Stevie Smith

by Florence Margaret Smith

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Analysis

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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.

Inherited stories

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.

Inherited roles

If Smith’s exploration of inherited stories uncovers some of the ways in which culture grids according to gender or species, her...

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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.

“The Zoo”

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 sea.

Such radical shrinkage of adult presumption would be comic except for the child’s disturbing admission that its keen and unforgiving wit carries with it the burden of responsibility: “I could not grieve/ But I think I was somewhat to blame.”

Even more disturbing than this image of a preschooler having to shoulder the blame for her own abandonment, the articulate baby of “Papa Love Baby” tells her brief tale in a way that hints darkly at incest:

What folly it is that daughters are always supposed to beIn love with papa. It wasn’t the case with meI couldn’t take to him at allBut he took to meWhat a sad fate to befallA child of three.

The shrinking line lengths of this stanza, which ends with an admission of her tender age, remind us of the inevitable physical advantage that even a stupid papa enjoys over his little girl. The sexual suggestiveness of the poem stays, by all means, at the level of nebulous suggestion: The father “took to” the child who did not “take to him.” Yet the reader can hardly help wondering why such a turn of events would constitute a “sad fate” and why, despite the fact that the poem concerns itself primarily with the child’s disdain for her “unrespected” father, its title should highlight the fact that in spite of that childish contempt, “Papa Love Baby.”

A Good Time Was Had by All

The place children occupy in the various structures they find themselves to have inherited from adults constitutes one of Smith’s most persistent preoccupations. A Good Time Was Had by All, her first published volume of poetry, begins and ends with poems that treat this issue. “The Hound of Ulster” and “Louise” frame the collection, typifying her vision of how the tension between adulthood and childhood shapes most human relationships. Despite what is normally thought of as the distance separating grownups from youngsters, she was at perpetual pains to point out their complicated proximity. “We are,” as she once remarked, “as much the child’s old age as he is our youth.”

“The Hound of Ulster”

In “The Hound of Ulster,” a “courteous stranger” urges a little boy to “take a look/ In the puppy shop,” with its tantalizing array of dogs: “Could anything be merrier?” This adult script, rendered instantly suspect by the ease with which it fits the pattern parents proverbially warn their children against (never accept rides, candy, or invitations from strangers), does not, however, turn genuinely sinister until the last lines of the poem. Upon the child’s polite inquiry regarding what it might be that “lurks in the gray/ Cold shadows at the back of the shop,” the stranger warns that Cuchulain, the legendary Irish warrior also known as the Hound of Ulster, “lies tethered there . . . tethered by his golden hair.”

As a child, the legend goes, the Irish warrior killed a fierce dog that attacked him. The dog belonged to Chulain, who grieved over the death of his pet. Upon seeing the owner’s grief, the child took it upon himself to be watchdog for Chulain until a new dog could be found. Thus he earned the name of Cuchulain, which translates to “the hound of Chulain.” Cuchulain is also known as the “Hound of Ulster” in reference to the Ulster cycle of Gaelic literature.

If, as “Nature and Free Animals” suggests, humans make pets of dogs as a way of securing for themselves a modicum of space within which their wills—bounded by animals from below and God from above—can operate, the childhood feat of Cuchulain represents a double seizure of power. Having been mortally threatened by the dog, the child first dispenses with the beast that dares to trespass beyond his already liberal bounds, then appropriates the bestial vigor of the dog—but only temporarily. In Smith’s structure of competing territories between people and animals, then, Cuchulain’s ability to negotiate his way between those territories ensures a much more spacious scope for the exercise of his strength.

In the poem, however, the hound stands as an image of paralyzed will, “tethered by his golden hair/ His eyes are closed and his lips are pale/ Hurry little boy he is not for sale.” Having asked too much, the curious child is sent on his way. Only the poem’s speaker, familiar with the puppy inventory and protective of the shop’s tethered secret, seems to exercise any genuine control in this poem, and it is a control of exhibition. The reader’s or the boy’s access to dogs of the will is strictly limited to spectatorship, while the speaker extends the invitation and controls the display, blending the roles of poet and zookeeper.

“Louise”

