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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.)
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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 meekness'. The child in her, prematurely replaced by the adult, seems to have followed her like a shadow through her days, as a memory, a promise, of unlimited pleasure. It was not, in fact, Death she revered but the fountaining impulse of being. Indeed, she proved in certain poems—several of them among her best—one of the rare celebrators of what Blake called 'Eternal Delight'. If her bounce was often 'wicked' it was only because and in so far as this essential, transcendent joy was thwarted by circumstance or some inherent curse, some Original Contradiction.
But certainly it was thwarted and perhaps no poet's work has ever seemed so much a quarrel of classical scepticism and romantic liberation. Smith was open to every likelihood and perhaps finally partial to none. Few [are] so skilful at opening a crevasse between two truths. Is it wise to abandon hope wholly? 'No, it is not wise'. Is it wise to endure when Death's a prize easy to carry? 'No, it is not wise.' Certainty of this kind is worse than the uncertainty it resembles; it is wisdom past cure.
Just as the truth is mixed for Smith, so her poems are frequently startling and seemingly extempore mixtures of elements. She likes particularly to combine the archaic and the contemporary, the measured and the runaway. Often she brings a breezy or nervously colloquial manner to old-fashioned themes or traditional stories…. Where archaic measure avers assurance, Smith's rapid contemporary line, often long and unbound, dashes through silence as if uncertain of its right to interrupt it. Occasionally it rattles dramatically, abruptly, impatiently, out of a metrical opening, and then it may simulate the brusque, offhand dealings of life itself. (pp. 140-42)
About all we can count on in reading Smith is that she will be as surprising as she is skilful, her finesse equal to her boldness. And we can also count on hearing a voice—a 'talking voice', as Pompey says, pointed 'with commas, semi-colons, dashes, pauses', a voice held 'alive in captivity'. Indeed, Smith is so instinctively a dramatist of voice that she endows even the verse essay with necessity. And this is all the more remarkable in that her language is anyway that of a writer of verse. She remains almost always outside and above her words; they are smaller than she is, her instruments. And yet they are not only exact, they live, because they are quick with voice. It is in entering delightedly and inventively into idiom, rhythm, attitude, intonation, that Smith's imagination is most alive. Hence where most versifiers merely deck their morals in metre, Smith, cadenced and dramatic, converts hers into personality…. (p. 144)
Still, authoritative and captivating as Smith's voice usually is, it is never so impelling as when it invests an immediate situation or world. If the poet cannot put her imagination of voice aside, she can put both imagined space and the moment into her voice, as iridescence is in the bubble, as a mirrored face or world is there…. [In Scorpion] as against the voiced opinion, the thematic nakedness, of 'Thoughts about the Christian Doctrine of Eternal Hell', is all the poignancy of a voice's rage to be silenced. It is still the complex, shifting intonation to which we respond—the blend of spite, longing, and fondness, the uncompromising emphasis (how the sharpened tail jerks about!), the wry intensity of so in the final line. But the poem fills out, as well, with the pressure of undeniable reality, the immediacy of an individual fate. And though sea and grass are subordinate to the speaker's impatient need for them, they are nonetheless there at the periphery, adding a horizon of appearance, a sense of the earth. (p. 145)
Yet just as the poems of immediate scenes and situations touch us more nearly than those of sharply voiced thought, so they pale, in turn, beside the finest poems in still another group, those of magic and romance: poems not only luminous with personality and weighted by matter but also dipped in the fabulous. Here the ordinary world, struck by a haloed moon of transcendental fantasy, lies under a spell, whether lovely or troubling. For finally Smith could not be held down and, in escaping the limitations of the earth, took it with her. Like Forster, Yeats, Dylan Thomas, and Isak Dinesen, she raised it felicitously into the marvellous. (p. 147)
None of Stevie Smith's poems summarize her view of life, for finally she had no view, only views. She knew perhaps everything the emotions can know with a knowledge as heavy as the earth and a brilliance as light as the air. She could touch any subject and give it truth. Bold and queer mixture of vivacity and honesty that she was, author of numerous poems of wit, force, and unexpectedness, we may find ourselves saying of her: it was improbable that such a poet should ever happen along, but now that she is with us she is indispensable. (p. 158)
Calvin Bedient, "Stevie Smith," in his Eight Contemporary Poets: Charles Tomlinson, Donald Davie, R. S. Thomas, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, Thomas Kinsella, Stevie Smith, W. S. Graham (copyright © 1974 by Oxford University Press, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Oxford University Press, New York, 1974, pp. 139-58.
