Green on Top - reading 'The Jungle Husband'
The Jungle Husband
The Jungle Husband is reproduced here by kind permission of the Estate of Stevie Smith.
Stevie Smith's work may not be downloaded, reprinted, or reproduced in any other form without the permission of the Stevie Smith Estate who may be contacted at Faber and Faber
The Jungle Husband is, on first reading, an amusing poem in the form of a letter from a loving husband Wilfred to his dearest Evelyn, but like a jungle, it has a dark interior that I aim to explore.
The Jungle Husband
Dearest Evelyn I often think of you
Out with the guns in the jungle stew
Yesterday I hittapotamus
I put the measurements down for you but they got lost in the fuss
It’s not a good idea to drink out here
You know, I’ve practically given it up dear.
Tomorrow I am going alone a long way
Into the jungle. It is all gray
But green on top
Only sometimes when a tree has fallen
The sun comes down plop, it is quite appalling.
You never want to go in a jungle pool
In the hot sun, it would be the act of a fool
Because it’s always full of anacondas, Evelyn, not looking ill fed
I’ll say. So no more now, from your loving husband, Wilfred.
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Wilfred is in the jungle, but where is Evelyn? It’s likely that, like most childless middle class wives in England at that time, she’s at home sitting in a very tidy sitting room, knitting or maybe sipping tea with a friend. She has probably always lived in an environment which gives her hardly any conception of her husband’s experiences of life. What sort of woman is Evelyn? Her name is androgynous, Evelyn was also a man’s name at that time: the well known male novelist Evelyn Waugh was one of Stevie’s contemporaries. This could suggest that dearest Evelyn is not very feminine, that she might be similar to the heroine of one of Stevie’s short poems: ‘The Englishwoman is so refined/ she has no bosom and no behind.’
Although Evelyn is obviously a long way away from her husband, I think the poem could be about two people who were still living together, but who were as unconnected as if they lived in different worlds. They were probably a couple that Stevie had observed: her friends and acquaintances were often disconcerted to recognise themselves, in a rather exaggerated form, portrayed in Stevie’s novels or poems. This is something she readily admitted, writing to a publisher that she did not want her work promoted in Palmers Green where she lived, because ‘a lot of the people here are in the novels and poems.’ 1
The poem suggests to me that Wilfred drinks a lot: hittapotamus is a wonderful word, but its also a word that could easily be coined by someone trying to say ‘hit a hippopotamus’ after a few drinks. Wilfred makes a point of telling Evelyn that he’s practically given up drink. Why should he do that? I would guess that she's been telling him off for drinking too much, and he is trying to get back her good opinion by assuring her that he’s reformed? The scenario is familiar to anyone who has encountered an alcoholic.
Wilfred has obviously tried to impress by shooting the hippopotamus but there’s a fuss. What sort of fuss I wonder? It seems that something went wrong and then Wilfred failed to measure up. He sounds desperate, in fact he’s ‘in a stew’, which is slang of the time for being in an agitated state. Everything is awful, the grey jungle, the anacondas, the appalling sun which falls on him with a sudden plop. The way that the sun which occasionally brings light to the jungle appals him suggests that the moments when he sees his situation clearly are unbearable. He makes some little attempts at jocularity, the jungle is ‘green on top’, and he tries to make light of ‘the anacondas, Evelyn, not looking ill fed/ I’ll say.’
Do the snakes have a sexual significance? There seems affection in the letter but no sexual charge, it’s the sort of letter he could have written to his auntie with very little change. I feel he has probably failed to measure up as a lover to add to his other failures: his has failed to impress her by being successful and sober, and he is also afraid of sex. He might be attracted by the jungle pool, but he’s terrified of the snake that might swallow him. He feels he should point out the danger to Evelyn, perhaps for fear that she might be tempted to take off her clothes and dive in if she were with him.
Tomorrow he is going ‘into the jungle a long way, alone.’ He cannot see a way out of the jungle of the agitated depression which results from his fears and his sense of failure and alienation. He takes the option of going further, to be lost or swallowed up, or drowned, overcome by the heat, or squashed by an angry hippopotamus. Or maybe next time the appalling plop of the sun puts him ‘in a stew’, he will use his gun.
The letter is written in a jaunty manner. I feel Wilfred is doing his best to keep up appearances to the last. I imagine him clinging to his affection, or is it affectation, as the ‘loving husband’ of ‘dearest Evelyn’, but he is so far away that this bond is not strong enough to save him. Loving husband is of course a term which is often used in obituary notices and on tombstones. I do not think that Wilfred will emerge from his Jungle; this poem reads like a suicide note, and the end of the letter ‘So no more now, from your loving husband, Wilfred’ as his final words to her.
The more I read this initially amusing poem the more devastating it becomes. People sometimes say that Stevie writes light verse, but I have found that her ‘light’ poems have the peculiar property of turning black when exposed to a close reading. It is a clever poem, and although there are fairly obvious clues about measuring, being ‘in a stew’ the ‘loving husband’, and the snakes and pools etc., the poem gives little hint of its dark secrets at first because its surface is so bright. This poem is green on top, but underneath are the desperately dark and appalling thoughts of the jungle husband.
