‘The times are the times of a black split heart’: Stevie Smith’s Life and Work in Context
In conversation with her friend Kay Dick, Stevie Smith once said: ‘I love life. I adore it, but only because I keep myself well on the edge’ (Dick 44). She seemed to gesture in that instance to the edge between life and death by suicide, the only unambiguous position of power she could imagine — and did imagine often, beginning at the early age of eight when, ‘at the mercy of external forces’, she lingered too long in a convalescent home after contracting tubercular peritonitis (SS: AB 15). ‘The thought cheered me up wonderfully and quite saved my life’, as she put it in one interview; ‘For if one can remove oneself at any time from the world, why particularly now?’1 Such imaginings, among her ‘first steps … in heresy’ (S 17), perhaps culminated and almost failed her in 1953, when she unsuccessfully slit her wrists while on the job as a secretary at Newnes Publishers. Critics who read suicidal tendencies back into all of a poet’s work (as has often been done with one of Smith’s greatest admirers, Sylvia Plath, as well as Smith herself) have made quite a lot of that single biographical fact. But her image of ‘living close to the edge’ also expanded into a figurative disposition towards all the many edges she occupied in her life between and after the wars — all the liminal positions she both chose and was forced into taking by ‘external forces’ too powerful to control.
KeywordsFatigue Income Hull Stein Refraction
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‘The times are the times of a black split heart’: Stevie Smith’s life and work in context
- 24.Inez Holden, ‘Some Women Writers’. The Nineteenth Century and After, vol. 146 (1949): 130.Google Scholar