Stevie Smith and the ‘Netherlandish Proverbs’

The ages blaspheme
The people are weak
As in a dream
They evilly speak.

Their words in a clatter
Of meaningless sound
Without form or matter
Echo around.

The people oh Lord
Are sinful and sad
Prenatally biassed
Grow worser born bad

They sicken oh Lord
They have no strength in them
Oh rouse up my God
And against their will win them.

Must thy lambs to the slaughter
Delivered be
With each son and daughter
Irrevocably?

From tower and steeple
Ring out funeral bells
Oh Lord save thy people
They have no help else.

(Stevie Smith, ‘Breughel’)

I realised I didn’t know much about the Flemish artist, Pieter Brueghel, when I first read this poem. So I Googled him. And what caught my eye was his ‘Netherlandish Proverbs’ (1559), as it has caught so many peoples’ eyes over the centuries.

Pieter Brueghel, 'Netherlandish Proverbs' (1559)
Pieter Brueghel, ‘Netherlandish Proverbs’ (1559)

Isn’t it wonderful? And understandably, most of the writing on this painting devotes itself to explaining or identifying the aphorisms. There are so many; they overlap and double up, and some remain mysterious even now. But with Stevie Smith on my mind, I was less interested in understanding the individual aphorisms, and more absorbed by the idea of depicting aphorisms literally. The interrogation or literalisation of figurative language plays constantly through Smith’s writing. This morning, for instance, I was looking at her ‘Fuite d’Enfance’. The poem seems, ekphrastically, to describe a painting:

My father stands on my right hand,
He has an abstracted look.
Over my left shoulder
My Divine reads me like a book.

(Stevie Smith, ‘Fuite d’Enfance)

The accompanying sketch shows a devious-looking Divine eyeing an angelic girl, over her shoulder. Smith literalises the cliché ‘to read someone like a book’ by portraying the Divine as physically looking at, and appraising, the speaker. Metaphor is brought down to earth, with slightly disorienting results. Alternatively, there’s ‘She said…’, whose literalisation of the figurative needs no commentary:

She said as she tumbled the baby in:
There, little baby, go sink or swim…

Returning to ‘Netherlandish Proverbs’, though, there’s a good book by Mark A. Meadow on the painting. He talks about how, by ‘taking their metaphorical language’, Brueghel is ‘deliberately misunderstanding the games of language already at play in their verbal forms’ (Netherlandish Proverbs and the Art of Rhetoric, 32).

I’d love to see that idea developed further. As with the Eulenspiegel, I think this idea of deliberate misunderstanding really characterises Stevie Smith. She refuses to let empty rhetoric go unquestioned. Identifying it as ‘a clatter/of meaningless sound’ (‘Breughel’), she sabotages clichés by pushing them through to their alien or absurd consequences.

What’s left, though, is seldom a sense of victory – more often loss or desolation. That’s Smith’s fascination.

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