‘Stevie Smith A Critical Biography’ – Frances Spalding
Have you ever read a literary biography that has actually made you like a writer more? As Stevie Smith herself once said, there’s an argument against following a poet home. A poet composes from the highest point of consciousness, writes with a voice that is her/his most moral, most intellectual, most persuasive, most perceptive. When not consumed with the business of creativity, they are not much different to anyone else and to pry inside their lives is only to be disappointed. The best of their life is in their work and the rest is the humdrum of everyday existence.
Of course, they may have led an interesting life, lived through interesting times and done interesting things. Smith, however, is a particularly uninteresting subject in terms of external facts, as Frances Spalding has to admit. She lived in the same house in a boring suburb from the age of three until the end of her life; worked one boring job in a publisher’s office for thirty years; never married and never even had a serious relationship. Apart from some unsubstantiated rumours about an affair with George Orwell and lesbianism (repressed or fulfilled depending on whom you listen to) there is very little exciting for a biographer to go on.
As for her opinions on life, her poems richly express these (“all of my life is in my poems”, Smith said) and her three novels are so obviously autobiographical that if you have already read them (as I have), there is little more to learn. For the sake of two salacious, but unproven, pieces of gossip, is it worth it?
Spalding seems to get round these problems by writing a “critical” biography, so the book is as much aimed to give us an appraisal of Smith’s work and its central occupations as it is to recount her (not very interesting) life. There are lots of opinions and impressions quoted from friends and acquaintainces – sharply intelligent, big sense of fun: a person who could surprise and intimidate strangers with wit and an ability to cut through insincerity (the Queen one notable victim). Sharp-tongued at times, the little odd-looking woman was full of laughter and malicious humour. Unhappy in the world and fixed on death as an ultimate peace (“the greatest of all blessings … a scattering of the human pattern altogether, an End”; Spalding 243), a lover whom she wished to embrace and one whom she apparently met quite peacefully when a brain tumour killed her in 1971, aged 68. Demanding of her friends, unideological but passionately against “cruelty”, a little selfish at times.
There’s nothing really that would surprise you if you are familiar with Smith’s work, but if you like it (as I do), it’s good fun to be immersed inside her world and Spalding makes it quite readable. As a poet, Smith is inspirational for her simplicity. Blake-like, she writes with a rhythm and rhyme scheme that seems slightly off-beat, but yet is beautifully crafted. Her work assiduously avoids anything that might be ‘over-poetic’ and is a lesson in straightforwardness and always written with compassion and intellect.
I particularly like Smith when she takes on God and religion. As someone who was deeply involved in Christianity, who loved hymns and knew the theology, who was agnostic on God, her criticisms are so much useful than those of Dawkins or any other snobbish, atheist, rationalist outsider. She loved the idea of ‘God of Love’ but could not accept beliefs for their beauty alone. Reviewing a book by Father D’Arcy she takes issue with his instruction to “pray for faith”, asking “what does this mean? We should not pray for what is not true, and if we believe his faith is true, then we already have it. If we pray we must pray to know the truth. Joyfully, Fr. D’Arcy will say: There is no distinction. Less joyfully – for it is happier to be settled – we say we think there is” (240; my italics). I like her idea that to be without a religion is not necessarily to be happier; God makes us feel less lonely, without God, Spalding summarises, “loneliness is imperative and man must draw richness from that” (235)
Smith’s Christ is “a human being, a lofty and noble creature, someone we may love and admire and whose words we may sort” (238). For some reason, Spalding seems to get a bit upset about this, deciding that Smith’s “views on Christianity were too cut and dried, dependent more on knowledge than understanding.” Even if we accept that there is a distinction between ‘knowledge’ and ‘understanding’, surely Smith had both? She had been an active Christian and a believer in her youth (understanding?) plus she had read and studied both Catholic and Anglican theology (knowledge?). She was shrewd observer of humanity and understood, as well as any poet I can think of in the 20th century, human psychology. Smith’s thought on Christianity is expressed in ‘How Do You See?’, which was published in The Guardian in 1964 and apparently “aroused such controversy that the following Saturday the entire letter page was given over to it.” (240) . Spalding reckons that “like other of her ‘argument’ poems How Do You See? tends to prosiness and is not one of her best”. However, I like it so I’m going to print it here:
How do you see the Holy Spirit of God?
I see him as the holy spirit of good,
But I do not think we should talk about spirits, I think
We should call good, good.
But it is a beautiful idea, is it not?
And productive of good?
Yes, that is the problem, it is productive of good,
As Christianity now is productive of good,
So that a person who does not believe the Christian faith
Feels he must keep silent, in case good suffers,
In case what good there is in the word diminishes.
But must we allow good to be hitched to a lie,
A beautiful cruel lie, a beautiful fairy story,
A beautiful idea, made up in a loving moment?
Yes, it is a beautiful idea, one of the most
Beautiful ideas Christianity has ever had,
The idea of the Spirit of God, the Holy Ghost,
My heart goes out to this beautiful Holy Ghost,
He is so beautifully inhuman, he is like the fresh air.
They represent him as a bird, I dislike that,
A bird is parochial to our world, rooted as we are
In pain and cruelty. Better the fresh air.
