Intertextuality, Christianity and Death: Major Themes in the Poetry of Stevie Smith
I remember once picking up a copy of a faded blue book of poems from the thirties in Bertram Rota’s bookshop in Vigo Street, London. I asked Arthur Uphill, who was tending the store: so who’s Stevie Smith? “Who’s Stevie Smith?” he exclaimed, as though I had failed to recognize Queen Victoria, Dame Edith Sitwell, Gertrude Stein, Mae West, and Bette Davis all walking down Saville Row together.4
Less than six months later, critical acclaim for Will May’s 800 page edition of The Collected Poems & Drawings of Stevie Smith proved Jenkins wrong in her belief that “nowadays, Smith is only really remembered for her 1957 poem ‘Not Waving But Drowning’”; though David Orr’s description of her, in his review in The New York Times, as “the English poet so odd that even other poets, most of whom are fairly odd themselves, have never been sure what to do with her” suggests that she may still not have found her place in the canon. However, Orr does go on to say, “she is a great poet whether or not she fits into the stories we like to tell about poets and their greatness.”6the patriarchy got her in the end. In later years she was overlooked—her poems dismissed as light verse—and she was denied membership of the canon. I can’t help thinking she was sidelined for having become a plain and eccentric spinster.5
Hermione Lee, whose own list also begins with Blake, makes the important point that “mixed with this strong attachment to the English tradition, there is a powerful feeling for Greek and French classical tragedy, for Virgil, Homer, Catullus, Plotinus and Seneca, for the liturgy and the Book of Common Prayer”.15 Yet, despite his own powerful feeling for classical literature and the Book of Common Prayer, the author of The Waste Land is seldom mentioned in relation to Smith’s work. Frances Spalding does suggest that “there are poems in which the influence of Eliot can be detected”, but she goes on to say:There may be echoes in her work of past poets—Lear, Poe, Byron, the gothic romantics and Hymns Ancient and Modern—but these are deceitful echoes, as her thoughts may also seem deceitful, at first simple, almost childlike, then cutting at depth with a sharp edge to the main business of her life—death, loneliness, God and the devil.14
modernism was not her chosen inheritance. Instead her poetry ranges freely over associations connected with older traditions, forms and genres. […] Her aim was to write poetry that comes to the lips as naturally as speech. In this she is an inheritor of a tradition that looks back to the Lyrical Ballads and beyond. But her liking for simplicity, her refusal to overdecorate her themes, is only one aspect of her poetics. Another is her constant use of quotations, half-quotations, travesties, echoes and allusions drawn from the work of other poets whose voices infiltrate her own.16
The poet in question is Robert Burns, but the passage could just as easily be applied to Stevie Smith.both these poets are tradition-bearers whose ideas blended continuity and disruption, fusing modern literary culture with oral heritage. Some of the most powerful lines in Eliot’s work, after all, come from nursery rhymes—whether The Waste Land’s “London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down” (a telling line in a poem obsessed with loss of connection), or that distorted nursery rhyme beginning “Here we go round the prickly pear” in “The Hollow Men”.17
While we might well take odds with that “complacently”, more than one narrative is being robbed of its classical significance here. In A Game of Chess, Philomel, “so rudely forced” by Tereus, becomes a nightingale whose supposedly “inviolable voice” is immediately violated by the following two lines: “still she cried and still the world pursues,/‘Jug Jug’ to dirty ears.”23 The conventional onomatopoeic representation of the nightingale’s song becomes a crude term for copulation, so that when we hear it again in The Fire Sermon, in a burst of birdsong ending with a “Tereu” which reminds us of Philomel’s assailant, we already know what is about to happen to the typist, whose return home also parodies one of the most famous fragments of Sappho. In a mocking echo of the silencing of the raped Philomel, whose tongue is cut out by her attacker, Eliot also parodies the seduced Olivia’s song from The Vicar of Wakefield, “When lovely woman stoops to folly”, silencing that too. The nearest that the nameless typist can come to expressing her predicament through music is to put “a record on the gramophone”.24Throughout the text, the poet juxtaposes the designified present with the significant past; he reminds us, for example, that Philomel suffered her rape so intensively that she turned into a nightingale, sheer urgent expressive form; whereas the typist suffered her “rape” (or unwanted but unprotested sexual violation) so inertly, so complacently, that she turned into—nothing at all.22
‘the mother coming on, Agave coming on, thinking it’s the head of a young lion and stroking it. It’s really the head of her son. And Tiresias says, ‘You know, I don’t think you know what you have in your arms. It’s not a young lion at all, it’s the head of your son which you’ve torn off. […] Then when this wretched Dionysus comes on at the end and says, ‘It will cure you of this terrible sin of impiety towards the gods won’t it, anyway’. And the queen, Agave, says, ‘But is there no mercy? Must we now be sent into exile? Is there no help?’ And then she looks at him and she says, ‘I see there is no help,’ and he said, ‘Why then postpone the necessity? Why then postpone the inevitable?’ Turns on his heel and leaves. Everything in ruins, you see.’30
“As lucid as they are alarming”. The end of the poem plays with the key word “simple”, which Smith uses in Novel on Yellow Paper to characterize the essential nature of tragedy. The optimism of the retelling almost founders on the question of whether “poor simple honourable sweet prim Phèdre” can really be simple enough “To be happy with a prig like Hippolytus”. The speaker rallies gamely:Depuis que sur ses bords le dieux ont envoyéLa fille de Minos et de Pasiphaé39
But, as the conditional tense reminds us, and the opening lines from Racine have already made plain, it is the gods who are writing this story, one in which Venus, “Ancient enemy/Of her family”, has already doomed Phèdre before she even sets eyes on Hippolytus.I think it could have been a go,If I were writing the storyI should have made it a go.
