Patterns for Poetry: Poetics in Seven Poems by A.J.M. Smith

by Anne Compton

In "Refining Fire: The Meaning and Use of Poetry" (1954), A.J.M. Smith writes: "No matter how subversive of human self-esteem, how disillusioned or bitter a poet's philosophical outlook may be, it is always delight and love that are at the heart of writing. . . ."1 His personal "refining fire" was his preoccupation with death; out of it, he made poetry. Some of his best poems are about that making. Intimately connected with Smith's poems on death are his poems on poetics; as F.W. Watt has pointed out, the "'death' theme is intertwined with a conception of art."2 In the poems on poetics, death sets a limit to what poetry can accomplish, or, conversely, "the delight" which is "at the heart of writing" boldly defies the "central black, the ringed and targeted grave" ("The Archer").3 Moreover, the self-discipline and rigour requisite, according to Smith, for the making of poetry is more than analogous to the tense effort required in the confrontation with death4 as demonstrated in the taut and statuesque figure of "The Archer," whose very "nature," through discipline, becomes "art."

     The poems on death, Smith's earliest and most often recurring subject, were written in the period 1926-1943, during and following his Ph.D. thesis on Metaphysical poetry, written under the supervision of H.J.C. Grierson.5 He wrote a second group of poems on death between 1956 and 1964. In the concluding section six of Poems, New and Collected (1967) he grouped together these poems on death. Smith might have introduced his successive collections (OP, PNC, CS)6 with the poems of section six, acknowledging death's primary place, yet showing how all else — poetics, nature, love — asserts life.7 But he did not. The death/faith poems come last. Like his archer, Smith flung what he could of "burning thought" "Into the heart of what I know and hate" ("The Archer"). In placing the poems on death last in each collection, he demonstrates that poetry too can be hurled at "the central black, the ringed and targeted grave" ("The Archer").

     In his poems on poetics (seven of which will be examined here) Smith considers the demands, or requirements, of the craft, the nature and function of poetry, and poems by other poets. In investigating Smith's poetics, this essay explores, as well, the connections between Smith's poems on poetics and his poems on death, and it asserts that the metaphysical techniques which he employed in handling the subject of death, he adapts to poetics.

     "Shadows There Are,"8 the second poem of section one of Poems, New and Collected, illustrates the extent to which death shadows Smith's poems on poetics. The poem's dense atmosphere — including a density of language — testifies to the speaker's frustrations in confronting the subject of death.

Shadows There Are

Shadows there are, but shadows such as these
Are shadows only in the mortal mind,
Blown by the spirit, or the spirit's wind.

Yet shadows I have seen, of me deemed deeper,
That backed on nothing in the horrid air,

And try as try, I cannot limn the form
That some of them assume where I shall pass.
They grow transparent, and as sharp, as glass. (PNC 13)

The title is a proposition; it invites the reader's assent, and it establishes in our minds real shadows. The poem moves, through successive qualifications, away from real shadows — not these, but these, and yet not those either — in order to get at what it is that cannot be described. The phrasing is spare, accommodating the poem's qualifying procedure. The end rhyme grows stronger from the first to the third stanza; the final glass / pass rhyme establishes as inescapable what is to come. The sound-sense harmony in the closure of the poem reinforces the poem's meaning: there is a boundary beyond which exploration is impossible. In "A Note on Metaphysical Poetry" (1929), Smith writes that the metaphysical poet recognizes a "shadowy and obscure uni verse, sees in it the . . . possibility of a subtle unity, and strives in poetry to achieve it."9 "Shadows There Are," written two years before the essay, is the poet's acknowledgement of his failure, his inability to "limn" that obscure world that casts shadows on the present as if they "backed on nothing in the horrid air." "Shadows There Are" is the "mind's bafflement when confronting its own limitations."10

     The frightful shadows of stanza two are not the real and ordinary shadows suggested by the title, nor are they the "shadows only in the mortal mind, / Blown by the spirit, or the spirit's wind" (stanza one). The shadows in the mortal mind, buffeted by "the spirit's wind" are, for the speaker, natural and harmless, ones confined to the mortal life. The third kind of shadow, "shadows I have seen, of me deemed deeper, / That backed on nothing in the horrid air," expresses fear of that which is larger than the mortal mind. These shadows are cast by something beyond "the horrid air," thickening the air with shadow, making it "horrid." That thickening is suggested in the couplet's sound; the repeated "e" (seen, me, deemed, deeper)11 creates density and the alliterated "d" suggests solidity. These shadows are insubstantial beyond the usual insubstantiality of nature's shadows; they have no source, no backing, and yet they are concrete in their depth.

