Poetry Sunday: Away, Melancholy

Today’s Poetry Sunday features the British poet Stevie Smith. The Literary Encyclopedia calls her “one of the most important female British poets of the twentieth-century, and the most original voice to emerge from the 1930s”.

Stevie Smith was born in 1902 in Hull (her birth name was Florence Margaret Smith; she acquired the nickname “Stevie” later in life). Her poetry was much shaped by her personal life: her father abandoned his family before she was three years old, and her mother died when she was a teenager. Stevie Smith and her sister lived for the rest of their lives with their aunt, Madge Smith, whom Stevie admired greatly and called “the Lion”. In a household without men, she acquired a spirit of independence and a feminist slant that often appears in her writing, although she was often lonely, and her poetry reflects that as well. She never married, but she did correspond with other prominent writers and artists of the day – most notably George Orwell, who was rumored to be her lover, and Sylvia Plath, who was a great personal fan of hers.

Smith’s poetry defies easy classification. At turns whimsical, morbid, playful and ironic, it freely mixes verse on lighthearted, defiantly trivial subjects with somber meditations on death (the “only god who must come when he is called”). She was also a freethinker. In the introduction to her Collected Poems, James MacGibbon writes, “[S]he rejected the dogmas of her high Anglican background, as unreasonable and morally inferior… she was scornful of what she considered watered-down reformulations of the faith, and disgusted by their liturgical expression”. Smith’s freethought bent can be seen in long poems such “How do you see?” (an argument against Christianity in blank verse), as well as today’s poem. Her books include A Good Time Was Had By All (1937), Mother, What is Man? (1942), Not Waving But Drowning (1957), and Scorpion and Other Poems (1972).

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 the rivers flow?
Away, melancholy.

The ant is busy
He carrieth his meat,
All things hurry
To be eaten or eat.
Away, melancholy.

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

Man of all creatures
Is superlative
(Away melancholy)
He of all creatures alone
Raiseth a stone
(Away melancholy)
Into the stone, the god
Pours what he knows of good
Calling, good, God.
Away melancholy, let it go.

Speak not to me of tears,
Tyranny, pox, wars,
Saying, Can God
Stone of man’s thoughts, be good?
Say rather it is enough
That the stuffed
Stone of man’s good, growing,
By man’s called God.
Away, melancholy, let it go.

Man aspires
To good,
To love
Sighs;

Beaten, corrupted, dying
In his own blood lying
Yet heaves up an eye above
Cries, Love, love.
It is his virtue needs explaining,
Not his failing.

Away, melancholy,
Away with it, let it go.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.synapticplastic.blogspot.com InTheImageOfDNA

    We covered her in one of my Brit Lit courses. Another good poem of hers is “How Cruel is the Story of Eve” http://jrong.tripod.com/eve.html where she ruminates on how damaging The Garden of Eden myth has been on women in Christian cultures.