Steve Whitaker, Literary Editor

Poem Of The Week: 'Emily Writes Such A Good Letter' By Stevie Smith (1902-71)

Emily Writes Such a Good Letter

Mabel was married last week
So now only Tom left

The doctor didn’t like Arthur’s cough
I have been in bed since Easter

A touch of the old trouble

I am downstairs today
As I write this
I can hear Arthur roaming overhead

He loves to roam
Thank heavens he has plenty of space to roam in

We have seven bedrooms
And an annexe

Which leaves a flat for the chauffeur and his wife

We have much to be thankful for

The new vicar came yesterday
People say he brings a breath of fresh air

He leaves me cold
I do not think he is a gentleman

Yes, I remember Maurice very well
Fancy getting married at his age
She must be a fool

You knew May had moved?
Since Edward died she has been much alone

It was cancer

No, I know nothing of Maud
I never wish to hear her name again
In my opinion Maud
Is an evil woman

Our char has left
And a good riddance too
Wages are very high in Tonbridge

Write and tell me how you are, dear,
And the girls,
Phoebe and Rose
They must be a great comfort to you
Phoebe and Rose.

Stevie Smith in 1966
Stevie Smith in 1966
Stevie Smith’s poem of loneliness and isolation is a masterwork of revelation by inference. The stilted cultural architecture of nineteen thirties Kent is given up in stage whispers by a narrator whose, on the surface vacuous, monologue is shadowed by the bitterness of failure.

The philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin would have had a field day with conflicting ‘voice’ in Smith’s stream of consciousness, for the narrator’s own is everywhere counterposed by the suggestion of others, whose lives and experiences are mediated in the retelling: filtered through the single dimension of her pinched provincialism, the received picture is necessarily skewed, the ‘antagonists’ – the char, the vicar, Maud – condemned to an uneasy silence.

We hear tonal echoes of the vocal interjections of Eliot’s Wasteland here, and, in Smith’s skilled rendering – the poem, like ad hoc speech, is unpunctuated, leaving a deliberate and resonant hiatus at ‘It was cancer’ – we are privy to an (in)eloquence of twittering in a box, a manifestation of a mannered existence, strangled by the prevailing social appurtenances of the Home Counties middle or upper middle classes.

Many of Smith’s poems are characterised by an anxiety of mental isolation, and in ‘Emily Writes Such a Good Letter’, a sense of loss is borne out with the dramatic efficacy of a Talking Heads, direct-to-camera vignette. That we respond to the narrator’s voice with a complex mixture of contempt and empathy gives notice of a subtle poetic mind, with a predilection for irony and ambiguity.

‘Emily Writes Such a Good Letter’ is taken from British Poetry since 1945 and is published by Penguin Books.