Truth is Far and Flat

‘This night shall thy soul be required of thee’
My Soul is never required of me
It always has to be somebody else of course
Will my soul be required of me tonight perhaps?

(I often wonder what it will be like
To have one’s soul required of one
But all I can think of is the Out-Patients’ Department —
‘Are you Mrs. Briggs, dear?’
No, I am Scorpion.)

I should like my soul to be required of me, so as
To waft over grass till it comes to the blue sea
I am very fond of grass, I always have been, but there must
Be no cow, person or house to be seen.

Sea and grass must be quite empty
Other souls can find somewhere else.

O Lord God please come
And require the soul of thy Scorpion

Scorpion so wishes to be gone.

Academic considerations aside, Stevie Smith’s ‘Scorpion’ is one of my very favourite poems. I remember being about seventeen, wandering around my room and saying it witheringly to myself. Especially this bit:

Sea and grass must be quite empty
Other souls can find somewhere else.

That stanza appealed – and continues to appeal – because of those wonderful dismissive italics. One doesn’t often get to be so unashamedly intolerant of other people (they can all find somewhere else.)

But I’m struck, now, by how interested Stevie Smith is in flatness (Sea and grass must be quite empty). Spaces with no variation or texture. She fantasises, in Novel on Yellow Paper, about going to an area ’empty ‘of all human interest’.

There’s a peace in flatness. A leisure in freeing the eye from the burden of curiosity: having to engage with change and variation. Smith is always ‘too tired for words’ – and the flat space in Novel on Yellow Paper brings her relief:

…there is nobody else in the whole wide world and so I fall asleep. No dreams. No dreams.

Flatness as relief, then – but also, in ‘Scorpion’, fulfilment. A sense of narrative completion and fullness. And it surprises me to find that in an image of uninflected, unvaried flatness.

As I was thinking about this, two other literary examples came to mind. Both from children’s books.

The first is C.S. Lewis’s ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’. The children have sailed to the ‘utter east’, until their boat runs aground. Reepicheep the mouse goes over the edge of the world, to find Aslan’s country. And so the children:

…got out of the boat and waded…They could not have told you why they did this; it was their fate. And though they had felt – and been – very grown-up on the Dawn Treader, they now felt just the opposite and held hands as they waded through the lilies. They never felt tired. The water was warm and all the time it got shallower. At last they were on dry sand, and then on grass – a huge plain of very fine short grass, almost level with the Silver Sea and spreading in every direction without so much as a molehill.

And of course, as it always does in a perfectly flat place without trees, it looked as if the sky came down to meet the grass in front of them. But as they went on they got the strangest impression that here at last the sky did really come down and join the earth – a blue wall, very bright, but real and solid: more like glass than anything else. And soon they were quite sure of it. It was very near now.

But between them and the foot of the sky there was something so white on the green grass that even with their eagles’ eyes they could hardly look at it. They came on and saw that it was a Lamb.

“Come and have breakfast,” said the Lamb in its sweet milky voice.

Then they noticed for the first time that there was a fire lit on the grass and fish roasting on it. They sat down and ate the fish, hungry now for the first time for many days. And it was the most delicious food they had ever tasted.

So here flatness is purity and simplicity. It frames the Divine, and allows it to appear openly. The Lamb becomes the only thing in the world: overwhelming in its brightness, against an otherwise unmarked backdrop.

The other text which came to mind is more sinister – Marianne Dreams, by Catherine Storr. Ten-year-old Marianne finds that whatever she draws with a certain pencil comes true in her dreams.

Here’s the beginning of her first dream.

Marianne dreamed.

She was in a great open stretch of country, flat like a prairie, covered, as far as she could see, with the long dry grass in which she was standing more than knee deep. There were no roads, no paths, no hills and no valleys. Only the prairie stretched before her on all sides till it met the grey encircling sky. Here and there it was dotted with great stones or rocks, which rose just above the level of the tall grass, like heads peering from all directions.