From Hades, with the fire-flush of Hell upon her cheeks, comes the young Antigone, with a backward-looking, repentant thought for the sister she used to despise so much, the soft
Ismene. Antigone is a very young girl, she stands with bows in her hair, and on her outstretched arm she supports a large and melancholy bird.42
she deliberately chooses the icy underground world and summons its dark King:gathering flowersHerself, a fairer flower, by gloomy DisWas gathered,44
In a radio broadcast for schools, Smith told her young listeners:Oh can you wonder can you wonderI struck the doll-faced day asunderStretched out and plucked the flower of winter thunder?45
The story of Persephone is a story of Winter and Summer, but in my story I have made Persephone a girl who loves winter, and snow, and the curious light you get when there is snow on the ground and you look up, if you are in the house, and the ceilings are bright with the reflection of snow. In my poem, Persephone even likes the dark places in her kingdom, which can be frightening […] There is another thread in this poem—it is what she feels about her mother. She loves her, but at the same time she does not want to be sought for all the time, and wept for, and begged to come home. She wants to be herself, and free to stretch out and take her time.46
Loved I once my darling? I love him not now.Had I a mother beloved? She lies far away.My sister, a loving heart? My aunt a noble lady?All all is silent in the dark wood at night.47
about this time when it was cold and dark and damp and February my darling mama died.What can you do? You can do nothing but be there and go on being there steadily and without a break until the end. There is nothing but that that you can do.48
identifies the speaker with Smith, but the comic impact of this is short-lived. The dream-Helen, who remembers “Everything one has ever read about Troy”, quotes from Lorenzo’s speech in The Merchant of Venice:I had a dream I was Helen of TroyIn looks, age and circumstance,But otherwise I was myself,
and tests it against the brutal reality of war:In such a night as this,When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees,And they did make no noise, in such a nightTroilus methinks mounted the Trojan walls,And sigh’d his soul toward the Grecian tentsWhere Cressid lay that night.50
Smith’s poem, like Eliot’s, is haunted by World War One, but where he uses the imagery of the trenches to explore a toxic personal relationship: “I think we are in rats’ alley/Where the dead men lost their bones”,51 she draws on the childhood memories she recounts in A Soldier Dear to Us, in which reading Browning’s Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came at school enables her to visualize the nightmare landscape of the Somme:Where Cressid lay that night, except they did not sayHow beastly Scamander looks under this sort of sky,And the black Greek ships piled up on the seashore beyondLike prison hulks, like slugs.
Basil never spoke of the trenches, but ISaw them always, saw the mud, heard the guns, saw the duckboards,Saw the men and the horses slipping in the great mud…52
Smith quotes this psalm again in “The Necessity of Not Believing”, her lecture “to the Cambridge Humanists on an anti-religious subject”, in which she speaks of “the terrible pictures” Goya “made in the prisons of the inquisition”, evidence of a human cruelty which it is impossible for “the Christian of today” to “separate himself from” and “utterly condemn”.It is the twenty-eighth evening of the month. I hear my gentle uncle saying softly the psalms for the evening: ‘Blessed shall he be that taketh thy children; and throwest them against the stones.’54
For their gentle Christ was more cruel than this, for the worst cruelties of men end with death, and hell is eternal, and Christ made himself the King of Hell and the judge of torments. For he said that the Son of Man should come in glory and judge both the quick and the dead, and that he should say to the sinning people: Depart from me, ye cursèd, into the everlasting fire … where their worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched.’55
Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore;fecemi la divina podestate,la somma sapïenza e’l primo amore.
