Stevie Smith, Selected Poems (edited by James MacGibbon 1975, Penguin 1978)
My first boss, who had met Stevie Smith in his youth and been enchanted by her, once delighted his staff, all three of us, with an expressive recitation of the final of pages of her Novel on Yellow Paper, beginning something like, ‘I will now tell the story of the death of the lion Aunt.’ On another occasion he treated us to her best known poem, ‘Not Waving but Drowning‘, and her lines about death being the only god who comes when he is called. I’ve been a kind of fan by proxy ever since.
But I don’t seem to have actually read much of her poetry. At least just now this book felt like a fresh encounter rather than a revisiting. I had a mental image of Stevie Smith as English-eccentric with a quirky take on the world, witty, whimsical and self-deprecatingly wise. This impression had been helped along by two poems we published in the School Magazine when I was editor, ‘My Tortoise’, which verges on baby talk, and sublimely silly ‘The Galloping Cat‘. But though there are a number of whimsical poems about animals toward the end of the book, the dominant tone is much, much darker than I expected. Death and a longing for death are pervasive; there’s quite a bit that’s moralistic, snobbish and outright misanthropic; and she wrestles resolutely with her Anglican heritage. Even the cat that ‘likes to / gallop about doing good’ seems unsettlingly satirical. Yet I enjoyed the book a lot, and had to restrain myself from reading much of it aloud.
It’s hard to say quite what it is that I find so enjoyable. These lines from ‘A Soldier Dear to Us’ help:
But you taught me a secret you did not perhaps mean to impart,
That one must speak lightly, and use fair names like the ladies
They used to call
Stevie Smith seems to have been an excellent student of that old soldier. She certainly speaks lightly of serious things, in satirical squibs, in a verse essay on Christianity that ends with a warning of religiously rationalised mass murder, in a denunciation of cruelty to animals, in cryptic narratives of love denied or lost or twisted out of shape, in many lyrics that echo the ‘Come, Death’ sentiment, and so on. Casting about for words to describe her characteristic tone I come up with ‘chirpy’. It’s more complex and interesting than merely cheerful, suggesting something like courage and humility in adversity, not denying anything but refusing to be overwhelmed or melodramatic.
‘The Lads of the Village’ is a poem that struck a chord with me strongly enough that I memorised it, which turned out to be a rewarding process (see earlier post about memorising verse). Here it is:
The lads of the village, we read in the lay,
By medalled commanders are muddled away,
But the picture that the poet makes is not very gay.
Poet, let the red blood flow that makes the pattern better,
And let the tears flow, too, and grief stand that is their begetter,
And let man have his self-forged chain and hug every fetter.
For without the juxtaposition of muddles, medals and clay,
Would the song be so very much more gay,
Would it not be a frivolous dance upon a summer day?
Oh sing no more: Away with the folly of commanders.
This will not make a better song upon the field of Flanders,
Or upon any field of experience where pain makes patterns the poet slanders.
If I had read that aloud to the Art Student I expect she would roll her eyes, but let me try to explain how it gets to me, and some of what I found as I did my learning by heart.
The first two lines promise us a poem in strict meter, like one of the lays they refer to, and then in the third line the rhythm breaks up to become much more conversational, while the rhyme scheme stays intact. The metric shape is increasingly disrupted, so that the rest of the poem is of playful struggle between natural speech – perhaps chatty, perhaps angrily ranting – and songlike formality. It’s almost as if the poem’s sense has been shoe-horned into its shape: the unexpected ‘slanders’ at the end of the long final almost McGonagallesque line could be a desperate ploy to end the poem with a full rhyme. The alliteration in the second line and elsewhere has a similar effect – at first blush it feels as if ‘muddled’ is there purely because it echoes ‘medalled’. I think this apparent arbitrariness is what creates the feeling of lightness.
And yet, and yet, just how arbitrary is it really? When you come to think about it, ‘muddled’ is satirically precise, and ‘slanders’ arrives with tremendous denunciatory force, like a stone hurled from a sling. And the sling isn’t such a bad simile: in this poem tiny Stevie-David takes on the Goliath tradition of poetry that celebrates war and delivers a killer blow. Blood flows, grief stands, generals are foolish, the lads go into clay, and the poet exploits the whole cruel mess for aesthetic purposes. ‘Slander’ justifies its status as the last word, and the disruption of the form enacts in a way the repudiation of the kind of song that is deemed suitable for memorial ceremonies at Flanders.
There are other felicities that I didn’t notice till I did the memorising: the repetition of ‘upon … field’ in the final stanza, the reappearance of the ‘ay’ rhyme in the middle of the third last line, the patterning of the p words ‘poet’, ‘picture’, ‘pattern’ and ‘pain’, and more. But that’s all I’m writing here.