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
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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...
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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 essay below, he discusses the "unromantic" characteristics of Smith's poetry.]
The vivacious narrator of Novel on Yellow Paper, who claims to have written a long poem entitled "La Fille de Minos et de Pasiphaë", declares a constitutional preference for Racine over Shakespeare. A French preference, obviously, and the reasons she gives are French (the admirer of Shakespeare will present much the same account as grounds for his admiration): Shakespeare's verse is "conventional" whereas the feeling is "so warm and so human and so disturbing", and for Pompey Casmilus this is an antithesis which makes her feel "distraught and ill at ease." Then there are too many complications in Shakespeare's plots, too many...
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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 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...
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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 quizzical presence at once inviting the audience to yield her their affection and keeping them at bay with a quick irony. She seemed to combine elements of Gretel and of the witch, to be vulnerable and capable, a kind of Home Counties sean bhean bhocht, with a hag's wisdom and a girl's wide-eyed curiosity. She chanted her poems artfully off-key, in a beautifully flawed plainsong that suggested two kinds of auditory experience: an embarrassed party-piece by a child half-way between tears and giggles, and a deliberate faux-naif rendition by a virtuoso.
This raises the whole question of poetry for the eye versus poetry for the ear. Perhaps the versus is an overstatement, yet there are poets whose work is...
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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 who dazzle at first reading, but only rarely is the dazzlement attended by complete comprehension. Stevie Smith's best things "enchain the mind," as Dr. Johnson would say, immediately and entirely, remaining in the memory as unmovably as verses remembered from childhood. Who could ever forget the man who was not waving but drowning? And who, reading that poem for the first time, can have failed to warm instantly with the sense of witnessing a bullseye on the first shot?
Technically very accomplished, Stevie Smith seems anything but technique-conscious; yet she is a poet of highly sophisticated instincts. Consider this quatrain:
Hope and desire,
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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 nearly always lively and original. Her poems have an immediate appeal, and yet many of them bear considerable re-reading. The frequent incongruities chiefly account for this double effect.
Smith's odd juxtapositions and her love of paradox invite comparison—not infrequently pursued by her critics—to Blake. She herself was aware of the parallel, even calling one of her poems "Little Boy Lost." Like Blake she writes parables, redefines Christianity, addresses animals, sees angels, uses simple language, and illustrates her poetry, but in all essentials she and Blake are significantly different. Blake's is a handy-dandy world where justice and thief change places, and so is Stevie Smith's, but Blake's humor is rarer and...
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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 in TLS (14 July 1972) goes to great lengths to avoid critical judgment of the poet's work:
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.
Only Ian Hamilton [in Poetry Dimension Annual 4, edited by Dannie Abse, 1977] openly takes on the "feminine" qualities of her stance, speaking of her...
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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 to their friends, riding away on dangerous missions, like Browning's Childe Roland, or getting lost in a blue light or a dark wood. One 'lady' is swept off by her huge hat on to a 'peculiar island'; others are magicked out of the real world into a Turner painting, or into the domain of a river-god or of 'the lady of the Well-spring'. The hostage's reasons for wanting to die, and her quizzical reception of Father W.'s well-meant Christian consolations, are quite as characteristic. Stevie Smith is childish, whimsical, fantastical, escapist; she is, equally, tough, pragmatic, satirical (especially of 'the Christian solution' and of the English middle classes to whom she belongs) and intellectually rigorous. Her tone of voice, at once alarming...
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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 in.
('A House of Mercy')
Her father was in the shipping business, and when the family firm collapsed under his mismanagement of it, he ran away to sea, leaving his wife to cope with their two small daughters. Both children were seriously ill throughout early childhood (Stevie Smith spent three years in hospital with TB from the age of five), and their mother was ill herself. However she made a safe home with her sister for her two daughters, and when her husband came home on twenty-four hours leave from time to time 'to borrow back/her Naval Officer's Wife's Allowance' she 'gave it him at once, she thought she should'.
Stevie Smith's memories of her father's brief visits...
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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. Superficially, her poems seem as familiar and easily accessible as the snippets of English life and the nursery jingles out of which they are constructed. At the same time, taken together, they constitute a stubbornly self-contained body of work that shows few signs of involvement in 'the gang warfare' that preoccupied British and American writers immediately before and after World War II. Mocking but not committed, arch rather than revolutionary, neither distinctly 'romantic' nor 'classicist', Smith stands out as a wilful, isolated, slightly worrying figure, someone much easier to humour and patronise than engage in debate. Disturbed by her poetry's obvious, even perverse refusal to be 'literary', her critics have often shown exasperation. They...
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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.
It is a critical commonplace to note that Smith cherishes unattractive attitudes: a child's rejection of her father ("Papa Loves Baby"); the seductiveness of suicide (e.g., "Tender Only to One" and "Is It Wise"); the guiltfree disposal of enemies ("From My Notes for a Series of Lectures on Murder"). She addresses enthrallment with nonhuman elements, an ethereal fairyland beyond human will. Often, her speakers reserve approval for a state of being that refuses domesticity without veering into the wholly otherworldly. She assumes a precarious position between acknowledging her speakers' needs for intimacy and departing from conventions of intimacy. Smith is a poet who gleefully inverts conventional attitudes. Yet, in the repetitiousness and...
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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 jewel) encapsulates a dominant impression of Stevie Smith's relationship to other poets, since a striking originality, a complete separation from poetic fashion, is for many the hallmark of her work. Yet the key appeal of Smith's immensely popular, show-stealing performances was not her oddball appearance but rather her voice, as she spoke and sang her poems in a chanting, off-key manner that could be hilarious and haunting, powerful and unsettling.
Detached from her inimitable delivery, this highly stylized manner still comes through to Smith's readers, producing many comments on the "voice" of her poetry itself. Robert Lowell thus speaks for others when he warmly notes "her unique and cheerfully gruesome voice," 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.
An account of Smith's life. Though this study was not authorized by the literary executor for Smith, Barbera and McBrien were granted access to her unpublished writings and drawings for the purposes of their research.
Spalding, Frances. Stevie Smith: A Critical Biography. London: Faber and Faber, 1988, 331 p.
Authorized biography. Spalding asserts that by examining Smith's inner life, "meaning is given to the humdrum and often tragic facts of her existence, and we can perceive more clearly the matrix of thought and feeling which enabled her to rescue 'the poetical', as she termed it, in her own life and the world around her from formlessness."
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