The inscription famously ends in the line, “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.” [Abandon all hope, you who enter].60 Eliot sees More’s failure to share this belief as a lapse into Humanism, asking him, “Is your God Santa Claus?”, and goes on to say:[Justice moved my high maker;I was made by divine power,supreme wisdom and primal love.]
To me, religion has brought at least the perception of something above morals, and therefore extremely terrifying. It has brought me not happiness, but the sense of something above happiness and therefore more terrifying than ordinary pain and misery; the very dark night and the desert. To me, the phrase ‘to be damned for the glory of God’ is sense not paradox; I had far rather walk, as I do, in daily terror of eternity, than feel that this was only a children’s game in which all the contestants would get equally worthless prizes in the end.61
Christian composers have traditionally incorporated that cry of Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani into passion music or oratorios on the Seven Last Words from the Cross, making it a support rather than an impediment to faith, but here, comfort is to be found elsewhere, in the idea that even for the suffering Christ “quiet Death” offers “end and remedy”. In her poem My heart goes out…, Smith speaks of her love for her Creator, who has given her, and “all living creatures”, that ultimate solace, “which is what they want although/When they are living they do not think so.”63I have thought that as his life of teaching passed, so his exigencies grew, and his claims grew greater—that he was now divine—and people would not listen to him, and in the end he threw himself upon the cross as the Victim and Sufferer Isaiah spoke of […] And then comes that terrible cry from the cross, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ Was it then, that not the mercilessness of men, not the cruelty of the Law, touched him, but the indifference of Nature and the universe, an empty sky, the coming of Death as a friend, as Man’s only true friend. Come quickly then, Death, one must have prayed at that moment as for all poor men at the point of anguish.62
In her interview with Kay Dick, Smith told her, “I’m supposed to be an agnostic, but I’m sort of a backslider as a believer, too. I mean I’m a backslider as a non-believer, because every now and then I think, ‘No, I have this feeling that…’”66For he does not wish that men should love him more than anythingBecause he died; he only wishes they would hear him sing.65
and one which requires a return, even if only a metaphorical one, to the beliefs and values of the classical world.To brace and fortify the child who already is turning with fear and repugnance from the life he is born into, it is necessary to say: Things may easily become more than I choose to bear. That is a very healthy and a very positive attitude. But you should point out that the child is at once no longer a Christian. For the thought: Things may easily become more than I can bear, leaves him a Christian, if a half hearted, faithless sort of a Christian […] But that ‘choose’ is a grand old burn-your-boats phrase,68
In her essay “Too Tired for Words”, Smith describes “putting something into the last two lines” of her version of Dido’s Farewell to Aeneas “that is not quite in Virgil, to express this proud thought of commanding the great god Thanatos”:So teach your little ones to look on Death as Thanatos-Hades the great Lord of the Dead, that must, great prince though he be, come to their calling. And on the shadowy wings of this dark prince let them be borne upwards from the mire of makeshift and fearful compromise.69
‘Come Death, you know you must come when you’re called
In the original passage from Book IV of The Aeneid, Dido stabs herself to death in the hope that the sight of her funeral pyre will bring ill fortune to her faithless lover as he sails away from Carthage:Although you’re a god. And this way, and this way, I call you.’70
“moriemur inultae,sed moriamur,” ait. “sic, sic iuvat ire sub umbras.hauriat hunc oculis ignem crudelis ab altoDardanus et nostrae secum ferat omina mortis.”
