Stevie Smith: The Eye of an Anarchist
by Anna M.
Evans, Poet & Independent Scholar
hen Stevie Smith's Selected Poems was published in the fall of 1962, Marianne Moore wrote of it: "We all of us need her Selected Poems and drawings—to counteract the estranging determination of some writers of prose and verse to obtrude on us their wanton unnaturalness" (Barbera & McBrien 244). Moore echoed an English reviewer for The Observer, who said "There is simply nowhere to put her…she puts you in mind again and again of something to which you must on no account compare her" (Barbera & McBrien 241). Indeed, Stevie's importance to the canon lies in her refusal to align herself with any school, and in her particular aversion to the fashionable modernists of the day who followed in Eliot's wake, such as Stephen Spender and Dylan Thomas. Her bold and idiosyncratic poetry impressed poet-critics like Philip Larkin and influenced both Sylvia Plath, and more recently, current U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, whose third book, Elephant Rocks, was described by Katha Pollitt as "Stevie Smith rewritten by William Blake."
Stevie Smith was born Florence Margaret Smith in Hull, Yorkshire, on 20 September 1902, the second daughter of Charles Ward-Smith and Ethel Spear. Stevie's father abandoned the family for a life at sea when Stevie was three and her older sister, Molly, five, forcing Ethel to combine forces with her sister Margaret Annie Spear and move as a joint household to Palmers Green in London, where they felt the girls would have a better chance to acquire a good education. Aunt Maggie, immortalized as the "Lion of Hull" in Novel on Yellow Paper, was by far the stronger of the two sisters both in constitution and character, and hence a formative presence in Stevie's young life.
Throughout her childhood Stevie's education was continually interrupted by bouts of tubercular peritonitis—then incurable—for which she had to spend months at a time at the Yarrow Convalescent Home in Kent. Despite this she was a happy child with a penchant for amateur theatrics—the internationally famous actress Dame Flora Robson was a childhood companion.
Towards the end of the Great War (1914-1918) Stevie transferred from the Palmers Green High School to the North London Collegiate School, which she found overwhelmingly big and too academic. She was preparing to escape by graduating early when, in February 1919, her mother, who had always been delicate, took sick and died. From that point on Aunt Maggie became head of the household, cementing the strong bond she had always shared with Stevie, which was to last almost another fifty years.
The profound grief and shock the sisters felt at their mother's passing temporarily drew them to the Catholic Church. However, while Molly later converted, Stevie was both attracted and repelled by what she considered as the sinecure of religion—a theme that was to recur frequently in her poems.
Molly departed for university, but there was no money available to send Stevie to the London School of Journalism as she wished; instead, she enrolled in a central London secretarial college to which she commuted daily. Known universally until this point as Peggy, she acquired the nickname that became her pen name during an outing on hired horses—"Stevie" after Steve Donoghue, a famous jockey of the day.
After college Stevie found secretarial work in the office of a consulting engineer before becoming private secretary to Sir Neville Pearson, the chairman of a large publishing firm, C. Arthur Pearson Ltd. This was where Stevie remained until retirement, and the office provided material for much of her work.
Throughout the 1920s Stevie read voraciously and almost indiscriminately—psychology, theology, history, classics and travel—and kept journals that recorded her reading matter, thoughts and observations. It is in these notebooks that poems begin to appear, although she was not published until 1935 when The New Statesman took six of her poems. Encouraged by this she submitted a full manuscript of poems to Chatto and Windus, but they told her to "go away and write a novel" before publishing poems (Barbera & McBrien 75). In typical Stevie style, in just six weeks she completed the hit autobiographical satire Novel on Yellow Paper, which launched her into London literary society.
Following on from the success of the novel, in 1937 Cape published Stevie's first collection of poems, A Good Time Was Had by All. In 1938 Stevie's second novel Over the Frontier appeared, a sequel featuring the same pseudo-fictional character Pompey Casmilus, and also a second collection of poems, Tender Only to One. In the same year she began reviewing books for newspapers such as The London Mercury and The New Statesman, a sideline that brought her much attention due to her frank and entertaining style.
Perhaps in part due to the imminence of war, many of the poems Stevie wrote and published at this time are fixated upon death. Unlike many of her literary friends Stevie remained in London throughout the Second World War and endured the blitz and its deprivations. She worked this material into a third novel, The Holiday, although this was not published until four years after the war had ended.
