Thursday, June 2, 2011


Why does my Muse only speak when she is unhappy?
She does not, I only listen when I am unhappy.

"My Muse"

I stayed up late a few nights ago to watch a film called Stevie. It wasn't the Stevie I hoped it would be, a marvelous film written by Hugh Whitemore, with Glenda Jackson in the title role of the poet who called herself Stevie Smith (1902-1971). Her real name was Florence Margaret Smith, got the nickname "Stevie" because of her resemblance to a contemporary jockey, and she wrote some of the finest poetry in English while everyone, it seemed, was dithering over the "importance" of Sylvia Plath. (Plath was a fan of her work, and, according to accounts, had an appointment to meet her but killed herself before the date.)

Smith lived, it seemed, in a state of perpetual depression, but she learned to master it with an often ironic - and biting - sense of humor. Her "fascination" with death was actually a courageous facing up to her own unhappy life, which she was smart enough not to expand into a human condition.

She wrote three novels, all of them semi-autobiographical. They are, like her, beautifully unconventional, and relate her unhappiness in love. The last of them, The Holiday, published in 1949, was said by Smith to contain portraits of Eric Blair, aka George Orwell, a longtime friend and, rumor had it, her lover. She said of The Holiday that it was "richly melancholy like those hot summer days when it is so full of that calm calm before the autumn, it quite ravishes me." Her poetry, to which she devoted the rest of her life, came into its own in the fifties and sixties.

Philip Larkin admired her and captured, in his poem "Mother, Summer, I" something of the same wistful melancholic tone:

My mother, who hates thunder storms,
Holds up each summer day and shakes
It out suspiciously, lest swarms
Of grape-dark clouds are lurking there;
But when the August weather breaks
And rains begin, and brittle frost
Sharpens the bird-abandoned air,
Her worried summer look is lost,

And I her son, though summer-born
And summer-loving, none the less
Am easier when the leaves are gone
Too often summer days appear
Emblems of perfect happiness
I can't confront: I must await
A time less bold, less rich, less clear:
An autumn more appropriate.

Not Waving But Drowning was published in 1957, the title of a collection, and is Smith's best-known poem.

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,
They said.

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.

From the same collection, I suppose my own favorite is "Away Melancholy".

Away, Melancholy

Away, melancholy,
Away with it, let it go.

Are not the trees green,
The earth as green?
Does not the wind blow,
Fire leap and the rivers flow?
Away melancholy.

The ant is busy
He carrieth his meat,
All things hurry
To be eaten or eat.
Away, melancholy.

Man, too, hurries,
Eats, couples, buries,
He is an animal also
With a hey ho melancholy,
Away with it, let it go.

Man of all creatures
Is superlative
(Away melancholy)
He of all creatures alone
Raiseth a stone
(Away melancholy)
Into the stone, the god
Pours what he knows of good
Calling, good, God.
Away melancholy, let it go.

Speak not to me of tears,
Tyranny, pox, wars,
Saying, Can God
Stone of man's thoughts, be good?
Say rather it is enough
That the stuffed
Stone of man's good, growing,
By man's called God.
Away, melancholy, let it go.

Man aspires
To good,
To love

Beaten, corrupted, dying
In his own blood lying
Yet heaves up an eye above
Cries, Love, love.
It is his virtue needs explaining,
Not his failing.

Away, melancholy,
Away with it, let it go

It is because we cannot let it go, I suppose, that we turn to art. Stay, melancholy, do not go away.

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