     "And try as try," says the speaker, echoing the colloquial "catch as catch can," "I cannot limn the form / That some of them assume where I shall pass." Past, present, and future are inspected in the attempt to understand. These are shadows which "I have seen," yet for now "I cannot limn" their form, but they are there in the place, "where I shall pass." "Limn" (from illuminaire) is an apt word, suggesting as it does, not just description, but illumination and colour as well, none of which the speaker can establish; he cannot light up, or lessen, the horror of "where I shall pass." These shadows are of a kind, different from phenomenal shadows and different, too, in kind from the shadows in the psalmist's "valley of the shadow of death" (Psalm 23). The psalmist knows what accompanies him; Smith's speaker is perplexed by "unseen" shifting shadows which are apparently without source. These shadows "grow transparent, and as sharp, as glass." The line is emphatically punctuated; the double-bitted simile establishes both sharpness and glassiness. These shadows are as sharp as glass and as transparent. The transparency to which the shadows "grow" is a quality of the Nothing, approached in various ways in Smith's death poems, especially in the poem "On Knowing Nothing." Nothing cannot be described, illuminated, or coloured even though it casts a shadow here in the present. The poet can testify to the presence, depth, and horror of Nothing's shadows — these are shadows "I have seen — but he cannot "limn" their form as they slip into transparency. This poem establishes the limits of the mind's reach. For his final selection of poems (1978), Smith chose the title The Classic Shade, a title which deftly suggests the "shadowy . . . universe" within which man confronts his own limitations.

     Excepting "Shadows," the poems on poetry in section one Poems, New and Collected celebrate the "flood of ferocious joy" released in poetry ("In Memoriam: E.J.P."). This renewal, which is the function of poetry, is expressed in a variety of ways: as a return to the "sweet wildwood / Of our lost innocence" ("A Hyacinth for Edith"), as making "muddy waters green" ("To Jay Macpherson"), and as singing ("Like an Old Proud King in a Parable"). These metaphors of renewal are suprisingly romantic12 for the poet whose Selected Poems are drawn from The Classic Shade, or who is himself a "classic shade" as one reviewer suggests.13 However, Smith never envisions the making of poetry as spontaneous outpouring; on the contrary, poetry is the "hard thing done / Perfectly, as though without care." Poetry, Smith tells us repeatedly, involves renunciation, "a pace designed and grave," dexterity, and ceremony — an approach which is not much different from the "programme of asceticism" described in "The Offices of the First and Second Hour." The complete pattern — the "hard thing done / Perfectly" leading to the "sweet wildwood," the "waters green," or singing — tracks closely the path of the religious aspirant, worked out in the faith poems. In his poetics, the struggle of making is preliminary to the renewal. Smith never claims, however, that his own "song" is anything more than "a sort of ecstasy." It is never a song such as gods or angels sing, or inspire (Irving Layton got all those),14 but one entirely human.

     The quasi-religious formula — effort (or renunciation) leading to renewal — embraces both a romantic and a classical poetic. For Smith the making of poetry involves strict classical demands: "integrity. . . clarity. . . completeness";15 poetry, made thus, releases, or realizes, "a flood of ferocious joy." Smith is a classical maker; he is sometimes romantic about the effects of poetry. The rigorously formal "Archer," for example, enacts a romantic gesture the defiance of death. This odd amalgamation, the craft of a classicist and the expectations of a romantic, derives perhaps from his "schooling" in the Metaphysicals. Their poetry falls between the romantic and the classical. The metaphysical poet harnesses emotional fervour to complicated thinking, but he willingly sacrifices lyrical decorum to an extreme metaphor that will clinch his argument. Metaphysical poetry occupies a position somewhere between the rationally ordered classic form and the emotionally ordered romantic form,16 abiding by neither.

