O whither is fled thy changeling child
And by what witching craft?
It was the Eulenspiegel spake
And as he spake he laughed.
For well he knew that wrought it so,
The bitch and the changeling too
Are vanished away from the stormwinds’ play
And the stricken mother’s mew.
(Stevie Smith, Collected Poems, ‘Eulenspiegelei’)
Reading Stevie Smith’s Tender Only To One, I came upon ‘Eulenspiegelei’. It tells the story of a ‘changeling child’ who vanishes one stormy night, leaving her mother grieving at home.
The narrative is familiar, and the poem echoes Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’:
Now louder far than the stormwinds’ jar
And the voice of mother and child
Is heard the scritch of the gravid bitch
That will be so wild.
Oh what can ail the gravid bitch
That howls upon the midnight stroke?
Dear mother dear I cannot say
Perhaps the devil gave her a poke.
(Stevie Smith, Collected Poems, ‘Eulenspiegelei’; my emphasis)
Outside her kennel, the mastiff old
Lay fast asleep, in moonshine cold.
The mastiff old did not awake,
Yet she an angry moan did make!
And what can ail the mastiff bitch?
Never till now she uttered yell
Beneath the eye of Christabel.
Perhaps it is the owlet’s scritch:
For what can ail the mastiff bitch?
Despite these touchpoints – or perhaps especially because of them – the poem’s language and rhythm leave me baffled. We don’t know how to handle the banal, arrhythmic anticlimax of ‘Perhaps the devil gave her a poke’. It is slightly described, and so is the next event in the poem:
The changeling child from her bed is gone
The mother weeps alone…
Though Smith charges much of the poem with gravitas and melodrama, she sweeps quickly over this climactic moment of disappearance. We are left dissatisfied, in the face of a poem which presents significant events without inflection, or at least not inflection where we expect it.
Well, so far so Stevie Smith; this is just what I find so maddening and exciting about her work. I note how she’s altered Coleridge’s ‘mastiff bitch’ to ‘gravid bitch’. ‘Gravid’ means literally or metaphorically pregnant, as in the phrase ‘The room was gravid with tension’. And ‘gravid’ is a good word for Smith to use. We know her work is gravid with something – we can feel it, just under the surface – but we’re left unsure about exactly what that something is.
But I became interested in Eulenspiegel. Flicking over to Wikipedia reveals that he is a Middle Low German trickster, which seems appropriate for the wily Stevie. A High German translation of his adventures was printed in Straßburg in 1515, and has been multiply translated and adapted since then (Carels, 1980, p. 3).
It’s not clear to me – yet – which Eulenspiegel Smith has in mind as she writes ‘Eulenspiegelei’. Her Eulenspiegel is part-satirising observer, part-devil. We know he ‘wrought it so’, but it’s unclear what that means when the actual event being ‘wrought’ – the disappearance of the child – is given such short shrift. We only see Eulenspiegel standing and laughing: action which is also inaction. Again very Stevie Smith.
Smith brings Eulenspiegel up again in a 1960 Observer review of Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye:
‘But this hero-scourge, Dougal Douglas? Who is he? Well, he is Eulenspiegel, if you like, or he is the Goethian Mephistopheles, the spirit who denies and disturbs.’ (Stevie Smith, ‘A Gothic Comedy)
Dougal Douglas is decidedly devilish, a shapeshifter who wreaks havoc in Spark’s Peckham. In contrast, the Eulenspiegel of the original sixteenth-century jest-cycle seems much milder than Stevie’s conception. The original Eulenspiegel mostly steals chickens, cadges free meals, and farts (a lot).
But perhaps this Eulenspiegel converges with Stevie Smith stylistically, in his attitude to metaphorical or colloquial phrases. Carels notes, ‘The fulcrum of his wit in a large number of the tales is his literal interpretation of figurative language’ (Carels, 1980, p. 3). For instance, in story 33, Eulenspiegel eats for free by misinterpreting the phrase ‘one eats for 24 pfennigs’ literally, as ‘one eats in order to get 24 pfennigs’:
Ihr sollt mir 24 Pfennige geben, wie Ihr gesagt habt. Denn Ihr spracht, an der Tafel esse man das Mahl um 24 Pfennige. (Till Eulenspiegel, Project Gutenberg)
And this is Stevie Smith all over: opening up and interrogating set linguistic forms. In ‘Tenuous and Precarious’, the title phrase is split and transformed into two pompous Romans; in ‘Now Pine-Needles’ she gets bored, halfway through sympathising with the dead pine-needles, and muddles her platitudes into general noise:
Well, you do not know
That you were so and so
And are now so and so.
Why does Eulenspiegel recur in Stevie Smith’s writing – where else does he appear in her work? And which version of Eulenspiegel had she encountered? I have ordered some books to the Bodleian reading room. Hopefully, I’ll find out.
Carels, P. (1980). Eulenspiegel and Company Visit the Eighteenth Century. Modern Language Studies, 10(3), 3–11. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3194226
Smith, Stevie. ‘A Gothic Comedy’. Observer, 6 March 1960.