‘Passing By’ Stevie Smith’s Aphorisms

What should we do with an epitaph on a gravestone?

‘Read it’ is the obvious answer. But once we’ve read it, then what? Do we memorise it? Do we make it a principle by which to live our lives?

Or do we simply read it – and then walk on by?

Part of the pleasure of texts such as epitaphs is that we really can just pass them by. We might look at them, consider them for a moment – and then move on. Epitaphs, and other short forms like epigrams and aphorisms, aren’t just brief in length – they’re brief in their impact on the reader.

Wallace Stevens wrote about this effect in his journal:

When you first feel the truth of, say, an epigram, you feel like making it a rule of conduct. But this one is displaced by that, and things go on in their accustomed way.

So you encounter an epigram, and it moves you. You feel it might change your life, if you could only absorb its wisdom. But it’s in the nature of an aphorism to be temporary. Aphorisms often come in big collections; as soon as you’ve read one, you’re moving on to the next. As Stevens points out, one aphorism is displaced by another – and overall, your life goes on unchanged. In other words, we will ultimately always pass an aphorism by.

Historically, there are good reasons for epigrams to be “dismissable”: easily passed by or ignored. Nowadays, ‘epigram’ can mean any short, pithy poem. But originally, in ancient Greece, the word ‘epigram’ referred – like an epitaph – to a short text carved on a monument, in memory of a person or event. So everyone who read an epigram would literally be ‘passing it by’. In fact, it was almost dangerous to do anything else. As Baumbach, Petrovic and Petrovic note, if the passer-by wrote down the aphorism and took it away with them, it would lose its particular context, and therefore its meaning. ‘Here lies Jonathan’ stops meaning anything if you move the engraving from Edinburgh to Oxford, because the identity of “here” has changed.

So one way of looking at epigrams and aphorisms is to consider that they have two jobs. On one hand, they have to be forceful and full of impact. They have to make us feel as though they’re worth remembering, and contain some important truth. On the other hand, they also have to be “dismissable”. The reader has to be able to pass them by.

This might help us understand some of Stevie Smith’s ‘aphoristic’ poems. Her poem ‘From the Country Lunatic Asylum’ uses punchy rhymes to create a sense of impact:

The people say that spiritism is a joke and a swizz,
The Church that it is dangerous – not half it is.

On one level we feel this poem is forceful and convincing – on another, it’s quite mysterious. What idea are we supposed to take away from it? Which opinion does ‘not half it is’ refer to – is spiritism a joke, or is it dangerous? What’s more, Smith has called this poem ‘From the Country Lunatic Asylum’ – suggesting to us that the poem’s “speakers” may not be entirely reliable.

What can we do with this poem, then? We can only accept it, and pass it by.

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