Smith and God

God was always important to Smith: when she was young she belonged to the Anglican Church and recognised “a cheerfulness and courage in the church community, and modesty in doing good.” She wanted to believe in a loving God, but she came to the conclusion that it was morally right and necessary to reject Christianity. Her religious poems reflect the tension between her desire to believe in God and her belief that Christianity was seriously flawed.

Smith explores the Christian religion with an intensity which would be unusual in the mostly secular but multicultural society of the UK today, but in the interval between the two world wars many other writers were also preoccupied with religion. Some, including Graham Green, Evelyn Waugh, and T S Eliot, converted to Catholicism. As Smith put it, “there was what might be called a stampede of the sensitive and the intellectual person away from the vulgarities of the secular world into the Catholic Church.” George Orwell, (in the essay Notes on Nationalism) wrote in 1941 that in the 20s and 30s “political Catholicism” was in the place that Communism occupied in 1941. A number of other writers, including C S Lewis and WH Auden, were devout members of the Protestant church.

In her childhood Stevie Smith loved the ceremonies of the church; psalms and hymns are often echoed in her poems. After her mother’s death when Stevie was a teenager, she and her sister Molly were introduced to the Roman Catholic Church by a relative. Aunt disapproved strongly but in spite of this Molly joined the Catholic church a few years later. Molly wrote that “Rome seems so safe... I’m sure we need on head on earth and that the Pope is he.” Stevie gradually became less certain, and eventually agnostic, but she always remained a religious agnostic. Barbera and McBrien quote a reviewer of Stevie Smith’s Selected Poems who noted: Stevie Smith is an avowed agnostic, but these are religious poems.

The poem Egocentric begins by asking:

What care I if good God be 
If he be not good to me
If he will not hear my cry 
Nor heed my melancholy midnight sigh

What care I  is repeated throughout, as she talks about how God created the lamb, and golden lion, and mud delighting clam, and tiger stepping out on padded toe, the ruby orbed pelican. There follow the sun and moon and stars, the infant owl and the baboon, and then

He made all silent inhumanity
Nescient and quiescent to his will 
Unquickened by the questing conscious flame 
That is my glory and my bitter bane.

She ends with more things not to care about.

What care I if skies are blue 
If God created gnat and gnu 
What care I if good God be 
If he be not good to me?

It is obviously absurd to expect God to have created the universe to satisfy any one individual’s desires, and she makes this idea sound ridiculous. Even so, its an idea which is often in the back of peoples’ minds when they talk of the goodness of God. If its thought reasonable to thank God when someone recovers from illness, escapes from harm, or wins a battle, then it seems reasonable to feel angry with God when he does not save us from failure, pain and sadness. Stevie's poem shows up the absurdity of this, and her failure to thank God for his goodness (what care I) is counter pointed by the playful way in which she itemises Gods wonderful creation: the mud delighting clam, the gnat and gnu. Her delight in the world is balanced against the melancholy.


The next poem I will consider has melancholy as its theme: 

Away Melancholy.

Away melancholy 
Away with it let it go.
Are not the trees green, 
The earth as green? 
Does not the wind blow, 
Fire leap and rivers flow?

Images follow of  the busy ant and all things that hurry to eat or be eaten, and then moves on to the human:

Man too hurries, 
Eats, couples, buries 
He is an animal also 
With a hey ho melancholy, 
Away with it let it go

She goes on to say that man is superlative as he of all creatures raises a stone and

Into the stone god 
Pours what he knows of good …

Speak not to me of tears 
Tyranny, pox, wars, 
Saying, Can God 
Stone of mans thought, be good?

The image of the stone calls up Matthew 7 v.9 “Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone.” The poem also reminds me of Neitzsche’s question  “Is man one of God's blunders or is God one of man's blunders?” Smith’s poem continues:

Say it is rather enough
That the stuffed 
Stone of mans good, growing 
By man’s called God. 
Away melancholy, let it go.