Although one must typically be wary of identifying novelists with their first person narrators, even David Garnett, an early reviewer of Novel on Yellow Paper, noted that Stevie wasn't "writing a novel at all, but saying just what she feels about herself, her employer, her aunt, her lovers, her friends, and the good people, or not-so-good people, she stayed with in Germany" (Sternlight 54).
With this in mind it is fair to assume that the novel's protagonist, Pompey Casmilus, is speaking Stevie Smith's thoughts when she says "it is a wise thing that every intelligent, sensitive child should early be accustomed to the thought of death by suicide" (155). Later in the argument she continues "No, when I sat up and said: Death has got to come if I call him, I never called him and never have" (160-161).
But on July 1, 1953 Stevie did call Death. Despite the success of her novels, Stevie struggled to find a publisher for her fourth book of poetry, Harold's Leap. She was also in constant pain from an arthritic knee, in dispute with the Inland Revenue, and permanently tired at work. Ironically, it was while suffering from this depression that she wrote "Not Waving But Drowning," one of her finest poems. Stoic in the face of illness and personal losses both early in life and later around the time of her aunt's death, the nervous strain of all these issues together proved too much, and Stevie attempted suicide by slashing her wrists in her office.
Later she expressed regret to at least one friend, Anna Browne, for her action and how upsetting it was for her aunt. However, the positive result was that she was pensioned off from her tedious secretarial role and thereafter able to devote the rest of her life to her writing. It is hard not to wonder how familiar Sylvia Plath was with this chain of events when she made her own fateful decision ten years later.
Stevie's new dedication to her poetry paid off with publication of her fifth collection, Not Waving But Drowning, to enthusiastic reviews from notables such as Muriel Spark, who wrote that Stevie's work "is most of all dependent on the curious chit-chat rhythms, elongated lines, comic metrical arrangements and mordant phrases which are used in the volume with particular skill and point" (Barbera & McBrien 208). Sylvia Plath wrote to Stevie Smith in November of 1962, a few months before her own tragic suicide, professing to be an addict of her poetry. This was after Plath had claimed Stevie as an influence (alongside Lowell, Roethke and Bishop) in an article for the London Magazine.
By this time both Stevie and her now elderly aunt were battling health problems—Stevie had to deal with her knee condition and a benign lump in her breast, while her aunt was practically immobilized by an arthritic hip. In March 1968, Stevie's "Lion-Aunt"—her constant companion since childhood—died. This was closely followed by another crushing blow when her sister Molly suffered a series of strokes in 1969, which caused her to be institutionalized.
Stevie was awarded the Gold Medal for poetry by Queen Elizabeth II in 1969, but by the end of 1970 Stevie herself had begun to feel generally unwell—fits of nearly fainting combined with loss of control over her words, a terrifying fate for a woman whose mastery of language had been her solace and power. In early 1971 Stevie was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, and she died on 7 March.
Stevie's most famous poem, "Not Waving But Drowning" is still a staple in anthologies on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And Not Waving But Drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he's dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And Not Waving But Drowning (67).
Written a few months before her suicide attempt, it returns to the subject of death, which had fascinated Stevie since the Second World War. A decade later, Stevie claimed that she was inspired to write the poem by a newspaper story about a drowning man whose friends thought he was waving to them. Clearly that narrative thread is also a metaphor for someone who, like Stevie herself, did not always feel comfortable in the world, but hid her awkwardness with humor and mock jollity.
The poem displays many of Stevie's trademarks, aligned here in serendipitous harmony. Firstly there is the breezy, colloquial tone conveyed by the use of the British slang word "chap" and the unpunctuated line of direct speech: "It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,/they said." Stevie's ubiquitous first person narrator, who is an unmistakable presence in many poems given to interjections such as "I know", "I think" and "I am sorry that…" is felicitously only hinted at here through the expression "Poor chap."
Two of the adjectives applied most liberally, and sometimes with negative connotations, to describe both Stevie and her work are child-like and childish, or, as Martin Pumphrey put it: "Stevie Smith's off-key, enigmatically childish poetry has always irritated as much as charmed her critics" (Sternlight 97). Desmond MacCarthy framed this in a more generous manner when he stated that she saw "everything with a child's ruthless absence of sentimentality and with a child's illuminating irrelevancies of attention" (Barbera & McBrien 151). One could add to that list that she had a child's disdain for convention, as witnessed by her heterometric lines and haphazard rhyme schemes, often relying on monosyllables (dead/said.)