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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.
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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 determination to persevere within the confines of simplicity, as though at the back of her head all the time is Coleridge's urging of the poet to keep alive in adulthood the simplicity of the child. (pp. 43-4)
Stevie Smith's art often depends on what seems to be a carefully contrived carelessness, with respect to life as well as to art…. [For her] life is a matter of pain, of lost love, of desperation—and these things urge humour for their control. It is as though she engages us in the halting gait of a danse macabre where love and death and solitude hold hands; the music she dances to is generally quiet, off-beat—or, if it is noisy, the din rings slightly hollow. One of her poems celebrates Miss Pauncefort who 'sang at the top of her voice…. And nobody knew what she sang about' (which did not stop her singing in her manic way). The Muse for Stevie Smith tends to be quiet, even timid…. This relationship between Muse and poet is central to her vision, and to how Stevie Smith sees herself as a poet: it helps to explain her gait, her step at once firm and tentative. (pp. 44-5)
[In her poem, 'The Word',] Stevie Smith is making a connection between her dramatised experience and her role as poet, and in doing this she is going beyond Blake, who rarely, even in the dourest Songs of Experience, suggests that the agonised and terrified consciousness is his. That is the difference between his poem 'Little boy lost' and Stevie Smith's of the same name…. [Smith's] poem does not work because ultimately the little boy lost is transparently a surrogate of a poet without bearings. Much more successful is 'Little boy sick', where the Blakean idiom is recreated, and at the same time the dramatised utterance retains its integrity. The little lamb of Innocence has become a mangy tiger, his former glory departed utterly. Here is something of Stevie Smith's surprising virtuosity—surprising in that she would be the first to disclaim virtuosity…. The range of voices [in 'Little boy sick'] is wide, but never so much so that the poem gets out of control: we are constantly brought back to the tautness of Blake's 'Tyger', its impressed syntax. At the epicentre of the poem lies the audacious line 'O God I was so beautiful when I was well' which echoes, if anything, the stark cry in a Brecht/Weill song, 'Surabaya Johnny, my God, and I love you so', and has the same chokingly dramatic effect: typically the cry to God is both colloquial blasphemy and desperate appeal. Once again, Blake's world of experience is the one which has its special meaning for Stevie Smith; it is characteristic of her deep-seated pessimism that she should choose the only optimistic poem in Blake's canon of Experience as a jumping-off point for an exploration of her own desolation. (pp. 47-9)
An early poem 'Night-time in the cemetery' is one of her most moving poems because it acknowledges the bitterness of death even as it recognises the affinity. Here Stevie Smith strives to deserve the death she is to court more stoically elsewhere. It is not fanciful to hear Blake and Clare behind this poem, even Emily Dickinson; yet at the very core is the unmistakeable figure, the Stevie Smith whose colloquial twang explains the Clare-like insistence on peculiarity and strangeness…. This poem is a triumph of Stevie Smith's idiosyncratic art, and we learn not to be surprised by the fact that it comes so early in the canon: she returns to this world repeatedly, to weave variations of the subtlest and most lyrical kind on the theme of death and oblivion. She knows that the theme is inexhaustible, and that it is necessary, however hard that acknowledgement, when it would be so much easier, as in her dreams, to run away from it all. The reader of Stevie Smith finds himself making a long list of the memorable poems: there are far more poems announcing their authority than I have been able to hint at. It is ironic that a poet so concerned with scrupulosity, with the quietness of the Muse's voice, should be so fecund. She herself worries at this a lot, often referring to the parable of the talents. In the last resort her claim on posterity rests on this extraordinary combination of the minimal and the generous. In one sense, her work is a burden to her, something she lands herself with:
I can call up old ghosts, and they will come,
But my art limps,—I cannot send them home.
But she accepts the limp, learns to live with the ghosts that haunt her, until she is able to celebrate them. (pp. 54-5)
Mark Storey, "Why Stevie Smith Matters," in Critical Quarterly (reprinted by permission of Manchester University Press), Vol. 21, No. 2, Summer, 1979, pp. 41-55 [the excerpt of Smith's poetry used here was originally published in her The Collected Poems of Stevie Smith (copyright © 1972 by The Estate of Stevie Smith; reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation, as agents for the Estate of Stevie Smith), Allen Lane, 1975].
