Singing Smith: Five Musical Poems

Well, it’s always fun doing this, fitting other words to an old tune. (Stevie Smith, ‘A Turn Outside’

Stevie Smith sang a lot of her poems in performance. Often, her subtitles include instructions about the tunes which they should be sung to.

'Miss Pauncefort sang at the top of her voice...' The Songster
‘Miss Pauncefort sang at the top of her voice…’

I’m working on a talk about Stevie Smith’s music, which I’m due to give at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, towards the end of April. So I’ve spent today trying to locate the tunes which Smith claimed should accompany her poems. It’s harder than you’d think. Often she says that her poems should be sung to the tunes of particular hymns or folksongs – but these have themselves been set to many different tunes.

This, I think, is part of the point: it suggests a useful model for Smith’s poetics as well as her musical understanding. Come to LMH on 27th April to hear more about this! But as a taster, here are a few of the highlights from her second collection, Tender Only To One (1938).

1) ‘A Father for a Fool’ sung to ‘Boys and Girls Come Out to Play’

Smith added this tune in subtitle in her Selected Poems (1962), though the poem was originally published in 1938.


Here, as elsewhere, Stevie Smith is strongly influenced by the rhythms of nursery-rhymes. But only the first two lines of this poem fit ‘Boys and Girls Come Out to Play’. By the third line, the relationship has broken down, and we struggle to sing the poem. Readers are forced to become bad children, who won’t (can’t) do what they’ve been told.

2) ‘Vater Unser’ [‘Unser Vater’ in Tender Only to One] sung to ‘Londonderry Air’


Same tune as ‘Danny Boy’! And it fits rather well. The drama of ‘Oh, Father, heed…’ coincides nicely with the point where the music of ‘Londonderry Air’ begins to swell.

3) ‘Upon a Grave’ to ‘Upon a bank in the greenwood as I lay’


Will May can’t trace this song in his edition. He suggests that Smith may be thinking of Blake’s ‘I laid me down upon a bank’ and Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Perhaps, then, this song is unsingable, not because the tune doesn’t fit the poem, but because the tune may not exist at all. (If you do know the song, please say!)

4) ‘…and the clouds return after the rain’ sung to ‘Worthy the Lamb’


Really puzzled by this one. Will May suggests that the tune is George C. Hugg’s ‘Worthy the Lamb’, but the rhythms don’t match:

Worthy is the Lamb, the hosts of Heaven sing,
As before the throne they make His praises ring;
Worthy is the Lamb the book to open wide,
Worthy is the Lamb who once was crucified.


Oh, this bleeding Lamb, oh, this bleeding Lamb,
Oh, this dying Lamb, He was found worthy;
Oh, this bleeding Lamb, oh, this bleeding Lamb,
Oh, this dying Lamb, He was found worthy.

Was Smith mixing Hugg’s hymn up with another?

5) ‘Tableau de l’Inconstance des Mauvais Anges’


Smith doesn’t specify a tune for this one, but the first line is a version of Reginald Heber’s hymn:

And Heber’s words do fit the rhythm. But in Smith’s hands, the lineation shifts. From being an affirming hymn, it becomes a sinister limerick – on the edge, like many of Edward Lear’s poems, of despair or threat. The hymm, unspecified but clearly present, haunts the poem, which balances between rapture, jauntiness and terror.

What might it mean to sing such threatening words to a smooth hymn tune? What is heard, and what is kept unheard? If, in fact, we’re even able to sing Smith’s tunes at all?


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