Florence Margaret Smith’s father abandoned his wife and two daughters. Her mother turned to her sister, Smith’s Aunt Maggie, for financial and emotional support. Smith lived her entire life in the home that her aunt Maggie provided in Palmer’s Green, a suburb north of London. After Smith’s mother died and her sister moved to Suffolk, Smith and her Aunt Maggie continued on together. Smith attended London Collegiate to receive secretarial training. She then worked for thirty years as a secretary for the publishing firm C. Arthur Pearson while also writing poetry.
In 1935, she published several of her poems in the New Statesman. At the encouragement of Ian Parsons, a partner of Chatto and Windus, Smith wrote a novel. Novel on Yellow Paper: Or, Work It Out for Yourself (1936) was published by Jonathan Cape to much acclaim, with Smith’s writing viewed as modernist, experimental, and witty. She published its sequel, Over the Frontier, in 1938, and two collections of poetry before publishing her most famous work Not Waving but Drowning (1958).
This collection’s different and unique voices, emotional extremes, linguistic facility, and voiced detachment and solitude reflect to some extent her personal life. Four years before its publication, Smith attempted to commit suicide. After its publication, she gave public readings to a growing audience. She received the Cholomondeloy Prize for Poetry (1966) and the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry (1967). However, from 1962 to 1967 she became her beloved aunt’s caregiver, a situation that enforced greater and greater isolation upon Smith. She died in 1971 after a prolonged illness.
Besides novels and poetry, Smith wrote short stories, essays, book reviews, and a radio play. She also published a book of captioned drawings, Some Are More Human than Others: Sketchbook by Stevie Smith (1958). Smith’s work is characterized by its strong autobiographical elements; its experimental use of forms; its adroit use of rhythm; its tight yet almost conversational tone; its dramatic tension between release and restraint, detachment and engagement, and other such binaries; and its touching on themes of death, sexuality, and literary structuralism.
3.10.1: “The Grange”
3.10.2: “Here Lies . . .”
3.10.3: “In My Dreams”
In my dreams I am always saying goodbye and riding away,
Whither and why I know not nor do I care.
And the parting is sweet and the parting over is sweeter,
And sweetest of all is the night and the rushing air.
In my dreams they are always waving their hands and saying goodbye,
And they give me the stirrup cup and I smile as I drink,
I am glad the journey is set, I am glad I am going,
I am glad, I am glad, that my friends don't know what I think.
3.10.4: “My Soul”
In the flame of the flickering fire
The sins of my soul are few
And the thoughts in my head are the thoughts of a bed
With a solitary view.
But the eye of eternal consciousness
Must blink as a bat blinks bright
Or ever the thoughts in my head be stilled
On the brink of eternal night.
Oh feed to the golden fish his egg
Where he floats in his captive bowl,
To the cat his kind from the womb born blind,
And to the Lord my soul.
3.10.5: “Not Waving but Drowning”
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.
3.10.6: “Thoughts about the Person from Porlock”
Coleridge received the Person from Porlock
And ever after called him a curse,
Then why did he hurry to let him in?
He could have hid in the house.
It was not right of Coleridge in fact it was wrong
(But often we all do wrong)
As the truth is I think he was already stuck
With Kubla Khan.
He was weeping and wailing: I am finished, finished,
I shall never write another word of it,
When along comes the Person from Porlock
And takes the blame for it.
It was not right, it was wrong,
But often we all do wrong.
May we inquire the name of the Person from Porlock?
Why, Porson, didn’t you know?
He lived at the bottom of Porlock Hill
So had a long way to go,
He wasn’t much in the social sense
Though his grandmother was a Warlock,
One of the Rutlandshire ones I fancy
And nothing to do with Porlock,
And he lived at the bottom of the hill as I said
And had a cat named Flo,
And had a cat named Flo.
I long for the Person from Porlock
To bring my thoughts to an end,
I am becoming impatient to see him
I think of him as a friend,
Often I look out of the window
Often I run to the gate
I think, He will come this evening,
I think it is rather late.
I am hungry to be interrupted
For ever and ever amen
O Person from Porlock come quickly
And bring my thoughts to an end.
I felicitate the people who have a Person from Porlock
To break up everything and throw it away
Because then there will be nothing to keep them
And they need not stay.
Why do they grumble so much?
He comes like a benison
They should be glad he has not forgotten them
They might have had to go on.
These thoughts are depressing I know. They are depressing,
I wish I was more cheerful, it is more pleasant,
Also it is a duty, we should smile as well as submitting
To the purpose of One Above who is experimenting
With various mixtures of human character which goes best,
All is interesting for him it is exciting, but not for us.
There I go again. Smile, smile, and get some work to do
Then you will be practically unconscious without positively having to go.
3.10.7: Reading and Review Questions:
- How do the differing voices/personas Stevie Smith uses affect themes and images that appear in several of her poems, such as death, failed communication, and the sea?
- What are Stevie Smith’s views on religion? How do we know?
- How, if at all, does Stevie Smith use culture or society to frame and define characters’ identity? Why, and to what effect?
- How, if at all, do Smith’s language effects undermine her poems’ meaning? Consider, for example, the off and sometimes comical rhymes in “Thoughts about the Person from Porlock:” curse/house (with the suggestion of hearse), Person/Porson, Warlock/Porlock, etc.? Why?