Again, what can come across as sing songy or flat in her lesser poems works brilliantly in "Not Waving But Drowning." The quirkier second stanza contrasts with the more regular first and final stanzas, the latter offering closure through its repetition of the second and fourth lines with their subtle slant rhyme (moaning/drowning.)
Critics such as Naomi Mitchison have flatteringly compared Stevie's best work to that of William Blake, and this poem, with its abxb quatrains, stands up well to that comparison. The poem is a genuine "song of experience." It is also worth noting that Stevie, like Blake, illustrated her own work and insisted that the drawings be published alongside the poems, even though it was not typically the case that she created specific drawings with individual poems in mind, or that the poems inspired the drawings. Sometimes merely decorative, but often offering ironic parallels to the texts, Stevie's attachment to her "doodles" was yet another way in which she rebelled against the tenets of Modernism and New Criticism—if poems were supposed to be "impersonal" and "independent, well-wrought objects," Stevie was adamant that her poems be considered both as personal and as a counterpoint to her art. The sketch Stevie placed with "Not Waving But Drowning" shows a woman up to her waist in water, not apparently floundering in distress, but with her long hair covering her face, and a faint, Mona-Lisa smile on her face. This is the woman of the metaphor, not the man from the newspaper story, a woman manifesting amusement at a life that in actuality she found troubling. The enduring success of "Not Waving But Drowning" is a testimony to the ease with which all artists, but especially female poets, can identify with this idea.
Stevie was aware, and even relished at times, her ability to maintain links with her inner child her entire adult life. However, she recognized that this aspect of her personality had its drawbacks, as evinced by another brutally honest poem, "To Carry the Child."
To carry the child into adult life
Is good? I say it is not,
To carry the child into adult life
Is to be handicapped.
The child in adult life is defenceless
And if he is grown-up, knows it,
And the grown-up looks at the childish part
And despises it.
The child, too, despises the clever grown-up,
The man-of-the-world, the frozen,
For the child has the tears alive on his cheek
And the man has none of them.
As the child has colours, and the man sees no
Colours or anything,
Being easy only in things of the mind,
The child is easy in feeling.
Easy in feeling, easily excessive
And in excess powerful,
For instance, if you do not speak to the child
He will make trouble.
You would say a man had the upper hand
Of the child, if a child survive,
I say the child has fingers of strength
To strangle the man alive.
Oh it is not happy, it is never happy,
To carry the child into adulthood,
Let children lie down before full growth
And die in their infanthood
And be guilty of no man's blood.
But oh the poor child, the poor child, what can he do,
Trapped in a grown-up carapace,
But peer outside of his prison room
With the eye of an anarchist? (108)
Stevie wrote this poem in the last decade of her life, by which point she had almost a lifetime of experience with the problems and benefits of living with her unique personality. She was undoubtedly also introspective enough to be aware that it was nurture as much as nature that had formed her this way. After her mother's early death, Stevie's aunt took on the parental role and, childless herself, overcompensated for Stevie's motherless status. Aunt cosseted Stevie well into adulthood—a famous anecdote shows Stevie unable even to warm her own bedtime milk—although as Aunt's health failed their roles did gradually reverse, with Stevie eventually surprising herself by becoming a decent cook, caregiver and housekeeper.
The paucity of romantic attachments in Stevie's life also contributed to her sustainable innocence—an uneasy long distance relationship with the German Karl Ettinger in her late twenties was followed by a couple of years in her thirties dating a young man slightly outside her social class called Eric Armitage. Eric was immortalized in the poem "Freddy" (See appendix) who also appears as Pompey's love interest in Novel on Yellow Paper. The general opinion among Stevie's friends and relatives is that neither relationship became fully sexual—not unusual at a time before the contraceptive pill and when there was still a huge social stigma on pre-marital sex or pregnancy.
So Stevie was predestined to remain childless and child-like, with the "Lion Aunt" to care for her and no family to rely on her developing a sense of responsibility. "To Carry the Child" expresses her ambivalence at this condition: the child "has the tears alive on his cheek" and has "colours" and "fingers of strength," but is also "handicapped" and "defenceless."
The poem is written again predominantly in quatrains (the exception is the penultimate stanza) and uses the abxb slant rhyme scheme Stevie often chose when she cared to impose a semblance of order on her lines. However, the piece derives the majority of its robust structure from the various forms of reinforcement that run through it—the repetition of "child" and its juxtaposition with "grown up", "adult" and "man"; the opposition of "I say" and "you say"; and the way in which ideas build:
The child is easy in feeling.
