“Her poems speak with the authority of sadness,” wrote Larkin, who might be said to aspire to the same in his own poetry, and who might also be said to have mangled the terms of his praise in light of his own practice. For whereas Larkin’s poetry often finds authority in sadness (and at its worst asks that we accept that sadness is inherently authoritative), Stevie Smith’s poetry repeatedly makes the concerted effort at shirking (and shredding) assumptions of authority.
She is, in Larkin’s hedging phrase, “an almost unclassifiable writer”; and though Larkin does not attempt a classificatory sketch, he does provide touchstones against which she can be seen more clearly, and set into a constellation, if not tradition.
Above her in the constellation, her precursor of a couple of generations, another poet whose sensibility Larkin courted and whose virtues Larkin perceived: Christina G. Rossetti. Alongside her, an elder contemporary from the previous generation, and perhaps unexpected in the bunch: Wallace Stevens.
Larkin thought of Stevens himself, in relation to Stevie Smith, though he perhaps did not think through the pertinence of his remark when he stated that
Her successes are not full-scale four-square poems that can be anthologized and anatomized, but occasional phrases (“not waving but drowning”) or refrains (“For I love you more than ever | In the wet and stormy weather”) that one finds hanging about one’s mind like nursery rhymes, or folk poetry, long after one has put the book down in favour of Wallace Stevens.
Larkin is wrong (she has poems that stand alone, that are successfully anthologized) and disparaging to Smith—for his praise of her work is really praise for her “way of writing,” a way, he puts it in another essay, “that could deal with any subject”—but he is also toying with the idea of Stevens. Stevens was, in British circles at mid-century, not as enthusiastically embraced as he was in American; Empson’s inability to appreciate Stevens is symptomatic of a horizon of critical appreciation.
Larkin is at once introducing Stevens as an exemplar of “heavy, serious, philosophical” poetry that he likely thought a bit de trop in its pretentiousness, and that he might have felt was taken up too readily by those seeking to establish their credentials as deep readers of deep verse; and he is also suggesting that he finds as much in one of these remarkable lines of Stevie as he does in one of those poems of Stevens (the play on names would not have escaped him either).
But it might also be that Larkin did, consciously or unconsciously, detect the resemblance between the two.
Stevens and Rossetti, then, can offer guidance in how to approach Stevie Smith, and this because the two of them share with Smith both an essential concern and an essential stylistic proclivity—that essential concern that Larkin did not much value in Smith’s poetry, and that stylistic proclivity that rubbed him wrong.
Then there is the constant preoccupation with the concepts and language of Christianity….they do not make the best poems, but Miss Smith cannot leave them alone.
When one turns to the ‘poems and drawings’, it is a toss-up whether one is too irritated by the streak of facetiousness to find the pieces which carry the unique and curious flavor for which they come to be sought.
“Facetiousness,” and the accompanying, inseparable, will to whimsy and light-hearted absurdity, even nonsense, and “the concepts and language of Christianity”—these are both to be found in abundance also in the poetry of Rossetti and Wallace Stevens. (Stevens, wrestling against the doctrines of Christianity, would retain some of its language as a fecund imaginative stock, and as a stock by which the imagination of former times was cultivated).
I do not think that either Rossetti or Stevens is, ultimately, an easier poet to comprehend than Stevie Smith, but the immediate apprehension of either might be less difficult, and what is more, an acquaintance with either is easier, both because they circulate more frequently through anthologies and classrooms, and because of the nature of their work.
In both Rossetti and Wallace Stevens, the note of “sadness” is both unmistakeable, and refreshed; it is not a plangent sadness, but rather a sadness of isolation, imaginative and social, resistant to the facile purveyances of communication by which those who, for good reasons, feel themselves to be isolated, often are bamboozled, inveigled, and harassed; it is sadness of those who would find comfort in doing things with words, but who do not think that words, whatever they may set or get right in the world, will make a difference to the isolation itself—and who would rather not have others assume or pretend that it does.
Their sadness and isolation needs a poetry that will strike against two possibilities: a Being whose love and acceptance is unconditionally granted; and a language that promises to bridge the gap between the self and others. Many people believe in one or the other of these possibilities: Rossetti, Stevens, and Stevie Smith do not. But, being exactly the sort to whom such possibilities are assumed to be most tempting, exactly the sort to whom such possibilities are most relentlessly advertised, they need to confront, rather than ignore them, in their poetry.
(One might wonder how this could be so in the case of Christina G. Rossetti, who is one of the finest devotional poets of the language: wouldn’t she accept a God whose love and acceptance is unconditionally granted? Perhaps she would, in the context of the proper rituals and scriptures, but her poetry again and again shows frustration with God, or the fear of disappointing Him, as if she were consciously, conscientiously, pushing back at such a conception of the divine.)
When we find Wallace Stevens hooting his disconnected syllables, or Christina G. Rossetti embracing a trivial, trivializing cliche (“promises like pie-crust”), or relishing the nursery rhyme as a mode as well as a distinct genre, we find them thumbing their noses at expectations that words do or say to mean something to other adults; they are not enacting philosophical theses on the nature of language, they are letting words play by themselves, at a remove or disconnect—the words or disconnect that children often feel and understand when speaking not to but near adults, in the presence of those who are not in on what they say.
