Stevie inhabits the public imagination as an English eccentric, a dotty spinster who loved cats and chose to spend her entire life with her aunt in the London suburb of Palmers Green. Although she was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1969 shortly before her death, she is perceived as a minor poet, whose best-known work is the droll “Not Waving but Drowning.” Audiences flocked to her readings in the 1960s, enjoying her unique delivery—she would break into off-key song unexpectedly—but her reputation has not generally risen above that of the comic oddity and amateur depicted in Hugh Whitemore’s successful play and film Stevie (1977 and 1978, respectively). In her 1988 critical biography, Frances Spalding acknowledged the popularity of Stevie’s poetry but found it the subject of limited scholarly criticism. Critical attention has tended to offer “an overview rather than an examination in more detail of some aspect of her poetics.” Only gradually is this beginning to change.
Stevie’s reputation as a serious poet has suffered from the constraints of critical expectation. From the start, she was aware that her distinct poetic voice would not be easily absorbed into the poetic tradition. Writing to her friend Naomi MITCHISON in the late 1930s, she complained of publishers that “they can’t see what anybody means unless it’s said in the accepted voice.” Indeed, her first novel, Novel on Yellow Paper (1936), was written as the result of her poetry being rejected: on receipt of her poems, Ian Parsons at Chatto & Windus told Stevie “go away and write a novel and we will then think about the poems.” Her first collection of poetry, A Good Time Was Had By All, was published subsequently in 1937. The resistance her “unaccepted” voice met with never inspired a movement to conformity however, and the theme of suicide, the questioning of Christian and patriarchal orthodoxies combined with a playful HUMOR, which shape this first collection continued to inform her later work. In a 1961 interview, she stated “I don’t think my poems have changed much since I started writing.” Apparently preferring to describe a trajectory of poetic development, critics are dismayed by this constancy of style and preoccupations. But Stevie’s poems are deceptively simple: their apparent artlessness and humor mask anger, despair, and social SATIRE. She reworks legends and FAIRY TALES to explore isolation and alienation from the norms of society. The title poem of her second collection, Tender Only to One (1938), uses the child’s game of pulling petals from a daisy to reveal an allegiance not to a lover or God but to Death. The chilling denouement of the playful rhyme is characteristic in its congregation of whimsy and stark despair. These contradictions of tone are highlighted in the childlike sketches with which Stevie accompanied her poems. Although critics have shared Philip LARKIN’s view that “her frivolity devalues her seriousness,” such juxtapositions often create a profoundly disturbing effect.
Stevie’s wry humor more often deflates pomposity than it devalues despair. She frequently undermines the mannerisms of the lauded male poetic genius for example. In “Thoughts about the Person from Porlock,” Stevie dares to ask of Samuel Taylor COLERIDGE“why did he hurry to let him in?” and impertinently concludes that “he was already stuck” with his masterpiece. The status of the celebrated poet is subtly diminished by the attribution of characteristics and a family history to the formerly anonymous person from Porlock—”He wasn’t much in the social sense/ Though his grandmother was a Warlock.” But again this gentle mockery conceals a darker center, while Coleridge cursed the intruder who disrupted his poetic musings, Stevie longs to be interrupted from her suicidal despair.
Her relationship with her muse is similarly uncomfortable. Although she scorned the label “woman poet” and did not regard herself as a feminist, Stevie is often critical of stereotypical gender roles, masculinity and femininity. Her rejection of the notion of a graceful muse bestowing inspiration upon a willing male recipient certainly challenges patriarchal convention. Instead, Stevie’s muse is a neglected figure who “sits forlorn” and “wishes she had not been born,” for Stevie only listens to her when unhappy, “When I am happy I live and despise writing/For my Muse this cannot but be dispiriting.” This bittersweet rapport with her muse is emblematic: in her portrayals, Stevie removes the glamour from human relationships whether they are with lovers, friends, parents, or pets. Instead, she represents them with a reality that is always touching while often mundane—a suitor who is “no longer passionate” offers conversation instead; a mother sadly reflects that her child’s freedoms will be short-lived; in an inverted fairy tale, a woman’s cat and dog take care of her in old age.
Stevie challenged conventional representations and wisdoms throughout her poetry and although a Catholic she was particularly critical of unquestioning adherence to religious or political orthodoxies. She explicitly adapted William BLAKE’s simple rhymes to challenge rigid Christian doctrines; sinister children chant “our Bog is dood” and the poet celebrates her independence, from the engulfing seas of doctrine.
Novel on Yellow Paper and especially Over the Frontier (1938) both explore the lure and the dangers of succumbing to concrete and oppressive belief systems. Writing in the late thirties during the rise of popular fascism, she urged a close observance of “the man in Party coloured clothes.” Pompey Casmilus, the narrator of both novels and something of an alter ego for Stevie, describes life during the outbreak of World War II, meditating upon power and cruelty. Her melancholy at her failed reunion with her fiancé, Freddy, is expressed against a background of international menace. While the droll humor and conversational tone of Novel on Yellow Paper are initially recalled in Over the Frontier, the second half has a nightmarish quality as the threat of imminent war permeates the quotidian and Pompey becomes engaged in espionage. In a chilling exploration of Stevie’s fear that the “cruelty in the air now” arouses individuals to exchange “death-in-life” for a dehumanized authority, Pompey abandons her sociable life, takes a uniform and—with a punning allusion to nightmare—rides on horseback through the night. Both novels contain meditations on the themes that permeate her poetry, Christianity and politics, and frequently the poems are reproduced within the texts. Like Virginia WOOLF’s Three Guineas, Over the Frontier is punctuated by images of uniforms and haunted by their power to “harden . . . emotional arteries.” Stevie fiercely resists allegiance to “any groupismus whatever” but recognizes instead the ease with which uniforms can be donned, believing “power and cruelty” to form the core that can be aroused from every life.
After her third novel, The Holiday (1949), a melancholy tale about the pains of love was initially rejected by publishers, Stevie turned again to poetry producing a further seven collections including Harold’s Leap (1950) and Not Waving but Drowning (1957). She also compiled a sketchbook of her drawings, Some Are More Human than Others (1958), integral to the poems they usually accompanied, and edited a picture book Cats in Colour (1959).
Bibliography Light, A., “Outside History: S. S., Women Poets and the National Voice,” English 43 (Autumn 1994): 237–59; Pumphrey, M., “Play, Fantasy and Strange Laughter: S. S.’s Uncomfortable Poetry,” CritQ 28 (Autumn 1986): 85–96; Spalding, F., S. S. (1988)
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