A Good Time Was Had by All, 1937
Tender Only to One, 1938
Mother, What Is Man?, 1942
Harold’s Leap, 1950
Not Waving but Drowning, 1957
Selected Poems, 1962
The Frog Prince, and Other Poems, 1966
The Best Beast, 1969
Two in One: Selected Poems and The Frog Prince, and Other Poems, 1971
Scorpion, and Other Poems, 1972
The Collected Poems of Stevie Smith, 1975
Selected Poems, 1978
Cats, Friends, and Lovers: For Women’s Chorus, 1987 (music by Stephen Paulus)
New Selected Poems of Stevie Smith, 1988
Stevie’s Tunes: An Anthology of Nine Songs for Mezzo-soprano and Piano, 1988 (music by Peter Dickinson)
Two Stevie Smith Songs: For Voice and Piano, 1990 (music by Geoffrey Bush)
Novel on Yellow Paper: Or, Work It Out for Yourself, 1936
Over the Frontier, 1938
The Holiday, 1949
Some Are More Human than Others: Sketch-Book by Stevie Smith, 1958, 1990
Me Again: Uncollected Writings of Stevie Smith, 1981
Stevie Smith: A Selection, 1985
A Very Pleasant Evening with Stevie Smith: Selected Short Prose, 1995
Stevie Smith is a complicated, often controversial, poet who dazzles readers with her variety of styles, moods, voices, and literary references. She is considered simple and naïve by some critics, yet others find her one of the most intellectual and sophisticated of modern poets. Her work was first popular in the 1930’s, then made a resurgence in the 1960’s. Since then many readers have been fascinated by Smith’s unique blend of humor and despair.
Smith was born Florence Margaret Smith in Hull. After her father abandoned the family, her mother was financially unable to support herself and her two daughters. Her mother’s sister, Aunt Maggie, moved in with them, offering financial and emotional support. She located a house at 1 Avondale Road in Palmer’s Green, a suburb north of London, and sent for her sister and the two children, Molly and Florence Margaret. This was to be Smith’s home throughout her life.
Smith liked the neighborhood around Palmer’s Green, but childhood illnesses forced the family to send her, at age five, to a children’s rest home. She stayed there for three years, coming home only briefly for holidays. The rigidity of life there caused her to consider suicide when she was eight. This thought, however, freed her; she realized that accepting death gave her ultimate control over her life. After her mother’s death in 1919, she again had to accept death. This idea of an understanding with death would become a key theme in her writing.
Smith initially did well in school, but later she rebelled under the harsh disciplinary regulations at London Collegiate. After secretarial training, she worked for the publishing firm C. Arthur Pearson as secretary to Sir Neville Pearson; she remained there until 1953. Since her job was not taxing, Smith had spare time and she used it to read voraciously. She began to keep notebooks recording her ideas and thoughts. During the 1920’s she began to write poetry.
Smith attempted to have her poems published in the early 1930’s but was unable to do so. In 1935, however, David Garnett of the New Statesman accepted several poems. The same year, Ian Parsons of Chatto and Windus encouraged her to write a novel. She quickly responded. Although his company ultimately refused to publish it, Jonathan Cape did. The book, Novel on Yellow Paper, had a generally enthusiastic reception: Smith was compared with such diverse writers as Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), James Joyce (1882-1941), Marcel Proust (1871-1922), and Dorothy Parker (1893-1967). The book was strongly autobiographical, however, and many of her friends were angered by their portraits.
The success of her novel led to publication of her first poetry collection, A Good Time Was Had by All. Smith was now sought by magazines for poems and reviews. She enjoyed the literary scene but always returned to her Aunt Maggie at 1 Avondale for solace. The personal impression Smith made on others seems as varied as the response to her poetry. Although some found her witty and assured, others saw her as lonely and childlike. Her poetry reflects the fact that, although she had many friends and an active social life, she felt a sense of isolation and separation from others.
In 1938 she published Over the Frontier, the sequel to Novel on Yellow Paper, and another poetry collection, Tender Only to One. The collection sold poorly and Jonathan Cape was not anxious to publish further volumes. Only when she threatened to go to another publisher did they put out Mother, What Is Man?, a collection that explores mother-child relationships, isolation, and loneliness. Smith continued writing, but it was more difficult for her to get published after the war.
In the summer of 1953 Smith began to withdraw from social activities, and on July 1 she attempted suicide. Treated for depression and forced to retire, she began concentrating on her writing again. She wrote more reviews and had poetry published in magazines. Then, in 1957, Not Waving but Drowning, perhaps her best-known book, was published. It had taken several years to arrange publication because Smith insisted that her sketches illustrate the poems, an arrangement which many publishers rejected. The next year, she published a book of her sketches; it was not a success.
In the late 1950’s she started giving poetry readings. In the 1960’s her career took an upswing as new collections of her works were issued. James Laughlin of New Directions Press introduced her to the United States audience. Unfortunately, in 1962, her aunt’s ill health confined her to the upstairs of their house. Smith became her full-time caretaker, with only brief escapes, until her aunt died in 1967. Smith won the Cholomondeloy Prize for Poetry in 1966 and the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1969. After months of hospitalization, she died on March 7, 1971.