Poor Wilfred, poor Evelyn, I have a feeling that most people will have known them. As the Benedictine monk and writer Thomas Merton put it, there is ‘ a lot of pathos under the deadpan sad funny stuff’ 1. Many people though, don’t feel comfortable with Stevie’s contradictory way of expressing herself, they don’t get below the surface, or if they do they think it absurd to disguise a serious poem about desperation and suicidal impulses by making it amusing. What’s the point of doing that, they ask? It’s just ridiculous. ‘I suppose in the end the adjective has to be "Eccentric" says the poet Seamus Heaney 2. Philip Larkin, though admiring her almost in spite of himself, regretted her ‘facetious bosh’.2 It is obvious from the introduction that Stevie wrote for the 'Selected Poems' that she was fully conscious of what she was doing. It was a deliberate strategy. She writes of herself: There may be echoes in her work of past poets- Lear, Poe, Byron, the Gothic Romantics and Hymns ancient and modern- but these are deceitful echoes, as her thoughts may also seem to be deceitful, at first simple, almost childlike, then cutting at depth with a sharp edge to the main business of her life - death, loneliness, God and the Devil ... '
The best explanation for Stevie Smith’s strategy that I have read was written by a reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement. In a review of Stevie’s collection of poems, ‘ The Frog Prince’, he wrote that: 'the mannered mode of speech is the clue to her work: a convention enabling her both to compass the pity and terror of her themes and to respond to them with rueful courage and humour.’ 2
I feel that the Jungle Husband poem shows us the jungle, from the top to bottom. At the top the butterflies flitter among shimmering green leaves, lower down the birds make their nests, monkeys swing noisily across the larger branches, then Stevie takes us down the seriously massive tree trunks hung with lianas until she reaches the forest floor and there is the monstrous hippopotamus that Wilfred felt obliged to shoot, and the dangerous pools and snakes that may destroy any human being. Most poets deal with one level of the forest at a time, Stevie's work doesn't fit into the usual convention and it leaves many people baffled: they find it difficult to appreciate an art that connects so many disparities and shows us the unity as well as the diversity of the jungle.
On the other hand I think the way that Smith portrays the contradictory nature of life is one of the reasons why many other people find her poems wonderful. It is not necessary to dissect her poems intellectually to feel the darkness under the light surface, to feel that here is a poet whose art encompasses pity and terror, courage and humour, and whose strange fantastic poems touch the plain truth.
1quotation from Stevie, a Biography of Stevie Smith by Jack Barbera and William McBrien, published by William Heinmann Ltd in 1985 and now out of print,
2 quotation from Me Again, Uncollected Writings of Stevie Smith, published by Virago Press in 1981 and now out of print
3 quotation from In Search of Stevie Smith edited by Stanford Sternlicht and published in 1991 by Syracuse University Press, New York.
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If you aren't familiar with Stevie Smith’s poems give yourself a treat and buy 'The Collected Poems & Drawings of Stevie Smith' which was published in hardback by Faber and Faber in 2015, edited and with an introduction by Will May. As a second best, previous editions of Smith's collected poems are available second hand and as a very third best ‘Selected Poems’ is also available in paperback.
If you want to quote from my work for essays or course work you are welcome to do so as long as you attribute the work to Anne Bryan and this web site. Stevie Smith's work may not be downloaded, reprinted, or reproduced in any other form without the permission of the Stevie Smith Estate who may be contacted at Faber and Faber
Follow the links to find out more about Stevie Smith:
Stevie Smith Biography - a short account of Stevie's life and work.
Stevie Smith's Suburb - Palmers Green, North London and how it features in Stevie's work
Stevie Smith’s Connections - an exploration of Stevie’s connections to her contemporary writers, with a quick look at Stevie's possible influence on today's poets.
Childe Rolandine - this poem is considered together with Robert Browning’s famous poem 'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.'
'The Jungle Husband' - this dark poem about a jungle which is green on top is explored.
The Frog Prince - a dive into a deceptively simple poem with hidden depths.
Smiths suburban cats NEW an introduction to three of Smith's suburban cat poems: 'Tidzal', 'The Singing Cat' and 'My Cat Major'.
Stevie's religious poems are explored in the light of the religious ideas of the time and the relevance of her poems today is considered
Stevie Smith Festival at Palmer’s Green - an account of a memorable poetry reading in the streets of Palmers Green to celebrate the centenary of Stevie Smith’s birth, with thoughts on the poems which were read.
Stevie and music - musical adaptations of Stevie's work
Stevie's Blue plaque: an account of the unveiling of a blue plaque at Stevie Smith's house in Palmers Green, London, on 16th September 2005 by the Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion.
Remembering Stevie at Torquay - where her ashes were scattered
Stevie Smith links to other sites which feature her work.
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