Sunday, March 07, 2021

'When They to Thy Kingdom Come'

Stevie Smith, the incorrigibly odd English poet, died on this date, March 7, in 1971 – half a century ago. Readers still have not caught up with her gifts. She is patronized as a sort of daftly twee Emily Dickinson, the way Dickinson used to be treated. One of her most sympathetic readers was another death-haunted poet, Philip Larkin. In his 1962 review of her Selected Poems (Required Writing, 1984), he characterizes Smith’s voice as “fausse-naïve,” calls her an “almost unclassifiable writer” and famously concludes: “Her poems speak with the authority of sadness.” Larkin hears Smith and responds sympathetically, seeing through her occasional silliness to something more essential. He called her poems “capsule novels.” 

In what may be interpreted as a minor act of precognition, eight months before her death at age sixty-eight Smith published “Black March” in the New Statesman. It was collected posthumously in Scorpion and Other Poems (1972). The poem begins: “I have a friend / At the end / Of the world. / His name is a breath / Of fresh air.”


The identify of her friend is obvious though never announced: Death. Smith wooed him throughout her life, and only Smith would rhymingly call him “a breath / Of fresh air.” She explains the title: “Black March I call him / Because of his eyes / Being like March raindrops / On black twigs.” Smith’s faith vacillated. Her God is sometimes a consoling father, sometimes a wretch. Here is “I thank thee, Lord,” unpublished during her life, which makes clear why some of her readers are disapproving:


“I thank thee O Lord for my beautiful bed

Have mercy on those who have none

And may all the children still happier lie

When they to thy kingdom come.”


The volume to have is All the Poems, published by New Directions in 2016, but don’t neglect her novels: Novel on Yellow Paper (1936), Over the Frontier (1938) and The Holiday (1949). In the first one, Smith reveals her modus operandi with a wry Johnsonian echo:


“For this book is the talking voice that runs on, and the thoughts come, the way I said, and the people come too, and come and go, to illustrate the thoughts, to point the moral, to adorn the tale.”


Here is Dr. Johnson in “The Vanity of Human Wishes” (1749), his transformation of Juvenal’s 10th Satire, lines 219-222:


“His Fall was destin’d to a barren Strand,

A petty Fortress, and a dubious Hand;

He left the Name, at which the World grew pale,

To point a Moral, or adorn a Tale.”

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