'Stevie Smith: The poems of Not Waving but Drowning are punctuated everywhere with a strong will to freedom.' Discuss.
Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2001 8 Pages
Stevie Smith’s fifth volume of verse Not Waving but Drowning was published in 1957. Pain, sadness, despair and death are common subjects in these poems and they are all punctuated everywhere by a strong will to freedom.
Freedom is the right to live or act without being restricted by anyone or anything; freedom is the state of not being a prisoner or a slave.
In her poems, Stevie Smith deals with different kinds of freedom. The will to freedom is not always fulfilled easily or at all.
This essay will discuss the reasons for the will of freedom that are presented in certain poems of Not Waving but Drowning, it will deal with the possible fulfilment of freedom and the conditions for it.
2. The will to freedom
The first three poems I want to discuss are “My Hat”, “The Queen and the Young Princess” and “The English Visitor”.
In the poem “My Hat”, the speaker, who is a girl, has a strong will to freedom. Her mother wants her to attract “the right sort of chap” and to marry. The girl does not want to, she wants to escape her family and the expectations they have of her. The mother regards the hat as a means for attracting men but when the girl puts it on, she realises that she has to escape. On the one hand, the hat is a negative symbol of getting married; on the other hand, it is a positive symbol for escaping, running away and freedom. The parents expect the daughter to get married but she enjoys her freedom on the desert island. She is happy there but alone. The hat is the key to freedom for her, she is afraid that she has to go home again if she takes it off. Therefore she decides to wear it always. Hats represent “women’s freedom”. The girl in the poem wears the hat to go out and to attract a young man but the hat is also an impulse to leave her home. The moment she puts the hat on her mother told her to wear, she realises that she can no longer stand the pressure that lies on her. The more she gets away from home, the happier she is. The desert island will be her own world where she can do whatever she wants to do and where she can live in freedom without being forced to get married. The only thing she really has to do is to wear the hat always, which means that she is not completely free.
When the girl talks about flying away with the hat, she uses very positive words like “flying swan”, “beautifully”, “How this hat becomes me”, “pale blue”, “green grass” and “nice”. The swan flies away with her, flying away can also be seen as freedom, as running away. The hat is suddenly beautiful and becomes her although she did not like it at the beginning when her mother gave it to her. But now it means freedom and has changed its meaning completely. The sea and the island are described with positive adjectives, she likes her desert island and prefers it to her home.
When she talks of her family, negative words like “pain” and “risk” occur. She does not want to go back.
The young princess in the poem “The Queen and the Young Princess” is looking for freedom, she wants to go and do what she wants to do (“let me go, there are so many things I wish to do”). She does not want to accept the life that awaits her, the life her parents want her to lead. Seeing only the pleasant things in life, her mother knows that she is not yet prepared for the “real” world of pain and duties. Only if you know the negative and unpleasant aspects of life, the positive aspects will seem to be even stronger. The girl will also have to suffer in order to be as successful as her mother the queen. Although the young princess wants to leave her mother, there is no hope for her in the end. She has to do what everybody expects her to do; she has to become her mother’s successor. The princess’s will to freedom is suppressed by the expectations her mother has of her, “to follow the path of female duty”.
The daughter talks about “pleasant weather”, “bluebottle and the soft feather”. The feather can be regarded as flying away into freedom, the pleasant weather can be a symbol of the sky which also means to fly or run away.
The mother uses words like “grave” and “headache” which are very negative. A grave is like a prison from which you cannot escape and a headache means pain.
In both poems, there is a tension between daughters and mothers. Both girls want to be free; they want to do whatever they like, not what their mothers tell them to do. The mother in “My Hat” tells her daughter to get married, the other mother tells her daughter to do what she is told to do, to become her successor although this life won’t be easy for her.
The woman in the poem “The English Visitor” visits the grave of her love Alan Blair. The people of the village do not accept the woman from the “busy town” ; she behaves differently than the people in the village because “she was brought up differently”. She does not fit to the norms of the village; she is a foreigner and behaves strangely.
The woman visits the grave for the last time, she runs then away from the village to be in freedom. “She will think of him freely”, that means that she escapes the society in which she is not accepted, she goes to a place where no one tells her what to do and where she can behave as she always does. As a condition for her freedom from this society, she has to leave the grave of her love forever.
The people “frown” when they see the English woman, they are “hostile” and “angry”.
The woman is “beautiful”, many verbs show how big her will to freedom is. She “rose up quickly”, “ran through the gates”, and “leapt on the mountain boulders with quick step”. The reader can feel the speed and the will that she really wants to get away from this unfriendly place. She sees then a bird in the sky and an “angel” speaks. Both are symbols of freedom.
These three poems were written after World War I, in a time in which a “return to traditional gender roles” became more and more popular again. “The interwar years mark a return to associations between women and domesticity” but Stevie Smith tries to “offer alternative possibilities” and to disrupt the “domestic ideology”. The girl in “My Hat” does not want to marry and if she wants to marry one day, she wants to decide which man. She does not want to look perfect with the hat her mother gives her, she wants to be free and therefore she decides to leave her family. Smith offers in this poem the possibility to remain single. But the conditions to live in freedom are hard. The girl has to live on the desert island; she becomes an outsider, living in exile. But if she lived at home with her family without getting married, she would be rejected and if she wants to live in freedom, she has to keep on wearing the hat and live on her own. By wearing the hat, her freedom is limited; the hat is the condition for her freedom. The girl has now the possibility to decide if she wants to live in freedom and alone or with her family and in a kind of “prison”. The hat is the key to freedom.
 Stevie Smith, Selected Poems, ed. James MacGibbon (London: Penguin Books, 1978), p. 176.
 Jack Barbera and William McBrien, Stevie - A Biography of Stevie Smith (London: Heinemann, 1985), p. 180.
 Laura Severin, Stevie Smith’s Resistant Antics (Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1997), p. 65.
 Stevie Smith, Selected Poems, ed. James MacGibbon (London: Penguin Books, 1978), p. 177.
 ibid., p. 175.
 Sanford Sternlicht (ed.), In Search of Stevie Smith (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1991), p. 103.
 Stevie Smith, Selected Poems, ed. James MacGibbon (London: Penguin Books, 1978), p. 175.
 Sanford Sternlicht (ed.), In Search of Stevie Smith (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1991), p. 71.
 Stevie Smith, Selected Poems, ed. James MacGibbon (London: Penguihn Books, 1978), p. 168.
 Ibid., p. 169.
 Stevie Smith, Selected Poems, ed. James MacGibbon (London: Penguin Books, 1978), p. 169.
 Ibid., p. 168.
 Ibid., p. 168.
 Ibid., p. 169.
 Laura Severin, Stevie Smith’s Resistant Antics (Wisconsin: Wisconsin University Press, 1997), p. 4.
 Ibid .s, p. 7.
 Ibid .s, p. 49.
 Ibid .s, p. 23.
 Ibid .s, p. 49.
 Sanford Sternlicht (ed.), In Search of Stevie Search (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1991), p. 88.