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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 disengages emotions and situations from their actual contexts and presents them distilled in a fanciful context. Her world of fancy is not escapist. It is like a mask through which she trains her eyes on actual experience; her transmutations of actual experience clarify it with knowing innocence and seldom sentimentalize it. The fanciful world is a cruel one—of fairy tales, legends and myths peopled by princes, princesses, ogres and ghouls, neurotic animals and good spirits whose emotions and frustrations are ours. It is a world where guilt is out of place. In effect, she creates a modern pastoral. The short story poems about aristocrats or legendary people are another aspect of the same fanciful pastoralism. Her themes grow powerful through 'enchantment'—rhythms and the voice persuade us emotionally. Human self-deception is an evil enchantment; against it Stevie Smith marshals the beneficent enchantment of poetry, which throws the self-deception into relief. Her aim is ethical and didactic as well as to entertain. (pp. 203-04)
[Stevie Smith's] attitude to her models—for many of the poems have specific models, particularly nineteenth-century British and American poems, hymns and popular tunes, and plainsong conventions—is ambivalent. Some she approaches in the spirit of parody, writing a poem about a swinging ape to the tune of 'Greensleeves'. At other times she depends on our recollection of the strong rhythms of an earlier poem to lend resonance to her own poem. Her individual voice speaks above the rhythm of another poet, defying and then confirming our expectation. Her models do not include Emily Dickinson, a poet with whom she has often been compared. Where Emily Dickinson took rhythm as her constant and concentrated on the effective combination of carefully chosen words, Stevie Smith takes her vocabulary—which is generally simple and similar throughout her work—for granted and expends most of her energy on the rhythm.
Edgar Allan Poe echoes through much of her verse. 'The Stroke', 'The True Tyrant', and 'November' contain specific echoes of Poe and each poem develops his rhythms. Stevie Smith seems to have been haunted by 'Ulalume' and 'Annabel Lee' and the underwater kingdom of some of Poe's poems. Many of her characters drown, and several watery gods preserve the victims as relics, deep and dead, but seeming asleep and pricelessly beautiful. She must have sensed a justice and ghostly permanence in rivers and the sea, as Poe did. Poe also suggested some of the odd and macabre names she uses. And though she builds on him with a mixture of dependence and parody, her power often derives from his rhythms, though the speaking voice is her own. (p. 204)
The poems, then sending down taproots into some text or musical tune, have an authority not entirely their own and yet not plagiarized either. In 'The Grange' we hear Kipling, in 'Our Bog is Dood' we hear the Blake of the 'Book of Thel' and in 'A Fairy Story' and a number of short-lined poems we hear the Blake of the 'Songs of Innocence and Experience'. Cowper and Browning are there too, and Tennyson of the Idylls and 'The Lady of Shalott'. Coleridge with the cadences of 'Christabel' and 'Kubla Khan' announces himself from behind several poems. Hymn tunes and rhythms, prayer book and Biblical echoes can be heard. Hence the poems that reveal the passing of love, or of life, or of social orders, are nostalgic not in diction or specific content, but in the echoes the rhythms suggest, hinting at other sources and analogues.
Given the preponderance of Victorian models, her use of often antiquated diction littered with 'Oh' and 'Alas', her quaintness, her painful mock-Victorian doggerel rhymes, how is it that she evades banality? How does she manage to revitalize an outworn poetic language by means of the language itself? The answer lies in her humour—not irony but wit which refreshes the language and makes it meaningful again. If one says 'alas' glumly, one is being banal. If one says 'alas' slyly, the humour and the lament coexist, if the context is correct. Her humour redeems the outworn language. The unexpected intrusion into her poems of arch malapropisms and modern colloquialisms is often effective. The humour does not wear thin on re-reading. (p. 205)
Michael Schmidt, "Stevie Smith," in his A Reader's Guide to Fifty Modern British Poets (© Michael Schmidt 1979; by permission of Barnes & Noble Books, a Division of Littlefield, Adams & Co., Inc.), Barnes & Noble, 1979, pp. 200-06.
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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 dispossession which have a quality all their own. Like such children she is never on the Side of Life, but of the fatigue which for many people is the only way of making a success of it….
From the admirable introduction by Jack Barbera and William McBrien—in itself a wholly adequate substitute for any biography—we learn that Sylvia Plath much admired Stevie's poems. The letter Plath wrote … is touching in its simple wish for contact and comfort. She was hoping, in November 1962, to move with her babies to a London flat…. It was not to be, however; Sylvia Plath killed herself three months after writing the letter….
