Here is Talitha Fraser’s short introduction to the life and work of Stevie Smith for the Spiritual Reading group meeting this month at the Carmelite Library. After a short talk to contextualise the work of the artist we read some of the works aloud and held shared discussion reflecting on what they might mean…
Stevie was born Florence Margaret Smith in 1902. At 3 years of age, the marriage of Stevie’s parents broke down and she moved with Mum, Ethel and big sister Molly from Kingston Upon Hull, Yorkshire to Palmers Green in North London. Contact with her father, who was in shipping, became single line postcards saying things like: “Off to Valparaiso, Love Daddy”
Contracting tuberculosis peritonitis at 5, Stevie was taken to a sanatorium at Broadstairs in Kent for three years. Being separated from her family was hard and Stevie has said that this is when her preoccupation with death and fear arose.
When Stevie’s mother Ethel became ill, Madge Spear, affectionately referred to as “The Lion Aunt” came to live with them, raising Stevie and Molly. A feminist who had no patience with men, formidable Aunt Madge raised a family of women attached to their own independence, counter-cultural to the ruling Victorian idea that “father knows best”. When she was 16, Stevie’s mother died.
Stevie studied at Palmers Green High School then went to Mrs Hoster’s secretarial academy – the North London Collegiate School. It was around 17 the “Stevie” moniker came into common use arising from riding in the park with a friend who commented that she reminded him of the champion jockey Steve Donoghue.
Stevie suffered depression all her life that expressed as nervousness, shyness and intense sensitivity. Straight out of the Collegiate School Stevie became a secretary at a magazine publishing company, and eventually became the private secretary to Sir Neville Pearson with Sir George Newnes and Newnes Publishing Company where she worked 1923-1953. In this time Stevie had published 3 autobiographical novels and four of the nine volumes of poetry published in her lifetime. The themes of her work traverse: loneliness, myth and legend, absurd vignettes, war, human cruelty and religion. Stevie’s line drawings, which she called her “higher doodling” often weren’t published with her poems; that happened later when collected works were published, and the pictures weren’t necessarily drawn to go with particular works but she would merely pick out whatever seemed appropriate. They often lend a note of whimsy to words of touching depth or sharp parody to her satirical set-downs. Stevie used comedy to talk about dark things and used the tools of her craft to resist domestic ideology around class, religion, marriage…
While her early novels and volumes of poetry were a great success, the work of the 1940s and early 1950s had been less well-received. She was seen as eccentric and the style of her poetry out-of-fashion. One account suggests Stevie invalided out and was given a full pension following a nervous breakdown at work that led to her attempting suicide at her desk after an incident threatening her boss with a pair of scissors but another says perhaps more discretely that Aunt Madge became bedridden and Stevie left work to care for her. Stevie perceived death as she did god, someone perhaps to have a dialogue with ‘scolding for taking her loved ones and those whom the world will miss’, someone she had to acknowledge and comes to terms with the existence of. Stevie has said that she was “so consoled by the idea of death as release” that she didn’t have to commit suicide, it was enough to know that death was there to look forward to. This god death is often expressed as kinder in her writing than the God of church and religion.
A comeback occurred after the period 1953-1955, when Punch was almost exclusively the only established periodical willing to publish her work. Stevie undertook a collaboration with Elisabeth Lutyens and Hedli Anderson when she struggled to find other outlets for her writing. The arrangement and performance of her poems between her own readings were very engaging for audiences and led to Stevie eventually developing her own unique performance style of singing her poems.
Between readings Stevie would often sing, using sonorities and tonalities for effect. Two or three of her works to familiar tunes she borrowed from Anglican hymns, folk melodies, popular music hall songs, a military march or tunes she made up in these styles. While setting hilarious captions to the table book “Cats in Colour” in 1959 was I’m sure, a highlight, it may have been surpassed by receiving the Queens’ Gold Medal for Poetry in 1969. The last decade of her life saw her increasingly in demand to give readings not only to societies but schools.
Stevie died from a brain tumour 7 March 1971.
Katherine Firth’s thesis on “The MacNeices and their Circles: Poets and Composers in Collaboration” provides insightful context of the time and place of Stevie’s writing. The influence of modernism in the 1920s-30s had a destabilising effect on meanings – skilled practitioners were able to create works that reflected their own ambivalences, scepticisms and self-criticisms and you see a lot of this in Stevie’s writing – especially on the subject of religion, resisting her High Anglican and Tory Aunts’ influences with her lefty friends. This group of friends were influenced by Aristotle’s writing on poetry - on the root word for poetry and action being the same - so there was a sense that the words should be working to explain or impart something.
While Stevie lived a largely secluded and celibate life, aside from a few flings with both men and women, Stevie was a resolutely autonomous woman and rejected the idea that she was lonely. Intimate relationships with friends and family kept her fulfilled. This was a time of cliques and gangs – groups of writers, producers, painters, composers, performers and critics that interacted socially and professionally in overlapping circles while retaining distinct identities. Stevie corresponded and socialised widely with other writers and creative artists. She was chief bridesmaid and Louis MacNeice the best man at the wedding of the novelist Olivia Manning to the poet Reggie Smith. George Orwell was close and Sylvia Plath a fan.
New West End venues, technological advances and the rise in the role of the BBC in disseminating music were changing performance media. Contemporary composers were looking to their poet-peers for lyrics, there were a range of styles of popular music and they borrowed from each other. There was a desire convey Modernist idioms to reach a broader social and cultural context, making music and poetry relevant to the political and economic circumstances of the audiences listening. There was an idea that a poem’s words will do their work on someone if the poem is palatably wrapped as a hymn or cabaret tune. The music groups of the day wanted audiences to be improved AND entertained.
Susan Thurman’s thesis provides this concise synopsis: “Smith’s poetry reveals three major attitudes toward religion, which sometimes overlap: first, she is the agnostic who cannot make up her mind – she has faith in a god in whom she does not want to believe, yet she loses faith in a god in whom she does want to believe. Second, she often writes poems which confidently reject God; she is the atheist expressing approval of the decline of organized religion, strongly attacking both the Catholic and Anglican Churches. She vehemently rejects God and Christianity in such atheistic poems as being untrue, but if possibly true, then cruelly unfair. Third, however, she is a believer who replaces the Christian God of eternal damnation with what she views as a more merciful God of her own making. She tries desperately to create a God for herself in whom she can believe.” As she says of herself in her image on the poster for today’s event: “In yielding and abnegation I spend my days”.
Stevie often attracted labels like “eccentric”, “odd”, and “difficult”, with causality attributed to her gender. Not Waving But Drowning is one of Stevie’s most well-known works speaking to our individual isolation within society. Between the poem and the paradoxes of Stevie’s own life: participant or observer, believer or atheist, here to live or here to die? Cynthia Zarin draws a parallel – saying “she is at once the stranger and the traveller, both waving and drowning” – we’re going to wrap this up with Stevie reading that piece, it runs for about 2 mins and you’ll hear her at the start describing what the work was about…
Not Waving but Drowning
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 lifeAnd not waving but drowning.
Anne Bryan. “Stevie Smith and God”
Katherine Firth. “The MacNeices and their Circles: Poets and Composers in Collaboration on Art Song 1939-54”
Stevie Smith. “Some Are More Human Than Others.”
Stevie Smith. “Stevie Smith Collected Poems”
Stevie Smith. “Two in One: The Frog Prince and Other Stories/Selected Poems”
Susan E. Thurman. “The themes of God and Death in the Poetry of Stevie Smith”
Cynthia Zarin. “The Uneasy Verse of Stevie Smith”