Stevie Smith and God
In this page I explore some of Stevie Smith’s religious beliefs and some of her poems which touch on religion.
God was always important to Stevie: when she was young she belonged to the Anglican Church and she 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 the Christian God and her belief that Christianity was seriously flawed.
Stevie explores the Christian religion with an intensity which is unusual in the multicultural and generally secular society of the UK today. However 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, started off as strongly agnostic and then converted to the Catholic Church. As Stevie 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 20’s and 30’s ‘political Catholicism' was in the place that Communism occupied in 1941. I think this can be interpreted as meaning that political Catholicism was a militant ideology espoused by a number of intellectuals. A number of other writers, C S Lewis and WH Auden were devout members of the Protestant church.
In her childhood Stevie loved the ceremonies of the church; psalms and hymns are often echoed in her poems. After her mother’s death when Stevie was sixteen, Stevie 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 (Stevie p 241) quote a reviewer of Stevie’s ‘Selected Poems’ who noted: ‘Stevie Smith is an avowed agnostic, but these are religious poems.’
I’ll look at a few of Stevie’s many religious poems. To begin here is Egocentric, (Collected Poems p 18 ) which 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
‘ 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
‘What care I
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, it’s an idea which is often in the back of people’s minds when they talk of the goodness of God. If it’s 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 downbeat rejection of God’s goodness (what care I) is counter pointed by the playful way in which she itemises God’s creation: the ‘mud delighting clam’ and ‘gnat and gnu’. Her delight in the world is balanced against the melancholy, which is related to ... the questing conscious flame/ That is my glory and my bitter bane.
The next poem I will consider has melancholy as its theme: Away Melancholy (Collected Poems p 328 ).
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?
As in the last poem, she gives us images of life, discusses 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 the god /Pours what he knows of good ...
Speak not to me of tears/ Tyranny, pox, wars, /Saying, Can God /Stone of man’s 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? Stevie continues:
Say it is rather enough/That the stuffed/ Stone of man’s good, growing/ By man’s called God. /Away melancholy, let it go.
She affirms that it’s something that man has an idea of good which he venerates. 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 is full of doubt but is also, I feel, a brave attempt to face doubt without shrinking, to come to terms with the idea that God may well be a human construct, and to celebrate humanity in spite of the tears, tyranny, pox and wars that are part of human condition. Michael Tatham, ( In Search of Stevie Smith p134) writes that 'Stevie Smith’s 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, (p389) Stevie explores the difficulty of the concept of Christ as God. It’s 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.
Stevie, in this poem, is deeply sceptical of the divinity of Christ, feeling that to be human and divine is a contradiction in terms; she also thinks it a mistake to personify and deify love and good but she approves of Christ’s message of love. The lovely poem ‘The Airy Christ’ (p 345) simply admires Christ as depicted in St Mark’s 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, Stevie continues, isn’t a sense of humour ‘worth more’ than these?’ This sounds a strange reckoning of worth, but I think Stevie is right, humour is a good defence against the dangers of authoritative leaders: a person who knows he can be absurd will not have the delusion that he is always right, and a person who knows his leader can be absurd will not follow him into grotesque cruelties perpetrated by the followers of Hitler, or into the bloody slaughter of the Crusades.
The belief in hell was also an aspect of Christianity that disgusted Stevie. ( This is something she has in common with Charles Darwin, whose biography also appears in this site.) The poem Thoughts About the Christian Doctrine of Eternal Hell ( p387) makes her 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) Stevie 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 unequivocal position was not one that 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 non believer: ‘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 (p 516) she explores her doubts fully. 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 one of her better poems, it's rather prosaic in parts, but in God the Eater (p339) I feel that Stevie has written a fantastic poem which 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 he 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? The need to understand the religious impulse is as important as ever today because religious hostilities are contributing to a literal blowing of the top of people’s heads off. Of course the religious beliefs are tarnished with the desire for power, but even so a belief in the rightness of one’s own version of God, whether by terrorists or states, contributes to today’s 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 is a verse 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 p332 ‘In Protocreation’ p 284 and ‘Nodding’ p 500.
For me, the strongest reason to read and enjoy Stevie’s religious poems is that they are an honest record of her doubts but 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 God does not exist. She felt that God was important, even though he might be only ‘a stone of man’s thought,’ a repository for man’s 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 Smith’s 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'm impressed by Stevie's determination to look at life as it is, with all its absurdities, by her constant questioning and search for meaning, by her her refusal to accept Christianity even though it would have given comfort and meaning to her life, and her understanding of the importance of the religious impulse, the impossibility of denying it:
There is a god in whom I do not believe
Yet to this god my love stretches ...
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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