From the editors' unobtrusive annotations to Stevie's letters we learn that she herself attempted suicide at the office in 1953, a month or two after writing "Not Waving but Drowning"…. The poem has become, alas, her "Lake Isle of Innisfree", and gives no indication at all of how subtle and beautiful the sheer density of her poetry is (particularly in Harold's Leap, the preceding collection…. The critic would have to admit that in general there is a difference, and a disconcerting one, between the poems of Stevie Smith that "come off" and the ones that don't; but some none the less can come off too well, too obviously, like the one in the present volume which ends "But I forgive you Maria, / Kindly remember that." Most of the poems here, though, are aborted pieces which their author would hardly have wished to see in print….
"Beside the Seaside" is probably the best of the ten … [stories] included in this volume…. "Goodnight" [is a poem] which she wrote about a married couple, friends of hers. They used to sit late in Stevie's room, apparently reluctant to withdraw into spousality…. Though she was adept at hitting off daily dolours like this, and especially those concerning "the woe that is in marriage", the solitary fancy of her muse does not soar in such a context. Much more memorable is the cry of the wife in "Lightly Bound"….
Some of the poems will none the less have a special interest for the Stevie Smith addict, particularly a highly accomplished exercise in Miltonics, "Satan Speaks", which she wrote when hardly more than a schoolgirl….
John Bayley, "The Must of the Daily Dolours," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1981; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4101, November 6, 1981, p. 1289.
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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)
[The] poems collected up here will not detract from, but will not add anything to, her reputation. So often she expected the heavy traffic of her own thoughts on the Deity, Nature, herself, to fit into a context as twee as the pram to which she whimsically, horrifically, longs to return in a poem called 'Surrounded by Children'. Writing in prose, she was prepared to push prams over cliffs. In the essay 'My Muse' she wrote: 'All the poems Poetry writes may be called "Heaven, a detail", or "Hell, a detail".' (She only writes about heaven and hell.) In a story 'Sunday at Home', the Stevie-figure says repeatedly that 'Hell is a continuation of policy'—which strikes an oddly topical note. Heaven and hell absorbed her. She said she was a 'religious-minded agnostic', and some of the simplest, sharpest prose writing here is about Christianity, which fascinated her and in which she could never quite believe.
She was a tightrope-walker in religion as in everything else. She seemed to walk a tightrope between life and death, flirting with both, but committing herself to neither. (pp. 660-61)
Another perpetual tightrope was that of personal relationships. There are no revelations about her private life in this volume…. But that she knew the pains of love is evident from all she wrote….
The stuff of life and the stuff of death, 'her rhymes, her wit, her obsessions', as her editors say, are loud in this collection. Only Queen Victoria among Englishwomen has ever had such a personal, emphatic, epistolary or pseudo-epistolary style. In 1971 Stevie Smith died from a brain tumour. In the preceding months she lost control over the shape and meaning of words, but even in this disintegration she had grace and a sort of unearthly wit. (p. 661)
Victoria Glendinning, "Nuts on Death" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1981; reprinted by permission of Victoria Glendinning), in The Listener, Vol. 106, No. 2737, November 26, 1981, pp. 660-61.
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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', pale as her white stockings, and also, I think, of her apparent obsession with death. She was interested in death, and particularly in its willingness to oblige, she had survived a suicide attempt in 1953, she was touched by the silence of the 'countless, countless dead': but when in her sixties she felt the current running faster and 'all you want to do is to get to the waterfall and over the edge,' she still remained Florence Margaret Smith, who enjoyed her life, and, for that matter, her success. Her poetry, she told Anna Kallin, was 'not at all whimsical, as some asses seem to think I am, but serious, yet not aggressive, and fairly cheerful though with melancholy patches'. The melancholy was real, of course. For that reason she gave herself in her novels the name of Casmilus, a god who is permitted to come and go freely from hell….
Among the ten stories [in Me Again: Uncollected Writings of Stevie Smith] is perhaps the most lyrical of all, 'Beside the Seaside', a languorous fin-de-saison holiday impression, the pebbles of the beach still warm to the touch but deeply cold underneath, and her friends' tempers just beginning to fray. There is a variable delicate friction between the interests of wives, husbands and children, and between human beings and nature—one might say between the seaside and the sea. Helena (the Stevie of this story) detaches herself, unable to help doing so, and wanders away inland across the marshes, returning 'full of agreeable fancies and spattered with smelly mud' to confront the edginess of the party with her artist's sense of deep interior peace. In 'The Story of a Story' she again defends herself as an artist. This wiry situation comedy shows why Stevie sometimes longed, in her character as Lot's wife, to be turned into a pillar of asphalt, since she seemed to give offence so often. Her friends did not want to become her material, as they had in 'Sunday at Home' …, and her publisher hesitated, afraid of libel. 'The morning, which had been so smiling when her employer first spoke, now showed its teeth.' Sitting alone in the rainswept park, the unhappy authoress regrets the loss of friends, but much more the death of her story. She had worked on it with love to make it shining and remote, but also with 'cunning and furtiveness and care and ferocity'. These were the qualities which went into Stevie's seemingly ingenuous fiction.