Easy in feeling, easily excessive
And in excess powerful,
Here Stevie takes the sensitivity of the child and illustrates how that proclivity leads to the kind of tantrum (for which Stevie was noted) that both shocks and overwhelms.
The slant rhymes are so faint that they almost escape definition. Nevertheless, the aural chiming of "frozen" and "them", "powerful" and "trouble" and the striking final pair "carapace" and "anarchist" confirm Stevie's facility with the music of poetry. Ultimately in the final line, the poem moves away from ambiguity and towards defiance.
Stevie never tried to write in a way that would win her prizes or get her published. Her poems, unique in style and voice, were not universally successful. Hence the popularity of her poetry fluctuated wildly throughout her life and has done ever since. In his introduction to the 1962 issue of her Collected Poems, Philip Larkin felt he had to "correct the bias of general opinion towards the view that she is a lighthearted purveyor of bizarrerie" (Sternlight 80). Terry Eagleton described her posthumous 1972 collection, Scorpion, as "disappointing" (Sternlight 83). Yet Calvin Bedient grouped her with Larkin and Hughes in his 1974 critical survey, Eight Contemporary Poets, calling her "as surprising as she is skilful, her finesse equal to her boldness" (144) and praising her art—"an art swift, light, and deft, running with simple ease" (152).
What is certain is that Stevie Smith never sacrificed her unique personal style on the altar of the fashionable, a stance that should make her a role model for women poets today whether or not they admire her idiosyncratic, gutsy poetry. Contemporary poets can look at the world "with the eye of an anarchist" more fearlessly, because Stevie Smith did it first, or, as she put it in a 1961 interview with Peter Orr: "I'm alive today, therefore I'm just as much a part of our time as everybody else. The times will just have to enlarge themselves to make room for me, won't they?" (Sternlight 35).
Barbera, Jack and William McBrien. Stevie, a Biography of Stevie Smith. London: Oxford University Press, 1988. Print.
Bedient, Calvin. Eight Contemporary Poets. London: Oxford University Press, 1974, Print.
Smith, Stevie. New Selected Poems of Stevie Smith. New York: New Directions Books, 1988. Print.
Smith, Stevie. Novel on Yellow Paper. London: Jonathan Cape, 1969. Print.
Sternlight, Sanford. Ed. In Search of Stevie Smith. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1991. Print.
Nobody knows what I feel about Freddy
I cannot make anyone understand
I love him sub specie aeternitatis
I love him out of hand.
I don't love him so much in the restaurants that's a fact
To get him hobnob with my old pub chums needs too much tact
He don't love them and they don't love him
In the pub lub lights they say Freddy very dim.
But get him alone on the open saltings
Where the sea licks up to the fen
He is his and my own heart's best
World without end ahem.
People who say we ought to get married ought to get
Why should we do it when we can't afford it and have
Thank you kind friends and relations thank you,
We do very well as we do.
Oh what do I care for the pub lub lights
And the friends I love so well--
There's more in the way I feel about Freddy
Than a friend can tell.
But all the same I don't care much for his meelyoo I mean
I don't anheimate mich in the ha-ha well-off suburban scene
Where men are few and hearts go tumptytum
In the tennis club lub lights poet very dumb.
But there never was a boy like Freddy
For a haystack's ivory tower of bliss
Where speaking sub specie humanitatis
Freddy and me can kiss.
Exiled from his meelyoo
Exiled from mine
There's all Tom Tiddler's time pocket
For his love and mine.
Sub specie aeternitatis, from sub specie aeterni, a Latin term meaning "from the viewpoint of eternity."
Hobnob, an informal chat
Chum, friend or pal
Meelyou, from milieu, of French origin, meaning a person's social setting or environment
Anheimate mich, "animate much" spelled as if pronounced with an upper middle class English accent
Sub specie humanitatis, from sub specie humani, a Latin term meaning "from the viewpoint of humanity."
A thousand and fifty-one waves
Two hundred and thirty-one seagulls
A cliff of four hundred feet
Three miles of ploughed fields
Four windows look on the waves
Four windows look on the ploughed fields
One skylight looks on the sky
In that skylight's sky is one seagull.
Stevie Smith's work and photo are reproduced here by kind permission of the Estate of James MacGibbon. Stevie Smith's works, or any part of them, may not be downloaded, reprinted, or reproduced in any other form without the permission of the Estate of James MacGibbon who may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org