Stevie Smith Smith, Stevie (Vol. 3) - Essay

Florence Margaret Smith

Smith, Stevie (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 [1971]), 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.