About the poems … I am not so sure, since she herself presumably didn't want them included in the collected edition of 1975. Stevie Smith had a remarkable ear ('it's the hymns coming up, I expect') and when she was manipulated by whatever force poetry is, she knew that all she had to do was listen. She produced then a kind of counterpoint between the 'missed-shot tunes' that haunted her and the phrasing and pauses of her own speaking voice. Not all the verses in Me Again seem quite to reach this, although you can hear her distinctive note of loneliness, which, as she pointed out, 'runs with tiredness', in 'None of the Other Birds' and 'Childhood and Interruption'.
In the end, one of Stevie's greatest achievements was to be not only a connoisseur of myths, but the creator of one. Out of an unpromisingly respectable suburb at the end of the apparently endless Green Lanes she created a strange Jerusalem.
Penelope Fitzgerald, "Jerusalem" (appears here by permission of the London Review of Books and the author), in London Review of Books, December 3 to December 16, 1981, p. 13.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 242
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 visitor half envies and half mocks, and is glad in the end she isn't them. She loves life, but she is afraid of it; she hugs to herself the thought of death as the ill-at-ease visitor comforts herself with the thought of the door. Her humour is not quite black, but grey…. She is honest and intelligent. But perhaps she did not allow herself to experience enough; she kept herself essentially a child—a wise child, detached, alarming, sad…. Me Again is her last wave, and, like the others it is rather small, brave and moving. (p. 187)
Carole Angier, "English Miscellaneous Writings: 'Me Again: Uncollected Writings of Stevie Smith'," in British Book News (© British Book News, 1982; courtesy of British Book News), March, 1982, p. 187.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 520
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 obvious setups for the Stevie character, a writer named Helen, to talk her beliefs and recite her poems at a friend. "In the Beginning of the War" … is an artful piece of eavesdropping that deliciously re-creates dialogue among some liberals of the period. And it's hard to imagine a writer among us today unable to identify with Stevie/Helen's angst in "Story of a Story." Having written a thinly veiled piece based on friends ("Sunday at Home"), she not only lost the friends, she was threatened with a libel accusation….
The essays show her stunning intelligence, wit, perversity. She is sensitive, scrupulous, wise. Also smug as all get-out. She'll hang on to an idea with the grip and growl of a dog at tug-of-war, as in "Some Impediments to Christian Commitment." Here, and elsewhere, particularly in the poems, we see that she is almost as obsessed with Christ, with what she can and cannot accept about Christianity, as she is with death….
Her book reviews … made up my favorite section. A reviewer for 30 years, she is emphatic, direct; enviably concise, graceful, personable. How can we not love the Stevie who wrote of Simone Weil: "It is perhaps the humility of laziness she lacks?"…
With the exception of "On the Dressing gown lent me by my Hostess the Brazilian consul in Milan, 1958," most of [the poems] do not match the style or content of her more familiar "Away, Melancholy" or "Not Waving But Drowning." Those will be found tucked inside essays here, though there's no index to tell you that….
In the last of [the letters collected here], Stevie wrote to a friend about the symptoms of an illness. But did she ever learn that they were caused by the brain tumor that was to kill her? Did she ever know she was dying? And if she did, had anyone heard what this woman, who so relentlessly welcomed Death with her pen, had to say once she actually found its hand on her shoulder? "Me Again" does not answer or even ask these questions.
"All the writer can do …" Stevie wrote in 1956, "is offer his life, which seems to him so shadowy and inconsiderable, to some god or other … to chew upon and make the best of." "Me Again" lets Stevie Smith continue her offer.
