Books: The Dreaming Swimmer — Not Drowning but Waving |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Stevie Smith : Not Drowning but Waving

Stevie: A Biography of Stevie Smith by Jack Barbera
and William McBrien

Some would say that Stevie Smith was as daft as a brush. Others would say that she was pretty much of a bitch. Calling her mad was always the best way to get out of admitting that she could be cruel, just as calling her naive was always the best way to get out of admitting that her poetry made almost everybody else’s sound overwrought. It was an effect she intended, and was not above occasionally crowing about.

Many of the English,
The intelligent English,
Of the Arts, the Professions
       and the Upper Middle Classes,
Are under-cover men,
But what is under the cover
(That was original)

Few people except the Queen, who gave her a medal and asked her to tea, were brave enough to let on in public that Stevie Smith’s poetry was the kind they liked best because it didn’t sound like poetry at all. In private, however, she always had a following, which in her later years grew to embrace a large minority of Britain’s intelligent readers, so that she became something of a living treasure. Sir John Betjeman was more widely loved—he was more lovable—but the bookish were proud of Stevie as the British sometimes are of an old concrete pillbox that is allowed to go on disfiguring an otherwise perfect cow pasture because it reminds them of a time when they felt united.

Perhaps England our darling will
       recover her lost thought
We must think sensibly about our
       victory and not be distraught,
Perhaps America will have an idea,
       and perhaps not.

She fitted in by not fitting in at all. Least of all did she fit into modern literary history, and that is probably why there has always been a certain amount of interest in her across the Atlantic from where she lived and wrote. Some of the brighter young American academics, hankering for a less deterministic version of their subject, would like to see it refocused on the individual talent. A more individual talent than Stevie Smith’s you don’t get.

This excellent biography originated in the United States. Its authors cherish Stevie in the same intense way as those American liberal-arts professors on sabbatical leave who, having booked into a different West End theatrical production every night, end up, sometimes at the expense of their judgement, more in love with London than anyone who lives there could ever be. But the tireless Messrs. Barbera and McBrien—they even sound like a pair of sleuths—have cracked the case. They have fallen all the way for Stevie’s marvellous spontaneity without being seduced by that little-girl act of hers or overawed by the ostentatiously suicidal Weltschmerz that for most of her long adult life made it seem unlikely she would get through another day without trying to end it all under a bus. To what degree her naivety was false and her vulnerability tougher au fond than an old boot will remain conjectural, although nobody from now on will want to conjecture without adducing at least some of the evidence that Barbera and McBrien so meticulously provide. But there cannot now be, if there ever was, any doubt about her poetry. It was never naive and seldom out of control. Stevie Smith was an artist of the utmost sophistication, pursuing the classic course of returning to simplicity through refinement, calculating her linguistic effects with such precision that they sound as innocently commanding as a baby’s cry in the night.

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Stevie spent most of her almost seventy years looking after her aunt in Palmers Green, which in the course of time graduated from being near London to being well inside it but without getting any closer to the centre of the literary action. She would journey in by public transport to her stuffy job as secretary to a publisher, and, at the end of a tiresome day, journey back out again. Weekends in the country—she had Rilke’s knack for securing invitations, although nothing like his punctilio as a guest—provided what little adventure she ever knew. Her pre-war Novel on Yellow Paper (an unforgettable work that has nevertheless needed to be rediscovered several times since the day it was first greeted, correctly, as a masterpiece) contains most of whatever had happened to her up until then, and altogether too much of what had happened to her friends, some of whom never forgave her for putting embarrassing facts unaltered into her fiction. She had been to Germany and found out something about it, although not enough to help her realize that the old-style anti-Semitism of Hilaire Belloc had irrevocably lost whatever charm it had ever had. For a while she was fashionable, but she did not live fashionably. On those smart country weekends her only function was that of spare wheel. Her sexuality was either infantile or uncommonly well hidden for someone who made a practice of saying unfortunate things. What she really knew about was books.

She read prodigiously, absorbing the whole of English poetry right down to the level of its technique. At school, she had been obliged to get poems by heart. Sayability was her criterion, even during the ten years it took her to find her own voice. After she found it, she never wrote a line that could not be read aloud by a bright child. No child, though, has ever had her range of allusion. In Novel on Yellow Paper the narrator—called Pompey but otherwise indistinguishable from the actual Stevie—wonders whether she has read too much. Stevie probably did read too much for her own happiness, but for her poetry the result was a well of association sunk through centuries. She also read a great deal outside English, particularly in French, and especially Racine, whose decorous example helped inspire the finely calibrated play of tone which permitted her to run wild in an ordered manner. A line of hers may look as shapeless as a holdall but it can take a long time to unpack.