“Louise,” the final poem in A Good Time Was Had by All, repeats the eerie childhood experience described in “Papa Love Baby”: articulate intellectual power darkened by traces of sexual powerlessness. Louise sits on a suitcase in the “suburban sitting room” of Mr. and Mrs. Tease, having traveled all over Europe with her mother but having “never been long enough in any nation/ Completely to unpack.” The only words she speaks in the poem are wistful ones—“Oh if only I could stay/ Just for two weeks in one place.” Her thoughts are quickly followed by her mother’s advice, “Cheer up girlie,” because they will indeed be stopping here for at least two weeks, as it will take Louise’s father that long to come up with the money they need to move on. The poem (and the collection) thus ends on a note of bewilderment colored by the reader’s response to the idea of hosts called Mr and Mrs Tease: “The poor child sits in a mazy fit:/ Such a quick answer to a prayer/ Shakes one a bit.” That the near-instantaneous answer to her wish should send Louise down the emotional path of something as complicated as a “mazy fit” demonstrates part of what makes Smith’s abnormally astute, hyper-intuitive children such disturbing combinations of sophistication and vulnerability. While their wishes conform to a formula of Cinderella simplicity, their intuitive gifts expose the problems inherent in reductive answers. A homesick child gets to stay in one house for two weeks, but how reassuring is it when that house is presided over by hosts by the name of Mr. and Mrs. Tease? The predicament of Louise, caught between her apparent powers of shaping the adult world and her childish susceptibility to the adults who nevertheless continue to rule it, haunts the body of Smith’s work right up to her death.

“Duty Was His Lodestar”

Sometimes children manage to elude adult authority—exhibiting, as a poem such as “Duty Was His Lodestar” gleefully demonstrates, particular skill in ducking out of verbal structures. As Smith herself has explained, the premise of this poem is a child’s having “been told that duty is one’s lodestar. But she is rebellious, this child, she will have none of it, so she says lobster instead of lodestar, and so makes a mock of it, and makes a monkey of the kind teacher.” What readers are presented with is “A song” (the poem’s subtitle) in which speaker and lobster damage their relationship but then mend it and celebrate their reunification:

Duty was my Lobster, my Lobster was she,And when I walked with my LobsterI was happy.But one day my Lobster and I fell out,And we did nothing butRave and shoutRejoice, rejoice, Hallelujah, drink the flowing champagne,For my darling Lobster and IAre friends again.

The seriousness of duty as presented by adult to child is replaced by the celebration of relationship. Duty, meant to fix the child’s respectful attention and serve as a sober guide, gives way to friendship, charged with gospel-choir enthusiasm.

“Our Bog Is Dood”

In “Our Bog Is Dood,” Smith parodies the limits of the religious imagination in a humorous anecdote about the difficulties of achieving interpretive consensus. In this poem, the children chanting “Our Bog is dood” reveal to the speaker that they know their Bog is dood “because we wish it so/ That is enough.” Here, Smith lays out for the reader’s amusement (or admiration; the two are neighboring concepts as far as she is concerned) the acts of sheer and reckless will by which both children and children of God collapse the distance between wish and belief, constructing verbal worlds that they inhabit with collective placidity until prodded to articulate the specifics of those worlds. “Then tell me, darling little ones,” the speaker inquires, feigning innocence, “What’s dood, suppose Bog is?” This flummoxes them, for though they give the irritating speaker an answer quick enough (“Just what we think it is”), they soon began arguing with one another, “for what was dood, and what their Bog/ They never could agree.” The speaker proves to be exempt from this hostility not by virtue of having answers to the issues of Bog or dood but rather by a willingness to let the questions lie unanswered, to walk beside rather than into “the encroaching sea,/ The sea that soon should drown them all,/ That never yet drowned me.”

“To Carry the Child”

It is irrepressibility that Smith celebrates in the children of “To Carry the Child,” which suggests that the labor of carrying a child does not end at birth or even when the baby learns to walk but rather at the nebulous juncture separating childhood from adulthood. In this poem, she describes the moment of being allowed to stand on one’s own two feet not as a moment of independence but of diminishment. Grownups are “frozen,” while children are “easy in feeling, easily excessive/ And in excess powerful.” Growing in this poem is an act not of growing up but of growing into, a process of entrapment: What can the poor child do, “trapped in a grown-up carapace,/ But peer outside of his prison room/ With the eye of an anarchist?” That Smith visualizes adults as a population of “handicapped” children speaks to the vigor with which she gripped onto the idea of children as a model for the independent imagination, gradually able to hold onto their mobility of vision only from within a claustrophobic space.

“Numbers”

If the encroaching rigidity of a carapace threatens to reduce the imaginative scope of a child to the rolling of eyeballs, then the architecture of domesticity constructs somewhat less restrictive but still idiosyncratic frames of reference. In “Numbers,” that such frames of reference limit the bounds of the imagination becomes a matter of literal concern as well, since the information that fails to make its way into the boundaries of the poem’s window frames is the small fact that the speaker’s house sits on a four-hundred-foot cliff. The poem lists numbers of objects that romp about or spread outside one house:

A thousand and fifty-one wavesTwo hundred and thirty-one seagullsA cliff of four hundred feetThree miles of ploughed fields.

Four windows provide views of the waves and the fields, while one skylight provides visual access to a square of sky. Thus the occupant of the house is able to perceive a little bit of most of what lies beyond the walls of the house: four windows’ worth of the 1,051 waves, four windows’ worth of the three miles of fields, and one of the 231 seagulls. Only the four-hundred-foot cliff on which the house sits is invisible, suggesting that while frames of domestic reference may indeed offer access to snippets of the world at large, they ground themselves, obliviously, on the precarious edges of things. What is disturbing about this poem is not so much the cliff as the apparent unconsciousness with which the inhabitants of the house are perched on it.