     In "The Poetic Process" (1964) Smith theorizes about the making of poems, and he describes his own experience of the poetic process by recalling the circumstances of and stages in the making of the poems "The Archer" and "On Knowing Nothing."17 What he describes is a process which begins with what pushes "up out of the unconscious,"18 but which involves, if it is to be made into anything, "sheer hard unromantic brainwork."19 For Smith, however, the initial "poetic emotion," or poetic state, is not entirely gratuitous: "when it comes, it comes to the deserving."20 Although not discounting inspiration as the impetus of a poem, Smith, in describing the poetic process, emphasizes the sustained effort ("the sheer hard . . . brainwork") which not only delivers the poem but which when exhausted often issues in a fresh moment of inspiration. Smith describes a process which partakes of both inspiration and a supercharged and highly conscious concentration. The complete process is a remarkable combination of conscious and unconscious effort (although it is largely the former) which results, sometimes, in renewal.

     First published in July, 1934 'To a Young Poet"21 sets out uncompromising demands for the poet. The poem is prescriptive; the voice is dignified and unhurried. The one-sentence instruction unfolds by example; the four quatrains are regularly rhymed. "Alien to romance," this speaker advocates the solemn pace, the "eev'n step" of classicism.

Tread the metallic nave
Of the windless day with
A pace designed and grave:

Iphigenia in her myth

Creating for stony eyes
An elegant, fatal dance
Was signed with no device
More alien to romance

Than I would have you find
In the stern, autumnal face
Of Artemis, whose kind
Cruelty makes duty grace,

Whose votary alone
Seals the affrighted air
With the worth of a hard thing done
Perfectly, as though without care. (PNC 21)

     "The metallic nave / Of this windless day" blends architectural and nature imagery. The model held up for the young poet is "Iphigenia in her myth." Like a priestess, the young poet must "Tread . . . with / A pace designed and grave."

     At Aulis, Iphigenia created "for stony eyes / An elegant, fatal dance," when she was offered by her father, Agamemnon, as a sacrifice to Artemis, who had created the "windless day." Just as Iphigenia managed an "elegant dance" at her own sacrifice, thereby becoming a priestess in Artemis' cult, so, too, the young poet must be graceful in duty. The poet is to be a servant to her calling as Iphigenia served Artemis in her temple. The speaker would have the young poet look to the "stern, autumnal face," who signs (or blesses) "with no device" other than her "kind / Cruelty" which "makes duty grace." Only by being the "votary" of Artemis, only by shaping herself to stern demands, can the poet achieve the "hard thing done / Perfectly, as though without care." In so doing, the poet "Seals the affrighted air / With the worth of a hard thing done / Perfectly." Poetry "seals," or imprints, "the aifrighted air" just as "the fountain" fixes time and motion, sealing off "chaotic darkness" ('The Fountain").22 In surrendering to stern demands, the poet faces the chaos which the muse reveals in her crueller aspect and from which she saves the votary, in her kinder aspect. Through poetry the worst is glimpsed, the worst subdued; horror and exaltation are mixed. Not in effort only, but beyond effort, in elegance, this duty becomes grace.

     Poetry belongs to the religious heart that recognizies duties naturally owed and that transforms those duties into grace. The "autumnal face," which commands and oversees the duty of the votary, is a phrase drawn from neither Greek nor Christian myth; it derives from Donne's "Ninth Elegy,"23 addressed, says Grierson, to Lady Herbert.

No spring, nor summer beauty hath such grace,
As I have seen in one autumnal face.

The metaphor which organizes "To a Young Poet" is the dance; the metaphor which organizes the pride of place poem, "Like an Old Proud King in a Parable,"24 is dramatic gesture. The speaker, a boy-prince, makes a dramatic, renunciatory gesture in order to be free to sing the "difficult, lonely music." Smith's strategy in both poems is to provide the nascent poet/singer with a model. In 'To a Young Poet" Iphigenia, the model, submits to the sacrifice which Artemis demands, and in the second poem, the model, the "Old Proud King," by abdicating, sacrifices a kingdom.