She goes on to say that man aspires to good, to love, and that even when he is beaten, corrupted, dying, he

Heaves an eye above 
Cries Love, love. 
It is his virtue needs explaining, 
Not his failing.

This poem celebrates humanity in spite of the tears, tyranny, pox etc. which exist in a world in which God is a human construct. Michael Tatham, ( In Search of Stevie Smith p134) writes that 'Stevie Smiths remarkable achievement as a poet was to sustain a dialogue with God in which there was no pretence that a comfortable response was possible'..

In ‘Was He Married’, Smith explores the difficulty of the concept of Christ as God. Its in the form of a dialogue between two people, one asking questions about Jesus, and the other answering.

Was he married, did he try 
To support as he grew less fond of them  
Wife and family?

to which the answer is of course no he did not. When the questioner learns that Christ did not suffer from various other common irritations of life as a human, he says:

All human beings should have a medal
A God cannot carry it, he is not able
A god is Man's doll, you ass
He makes him up like this on purpose.
He might have made him up worse.
He often has in the past. 
To choose a god of love, as he did and does
Is a little move then?
Yes it is.
A larger one will be when men
Love love and hate hate but do not deify them
It will be a larger one.

Here Smith is deeply sceptical of the divinity of Christ, feeling that to be human and divine is a contradiction in terms but she approves of Christ’s message of love. In the poem The Airy Christ Smith admires Christ as depicted in St Marks Gospel: Stevie sees him as a singer, who only wants people to listen to his song, 'he does not wish that men should love him more than any thing/ because he died'.

The God-like leader or hero is an ancient idea, Greek heroes attained divinity,  Kings in the middle ages ruled by divine right , and the idea is still alive in the idea of the Pope. The glorification of a leader can strengthen the state, but leaders who believe in their superiority commonly abuse their power.  In her notebooks (quoted in Barbera and McBrien 's biography Stevie p 46) Stevie wrote : ‘Where there is humour, there will be no Lenin, no Mussolini, and perhaps Christ will be crowded out'. But, Smith continues,' isn’t a sense of humour worth more than these?’ This sounds a strange reckoning of worth, but someone who knows his leader can be absurd is unlikely to follow him into grotesque cruelties like those perpetrated by the followers of Hitler. Also, a leader who can remember he can be absurd will not have the delusion that he is always right. 

The belief in hell was also an aspect of Christianity that disgusted Smith. ( Darwin also considered it a ‘ damnable doctrine). The poem Thoughts About the Christian Doctrine of Eternal Hell ( p387) makes Smith's position clear:

The religion of Christianity 
Is mixed of sweetness and cruelty
Reject this sweetness, for she wears 
A smoky dress out of hell fires.

Writing in 1968 of the Inquisition in an essay ‘Some Impediments to Christian Commitment' (Me Again p 158) Smith suggests that this torture was not something that a honest Christian can separate himself from, it was inherent in Christianity: ‘for the worst cruelties of man end with death, but hell is eternal, and Christ made himself the King of Hell and judge of torments. So ... I threw away the sweetness of Christianity and remembered the harsh bones , and said, it is immoral.’ This was not a judgement she kept to, admitting in this same essay that later her position became tinged with uncertainty.

She also wrote for Gemini magazine in 1958 ( quoted in Stevie Smith by Frances Spalding p 235 ) an essay on 'The Necessity of Not Believing'. Here she makes it clear that she did not find it easy to be a nonbeliever: ‘The path of an unbeliever, especially if he is an unbeliever with a religious temperament, is fraught with the perils of flatness and ennui, and religion, by contrast, particularly the Christian religion, is so dramatic and exciting, with its hazards of eternal life and eternal damnation, its demonic urge to boss, confine and intimidate, and above all its sweet promise of a heavenly father, oh how sweet that can be, this sweet interest that never fails, even if it damn us.’ However she also wrote that she did not find the world of uncertainty a cruel place: there is room in it for love, joy, virtue, affection, and room too for imagination.