Lisa Mitchell, "Decades of Poetry in Anticipation of Death" (reprinted by permission of the author), in Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 18, 1982, p. 7.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 298
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 adopted a "deliberate 'childish' manner," and added with some asperity, "Who in hell wants 'innocence' from an adult—or a child?" Innocence is the opposite of guilt and is commendable in a person of any age. What is difficult to stomach is tweeness—a crude and unscrupulous bid for praise or, at least, pardon by means of a parade of helplessness that relies heavily for its success on the notion that incompetence is the same as sincerity. This ruse affects Miss Smith's style rather than her thoughts, and the text is riddled with the fault…. In contrast to the sloppiness of syntax, the author's ideas are sharp—even acid…. Moreover, there are descriptions in this book that, even when clumsily expressed, are almost as evocative as the writing of Katherine Mansfield. (p. 52)
I recommend to everyone these bright glimpses of a woman full of sweetness but without mercy, sometimes highly talented, sometimes maddeningly inept, and always fascinating. (p. 56)
Quentin Crisp, "A Sort of Innocence: 'Me Again: Uncollected Writings of Stevie Smith'" (reprinted by permission of the author), in New York Magazine, Vol. 15. No. 29, July 26, 1982, pp. 52, 56.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 795
[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 considerable acclaim, both in her native England and elsewhere. Her "Collected Poems" has been reissued several times; a handsome gathering of her short stories, essays, drawings and reviews. "Me Again," was recently published in this country; and her three novels, long out of print, have [recently] been reissued…. Though differing in virtually every other way from the late Jean Rhys and the late Barbara Pym, Stevie Smith shares with them a posthumous fame that shows no signs of abating and is certainly well deserved…. An idiosyncratic talent, invariably deemed "eccentric," very much an acquired taste: a matter, it should be said, of tone, of rhythm, of voice, that appeals to some readers immediately and to others not at all. For Stevie Smith is all talk, all bright brash forthright confession, and no pretense is made of larger poetic or novelistic ambitions….
"Novel on Yellow Paper" is refreshing in its insouciance, perhaps, and in its refusal to attempt any traditional narrative technique; but the resolutely clever talking voice never varies through the 60,000 words, and the charge Stevie Smith made against James Thurber (that his tone and humor quickly became "monotonous") certainly applies to her. Initially, however, Pompey Casmilus surprises us with her directness, for it is quite as if we are given the privilege of overhearing private thoughts…. (p. 11)
"Novel on Yellow Paper" is a gallimaufry of opinions on such subjects as Medea, D. H. Lawrence, Racine, Goethe, Christianity and Nazism. It deals in its slapdash manner with "women's issues."… The chatter is occasionally sobered by thoughts of Pompey's mother's death and by thoughts of death in general. Like all improvised works, this literary curiosity strikes some inspired notes and others less inspired. Its value mainly lies in the fact that it was written by Stevie Smith at the age of 34 and that Stevie Smith went on to establish a distinct name for herself in poetry.
Yet if one looks for a self-portrait here—or in "Over the Frontier" and "The Holiday"—one is likely to be disappointed, for Stevie Smith rarely "sees" herself, and efforts at characterization are minimal. No doubt the narrator's claims for strong emotion are authentic, if we read Pompey as Stevie, but since they are not dramatized within the fictional context of the novel, they fall flat indeed. (pp. 11, 26)
"Over the Frontier,"… continues Pompey's observations, but shifts, surprisingly and I'm afraid not altogether plausibly, to an adventure-espionage tale (or dream) that carries her "over the frontier" into war…. Like "Novel on Yellow Paper," it is studded with small, quick, deft insights and perceptions; its thumbnail sketches of characters (like Colonel Peck, forever in search of his spectacles) will make it worthwhile reading for admirers of Stevie Smith but difficult going for others….
"The Holiday," written during wartime, was not published until 1949 and was Stevie Smith's own favorite among her novels, though a contemporary reader is likely to find it too whimsical, too disjointed, too low-keyed to hold his interest except in patches. It seems to have served its author as a kind of daybook in which she could record passing opinions and memories, awkwardly linked with an ongoing "narrative."…
Stevie Smith wrote novels with the left hand and made no claims otherwise. She is justly celebrated for her remarkable poetry, which magically combines the rhythms of light verse (upon occasion, even greeting card verse) with the unyielding starkness of a tragic vision. She has, as Robert Lowell noted, a "unique and cheerfully gruesome voice"; and this voice is most skillfully expressed by short, tightly knit forms where insouciant rhythms can be made to dramatically serve serious subjects. One has only to read a few of her characteristic poems—"Thoughts About the Person from Porlock," "Away Melancholy," the much anthologized "Not Waving but Drowning"—to fall under her eery spell. Here is a childlike sensibility informed by a cold, cold eye, an inimitable, because poetically constrained, voice. (p. 26)
Joyce Carol Oates, "A Child with a Cold, Cold Eye," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 3, 1982, pp. 11, 26.
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