Come death, you know you must come
       when you’re called
Although you’re a god.

It is meant to be Dido speaking, but you can’t, and aren’t meant to, read the words “Come death” without thinking of the song “Come away, come away, death” in Twelfth Night. On the page opposite “Dido’s Farewell to Aeneas” in the Collected Poems (Oxford, 1976), the first line of “Childe Rolandine” shows how the frame she constructed for her seemingly primitive pictures was, in the strict sense, a frame of reference:

Dark was the day for Childe Rolandine the artist
When she went to work as a secretary-typist...

It was a dark tower to which Shakespeare’s—and, later, Browning’s—Childe Roland heroically came. Stevie, unheroically rotting behind a secretarial desk, has found a way to raise her lament beyond the personal. In this borrowed poetic context, a prosaic complaint brings the reader bang up to date:

It is the privilege of the rich
To waste the time of the poor...

Throughout her work, free-verse poems alternate with more formal compositions, but the free verse always gestures towards form and the forms always wander off. She strove industriously to make it look as if she didn’t quite know what she was doing. She knew exactly. Her poetry has the vivid appeal of the Douanier Rousseau’s pictures or Mussorgsky’s music, but where they lacked schooling she only pretended to lack it. Closer analogies would be with Picasso painting clowns or Stravinsky writing ballets. She knew everything about how poetry had sounded in the past, and could assemble echoes with the assurance of any other modern artist. Clearly, her historicism was, in her own mind, the enabling justification for plain utterance. How the two things were technically connected is more problematic. When she uses the cadences of the Bible to promote her atheism, the trick is obvious, but often the most an admiring reader can do is ruefully admit that she somehow reminds him of every poet since Chaucer while speaking so naturally that she might be just coming round from a general anaesthetic.

“Not waving but drowning” was, and remains, her most famous line. No doubt the Queen asked her about it while pouring the tea. After a long time in critical oblivion, Stevie returned to ex cathedra applause in the 1960s, both as a poet and as a performer. But the pundits were outshouted by the public. Her little-girl act was a big hit on the stage, where, once again, she knew precisely what she was up to. At any poetry reading in which she participated, she was the undisputed star turn. Not drowning but waving, she took her curtain calls like Joan Sutherland. Yet there is no reason to doubt that her life was desperate to the end.

Why do I think of Death as a friend?
It is because he is a scatterer
He scatters the human frame
The nerviness and the great pain
Throws it on the fresh fresh air
And now it is nowhere
Only sweet Death does this...

Her poems, if they were pills to purge melancholy, did not work for her. The best of them, however, work like charms for everyone else. Barbera and McBrien were right to go in search of her. It was worth the legwork and the long stake-out. Stevie Smith is a rare bird, a Maltese falcon. English literature in the modern age, crushed by the amount of official attention paid to it, needs her strangeness, the throwaway artistry that takes every trick, the technique there is no point in analysing because you would have to go on analysing it for ever. In life, she could be a pain in the neck even to those who loved her. Her selfishness was a trial. She would heist the salmon out of the sandwiches and leave the bread to be eaten by others. Even in her work, she can be so fey that the skin crawls. But when she is in form she can deconstruct literature in the only way that counts—by constructing something that feels as if it had just flown together, except you can’t take it apart.

(The New Yorker, September 28, 1987)


If I had called Barbera and McBrien’s book a portent, I would have been mistaken, because it was merely a reminder. In-depth, archive-plumbing research on British literary matters has always been a field in which Americans have figured prominently. The American universities have the money to pay for the foraging expedition, and the American publishers have the patience to wait for the fat manuscript. Readers of Louis Menand’s excellent group portrait of the American nineteenth-century pragmatists The Metaphysical Club will find that all the prominent thinkers and academics spent time in Europe as if air travel had already been invented. To American scholars, the Atlantic has never been much more than a ditch: a narrower one, indeed, than the Rio Grande. But the privilege of local critics is to be stained by local colour. Visiting scholars tread a gangway above the mud. Taking a royal road into the learned circle, they meet too few philistines, and the cave doors of Grub Street are closed. On a rich diet of art and knowledge, they tend to miss the common food of custom and instinct. When I was an undergraduate in Cambridge I heard a visiting American professor deliver an address on the forms of ridicule in Swift. Judging by his ponderous delivery, he had somehow missed the point that the ridicule depended for its force on conversational ease, and one suspected that it was because he had never seen a roomful of London literati when they were hitting the sauce. It is not the same as a pack of dons passing the decanter around High Table.