Stevie Smith and Robert Southey: An Open Question

Robert Southey (1774-1843) isn’t well-known these days. A minor Romantic poet, he was friends with William Wordsworth and S. T. Coleridge, who have gone on to enjoy much more fame than he did. But as well as poetry, Southey wrote essays, letters and biographies- and, incidentally, the classic children’s story of the Three Bears.

As a child, Stevie Smith would have read Southey. His ‘Inchcape Rock‘ (1802) and ‘God’s Judgement on a Wicked Bishop‘ (1799) were staples in school anthologies when she was growing up.

And, indeed, much later. My mother remembers reading ‘Inchcape Rock’ at school in the 1960s. These were the staid Scottish sixties, obviously, not the Beatles-and-Woodstock ones. My mum’s nineteen-sixties were less flower power, more sheep-heads boiled down into broth and thick woollen socks held up by garters . The sort of sixties, in other words, which waded dutifully through poems like ‘Inchcape Rock’:

No stir in the air, no stir in the sea,
The Ship was still as she could be;
Her sails from heaven received no motion,
Her keel was steady in the ocean.

image of Inchcape Rock
The real Inchcape Rock, incidentally, is just a short hop from where my mother grew up in Scotland.

I hadn’t read any Southey, though, and my ears pricked up when I read this verse. Because Smith likes that sort of first line, composed of a phrase repeated twice. She uses it, for instance, in ‘The Parklands‘*:

Through the Parklands, through the Parklands
Of the wild and misty north,
Walked a babe of seven summers
In a maze of infant wrath.

And again in ‘The English Visitor’:

In the graveyard, in the graveyard,
By the tomb of Alan Blair
On the mighty Scottish mountain
Knelt the English visitor.

Both poems do echo the Romantic poets in quite evident ways. Will May links ‘The Parklands’ to Wordsworth’s ‘Alice Fell‘ (Smith stole the line ‘Dead my father, dead my mother) and Blake’s ‘The Chimney Sweeper‘ (perhaps because, like Blake’s little Tom Dacre, Smith’s ‘babe of seven summers’ also has white hair?).

But after my initial excitement died down, I wasn’t sure what to make of the Southey connection. Was there one at all? Yes, Smith almost certainly read Southey – and yes, the structure of her first lines does sometimes echo Southey’s – but the similarities seem to end there. Smith’s rhythms in these quoted stanzas are different from Southey’s. While Southey’s are slower and more singsong, Smith’s are tight and pacy. Weirdly, her rhythm (and that ceremonious conjuring of place, whether parkland or graveyard) reminds me a bit of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow‘s ‘Hiawatha‘:

On the shores of Gitche Gumee,
Of the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood Nokomis, the old woman,
Pointing with her finger westward…

Though I can’t think of other poems, off the top of my head, which structure their first lines with a phrase repeated twice, I’m sure there must be loads. It seems a bit strong to go raring ahead, assuming that ‘The Parklands’ and ‘The English Visitor’ are springboarding off ‘Inchcape Rock’.

So: answers on a postcard, please. What other poems might Smith’s first lines be riffing off?

* treat for the day: click this link to see what ‘The Parklands’ looks like in Hungarian


One thought on “Stevie Smith and Robert Southey: An Open Question

  1. George Llewellyn July 17, 2016 / 8:32 am

    ‘Half a league, half a league’ seems a fair candidate for influence too, no? Interesting to think about where she may have picked up the rhythm of the repetition and of her poems more generally.


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