What most I love I bite

Matthew Bevis

  • The Collected Poems and Drawings of Stevie Smith edited by Will May
    Faber, 806 pp, £35.00, October 2015, ISBN 978 0 571 31130 9

‘Could anything be better than to start off with a fine picture of a sailing ship on the rough sea coming suddenly alive and sucking in the children?’ Stevie Smith asked, reviewing C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in 1952. She liked depictions of people who disappeared into the objects of their gaze; a couple of years earlier, her poem ‘Deeply Morbid’ told the story of Joan, an office girl who goes to the National Gallery during her lunchbreaks and studies Turner’s seascapes until ‘the spray reached out and sucked her in.’ Elsewhere she wrote that the ‘dangerous swift current’ of Canaletto’s Venice drew her through the picture-glass, out past the gondolas and towards the open sea:

Is this escape-into-the-frame a fine game for a hot afternoon, or is it rather something that conceals itself beneath a frivolity? To be isolated for ever in some romantic and forlorn landscape, enchanted oneself and imprisoned ‘out of time’, beyond the necessities of human life, their humilities and importunities, without hope, without hope of return, without the aggravating possibility of some knight-errantry, how delicious, when one is in the mood, the contemplation of such a fate.

Stevie Smith in 1954
Stevie Smith in 1954

This is characteristic of Smith’s hard-edged daydreaming: the intensity of the imagined flight from ‘the necessities of human life’ is a confession of the seductive power of the necessities themselves. Even as she slips from the hot afternoon into the coolness of the sea, you sense that an absorption into a ‘romantic and forlorn’ landscape isn’t really an escape from longing; her slight qualification – ‘without hope, without hope of return’ – may imply that, even in glorious isolation, certain hopes persist. And besides, what is being relished here is the contemplation of such a fate, not necessarily the fate itself. Delicious, no doubt, but only when one is in the mood.

In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the ship’s prow is ‘gilded and shaped like the head of a dragon with wide open mouth’, so when, a moment later, the children stare at the picture ‘with open mouths’, they are being remade in its image – or perhaps what they stare at is a version of their own hunger for adventure. The painted ocean to which Joan is drawn is ‘like a mighty animal’, a ‘wicked virile thing’. The implication in both cases is that art is not safe, and that this is why it’s needed. Many others are led towards Leviathan, or towards a watery grave, in Smith’s writing: the girl-soldier Vaudevue rushes to the icy embrace of ‘the adorable lake’, ‘Her mind is as secret from her/As the water on which she swims.’ It’s worth emphasising the inscrutable, untamed nature of such encounters because Smith’s admirers often treat her as something of a pet. Although Larkin’s review of Selected Poems in 1962 drew attention to her achievement, he called her drawings ‘cute’ while noting that some of her phrases, though not ‘full-scale’ poems, hung around in one’s mind ‘long after one has put the book down in favour of Wallace Stevens’. And then there was her interest in pets: ‘She has also written a book about cats, which as far as I am concerned casts a shadow over even the most illustrious name.’ Although the unillustrious poet privately acknowledged her debt to the review, she noted Larkin’s unease, ‘hence his shifting around a bit and coming out with the old charge of fausse-naïveté!’

Reviewing her again ten years later, just after her death in 1971 at the age of 68, Larkin asked: ‘Did she, truly, not develop? Unless one has all the books, it’s hard to be specific (a Collected Poems as soon as possible, please).’ James MacGibbon’s edition followed in 1975, but it has now been out of print for twenty years. Seamus Heaney reviewed it appreciatively but apologetically: ‘Yet finally the voice, the style, the literary resources are not adequate to the sombre recognitions,’ he claimed. ‘There is a retreat from resonance, as if the spirit of A.A. Milne successfully vied with the spirit of Emily Dickinson.’ Reading Will May’s capacious new edition, I didn’t detect any such retreat. Some of Smith’s best poems are the fantastical, slightly longer ones like ‘The Blue from Heaven’, ‘Fafnir and the Knights’, ‘The Frozen Lake’, ‘The Frog Prince’ and ‘The Ass’: the strange stateliness of their pacing, their weird combinations of the wishful and the inexorable, need time to work their effects. Smith’s reputation as a quirky miniaturist often preceded her; like others before and since, Heaney pointed to the smaller poems’ debts to clerihew and caricature, and felt that ‘large orchestration’ was in short supply. A few years later Amy Clampitt paid homage while also suggesting that ‘perhaps one day Stevie Smith will be seen as having to some degree paved the way for a body of work whose upper register is distinguished by a spaciousness and clarity hers never achieved.’

The idea that Smith didn’t develop is a dull one regardless of whether it’s true or false (as John Bayley pointed out: ‘She never needed to do anything so banal as to “develop”, for the spectrum of tone continuously present is amazingly wide’). Despite his earlier criticism of her interest in cats Larkin’s later review singled out ‘The Singing Cat’ as one of her most moving poems. It is – partly because of its jubilant insistence on what the animal may speak to in the human animals that watch over him, and partly because of the feeling the poem gives that the cat can never quite be spoken for. When asked in an interview if she ever managed to get herself ‘out of the way’ in her work, Smith replied: ‘The poem can claim to be about a cat but it’s really about you yourself.’ Not that this necessarily clarifies things; in her introduction to the book Larkin alluded to (Cats in Colour), Smith had observed that animal life is ‘too dark for us to read’. Even our pets are not ours, and – if we still insist on condescending to them – ‘out come the beautiful claws; our pet is not unarmed.’ Both sphinx and savage, the pet is an escape artist who has mixed feelings about her patrons. ‘Art is wild as a cat and quite separate from civilisation,’ Smith wrote elsewhere. She was not unduly concerned about what civilisation thought of her, although the voices in her poems often show just how much intimacy lies crouching in animosity: ‘I prowl about at night/And what most I love I bite.’

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