     Whereas a dignified, sage-like voice addresses the young poet ("To a Young Poet"), in "Parable" the boy-prince himself speaks, narrating the parable and beseeching the "father": "Let me" live as the old King of the parable did. Naturally, this speaker is less calm. The emotional nature of the speaking accounts for the structure of the poem. In form, the poem is a sonnet, but one, which like Donne's "Sonnet: The Token," extends to seventeen lines (Donne's is eighteen). Both rhyme and drama end at the fourteenth line. In the additional three lines, the boy turns from the "Father," whom he has been addressing, and speaks to himself, to his heart. The prince has, in a sense, already left the kingdom and joined the "Old Proud King." The turning inward, or away, in the last three lines, confirms the prince's direction. "The equation," as Watt points out, "between asceticism and aestheticism" has been completed.25

A bitter king in anger to be gone
From fawning courtier and doting queen
Flung hollow sceptre and gilt crown away,
And breaking bound of all his counties green
He made a meadow in the northern stone
And breathed a palace of inviolable air
To cage a heart that carolled like a swan,
And slept alone, immaculate and gay,
With only his pride for a paramour.

O who is that bitter king? It is not I.

Let me, I beseech thee, Father, die
From this fat royal life, and lie
As naked as a bridegroom by his bride,
And let that girl be the cold goddess Pride:

And I will sing to the barren rock
Your difficult, lonely music, heart,
Like an old proud king in a parable. (PNC 12)

Needing a "similitude answerable to the matter,"26 Smith has his boy-prince meditate on the parable of the Old King. Telling the parable leads the boy to the moment of self-analysis: "O who is that bitter king? It is not I." This dramatic moment of self-focus is pointedly isolated following, and in response to, the parable. This is the turn of the sonnet; it is followed by the beseechment. The comparison of self to king activates the boy's will and initiates the beseechment. Similitude (the parable), analysis, and will are the movements of the poem.27 In the three line "tail" of the sonnet, the boy foresees what it is he will be able to do when worldliness, "the fat royal life," is vanquished.

     The kingdom, which the "bitter king" rejects, is not just worldly; it is fake. The furnishings are "hollow" and "gilt"; the court is "fawning" and "doting." As the strongly consonantal line suggests — "And breaking bound of all his counties green" — the king is forceful in his rejection of all that. Creating a counter kingdom, the escaped king "breathed a palace of inviolable air," just as Philomel, escaping "the barbarous king" in Eliot's The Waste Land "filled all the desert with inviolable voice."28 In 1926 Smith published "Hamlet in Modern Dress," an article on Eliot's Waste Land, in The McGill Fortnightly Review.29 Smith's allusion, in the phrase "inviolable air," did not appear until the second version of the poem in 1932. Free from the glitz of his former kingdom, the king sleeps "immaculate and gay / With only his pride for a paramour." Desmond McCarthy's letter, in response to Smith's submission of this poem to Life and Letters, shows that Smith originally intended no mate for his king ("With only his Pride for a counterpane").30 The ambiguous mixing of sexual and monastic language (immaculate:paramour) was added to the poem, after its first publication (1928). This mix of language is a point to which I shall return.

     Now, like the boy-prince who narrates the parable, we must ask "O who is that bitter king?" Or, who are they? Behind "that. . . king" are many figures (mythic, literary, popular), who have abdicated kingdoms: Gerontion, who renounces, not a kingdom, but cumulative history; Tennyson's Ulysses, Hamlet (the king contends with "fawning courtier and doting queen"), and any number of questing knights,31 who rode alone on plain and in forest, for the sake of a quest. The "bitter" and decisive king is a composite ideal.32 The King is gestural ("flung . . . sceptre and . . . crown"; the action parallels the archer's, who "fling(s) / the hissing arrow like a burning thought") and wordless. The tale is fabulous, not realistic ("he made a meadow . . . breathed a palace"). The parable presents not a single, exemplary life but a generic "hero," an amalgamation, derived from the tales "old masters say."33 The past tense narration and the narrator's "O who is that . . . king?" (Who among many is that king?) establishes remoteness, even as it invites comparison.

     Whatever happens in that question — "O who is that bitter king?" and in the self-focused response, "It is not I," the comparison leads to movement. Prayer-like, the boy-prince begs the "Father," "Let me, I beseech thee, Father, die . . ." in a language which echoes Christ in Gethsemane.

Let me, I beseech thee, Father, die
From this fat royal life, and lie
As naked as a bridegroom by his bride,
And let that girl be the cold goddess Pride . .
. .