And when they, in their very different ways, dodge the consolations of God, they are dodging the “concepts and language” that claim not only an authority to punish and shame, but also an authority to love, understand, accept, embrace. (Rossetti did not want to hear it in the language of men—especially when it so resembles the language of the men who had proposed to her).
Rather than find an example in the obvious place—Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving But Drowning,”—I will quote here instead a poem that is unusual for Smith in that it’s a dramatic monologue. But a dramatic monologue that, as do the best of them, gets the judgment itself into the conditions of the judgment.
(Geoffrey Hill quotes F.H. Bradley that a poem must get the conditions of the judgment into the judgment itself; in the dramatic monologue, the reverse is true: the poem is the presentation of the conditions of judgment, and the poet must get the judgment in somehow).
In other words, Smith’s perspective is imposed on, or through, the voice of another. the poem is “Infelice”:
Walking swiftly with a dreadful duchess,
He smiled too briefly, his face was pale as sand,
He jumped into a taxi when he saw me coming,
Leaving my alone with a private meaning,
He loves me so much, my heart is singing.
Later at the Club when I rang him in the evening
They said: Sir Rat is dining, is dining, is dining,
No madam, he left no messafe, ah how his silence speaks,
He loves me too much for words, my heart is singing.
The Pullman seats are here, the tickets for Paris, I am waiting,
Presently the telephone rings, it is his valet speaking,
Sir Rat is called away, to Scotland, his constituents,
(Ah the dreadful duchess, but he loves me best)
Best pleasure to the last, my heart is singing,
One night he came, it was four in the morning,
Walking slowly upstairs, he stands beside my bed,
Dear darling, lie beside me, it is too cold to stand speaking,
He lies down beside me, his face is like the sand,
He is in a sleep of love, my heart is singing.
Sleeping softly softly, in the morning I must wake him,
And waking he murmurs, I only came to sleep.
The words are so sweetly cruel, how deeply he loves me,
I say them to myself alone, my heart is singing.
Now the sunshine strengthens, it is ten in the morning,
He is so timid in love, he only needs to know,
He is my little child, how can he come if I do not call him,
I will write and tell him everything, I take the pen and write:
I love you so much, my heart is singing.
The poem is a diptych of sadnesses: Stevie Smith’s on the one side, the speaker’s on the others; they meet and their meeting makes the poem, which hinges however on the difference between the two. The speaker’s is the terrible sadness of self-delusion, the speaker desperate to believe in his love and also to believe that he understands and, worst of all, to believe that she understands. Stevie Smith’s, on the other hand, is the sadness felt towards that which is risible, vulnerable, and easily wounded. The poem probes the speaker where she is most susceptible, and if it pities, it pities with a shudder: the speaker is as absurd as she is pitiable. Stevie Smith’s is sadness for what is absurd in the sadness of the speaker. Her words are “so sweetly cruel.”
In Smith’s own best poems, a tension recurs between the two: the absurdity of sadness and the sadness of absurdity. Neither consorts naturally with authority, except in so far as assumed authority is, in their company, made to seem absurd in turn, with its claims to condescending, possessive pity implicated as well. “God the Eater”:
There is a god in whom I do not believe
Yet to this god my love stretches,
This god whom I do not believe in is
My whole life, my life and I am his.
Everything that I have of pleasure and pain
(Of pain, of bitter pain and men’s contempt)
I give this god for him to feed upon
As he is my whole life and I am his.
When I am dead I hope that he will eat
Everything I have been and have not been
And crunch and feed upon it and grow fat
Eating my life all up as it is his.
“Yet to this god my love stretches” needs to be heard not, I think, as an unwilling profession of faith, but instead as a hopeless, stifled parroting of what a child is told in Sunday School (“you love God whether you believe in him or not—if you do not love Sin, you love God; and He in turn loves us all”).
Where the poem is sad, it is in the terrible absurdity of what the speaker seems compelled to speak, as if she is at the mercy of both God and what she has been told of him (by men, whose contempt in other respects is acknowledged in the parenthetical shelter). As so often is the case with Stevie Smith’s poetry, this poem does not seem to be an adult reflecting—instead, it seems to be the voice of childhood’s lessons that an adult carries throughout life: her poems are the record of that peculiar child we were who witnesses all of our life, and who speaks to us, in us, and sometimes through us—without, we feel, quite being us.
In this, she is distinct from both Stevens and Christina Rossetti, for whom the childish is a mode of indulgence. Even if, for all three, something of childhood is the weight of the self, that something is not, for Rossetti and Stevens, the child’s verbalized understanding.
Where Stevie Smith plays on words, as in God the Eater, it is not the pun of an adult—it is instead what Larkin called the “fausse naive,” the slip of the child trying to understand a language of authority passed down: “God the Eater” confuses communion with God the Father.
Christopher Ricks writes that “among her many subjects, Stevie Smith had two great ones: children and death.” What he might have said also is that, as a speaking subject herself, Stevie Smith was subjected to the child, and set apart as a consequence.
But she is also liberated by the child: though the condition of her isolation, childhood provides the way with words by which she rejects as incommensurable to her experience, as inadequate or foreign or arbitrary or pompously vacant, the means of consolation and communication offered to her.
In it, she affords herself the forthright distrust of pity that brings her near Blake (“William Blake rewritten by Ogden Nash,” chuckles Larkin).
At the mercy of childhood’s isolating liberty, she is confirmed in her keen sense of the absurdity around her, as well as within.