‘A Vision’ in Leeds

I’ve been very busy this summer, visiting archives across the UK to look at their holdings of Stevie Smith manuscripts. Most of Smith’s materials are in the University of Tulsa (which I’m hoping to visit next summer), and those in the UK are quite scattered. I don’t mind. It’s a nice excuse to visit different cities.

So first on my list was Leeds, a city which I’d never visited before.

Brotherton Library
View from the upper level of the Brotherton Library.

The collection of Smith manuscripts in the University of Leeds’ Brotherton Collection was small (but perfectly formed). It was mostly letters: three to Michael Hamburger, one to Norah Smallwood, some correspondence with Anthony Thwaite.

What I wasn’t expecting to find, however, was a typescript of her poem ‘The Vision’. It came with one of the letters to Hamburger, dated 10th February 1958: Smith wanted to know whether he might be able to translate the poem into German for inclusion in Die Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Her German is ‘absolutely rudimentary’, she tells him, so she can’t do it herself.

‘The Vision’ is not included in the 1975 Collected Poems, but it is printed in Me Again (1981):

The Vision

These before the worlds in congress
Stood to sing their songs in song-dress,
Never one was in a wrong dress
Never one was out of tune.

Oh it filled my heart with pity
As, so serious and so pretty,
Stood my Race to sing its ditty,

The worlds were quite indifferent
As to how the singing went,
If the Race were elegant
They did not care.

But still the people stood and chanted
For to chant was all they wanted,
So their bravery was vaunted
Emptily, emptily.

Yet I was proud to see their singing,
Proud the human race was flinging
Such a song at such a ceiling

Then it vanished all away,
Worlds and singers went away;
Nothing now is left to say
But this: it was a vision.


Sadly, I can’t show you an image of Smith’s typescript. To share photographs of the collection online would cost £75 – per image – and I don’t love you all quite that much.

Brotherton Library Special Collections
Firmly closed. Sorry


But there are some interesting amendments to the text, which Smith made in blue ink. The last verse originally read:

Then it vanished all away

Worlds and singers in display

Nothing now is left to say

But this: it was a vision.


Smith crossed through ‘in display’ and replaced it with the ‘went away’ of the published version. It’s an interesting change. Why does she choose, in the end, to rhyme ‘away’ with itself, instead of using the more “perfect” rhyme of ‘display’?

And why does she change an image which is very clear and dramatic (‘in display’), to one which is vague, flat and indefinite (‘went away’)? ‘Went away’ – where did they go away to? And how?

Moments like this emphasise that Smith doesn’t use her particular style because she is inept, or doesn’t understand poetry. She changed the line because ‘went away’ achieved something which ‘in display’ did not. The poem needed that moment of anticlimax – a muddy, casual dismissal of everything which the text had built up.

If Smith had kept ‘in display’, it might have sounded whiny. There was this wonderful display of worlds and singers, and now it’s gone!

But ‘went away’ sounds indifferent. Things happen and then they go away. There is ‘nothing…left to say’, Smith implies, on the matter.

Nicely done.

Thanks to the fantastic staff at the Brotherton Library, who were so helpful and supportive!

My Leeds trip was made possible through the generosity of Natalia, a member of the Couchsurfing community who gave me a place to sleep for the night! Here we are together in a (slightly wonky) selfie:

IMG_20150703_154139 (1)


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