Attitude toward death

Harold’s courage in not only confronting but also in leaping such cliffs is what stirs the admiring eulogy of acrophobic Harold in the title poem of Smith’s 1950 collection, Harold’s Leap. “Harold was always afraid to climb high,/ But something urged him on.” Smith lavishes the energy of this poem not on Harold’s failure to accomplish anything beyond his own death-by-leap but on the dizzying height of the rocks, the sheer will Harold mustered. That she applauds his leap in spite of its futility suggests that since death is the project looming over all other projects anyway, to take one’s death into one’s own legs constitutes the only possible act of frank courage.

This unblinking attitude toward death constitutes, in fact, one of the most conspicuous stripes by which Smith’s work may be recognized. Her stance toward it veers from the dismissive to the devoted but always takes careful account of its reliability as a solution. In “Death Bereaves Our Common Mother, Nature Grieves for My Dead Brother,” an early poem from A Good Time Was Had by All, death is noted as a shift in verb tense: “He was, I am.” The subject is a dead lamb, a drawing of which (lying on its back with its four legs straight up like a dead bug) decorates the poem. This ditty on death is casual to the point of flippancy, despite its professed compassion—“Can I see lamb dead as mutton/ And not care a solitary button?” Lest one suspect that she reserves this easy tone for animals, Smith describes the death of one Major Spruce in another poem in the same volume in nearly identical terms. “It is a Major Spruce/ And he’s grown such a bore, such a bore. . . . It was the Major Spruce./ He died. Didn’t I tell you?” (“Progression”).

In the title poem of Tender Only to One, Smith borrows a familiar convention of gooey sentimentality to demonstrate her feelings for death. Here, the petal-plucking speaker performs that hoary ritual of virginhood—loves me, loves me not—in order to discover the name of him to whom she is tender. In the end, the bald flower manages to convey the message: “Tender only to one,/ . . . His name, his name is Death.” While it is difficult to tell precisely whether the speaker with such a quantity of tenderness to bestow is surprised by the outcome of her experiment, the ease with which the stanza contains the name of the beloved suggests that the news does not perturb her. The entire display, apparently, is presented for the reader’s benefit.

Another poem in the same collection fancies death as stage two of a doctor’s prescription. When the solicitous physician observes that “You are not looking at all well, my dear,/ In fact you are looking most awfully queer,” my dear replies that yes, indeed, the pain is “more than I can bear, so give me some bromide.” She will go away to the seashore, where the tides, naturally, will take care of the situation, carrying the speaker “beyond recovery” (“The Doctor”). “Come Death (I),” meanwhile, reprimands Christianity for teaching people to be brave in facing death, for courage is not even necessary. “Foolish illusion, what has Life to give?” the speaker inquires scornfully. “Why should man more fear Death than fear to live?” “From the Coptic” shapes the relationship between life and death into a narrative, as it describes three angels trying to coax clay into manhood. The first two angels promise the clay happiness, to little effect: “the red clay lay flat in the falling rain,/ Crying, I will stay clay and take no blame.” Upon identifying himself as Death, however, the third angel produces immediate results: “I am Death, said the angel, and death is the end,/ I am Man, cries clay rising, and you are my friend.”

“Not Waving but Drowning”

Given the array of instances in which Smith warmly clasps the hand of death, that her most famous poem draws on the human dread of dying may say more about the kind of poems people wish to anthologize than it does about any alteration of her sensibility. “Not Waving but Drowning” is, however, the title poem of the 1957 collection, suggesting at the very least that she wished her readers to take a look at this fable of how gestures of despair and even catastrophe get mistaken for something else:

Nobody heard him, the dead man,But still he lay moaning:I was much further out than you thoughtAnd not waving but drowning.

This poem, with its disturbing pun on panicky signal and casual acknowledgment, suggests that civilized systems of communication fail to accommodate emergencies. Schooled in polite noninterference and having no mechanism for detecting anything outside the bounds of that inarticulate propriety, one simply assumes that any waves at all are bound to be waves of greeting. This sorry state of communicative affairs is further complicated by the fact that the swimmer’s ability to articulate difference is overwhelmed by the very medium through which he swims: How can he be expected to clarify for others the distinction between waves of greeting and waves of alarm when all his waves are immersed in even more and perpetual waves of water? The enterprise seems doomed from the beginning.

Smith’s refusal to desert these individual victims of isolation, her cocking of the ear to the persistent voice of a dead man, offers a fragile consolation. Prodded and coached by this plucky mistress of lost voices, her readers learn at least to recognize the coarseness of their own powers of interpretation. If one fails to make out the words of the drowned swimmer, one can at least be assured that it is not for the lack of his having gurgled out a message.

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