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Stevie Smith and Her Poetry – Analysis

A short overview of this British novelist and poet, with some analyses of her writings.

Stevie Smith is a British poet who is also known as a novelist. Her real name is Florence Margaret Smith but her friend thought she looked like the jockey Steve Donaghue so he named her Stevie.

Stevie was born in 1902 and she had an older sister named Molly. Their father left them when Stevie was only three years old. After that, she developed tuberculosis and had to spend many years in a sanatorium. She came face to face with death numerous times and this triggered a somewhat great interest towards it in her and it became a common topic in some of her poems.

After graduating Palmers Green High School and North London Collegiate School, she went to work in a publishing company as a secretary. During this time she wrote most of her poems and novels, communicated with many known writers like Inez Holden and Anna Kallin, and gained publicity with her works.

Stevie Smith passed away in 1971, staying single throughout her whole life. Her motto throughout her life was “All poetry has to do is to make a strong communication”.

Poem analyses:

1)      “Happiness”. This poem compares happiness and grief in poetry and in literature as a whole. Smith brings out that happiness is silent, misleading and never gets to the point; whereas grief is always straightforward and quick to make a point. The poem is most likely an answer to people’s question about why all of her pieces are so morbid and unhappy.

2)      “Bag-Snatching in Dublin”. In this work Stevie Smith describes a woman named Sisley – mainly the way she walks, which is almost divine – you could not tell she walked on the pavement.

But alas, she is murdered by a masked mugger and her bag is robbed. This takes place in Ireland, in Dublin, probably on the coast of the ocean, where the river Liffey (“Liffey waters’ turgid floods”) meets the ocean.

3)      “I Remember”. With this poem, Smith joins the majority of poets from the 20th century and writes a war-themed piece. It is written from the viewpoint of an elderly man who is having flashbacks of the Second World War. He was with a young woman (his bride) who had tuberculosis, on their bridal night. She asked him if bomber planes ever collided, and he denied it.

The situation reminded a scene from some movie where a person is dying and asks random questions. It seems as if the woman is slipping away and will soon die.

4)      “In the Night”. This work shows early signs of the vampire-boom which is very common these days. The author seems to have had conflicting feelings about her friends and companions – even though she wished to be with them, she constantly kept a distance from them. It concluded with her turning into a vampire and now, the only thing she does is think about new victims whose blood to suck.

5)      “My Heart Goes Out”. A poem written to praise death. Death is the only thing that remedies all wounds. It is stated that death is what everyone wants although they do not think so when they are alive.

Looking at these poems one can see a definite trend – all of them feature death (or undead beings like vampires), sadness or other sorts of negative things. One could even call it the contemporary version of the romanticists’ “emo-poetry”.  Based on these poems, one could say that Smith was embittered, grumpy and rather disappointed in her life so she wrote about death which, for her, would be the only way out.

Somewhat the same line is followed by her poems “Away, Melancholy” and “Alone in the Woods”. In these pieces, Stevie brings in the aspect of nature – how human affects nature, how he ruins it, unaware that with it he is also destroying his own home. They mention human’s superiority over nature and the fact that man likes to change things around him. But also it is mentioned that nature will take a stance or revenge on man. The greenness of nature is caused by its grudge against man’s destruction and hatred towards the species. “Away, Melancholy” also mentions death.

There is also a prevalent theme of love (or rather the absence of it) in some of her poems. For example, the poem “Autumn” tells the story of an elderly couple which, although lacking love and passion, still agrees to marry, the reason being: “We can have some conversation before it is too late.“ Another poem, “Pad, Pad“, talks about a broken relationship in a Japanese family. Disappointment in love is distinguishable as well, also in some of Smith’s other poems.

 

Perhaps the most common theme in Smith’s poetry is religion and God. “Away, Melancholy” is believed to be a praise towards God. It expresses the thought that although man is the highest being, God is even higher than anything or anyone. God is also mentioned in “Mother, Among the Dustbins”, where the concept of God being everywhere is expressed. The author senses the presence of God in the dustbins, in the cat and even in the broom. Also, the poem “My Heart Goes Out” begins with “My heart goes out to my Creator in love / Who gave me Death, as end and remedy“. This shows that the author thanks God for not letting beings live forever. “Conviction II“, probably the shortest of Smith’s poems, also features God (“I knew my Lord was risen again“), as when she heard a dog’s bark in the distance, she believed it to be a sign of the Lord. “Conviction I” is in a religious context as well: it explains what Jesus gave to us, humans, and to God. All of this shows that Smith was either deeply religious or exactly the opposite: she might have been sarcastic and mocked religion. A poem which supports the latter theory is “Sunt Leones”, which concentrates on the importance of the lions in the arenas who eat the martyrs. It leaves other aspects of religion in the background as if lions were the essence of all religion – a sign of mockery, quite definitely.

There are also some poems in Stevie Smith’s collection which differ somewhat from the morbid and sad majority, for example “The Pleasures of Friendship” and “Conviction IV”. The first one is fairly straightforward and tells the reader the pleasures of friendship. The second one is about what the author enjoys in life and is, in essence, very similar to the first one.

All in all Stevie Smith is a very versatile author with poems ranging from deeply emotional and bitter to some quite joyful and happy works. It might just be that the author was somewhat schizophrenic, but that is not for others to judge. The poems were easy to read and a few were even enjoyable and one should definitely read her poetry collections.

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