364. (Stevie Smith)

It might be tempting to think Stevie Smith is putting on an act; with such a thought, we might be tempted to the poet/persona distinction, of help with the dramatic monologue and its kindred, but not much with other poems for which we would still wonder why the poet has constructed the persona this way. More helpful is the distinction between poet and pilgrim, famous in Dante, but also in Wordsworth, in which the experience of the poet-as-pilgrim (the experience that makes up the poem) is separate from the poet reflecting upon and representing that journey. With such a distinction, it is customary for the pilgrim to be more susceptible to naivety, gullibility, and the movements of passion, which are placed and critiqued by the more weathered eye of the poet looking back and making his former self the subject of poetry. Stevie Smith is strange for reversing the poles. It might be thought even more strange to suggest that her lyric poems can support the pilgrim/poet distinction, but her air of detachment from her own experience invites just such an explanation. To make it fit, though, we need to recognize poet as more naïve and wide-eyed (not gullible), frank and candid, than the pilgrim; that is, the act of writing the poetry saves the poet from the cynicism to which the pilgrim must have fallen prey. This is one way of making sense of Stevie Smith’s bizarre, jarring, and child-like mixture of cynicism and naivety, experience and innocence, age and youth. She writes like a child about what it is to be an adult, about knowledge that comes from experience. The poem “Infant”:

It was a cynical babe

Lay in its mother’s arms

Born two months too soon

After many alarms

Why is its mother sad

Weeping without a friend

Where is its father—say?

He tarries in Ostend.

It was a cynical babe. Reader, before you condemn, pause,

It was a cynical babe. Not without cause.


Smith’s writing about an infant is not what makes this an innocent poem; and it is not at all about Smith, in any direct fashion, so the pilgrim/poet distinction might seem beside the point. But both of those points of order might be cleared up if we imagine Smith-the-pilgrim having the acerbic insight that that are expressed bluntly as It was a cynical bae” and “Not without cause,” and then Smith the poet doing this with that insight. The insight is itself knowing, and this poem in particular knows more than the reader, at least in its final lines; so I am not suggesting that the poet is more ignorant than the pilgrim. Instead, the poet takes up, like raw material, the full experience of the pilgrim, and re-works it, so that it is experienced anew, and in a quite different key, of simplicity and pertness. But more needs to be said before explaining how it does so: because the other, equally significant aspect of Smith’s technique, involves what is implied in the phrase “experienced anew”: the poems are themselves processes of improvisation and play, over the course of which the poet’s thinking develops and shifts.

More than that, the poems seem to discover their own forms, to become the objects of the poet’s play, as they are written, as if she is always writing herself into the poem, adjusting as she goes, changing her register and rhyme scheme as she sees fit, so that rather than adhering to a structure or pattern, the poems come into be. In this poem,  the rhyme of “friend” and “Ostend” is a perfect example where the place feels so fortuitous—like something out of a Lear poem—as to be made up on the spot, while the sober archaism (or  local dialectical range?) of “tarries” touches the poem with portentous pathos. “Born two months too soon” does not rhyme at all, and is the only line that does not, if we imagine that, to the ear, the last two lines would fit the pattern of the rest of the poem, breaking in half, and rhyming “babe” and “babe”. But “two months too soon” trips along on its own sounds; it does not need to rhyme outside of itself, but it is also, like the baby, a misfit in the timing of the poem’s plan. The suspicion opens that this line delights in the sound of its own unfolding. Then there is the absence of punctuation, which admits the possibility that the third and fourth lines, “Born two months too soon| After many alarms,” rather than round out the sense of the first two lines, instead introduces the question: “Given that the baby was born two months too soon after many alarms, as opposed to the worse alternative, then why is the mother so sad?” That question might provoke head-scratching, but it is not without some validity.

But the disjunction between pilgrim and poet is greatest in the final two lines, where after we hear of the father tarrying, we are told once again, as if the discussion is closed and the point needs to be sharpened, that “it was a cynical babe.” Was the point of the poem to establish that it was a cynical babe, as if this were an argument that could be had? More likely, I think, is the implicit argument that any infant could be cynical: they can be, and this one is. Now, on the one hand, it requires a mature, if eccentric, vantage point to believe a baby could be cynical, since it takes some understanding of why the baby’s circumstances are worthy of a cynical view of the world. On the other hand, the thought that a baby could be cynical at all seems very much like the slightly incorrect application of an adjective by a child, and the poem’s return to this word, rather than moving onto EITHER an explanation not of why the circumstances suggest the world is a rotten place without any grounds for good faith, but an explanation of how a baby could be said to judge the world at all OR onto another turn, itself seems like a child’s argumentative move. At the same time, the punctuation does just what we might think it shouldn’t, with a comma after “pause,” not pausing for long enough, and then with a full stop after “babe” and before “Not,” where a comma would do; it is perhaps a reflection of speech, the punctuation serving rhetorical ends, but it suggests also an eccentrically mistaken deviation from a convention not fully grasped; and it suggests finally, combining both thoughts in one, that the poem on the page came into being without revision (it suggests that as a fiction), as if the pause was to be followed by another thought until the poet, feeling the need or urge to reaffirm, insisted once more on the opening statement. What we see in the poem is the language and knowledge and judgment of a mature, cynical, shrew and eccentric observer of life (the pilgrim) being translated into and recast according to another sensibility—for the sake, we must assume, of enduring the world with sanity:


Up the Deben we row I row towards Waldringfield

It is a long way yet, my arms ache but will not yield

In this physical tiredness there is a happy shield.


The poems, too, are often a happy shield, but only known as such for how they register what they absorb of the world’s violence and despair.


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