The long poem ‘How do you see’ she explores her doubts. This aroused great controversy at the time. It was commissioned by the Guardian newspaper and published in Whitsun 1964. All the next Saturday’s letter page was given over to responses to it. Stevie herself was inundated with mail for weeks afterwards, congratulating her, abusing her, or trying to convert her.

How Do You See is not, in my opinion, one of Smith’s better poems, it's rather prosaic in parts, but ‘God the Eater’ is a wonderful poem in which she achieves a synthesis between her unbelief and her belief. Here is the start of the poem:

There is a god in whom I do not believe
Yet to this god my love stretches,
This god whom I do not believe in is
My whole life, my life and I am his.

Seamus Heaney ( In Search of Stevie Smith p 213) writes that “the poems  miss the absolute intensity required of Emily Dickinson’s definition (If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry): when you read them, you don’t feel that the top of your head has been taken off.” I would disagree with Heaney, when I heard ‘God the Eater’ read in Palmers Green Church for the Stevie Smith Centenary I certainly felt the intensity of the poem blasting through the top of my head.

Why should Stevie Smith’s writing on religion be important today? We need to understand religious impulses today because religious hostilities are contributing to a literal blowing of the top of peoples heads off. Of course the religious beliefs are tarnished with the desire for power, but even so a belief in the rightness of ones own version of God, whether by terrorists or states, contributes to todays horrible records of death and destruction. Here is the last verse of How Do You See :

I do not think we shall be able to bear much longer the dishonesty
Of clinging for comfort to beliefs we do not believe in,
For comfort, and to be comfortably free of the fear
Of diminishing good, as if truth were a convenience.
I think if we do not learn quickly, and learn to teach children
To be good without enchantment, without the help
Of beautiful painted fairy tales pretending to be true,
Then I think it will be too much for us, the dishonesty,
And, armed as we are now, we shall kill everybody,
It will be too much for us, we shall kill everybody.

It may weaken us if we believe that all our gods and leaders are as absurd as everyone else’s, but if we recognise this we might have a less cruel and belligerent world. What is the future for Christianity? Here’s more from ‘How do you See’

Oh Christianity, Christianity, 
That has grown kinder now, as in the political world,
The colonial system grows kinder before it vanishes, are you vanishing?
Is it not time for you to vanish?

The question is obviously still open, but I think that our culture is developing in ways that don't owe much to Christianity, our perceptions of the world are changing as our understanding of the world, from the cosmic to the molecular, is growing. We are beginning to understand our deep connection with nature. Stevie was alive this issues also, as can be seen in her poems, Fafnir and the Knights In Protocreation and Nodding.

For me, the strongest reason to read and enjoy Smith’s religious poems is that they are an honest record of her doubts and also of the importance of God to her. She does not say, as Lenin did, that religion is the opium of the people, or, as the scientific atheist Richard Dawkins does, that religion should have no place in  our response to the world. She felt that God was important, even though he might be only “a stone of mans thought,” a repository for mans urge for goodness. She felt that the god in whom she did not believe was “her whole life.” She recognised the imperfections of Christianity, but felt “To choose a god of love, ... Is a little move then.” Michael Tatham, (In Search of Stevie Smith p146) writes: “Who can doubt that Stevie Smiths rare gift as a religious poet was not only to sing of disbelief as our common religious experience but to laugh self-mockingly at so much seriousness.”

I love Smith's determination to look at life with all its absurdities and by her refusal to accept Christianity even though it would have given comfort and meaning to her life. She acknowledged the importance of the religious impulse and continued to talk to the god in whom she did not believe. 

Link here to Smith’s Lifeconnections , music , the poems  Cats RolandineFrog PrinceJungle HusbandSuburb Fafnir,or the Darwin Homepage  © Anne Bryan 2018