But before we take a Christian idea to alter it
We should see what the idea is, we should read in their books
Of holy instruction what the Christians say. What do they say
Of the beautiful Holy Ghost? They say
That the beautiful Holy Ghost brooded on chaos
And chaos gave birth to form. As this we cannot know
It can only be told as a fairy story.
Told as a fact it is harmful, for it is not a fact.
But it is a beautiful fairy story. I feel so much
The pleasure of the bird on the dark and powerful waters,
And here I like to think of him as a bird, I like to feel
The masterful bird’s great pleasure in his breast
Touching the water. Like! Like! What else do the say?
Oh I know we must put away the beautiful fairy stories
And learn to be good in a dull way without enchantment,
Yes, we must. What else do they say? They say
That the beautiful Holy Spirit burning intensely,
Alight as never was anything in this world alight,
Inspired the scriptures. But they are wrong,
Often the scriptures are wrong. For I see the Pope
Has forbidden the verse in Mark ever to be discussed again
And I see some doctor of Catholic divinity saying
That some verses in the New Testament are pious forgeries
Interpolated by eager clerks avid for good.
Ah good, what is good, is it good
To leave in scripture the spurious verses and not print
A footnote saying they are spurious, an erratum slip?
And the penal sentences of Christ: He that believeth
And is baptized shall be saved, he that believeth not
Shall be damned. Depart from me ye cursed into everlasting fire
Prepared for the devil and his angels. And then
Saddest of all the words in scripture, the words,
They went away into everlasting punishment. Is this good?
Yes, nowadays certainly it is very necessary before we take
The ideas of Christianity, the words of our Lord,
To make them good, when often they are not very good,
To see what the ideas are and the words; to look at them.
Does the beautiful Holy Ghost endorse the doctrine of eternal hell?
Love cruelty, enjoin the sweet comforts of religion?
Oh yes, Christianity, yes, he must do this
For he is your God, and in your books
You say he informs, gives form, gives life, instructs.
Instructs, that is the bitterest part. For what does he instruct
As to the dreadful bargain, that God would take and offer
The death of his Son to buy our faults away,
The faults of the faulty creatures of the Trinity?
Oh Christianity, instructed by the Holy Ghost,
What do you mean? As to Christ, what do you mean?
It was a child of Europe who cried this cry,
Oh Holy Ghost what do you mean as to Christ?
I heard him cry. Ah me, the poor child,
Tearing away his heart to be good
Without enchantment. I heard him cry:
Oh Christianity, Christianity,
Why do you not answer our difficulties?
If He was God He was not like us
He could not lose.
Can Perfection be less than perfection?
Can the creator of the Devil be bested by him?
What can the temptation to possess the earth have meant to Him
Who made and possessed it? What do you mean?
And Sin, how could He take our sins upon Him? What does it mean?
To take sin upon one is not the same
As to have sin inside one and feel guilty.
It is horrible to feel guilty,
We feel guilty because we are.
Was He horrible? Did He feel guilty?
You say he was born humble – but he was not,
He was born God –
Taking our nature upon Him. But then you say
He was perfect Man. Do you mean
Perfect Man, meaning wholly? Or Man without sin? Ah
Perfect Man without sin is not what we are.
Do you mean He did not know that He was God,
Did not know He was the Second Person of the Trinity?
(Oh if he knew this and was,
It was a source of strength for Him we do not have)
But this theology of emptying you preach sometimes –
That He emptied Himself of knowing He was God – seems
A theology of false appearances
To mock your facts, as He was God whether He knew it or not.
Oh what do you mean, what do you mean?
You never answer our difficulties.
You say, Christianity, you say
That the Trinity is unchanging from eternity,
At the incarnation He took
Our Manhood into the Godhead
That did not have it before
So it must have altered it,
Oh what do you mean, what do you mean?
You never answer our questions.
So I heard the child of Europe cry,
Tearing his heart away
To be good without enchantment,
Going away bleeding.
Oh how sad it is to give up the Holy Ghost
He is so beautiful, but not when you look close,
And the consolations of religion are so beautiful,
But not when you look close.
Is it beautiful, for instance, is it productive of good
That the Roman Catholic hierarchy should be endlessly discussing at this moment
Their shifty theology of birth control, the Vatican
Claiming the inspiration of the Holy Spirit? No it is not good,
Or productive of good. It is productive of
Contempt and disgust. Yet
On the whole I suppose Christianity is kinder than it was,
Helped to it, I fear, by the power of the Civil Arm.
Oh Christianity, Christianity,
That has grown kinder now, as in the political world
The colonial system grows kinder before it vanishes, are you vanishing?
Is it not time for you to vanish?
I do not think we will be able to bear much longer the dishonesty
Of clinging for comfort to beliefs we do not believe in,
For comfort, and to be comfortably free of the fear
Of diminishing good, as if truth were a convenience.
I think if we do not learn quickly, and learn to teach children,
To be good without enchantment, without the help
Of beautiful painted fairy stories pretending to be true,
Then I think it will be too much for us, the dishonesty,
And, armed as we are now, we shall kill everybody
It will be too much for us, we shall kill everybody.