 1 (1975–76).
Stevie Smith's poetry gives joy as it has not been given before and will not be given again. She is, for me, among the unhousled moderns, the eccentric ones, in a class not with Betjeman, to whom she is sometimes compared, but with Graves and Lawrence. (p. 172)
Compassion seems too soft a word for Stevie Smith's stance toward her fellow human beings. Rather, she wants them to be better than they are, and her disappointment, unpitying as it is, takes the form of love. For relief she looks to the other creatures who do not have to be saved. This, as one sees, for instance, in The Zoo, is one of the many Blakean aspects of her writing. A lion is caged and waiting, a child is watching, the lion "licks his snout, the tears fall down/And water dusty London town." What shall we say to the child?… To each thing its purpose—but it is this that we deny to the animals. (pp. 172-73)
Her animal-portraits are of creatures great, good, obtuse, and ornery. Fafnir the dragon, the noble dog Belvoir: these have names, the indispensable panache, and prompt whole poems. But one must not forget innumerable birds, of song or ill-omen, donkeys as memorable as Peter Bell's, cats, scorpions, hybrids that are not quite themselves, and the anacondas "not looking ill-fed" who intimidate a Jungle Husband named Wilfred. The human portraits, surely exhaustive, include Monsieur Poop, "self-appointed guardian of English literature", who believes "tremendously in the significance of age"; Lord Mope; Tolly the toll of the roads; Mr. Mounsel who is "dying Egypt dying"; the Frog Prince; Helen of Troy—or rather, one who "had a dream I was Helen of Troy / In looks, age and circumstance, / But otherwise I was myself"; one Harold, who takes a risky leap; Childe Rolandine the secretary-typist, with her song "Against oppression and the rule of wrong"; Dido; Walt Whitman; and the Person from Porlock. Yet the nameless are often as distinctive as the named. (p. 173)
The ideal review of Stevie Smith would be five-hundred and seventy-one pages long and emerge as a single unbroken quotation. That one I will leave the reader to write for himself. In the meantime, it may be of some interest, from a technical point of view, to remark two curious features of her style: her music and her drawings. She writes, about half the time, from a musical not a metrical base.
On the lake
Like a cake
Why is the swan
On the lake?
He has abandoned hope.
This is lovely, but absurd to scan, until you realize it is a double musical phrase, which the line breaks are serving partly to conceal. Wan and Swan are quarter notes; the next line, two eighth notes followed by a quarter; Like a cake of soap consists of four eighth notes followed by a half. Why is the swan—triplets and a quarter; Wan On the lake—the same; He has abandoned hope—an eighth note, two sixteenths, two more eighths, and a half note. Many of her poems are in a similar fashion lyrics for an underheard or quietly fingered melody. Occasionally the song is a received text and its title appears below that of the poem.
I think readers will be of two minds about her drawings. There can be no doubt that the drawings, in any case, are of two minds about the poems. They are as likely to subvert a poem's tone as to enforce it, and their license is sometimes jarring, as in the following example.
I sigh for the heavenly country,
Where the heavenly people pass,
And the sea is as quiet as a mirror
Of beautiful beautiful glass.
Beneath the poem of which this forms the opening stanza, we find, seated before a table-with-vase, a woman who is the perfected essence of drabness. She seems an unfortunate development of the "speaker" theory. It is her dream, then; the poem is satiric. But we would rather have thought this up ourselves, or else—an opposite complaint which somehow does not exclude the first—she seems an unfair reduction of the poem's lyrical power. A worse offense in the same category is the leer worn by the old man, feigning blindness, who asks a "limber lad" for the time, before dragging him off "up a crooked stair". And yet the drawings are often witty or affecting, often both at the same time. They represent Stevie Smith—how she saw the poems is as important as how we see them—they are in character from start to finish, and we would not do without them.
Reviews are not required to have morals any more than poems are. But this review has a moral. Poetry is an activity of life. It cannot bear a steady and single diet of everything that wears away at life. The idea that there is a direct relation between the quantity of suffering a poet endures and the quality of the poetry that results—can we call it an attractive idea? It is, at least, crudely appealing. It is dramatic, it is framed in the universal language of vocational guidance, it has, to the last possible degree, the force of an imposing simplification. It will not do. The poet remains what he has always been, a person who chooses to write poems. He may be as calm about it or as desperate as he likes. But he might as well be calm.
Ceux qui luttent ce sont ceux qui vivent
And down here they luttent a very great deal indeed
But if life be the desideratum, why grieve, ils vivent.
Somewhere on Parnassus these lines by Stevie Smith are inscribed. (pp. 174-75)
David Bromwich, in Poetry (© 1976 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), December, 1976.
If you have never read Stevie Smith, try to imagine an eccentric like Marianne Moore confronting a tragically defiant universe with Ogden Nash's love of the ridiculous and Emily Dickinson's sense of wonder. It would be a mistake to think of Stevie as a writer of limericks who illustrated her poetry with New Yorker-like sketches. It is true that she can toss off a couplet ("This Englishwoman is so refined / She has no bosom and no behind") and follow it with a picture of the linear lady herself. But Stevie was also an observer "standing alone on a fence in a spasm" where she could "behold all life in a microcosm."
Hers was not a simple world; on the surface it seemed incongruous, peopled by madcaps and losers. Men commit suicide when they discover the afterlife will be a reunion of relatives; lions are never given their due in the making of martyrs. Yet these incongruities grow into paradoxes which are in turn resolved into a single truth: the inevitability of death, whom the poet regards as a friend rather then a presence, "the only god / Who comes as a servant when he is called."
For all her obsession with mortality, Stevie was no puny romantic sliding into the mire of self-pity. Although she believed "all love and mankind are grass," she kept her landscape green, weeding out the melancholy that stifles art. She was the poet of strength admonishing the would-be suicide to endure, not so that he might enjoy life but that he might be deserving of death when it came. Like all great poets, Stevie Smith reminds us that dying is as much of an art as living. (p. 101)
Bernard F. Dick, in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 1, Winter, 1977.