Florence Margaret “Stevie” Smith was born on September 20, 1902 in Yorkshire, England (“Stevie Smith”). When she was very young, her father enlisted in North Sea Patrol and ultimately left the family. At the age of three, Smith, along with her sister and mother, moved to the northern London suburb Palmers Green. Her mother died when she was a teenager and she and her sister lived with their aunt. Throughout her life, Smith resorted to writing so she could convey her emotions in a simple form (Barbera, Jack, and William MacBrien). Deriving from her past misfortunes, she took to writing to display her views on religion and death.
Stevie Smith’s poems convey serious themes in a deceivingly simplistic structure to demonstrate the relationship between religion and death. Smith was extremely unconventional in religious beliefs, and often changed her mind about who she believed as the ideal God. Through her poetry, readers can distinguish different personalities she exhibits (Stevenson). “Anticonventional in her cynicism toward organized religion, Stevie Smith is drawn toward a noninstitutionalized god who embodies the absolute love and companionship not encountered in human relations (Persoon & Watson).” Rather than believing in the wide-spread known God, Smith chooses to create her own and adapt this individual to whom she believes is the ideal figure. Another unique aspect is that many of Smith’s poems reject God and show her atheist side. These poems show that she disapproves organized religion and attacks Catholic churches.
Lastly, Smith tries to create a God for herself for her to believe. Smith’s religious confusion and failure to firmly believe in God are apparent in several of her poems; one in which she idealizes Christ is “The Airy Christ.” The poem states “Who is this that comes in splendour, coming from the blazing East? This is he we had not thought of, this is he the airy Christ (“The Airy Christ”),” proving that Smith thinks of Christ as magnificent. In this line and the next two stanzas, she uses the word “airy” a total of six times. Since the term “airy” means light or bright, this shows that she refers to Christ in a positive manner. While some poems directly refer to religion, there are some about other topics with an underlying meaning. “Seamus Heaney once summed up Smith’s concerns as ‘death, waste, loneliness, cruelty, the maimed, the stupid, the innocent, the trusting.’ He left out her heterodox Christianity, love for animals and a penchant for minimal punctuation (Dirda).
” Smith’s ongoing confusion about religion leads her to imagine unrealistic thoughts about the afterlife. A widespread Christian belief is that there is a heaven, but many non-believers imagine a similar, dreamy place. In “The Heavenly City,” Smith states, “I sigh for the heavenly country / where the heavenly people pass / and the sea is as quiet as a mirror of beautiful beautiful glass (“The Heavenly City”).” Along with her obsession with discussing God, Stevie Smith equally discusses death, and often in a blissful manner.
According to the Academy of American Poets, “While Smith’s volatile attachment to the Church of England is evident in her poetry, death, her “gentle friend,” is perhaps her most popular subject (Academy of American Poets).” Smith’s attitude towards death was that it’s a gift to man which allows for peaceful end to life in a difficult world. Her view of death is as doubtful as her view of religion, but more consistent, and this was expressed in her writing: “Smith’s writings frequently demonstrated a fascination with death and also explored the mysterious, rather sinister reality which lurks behind appealing or innocent appearances (Hallet).” In the poem “Tender Only to One,” Smith displays a passion for death, who she expresses is her lover.
The poem states, “Tender only to one, Last petal’s latest breath / Cries out aloud / From the icy shroud / His name, his name is Death (“Tender Only to One”).” In the poem, death is portrayed as cold and icy, and represents an electric love with God. Smith always personifies death as a god and replaces Christ with her own ideal creation; this idea is the underlying theme of all of her poems about death, which expresses a longing for it to occur to her naturally. Smith views death as unfortunate only in the case of others; for herself, however, death is eagerly anticipated. In the poem “Not Waving But Drowning,” rather than explaining death in first person, she applies it to another character. “Nobody heard him, the dead man, But still he lay moaning: I was much further out than you thought / And not waving but drowning (“Not Waving But Drowning”).” Through her writing, Smith pleads to God to release her from life, which she views as a prison that she is constantly trapped in. The way Stevie Smith’s treats the two major recurring themes of God and death reveals her maturity; although she earned a reputation as a lighthearted, Smith is a serious writer employing a deceptive mask.
The Poetry Foundation stated that “combining a deceptively simple form and mannered language with serious themes, Smith was able both to compass the pity and terror of her themes and to respond to them with rueful courage and humour (The Poetry Foundation).” Although religion and death are both heavy and sometimes controversial topics, Smith represents them in a lighthearted, comical manner. “The cliches, the excesses, the crabbed formalities of this speech are given weight by the chillingly amusing or disquieting elements; by the sense of a refined, ironic unhappiness underlying the poems (The Poetry Foundation).” Smith’s unique style showcases her variety of personalities and indecisiveness when it comes to choosing religion. She incorporates a deep sense of irony and often structures her thoughts like nursery rhymes.
Other authors also have their own respective interpretations of Smith’s poetry: “Heaney hears the accents of ‘a disenchanted gentility.’ Amy Clampitt sees in her ‘the desolation of the ordinary.’ D.
J. Enright says she is ‘somewhat Greek’: austere, severe, and ‘bracing’ (Lee).” Smith’s poems, while written in a simple structure, well represent the ironic relationship between religion and death. Her writing style was derived from her own individual beliefs, and in real life she was both a believer and a non-believer–combined. She often doubted God in bad times, and created her own idealistic person to look up to. Her attitude toward death was more consistent, and she often considered death to be a God. Not many poets are able to successfully execute writing about such deep, ironic topics in a playful way.
Her poem “The Reason” states, “My life is vile / I hate it so / I’ll wait awhile / and then I’ll go. . .
It is because I can’t make up my mind / if God is good, impotent or unkind (“The Reason”).” Because she relies on God to make decisions, her belief relies on satisfactions, and if the outcome is unsatisfactory, the belief in God no longer remains. In her work, Smith always exhibits underlying themes of God and expresses doubt; however, in reality, Smith never stops talking about God, and is actually obsessed with something she refuses to believe is true.