Marianne stood and looked. There seemed to be nothing to do and nowhere to go. Wherever she looked she saw nothing but grass and stones and sky, the same on every side of her. Yet something, a nagging uneasiness which she could not account for, drove her to start walking…

For Marianne, flatness is sinister. It’s disturbing because it’s unmarked, giving her no directions. And it’s full of threatening potential. Those stones, barely visible above the tall grass? Later in the book they come alive and start chasing her (It’s a brilliant book, incidentally.)

I’ve tried – and failed – to find some interesting reading on flatness, to buttress my work theoretically. Does anyone have any suggestions?

Noreen Masud, 2015 ©

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4 thoughts on “Truth is Far and Flat

  1. bryananne May 28, 2015 / 2:05 pm

    In chapter one of Great Expectations Charles Dickens describes a sinister flat marsh, though unlike Stevie’s landscape it does include a few cows. The child Pip has just found the gravestones of his parents and five infant brothers on in a churchyard on the edge of the marshes. Pip looks at the scene and sees that ‘the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dikes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes, and that the low leaden line beyond was the river, and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea, and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.’ Then Magwitch appears and threatens to cut his throat. I think it notable that Pip observes himself as part of this flat landscape where the dead are buried and the dark wilderness merges into the sea.

    Another disturbing example of dangerous flat landscape comes near the end of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. For much of the narrative Frankenstein and the monster pursue each other in the sublime landscapes of the Alps but the end of the pursuit takes place on the frozen arctic sea. The terrain is so flat that Frankenstein can see the monster about a mile ahead of him; he urges on his dog team but before he can reach him the ice cracks apart and Frankenstein is left drifting helplessly towards death on a slab of melting ice.

    Edmund Burke wrote about the sublime as having an element of horror associated with the fear of death, and later the romantic poets taught people to see mountains and crags as sublime and to think of flat landscapes as boring, but Dickens and Shelley demonstrate, I think, that a flat, empty vista can be horrifyingly sublime.

    Stevie Smith longs for a flat and empty landscape where there is no need to worry about anyone else. It sounds enticing but of course she is, like Dickens and Shelley, writing about death.

    When I was a seventeen many ages ago I loved ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ in which Keats confesses to being ‘half in love with easeful death’. ‘Scorpion’ and ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ are about as different as poems can be, but they are both, I feel, about being half in love with death, and yet they also, to my mind, relish the experiences of life, whether in the outpatients department where Scorpion is mistaken for Mrs Briggs or ‘in some melodious plot/ of beechen green’.

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    • masudnoreen May 29, 2015 / 7:43 pm

      This is such a helpful comment, Anne! It hadn’t occurred to me to investigate Dickens and Shelley but you are absolutely right. I have the impression as well – without being able to find the quotations just now – that Smith is also fascinated by marshes; that weird flat halfway house between land and water… I know someone who works on Frankenstein, so I shall pick her brains 🙂

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      • bryananne June 2, 2015 / 6:03 pm

        Yes I imagine Stevie Smith liked marshes as she liked all watery places. I have been reading the poem ‘The Ass’. It makes me feel that Stevie was almost asking people to mock her when she wrote this poem about a girl who is an ass and then rhymes her with a soppy morass. And yet I feel this is a serious poem that I could think about for a long time.

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      • masudnoreen June 2, 2015 / 8:13 pm

        Absolutely. Another poem which is very good at that ridiculous-but-unignorable rhyming is ‘Who Killed Lawless Lean?’

        ‘The Ass’ is so dramatic –

        ‘…they said she was,
        An Ass.’

        An Ass, on a line by itself! Portentous! And that wonderful word ‘morass’, which is quite an unusual poetic word and could be a bit pompous, becomes domesticated in Smith’s hands, and it rubs along happily with the beetles and the gnats. She has a wonderful talent for that slight deflation of overblown language.

        I definitely agree about the seriousness of ‘The Ass’. The poem’s language isn’t pretentious or even particularly unusual, but it is very hard to read this poem as blithe or lightweight. I like the fiend who turns up – casually – and is entirely unsuccessful in luring Eugenia into the morass. So he just goes away. I feel that’s a very Smith gesture, and part of her enigmatic gravity – things just come and go.

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