Sunday, February 24, 2013

`Warlike Thoughts and Fear and Smart'

Frances Spaulding reports in Stevie Smith (1988): 

“Occasionally Stevie’s impatience with sentimentality could make her seem hard and intolerant. Moreover, if at a dinner party the conversation did not interest her she simply threw it aside and darted elsewhere or sang one of her poems, her tremulous, atonal chant shattering the ongoing discussion. When her stories went on rather long, in a giggly sort of way, she could be accused of monomania by an unsympathetic listener. Even her friend and admirer Sir John Lawrence admits: `She wasn’t going to be bored. She wasn’t disagreeable about it, but she wasn’t going to have it.’” 

One sympathizes and is appalled. Bad manners can never be excused – though one is tempted. In a social world erected on mushy-headed sentiment, where the unspoken orthodoxies are self-serving cant, one quietly admires Smith’s brassiness. How often we’re tempted to shake our heads and – but we bite our tongues. People have the right to be tiresome, though the other side of happy talk is savagery. Smith, like the rest of us, was a mess of contradictions. Her friend Jonathan Williams wrote of her: “How touching, and funny, and sad, and honest, she was.” And on the page, at least, Smith could be more forgiving: 

“Do not despair of man, and do not scold him,
Who are you that you should so lightly hold him?
Are you not also a man, and in your heart
Are there not warlike thoughts and fear and smart?”

1 comment:

Finn MacCool said...

Updike has a sad take on the amazed appreciation of the quotidian. Chesterton has a joyful take, e.g., in the chapter "The Ethics of Elfland" in Orthodoxy, where he joins it to a recognition of the eccentric contingencies of existence:

Remember, however, that to be breakable is not the same as to be perishable. Strike a glass, and it will not endure an instant; simply do not strike it, and it will endure a thousand years. Such, it seemed, was the joy of man, either in elfland or on earth; the happiness depended on NOT DOING SOMETHING which you could at any moment do and which, very often, it was not obvious why you should not do. Now, the point here is that to ME this did not seem unjust. If the miller's third son said to the fairy, "Explain why I must not stand on my head in the fairy palace," the other might fairly reply, "Well, if it comes to that, explain the fairy palace." . . . And it seemed to me that existence was itself so very eccentric a legacy that I could not complain of not understanding the limitations of the vision when I did not understand the vision they limited. The frame was no stranger than the picture. The veto might well be as wild as the vision; it might be as startling as the sun, as elusive as the waters, as fantastic and terrible as the towering trees.