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.