Saturday, March 07, 2015

`The Permanent Elements in Man'

“. . . so far as literature is concerned, the future is more likely to be found in the past than in the present. If Dante and Catullus, Horace or Raleigh, or some equivalent figures, are not of actual importance to you, in terms of  pleasure and enlightenment to be got from their works here and now, then literature—the designation of the permanent elements in man—is not what you are interested in as you turn to the weeklies and the Sunday supplements.” 

C.H. Sisson’s bracing little digression on literary tradition and its true adherents comes in the final chapter of his English Poetry 1900-1950: An Assessment, published in 1971, the year in which Stevie Smith died on this date, March 7. In their divergent ways, both writers stayed timely by addressing the timeless. Both were deeply and eccentrically well read, and out of joint with their era. Kay Ryan has said Smith possessed “a natural distance from conventional behavior.” The same holds for Sisson, and neither of them was bohemian, the customary costume worn by poets. Their unconventional behavior included their reading and writing. Here is Smith’s “Tenuous and Precarious” (Collected Poems, 1983): 

“Tenuous and Precarious
Were my guardians,
Precarious and Tenuous,
Two Romans. 

“My father was Hazardous,
Dear old man,
Three Romans. 

“There was my brother Spurious,
Spurious Posthumous,
Spurious was Spurious,
Was four Romans. 

‘My husband was Perfidious,
He was Perfidious
Five Romans. 

“Surreptitious, our son,
Was Surreptitious,
He was six Romans. 

“Our cat Tedious
Still lives,
Count not Tedious

“My name is Finis,
Finis, Finis,
I am Finis,
Six, five, four, three, two,
One Roman,

The poem is a counting rhyme like those recited by generations of children. It recalls the days when bright and bored school boys and girls played games with Latin, as well as the names of characters in the Plautus-inspired A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (Pseudolus, Erronius, Hysterium). Smith’s poem is not Catullus or Horace, nor is it even among the best of her own poems. But in her indelibly sad and comic way, Smith takes seriously “the permanent elements in man.”

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