The Blue from Heaven

One of my favourite Stevie Smith poems is ‘The Blue from Heaven’.

King Arthur rode in another world
And his twelve knights rode behind him
And Guinevere was there
Crying: Arthur, where are you dear?

Why is the King so blue
Why is he this blue colour?
It is because the sun is shining
And he rides under the blue cornflowers.

High wave the cornflowers
That shed the pale blue light
And under the tall cornflowers
Rides King Arthur and his twelve knights.

And Guinevere is there
Crying: Arthur, where are you dear?

First there were twelve knights riding
And then there was only one
And King Arthur said to the one knight,
Be gone.

All I wish for now, said Arthur,
Is the beautiful colour blue
And to ride in the blue sunshine
And Guinevere I do not wish for you.

Oh Lord, said Guinevere
I do not see the colour blue
And I wish to ride where our knights rode,
After you.

Go back, go back, Guinevere,
Go back to the palace, said the King.
So she went back to the palace
And her grief did not seem to her a small thing.

The Queen has returned to the palace
Crying: Arthur, where are you dear?
And every day she speaks of Arthur’s grandeur
To the knights who are there.

That Arthur has fallen from the grandeur
Of his powers all agree
And the falling off of Arthur
Becomes their theme presently.

As if it were only temporarily
And it was not for ever
They speak, but the Queen knows
He will come back never.

Yes, Arthur has passed away
Gladly he has laid down his reigning powers
He has gone to ride in the blue light
Of the peculiar towering cornflowers.

I can’t find any mention of blue cornflowers in Arthurian legend. Perhaps that reveals my ignorance – do tell me if I’ve missed the reference! – but as far as I can see, this story does all seem to be Smith.

I did find these, though: King Arthur delphiniums. Maybe these inspired Smith? 'Cornflowers' certainly scan better than 'delphiniums'; only A.A Milne can pull that one off... Image from Seed Terra.
I did find these, though: King Arthur delphiniums. Maybe these blue flowers inspired Smith? ‘Cornflowers’ certainly scan better than ‘delphiniums’; only A.A Milne can pull that one off… Image from Seed Terra.

And very typical Smith too. There’s that word ‘peculiar’: Smith uses ‘peculiar’ a lot, and is often described as peculiar by her reviewers. ‘Peculiar’ suggests an oddness which is too odd to begin to untangle.

And it is a peculiar story. It’s told very naturally, in simple language – but that only adds to the strangeness. We are encouraged to take for granted the fact that proportions have been inverted in this alien blue world: either Arthur is tiny or the cornflowers are huge. Smith is deadpan on this point:

Why is the King so blue
Why is he this blue colour?
It is because the sun is shining
And he rides under the blue cornflowers.

This is a non-explanation. We want to know where Arthur is, why the cornflowers are so much bigger than him, and all we get is a bland statement of scientific fact (the sun is shining through the blue petals). We might have been inclined to wonder about the links between the colour blue and sadness – even, as the title suggests, the historical association of blue with divinity (Mary was often shown in blue). No, says Smith. He’s blue because he’s under the giant cornflowers. Obviously.

Nor can I find any particular symbolism for cornflowers. Apparently they are associated with Prussia, and with Harrow school, and I don’t think Smith was going for either of those. Cornflowers – an awkward word, carefully handled here at the ends of lines – seem to be an interpretative dead end.

What we have here is the irreducibility of myth. Myth as Jungian archetype: structurally fundamental to the human mind. Reluctant to be broken down further, but presenting itself as entirely self-evident. There are cornflowers, and they are blue. No point, says Smith, asking any further questions.

Archetypes, according to Jung, underly dreams. In dreams, you normally take what you see for granted: you accept things as wholly natural. Not only does this reflect Smith’s really simple language, but I’m struck by this line: ‘ And Guinevere was there’. It reminds me of the way people talk about dreams: I dreamed I was in a bagel factory, with rain pouring in through a hole in the ceiling. You were there, actually.

In dreams – or our memory of dreams – things erupt one after another. I was in a bagel factory. There was rain. You were there. Guinevere is suddenly there, just as – later in the poem – all the knights vanish without explanation:

First there were twelve knights riding
And then there was only one…

This is what Smith’s so good at: dreamlike strangeness which (crucially) we’re encouraged not to see as strange. Her simple language and insistent rhythms coax us straight over these big ruptures in logic. And that normalisation of the peculiar unsettles us even further.

Noreen Masud, 2015 ©

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4 thoughts on “The Blue from Heaven

  1. bryananne June 22, 2015 / 7:26 pm

    To me this poem also speaks of the alienation of two people who are supposed to be closely connected. Guinevere was there, so why does she keep asking ‘ Arthur where are you dear’? Why does she not see the blue when she is there? In the sketch under the poem Arthur and Guinevere are riding in different directions in different landscapes. The poem reminds me of ‘I rode with my Darling’ where the darling disappears inexplicably.

    Like

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