In this age of relativism it can be quite refreshing to come across a poem where one is left in no doubt about the poet’s moral opinion. Here the feyly idiosyncratic Stevie Smith gives both barrels to St Augustin and Pope Gregory.
Was It Not Curious?
Stevie Smith … Upon seeing English children in the slave market, Aúgustin asked who they were. Being told they were ‘Angli’, that is, English, he said ‘Non Angli sed angeli’, that is, Not English but angels, and Pope Gregory I, hearing the story, promptly sent Aúgustin to England to convert the English.
Was it not curious of Aúgustin
Saint Aúgustin, Saint Aúgustin,
When he saw the beautiful British children
To say such a curious thing?
He said he must send the gospel, the gospel,
At once to them over the waves
He never said he thought it was wicked
To steal them away for slaves
To steal the children away
To buy and have slavery at all
Oh no, oh no, it was not a thing
That caused him any appal.
Was it not curious of Gregory
Rather more than of Aúgustin?
It was not curious so much
As it was wicked of them.
This week another poem by the wonderfully eccentric Stevie Smith, who sometimes comes across to me as the improbable love-child of Emily Dickinson and William McGonagall, yet at other times, as in the last stanza here, achieves a lyricism all of her own. Are the last two lines actually true, that creativity requires, if not actual unhappiness, at least some kind of spiritual unrest? Looking at the lives of poets, it would seem so: no grit in the oyster, no pearl.
Mrs. Arbuthnot was a poet
A poet of high degree,
But her talent left her;
Now she lives at home by the sea.
In the morning she washes up,
In the afternoon she sleeps,
Only in the evenings sometimes
For her lost talent she weeps,
Crying: I should write a poem,
Can I look a wave in the face
If I do not write a poem about a sea-wave,
Putting the words in place.
Mrs. Arbuthnot has died,
She has gone to heaven,
She is one with the heavenly combers now
And need not write about them.
Cry: she is a heavenly comber,
She runs with a comb of fire,
Nobody writes or wishes to
Who is one with their desire.
The poems of Stevie Smith (1902-1971) remind me of those optical tricks like the witch illusion, that shifts as you look at it between hag and young girl. This poem, for example – is it eccentric to the point of daftness, or is it a very original, tender love lyric? I never quite make up my mind, but one way or another it has put a hook into my memory.
It was my bridal night I remember,
An old man of seventy-three
I lay with my young bride in my arms,
A girl with t.b.
It was wartime, and overhead
The Germans were making a particularly heavy raid on Hampstead.
What rendered the confusion worse, perversely
Our bombers had chosen that moment to set out for Germany.
Harry, do they ever collide?
I do not think it has ever happened,
Oh my bride, my bride.