Lear, Smith and Feet-off-the-ground

But first, Reader, I will give you a word of warning.  This is a foot-off-the-ground novel that came by the left hand…. And if you are a foot-on-the-ground person, this book will be for you a desert of weariness and exasperation.  So put it down.  Leave it alone.  It was a mistake that you made to get this book.  You could not know. (Stevie Smith, Novel on Yellow Paper)

Today I’ve been thinking about feet in Edward Lear‘s illustrations.

Lear, Old Man of Whitehaven
Edward Lear, ‘There was an old man of Whitehaven/Who danced a quadrille with a raven…’

Edward Lear is cited so often as one of Smith’s influences that – with the exception of Will May’s fantastic essay, in Edward Lear and the Play of Poetry (2016) – their relationship is almost taken for granted. Lear’s absurd, sometimes manic verse, with its bizarre couplings and nonsensical wordplay, does seem very ‘foot-off-the-ground’. So, quite literally, are the figures in his drawings.

Edward Lear, Derry down Derry
Edward Lear, ‘There was an Old Derry down Derry/ Who loved to see little folks merry…’

Sometimes they are caught midway through dancing a hornpipe. Or floating above the ground in transports of delight.

At other times, they are rocked back on their heels, in surprise or in an attempt to stay upright.

Edward Lear, Old Man with a beard
Edward Lear, ‘There was an Old Man with a beard/Who said, ‘It is just as I feared…’

And – even when they seem more-or-less at rest – we find them standing, inexplicably, on tiptoe.

Edward Lear, Old Person of Brill
Edward Lear, ‘There was an old person of Brill/Who purchased a shirt with a frill…’

Steven H Gale suggests that Lear’s characters stand on tiptoe to prompt us to ‘look over…the confining institutions of the Victorian world’ to the anarchic, joyful lands beyond. Often, that delight is palpable in Lear’s drawings! But I don’t think this is always true. Look at the old person of Brill. His unpleasant bald teaser stands on tiptoes but remains crouched, coiled over by a kind of malicious nervous energy. And the old person of Brill himself stands very stiffly in his confining suit: glassy-eyed, hands behind his back like a schoolboy brought to attention. Again, the tiptoes suggest mental and bodily strain, rather than relaxation and escape.

So feet-off-the-ground can be joyful – but also frozen and tense, or alternatively unmoored, unbalanced.

What about feet in Stevie Smith’s drawings?

Stevie Smith, 'Mother'
Stevie Smith, ‘Mother’

Surprisingly, perhaps, Stevie Smith’s characters tend to have their feet planted very firmly – flatly, in fact. And the rhythmic parallels are obvious. While Lear’s limericks trip off the tongue, dancing in precise and alluring rhythms, Smith’s poems are often deliberately flat-footed. They stumble and trip over, in awkward, overlong lines.

He is waiting for me
To carry me to the sea
I shall be happy then
In the watery company of his kingdom. (Stevie Smith, ‘Fish Fish’)

So Smith’s figures are ‘foot-on’ – but what are they on? Most of Lear’s drawings for his limericks depict the ground, even if his characters’ feet are not on it. Conversely, most (not all, but most) of Smith’s drawings omit the ground. Her characters float in mid-air, feet firmly planted on – nothing.

There’s something here. Edward Lear’s figures may hold themselves off the ground, but the ground is usually still there – reproving, disciplining, reminding them where they should be in relation to the norm. Lear’s dancing old man of Whitehaven can ignore the ground (for a while); his old person of Brill, meanwhile, is held hostage by it.

In contrast, Smith’s figures are solidly flat-footed – but, in the absence of the ground, their stability is self-contained. The judgemental external world is excluded. Reading Stevie Smith’s foot-off-the-groundness involves not knowing what the relevant ground even looks like any more.



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