Friday, September 20, 2013

`Vex Not the Poet's Mind'

Stevie Smith’s favored reading included theology, the Teutonic nightmares of the Brothers Grimm and her preferred poets, Tennyson and Browning, whom she read assiduously from childhood. She read as a poet reads, not as a scholar or critic – for pleasure, kinship and confirmation of purpose. Wayward and immune to fashion, she owed no poetic debts to her English-language contemporaries. Take this scene from the third of her three novels, The Holiday (1949): 

“After supper we had the very great relief of listening to Maud being read on the radio by Robert Harris; he read for three-quarters of an hour; his voice was controlled, strong, clear and sensitive, never strained, never affected. I thought: So there goes our hero to the Crimean War for his seelische Entlassung [“emotional release”], and no thought for him whether it was a good war, or the right war, or the right front, et cetera. So off he goes, as happy as the day is long, to fetch a bullet in a simple death.” 

The collection Maud, and Other Poems (1855) was Tennyson’s first after becoming poet laureate, and includes his patriotic warhorse “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” “Maud” is an uneasy mix of monodrama, melodrama and pastoral, featuring suicide, a fatal duel, death from a broken heart, madness and war. None of this bothers Smith’s narrator: 

“And I thought: Here indeed is the great Tennyson a-roar, God bless the great Tennyson. And God blessed him and he wrote: `A still small voice said unto me, Thou art so full of misery, Were it not better not to be? Then to the still small voice I said, I cannot cast into the grave, what is so wonderfully made.’ Hurrah.” 

The quoted lines are a purposeful mangling of the first two stanzas of Tennyson’s “The Two Voices” (1842). Smith replaces the fifth line, “Let me not cast in endless shade,” with “I cannot cast into the grave.” The line “Were it not better not to be?” expresses Smith’s frequent longing for oblivion (not the same as romancing suicide), one she shares with Samuel Beckett. Elsewhere, Smith writes: “There are some human beings who do not wish for eternal life.” Smith next refers obliquely to the initial outrage voiced by English readers over Maud: 

“And what did Tennyson say when the reader bit at him, when the sheep-like shallow-pate of a reading public ventured a word of protest, `A word in your ear, if I may make so bold’—if they dared demur? What the great Tennyson, the supposedly meek and mild Old Blether of a Queen’s pet baa-lamb, said was this: 

“`Vex not the poet’s mind
With thy shallow wit
Vex not thou the poet’s mind
For thou canst not fathom it.'” 

Here, Smith seems to be voicing her own poetic credo by appropriating a stanza from Tennyson’s “The Poet’s Mind” (1830). Smith was born on this date, Sept. 20, in 1902, and died on March 7, 1971, at age sixty-eight.


Dave Lull said...

Bryan Appleyard:

`Vex not the poet’s mind
With thy shallow wit'
Tennyson provides me with the text for my next - actually first - business card.

Nige said...

Surprisingly, Maud was read again on the BBC in 2009, on Radio 4 - as I recall it, rather well read, by Joseph Millson. It's coming up again on Radio 4 Extra too, on 3rd October (perhaps accessible digitally?).