Stevie Smith once claimed not to read any modern poetry. Whether or not that’s true, she certainly got most of her echoes from older writers: Tennyson, Euripides and the (now perhaps largely forgotten) contents of the Palgrave Treasury.
I think she was also deeply influenced by the Romantics.
Right now I’m absorbed in writing a chapter on Smith’s relationship to Romantic poetry and ideas. A lot of her poetry is fragmentary (‘Flounder‘, ‘From the Italian’, ‘From the French’), which mirrors the Romantic fascination with fragments. One of her best-known poems, ‘Thoughts about the Person from Porlock‘, uses S. T. Coleridge’s preface to ‘Kubla Khan‘ as a springboard for a meditation on writers’ block. And I hear echoes of Coleridge’s ‘Christabel‘ in her poem ‘Nodding‘. All material for another blog post.
But today I want to talk a little about Smith and Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859). De Quincey is best known for his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821), about the ‘pleasures and pains’ of his opium addiction. Smith makes a well-documented reference to his Confessions in her poem ‘Old Ghosts’:
More interesting, I think, are the echoes of the Confessions in Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper.
In Smith’s first novel, her protagonist Pompey is constantly bored and tired. Guardedly tolerant of her dull secretarial job, overwhelmed by impressions and memories and scraps of anecdote, she cherishes two fantasies of escape. The first centres on a haystack: a haystack on which one could go to sleep.
First of all shall I have a haystack? Well idealized that might be quite good. First of all then we will consider the haystack. It stands up in a sunny field by the side of but out from a chestnut tree. So. The hay has been cut. Of course. It isn’t imported hay in that stack. Well all the rest of the field, it stretches away far and wide, and there on it are the swathes of white hay that have been left over. There it lies. So. There is a blue sky overhead and some white puff clouds bowling along in front of a summery wind…
Well now into this picture empty of all human interest comes Pompey Casmilus. Here at last, she says, is the right haystack, the right moment, and the right solitariness.
What a wonderful passage. The field is simple: blue sky, some clouds. The opening biblical declaration – ‘we will consider the haystack’ – invites us into her daydream with a regal graciousness. But Smith exerts jealous control over every part of her fantasy. She outlines her dream-geography in precise detail. The stack is pedantically positioned ‘by the side of but out from the tree’. Smith stabilises this image with a stamping, definitive ‘So’.
The second daydream centres on going to bed in an empty house.
And presently you know to turn to the right across the saltings, and there sure enough is the house…you go in and shut the door behind you, and bolt it, and inside there is a wide stone hall and lights hanging down perfectly steady. Though the wind is now roaring round the house it cannot get under the door.
…And so by and by you go to the bathroom, that is a large square bathroom flagged with stones, and the bath is a large stone bath, and the water comes crashing into the stone bath hot and foaming, because of the salt in it, it is brackish water, and you get in…you dry yourself with hot towels standing on a loofah bathmat that is prickly to the feet and not slimy the way rubber bath-mats are. And you rub, and when you are dry you put on a dressing-gown that is made of thick dry very thick towelling, it is heavier and drier than a bath sheet…
Smith’s meticulously curated daydreams remind me of this passage from de Quincey’s Confessions: his ‘analysis of happiness’, before he moves on from the pleasures of opium to its pains:
Let there be a cottage, standing in a valley, eighteen miles from any town -no spacious valley, but about two miles long, by three quarters of a mile in average width…Let the mountains be real mountains, between 3 and 4,000 feet high, and the cottage, a real cottage…Let it, however, not be spring, nor summer, nor autumn – but winter in his sternest shape…
I am not “particular,” as people say, whether it be snow, or black frost, or wind so strong that (as Mr — says) “you may lean your back against it like a post.” I can put up even with rain, provided it rains cats and dogs; but something of the sort I must have…
‘Let there be a cottage’. Let there be light. It’s the same magnanimous, Biblical leisureliness. And de Quincey is as precise as Smith in his specifications: the valley must be ‘two miles long, by three-quarters of a mile’. These are modest demands, but he insists on them: ‘something of the sort I must have’.
Both de Quincey and Smith mark out space within chaos for themselves. These are Romantic ‘spot[s] of time’, spans of peace, painfully won, within an unendurable situation. Positioning their fantasies within a howling winter gives them permission to stay cosily alone indoors.
Both dreams ask only for small things. Rain will do for de Quincey if he can’t get snow. Smith just wants a few small clouds and a loofah bathmat. Modesty of desire is part of the fantasy: their craving is for a world which is peaceful because it’s unassuming.
Most of all I love de Quincey’s request for ‘real mountains’. None of these ramshackle fake mountains allowed. All the daydreams have this lovely sense of wanting to do their small things properly. For Smith, this comes across in the prickly loofah – not slimy rubber – and the ‘thick dry very thick towelling’, rather than a puny bath-sheet. Simple, strong flavours. Reverie becomes a way of getting back to basics.