Laughter in ‘Nodding’

Tizdal my beautiful cat
Lies on the old rag mat
In front of the kitchen fire.
Outside the night is black.

In ‘Nodding‘, Smith’s speaker sits serenely in front of the fire, with a big cat asleep on the rug.

‘Cat, night, fire – and a girl nodding.’

The peaceful scene allows the speaker to drift into reverie. Her mind can wander from one question to the next, without answering them.

The clock on the mantelpiece
Ticks unevenly, tic toc, tic-toc,
Good heavens what is the matter
With the kitchen clock?

Outside an owl hunts,
Hee hee hee hee,
Hunting in the Old Park
From his snowy tree.
What on earth can he find in the park tonight,
It is so wintry?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau describes this motion of thoughts, in Reveries of the Solitary Walker, as when ‘when I let my mind wander quite freely and my ideas follow their own course unhindered and untroubled.’ Smith’s speaker both wonders and wanders, contemplating a question before peacefully passing by.

What this reading doesn’t accommodate is the way that ‘Nodding’ echoes S. T. Coleridge’s ‘Christabel‘ (1797-1800). In this fragmentary poem, Christabel finds the beautiful but sinister Geraldine languishing in the wood. We get quite far into the poem before Geraldine reveals her demonic nature – it’s left vague, but we gather it’s something serpentine.

Nevertheless, Coleridge had provided us with all the warning signs, narrating them mock-innocently. His poem opens with the hooting owl which Smith borrows in ‘Nodding’. Coleridge’s owl prompts a cock to crow out of season: traditionally, a warning of evil nearby.

‘Tis the middle of night by the castle clock,
And the owls have awakened the crowing cock;
Tu—whit! Tu—whoo!
And hark, again! the crowing cock,
How drowsily it crew.

That’s the first sign that all is not right. Christabel ignores it. Later, as Christabel and Geraldine pass the dog, it moans in its sleep. Coleridge’s astounded questioning echoes Smith’s contemplation of the kitchen clock:

Outside her kennel, the mastiff old
Lay fast asleep, in moonshine cold.
The mastiff old did not awake,
Yet she an angry moan did make!
And what can ail the mastiff bitch?

Like Smith, Coleridge’s narrator doesn’t answer the question he raises. But here, leaving the question unanswered is a provocation to the reader. We are invited to ponder an important point, then forced to pass it by – and we watch Christabel suffer the consequences.

I think a little of this sinister provocation makes its way into Smith’s ‘Nodding’, though it’s never followed up with narrative results. Once we’ve made the link between ‘Nodding’ and ‘Christabel’, a number of other troubling moments in Smith’s poem come into relief. The owl’s ‘Hee hee hee hee’ sounds like malevolent laughter. When Smith’s speaker wonders of the owl ‘What…can he find in the park tonight’, it’s hard for me not to draw the link with Christabel discovering Geraldine under the oak tree. And Smith’s elder trees ‘tapping on the window pane’ suggest another evil exterior scrabbling for entrance into an innocent, peaceful domestic space.

So what we have is a poem which reads as at once utterly content, and – with only a slight twist of focus – very sinister, hovering like ‘Christabel’ on the verge of appalling events. What do we get when we bring together the peaceful passing-by of reverie, with the horror of events which really need and demand to be looked at and interpreted correctly? If Christabel had known how to read what was going on around her, she might have been spared her awful (and ambiguous) fate.

But the omens in Smith’s poem don’t add up to anything. The poem ends with her speaker laughing.

One laughs on a night like this
In a room half firelight half dark
With a great lump of a cat
Moving on the hearth,
And the twigs tapping quick,
And the owl in an absolute fit
One laughs supposing creation
Pays for its long plodding
Simply by coming to this –
Cat, night, fire – and a girl nodding.

Of course this is, already, slightly malicious laughter. Is all of history’s development and struggle to culminate only in fat sleepy Tizdal and his drowsing owner?

But there’s also a sense of suspension in the speaker’s mirth. Laughter is often a substitute for an intellectual or practical response. In fact, laughter both registers the request for a response, and refuses to give it. When the speaker laughs, she keeps the situation’s potential for horror in play even as she preserves the rhythms of reverie. The appalling circulates, palpably, without materialising into event. Outside the night is black.

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