Stevie Smith, one of the most productive of twentieth-century poets, is too often remembered simply as the coiner of the four-word punch line of a single short poem. This paper argues that her claim to be seen as a great writer depends on the major themes which—in addition to “death by water”—she shares with T.S. Eliot: Anglicanism and the modern reworking of classical literature, with a strong, and in her case sometimes autobiographical, emphasis on female protagonists. Where the female figures in Eliot’s The Waste Land
are seen as parodic and diminished contemporary versions of their classical originals, Smith enters and reimagines her classical sources, testing the strength of the narrative material which binds Phèdre, Antigone, Persephone and Helen of Troy to their fates. In contrast to Eliot’s adult conversion to Anglo-Catholicism, Smith became a convert to agnosticism, engaging in a passionate poetic argument with the faith of her childhood, which led her to challenge Eliot himself. She brings both of these themes together in the most personal of her poems, which celebrate, and ultimately invoke, Thanatos, “the only god/Who comes as a servant”, and who puts a merciful end to all stories by “scattering... the human pattern altogether”.
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