“I shall die unavenged,” she cries, “but let me die! Thus, thus I go gladly into the dark! Let the cruel Dardan’s eyes drink in this fire from the deep, and carry with him the omen of my death!”71
She continued to find strength and comfort throughout her adult life in the idea that death must come if she called him.Childhood’s thoughts can cut deep. I remember when I was about eight, for instance, thinking the road ahead might be rather too long, and being cheered by the thought, at that moment first occurring to me, that life lay in our hands. Many poems have been inspired by this thought, at least many of mine have been.74
However, the end of the poem, in which Life finally comes with love to the weary and enfeebled old person, giving him permission to die, led to some rather alarming correspondence:How can a poet commit suicideWhen he is still not listening properly to his Muse,Or a lover of Virtue whenHe is always putting her off until tomorrow?76
I keep getting letters from people asking if I will join them in a suicide club. And one lady asked me to tell her how to “manage it” as she couldn’t swallow pills. I always write back the most bracing letters telling them to hang on as long as possible as it’s absolutely nothing compared with geological time. And that I am afraid it is something they must decide for themselves, I did not say, Get your doctor to prescribe it in liquid form!77
To the frustration of her biographers, Smith was a writer who managed to keep the details of her private life almost entirely private. Apart from Margaret Spear, the indomitable Lion Aunt, whose steadfast and loving companionship was the bedrock of her life, the most intimate relationship Smith ever writes about is her relationship with death, which she explores in poems ranging from Tender Only to One, the title poem of her second collection in 1938, to Black March in her posthumously published final volume, Scorpion and Other Poems. “I love death”, she told Kay Dick, “I think it’s the most exciting thing,”79 while her retort to the composer Elizabeth Lutyens: “When you say ‘won’t death be a bit of an anti-climax when you come face to face?’ you sound rather as if you had met him and found him not quite the dish I thought”,80 is almost that of a jealous lover.I do really think death will be absolutely marvellous. I don’t think one could possibly enjoy life without death; one couldn’t stand it; not only the pain, but the pleasure. If there wasn’t death, I think you couldn’t go on.It’s like being drawn into a race of water before it gets to the waterfall. It gets quicker and quicker and more exciting. The older you get the more exciting it gets. I don’t know why people have been taught to be afraid of death. If a human being was left to itself I don’t think it would fear death. We’re taught to believe death is the greatest calamity. It’s the greatest blessing.78
Sleep or Death, Sleep or Death kissed me,Not for friendship.
In her final book of poems, Smith returns to this self-created myth in Oblivion. Once again, the speaker is standing “in a sweet and milky sea, knee deep,” and “growing deeper”, but this time she is called back, despite her reluctance, by “a human and related voice/That cried to me in pain.” It is impossible not to hear that human voice as the voice of the Lion Aunt, frail and in her nineties and soon to die herself, calling her beloved Peggy back from the seductive mists of “sweet oblivion”. But the speaker in this poem, unlike Venus, is mortal, so she can afford to wait:You do not kiss one for friendship?No, for welcome,To welcome one home.81
In the event, she did not have to wait for long. Stevie Smith wrote her last poem, Come Death (2), while undergoing medical tests for the symptoms, including aphasia, of an incurable brain tumour. In eight short lines, she makes the choice to turn for help not to the Christian God but to the only god who comes as a servant, summoning him at last in words which brook no denial:those sweet seas that deepen are my destinyAnd must come even if not soon.82
The closing lines echo the speech she gave to Dido, but with the sharpness of a cry rather than a blade. When a friend visited her in hospital, bringing a typed copy of the poem:Listen then to this sound I make, it is sharp,Come Death. Do not be slow.83
although her speech had not been good for some time (she had been missing words), Stevie read the poem aloud perfectly. It was a dramatic moment. Visitors, who were on their way out, stopped.’84
There was no more conversation on subsequent visits and all we could do was to hold her hand and hope she realised we loved her. On 7 March 1971 she died, peacefully as far as we could tell. I read that last poem at her funeral. She had written her own oration.85
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Ibid, pp. 71–72.
Ibid, p. 63
Ibid, p. 74.
Ibid, pp. 67–68.
Ibid, p. 201
Ibid, pp. 129–30.
Ibid, p. 200
Racine, Phèdre, Act 1, l. 306.
Ibid, Act 1, ll. 35–6.
Milton, Paradise Lost Bk IV, ll. 268–72.
Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice, Act V, sc. 1, ll. 1–6.
Ibid, p. 31.
Dante, Inferno, Canto 3, ll 4–9.
Ibid, p. 161.
Smith 2015, p. 527. There is a misprint in this poem in May’s edition: the line beginning ‘Then came out…’ should read ‘Then came one…’
Ibid, p. 646.
Ibid, p. 658.
© 2019 by the author. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland. This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).
Woolf, J. Intertextuality, Christianity and Death: Major Themes in the Poetry of Stevie Smith. Humanities 2019, 8, 174. https://doi.org/10.3390/h8040174
Woolf J. Intertextuality, Christianity and Death: Major Themes in the Poetry of Stevie Smith. Humanities. 2019; 8(4):174. https://doi.org/10.3390/h8040174Chicago/Turabian Style
Woolf, Judith. 2019. "Intertextuality, Christianity and Death: Major Themes in the Poetry of Stevie Smith" Humanities 8, no. 4: 174. https://doi.org/10.3390/h8040174