Tuesday, May 24, 2016

`Within the Limits of Becoming Mirth'

In 1930, seven years after it was published, Stevie Smith read Walter de la Mare’s much-loved Come Hither: A Collection of Rhymes and Poems for the Young of All Ages, an anthology nominally aimed at children but most profitably read by an adult like Smith, for whom the membrane separating child and adult is highly permeable. De la Mare’s selection mirrors Smith’s own eclectic taste in verse. Elizabeth Bishop, too, was an enthusiast. We know from Frances Spalding’s 1988 biography of Smith that she closely read and annotated de la Mare’s collection, copying out favorite poems into a notebook (once a common practice, I’ve noticed, among young writers). Spalding says of the transcribed verses: “We can also find in them allusions, echoes and in some cases sources for her own poems, for her assimilation of this anthology was crucial to her poetic development.” Among the poems Smith copied was Thomas Hood’s “The Two Swans,” and of it she writes in her notebook: “This is very beautiful, and is also included in Alfred Noyes’s collection of fairy poetry [The Magic Casement, 1908].” Smith’s fondness for Hood (1799-1845) never abated. Spalding tells us:

“So great was Smith’s admiration for Hood, both his `deathly addiction to punning’ as well as his straight, non-punning verse, such as his famous `Song of the Shirt’ which she praised for its `admirable simplicity’ and `careful observation’, that she later [1946] wrote a radio programme on him.”
Smith’s devotion to Hood is rare and praiseworthy. English poetry is rich in excellent minor poets (Auden deemed him a major poet: “he is like nobody but himself and serious in the true sense of the word”), unfashionable but worthy of rediscovery. If poetry is understood schematically, as a landscape of towering mountains and receding valleys, Hood is lost in the shadows cast by Keats before him and Tennyson after, and the loss is ours. On Sunday, probably in commemoration of Hood’s birthday on Monday, The Imaginative Conservative posted one of Hood’s best-known poems, “I Remember, I Remember.” The poem reads almost like a nursery rhyme, or a lyric by Blake, and might almost be mistaken for a poem by Smith, the final stanza in particular:
“I remember, I remember,
The fir trees dark and high;
I used to think their slender tops
Were close against the sky:
It was a childish ignorance,
But now ’tis little joy
To know I’m farther off from heav’n
Than when I was a boy.”

Read Hood’s (and Smith’s) poems for the pure fun they supply, without missing their darker tones. Kingsley Amis included three of Hood’s poems in The New Oxford Book of English Light Verse (1978). Hood usually avoids the abiding sin of light verse, cloying whimsicality. He articulates his sensibility in these lines from “Ode to Rae Wilson Esq.”:

“Well!—be the graceless lineaments confest!
I do enjoy this bounteous beauteous earth;
And dote upon a jest
`Within the limits of becoming mirth’;—
No solemn sanctimonious face I pull,
Nor think I'm pious when I'm only bilious—
Nor study in my sanctum supercilious
To frame a Sabbath Bill or forge a Bull.”

1 comment:

Bob said...

It's nice to see Thomas Hood appear here. I knew little of him until a year or so ago, when I serendipitously discovered that a fine short poem of his, "The Lee Shore," is the principal source for one of the chapters in Melville's Moby-Dick. Even though that chapter carries the very same name, "The Lee Shore," no one seemed to have made the connection before.

I wrote up my little discovery and it will appear later this year in the Melville Society's journal Leviathan. The MS of the paper is available here, and it includes more background on Hood and the context of the poem:



Sleet! and Hail! and Thunder!
And ye Winds that rave,
Till the sands thereunder
Tinge the sullen wave—

Winds, that like a Demon,
Howl with horrid note
Round the toiling Seaman,
In his tossing boat—

From his humble dwelling,
On the shingly shore,
Where the billows swelling,
Keep such hollow roar—

From that weeping Woman,
Seeking with her cries,
Succour superhuman
From the frowning skies—

From the Urchin pining
For his Father’s knee—
From the lattice shining,
Drive him out to sea!

Let broad leagues dissever
Him from yonder foam—
Oh, God! to think Man ever
Comes too near his Home!