The end-stressed "die" and its rhyme with "lie," heightened by the parallel pauses before the last foot of each line, suggest an ecstatic sexual dying. The image of the "naked . . . bridegroom by his bride" gives this monastic renunciation a decidedly sexual turn. The boy is, of course, only following the "bitter king" in this. The king replaced a "doting queen" with his "paramour," "pride." The octave and sestet are parallel; the former concludes by naming the old King's mate; the sestet concludes in naming the prince's mate.

     In this poem, as in others, Smith mixes language from different levels of experience just as John Donne does. The boy-prince seeks a translation to innocence through a marriage, a lying with his bride. The intensity and the language of renunciation are sexual. The mix of monastic and sexual language in this poem is analogous to that in "Offices of the First and Second Hour," where spiritual surrender is described in sensual terms: "we have given our flesh to the mouth and our / Hearts to the fingers of oblivion." The revisionary incorporation of the sexual in "Parable" occurred in the same year (1932-33) as the publication of "Offices."34

     However, the speaker means this marriage in a figurative sense only. He will be "as naked as a bridegroom" in his unworldliness; he will marry not a real girl, but "the cold goddess Pride." The union of bride and bridegroom (figuratively) and the union of the speaker and his Pride set forth the poet's relation to his poetry or to his muse. In the New Testament sense, a parable is a narrative by which moral or spiritual relations are typically figured or set forth. In the boy's re-enactment of the parable, Smith figures the nature of poetic commitment, making a boy's monastic renunciation of the world a parallel for the commitment to poetry. Because renunciation comprehends the thing it renounces, this renunciation is given a sexual intensity.

     Even if the commitment to poetry, in Smith's poetic, involves, as well as parallels, a renunciation of the world, the poetry that can come from that commitment enables a fuller possession of the world. Poetry's "first and most fundamental use," Smith wrote in "Refining Fire" (1954),35 "is the training, developing, exercising, and strengthening of the sensibilities themselves, so that our perceptions of physical things are made at once sharper, subtler, more penetrating and also stronger and more intense." In the full circle which "Like an Old Proud King in a Parable" describes, the boy's "difficult, lonely music" will discover a "meadow in the northern stone"; renunciation issues in renewal.

     Smith's sonnet "The Plot Against Proteus"36 appeared with "Parable" in The Hound and Horn (Jan.-March, 1932); this pairing illustrates Smith's tendency to approach a subject from radically different angles, a technique which he honed in dealing with the subject death. In contrast to the sobriety of "Parable," with its "difficult, lonely music," there is in "The Plot" mischief, mockery, and verbal trickery. A tangle of syntax and sound, "The Plot" manifests Smith's considerable pleasure in the connotative value of words. The language of this poem is protean; the proximity of words causes shifts in meaning; there is phonological ambiguity (coronet/cornet). Meaning here is as transformational as words are. The poem "seethes with images of changefulness," as Watt so ably puts it.37 We are warned: "This is a theme for muted coronets." What theme — one past, or one to come? If music is muted, can we distinguish its theme? Perhaps the "coronets" are "remote" or "cracked" as they are in Eliot's "Portrait of a Lady."38

This is a theme for muted coronets
To dangle from debilitated heads
Of navigation, kings, or riverbeds
That rot or rise what time the seamew sets
Her course by stars among the smoky tides
Entangled. (PNC 17)

This is a theme, a tune, for "muted coronets," for a less than, a lesser, king. (Coronet is a metonymy for prince). "Debilitated" or enervated, lesser kings might "dangle" or dawdle about with this theme; "the debilitated romantic has no passion left."39

     The first sentence (quoted above) twists its way through six lines of the octave, displaying a syntactical dexterity, or chaos. The theme is a plot (and because it is a plot, it is therefore "muted," or hushed) for any fallen leader, nautical or political, who must get control of the future. Smith plays his words to exhaustion; many heads are here, "Of navigation, kings," and "riverbeds" and all — captain, king, and river — share in the rotting and rising. Not just "riverbeds . . . rot or rise what time the seamew sets / Her course by stars among the smoky tides / Entangled." If stars and smoky tides determine rising and falling, then "heads" can hope not for control of the future, but for knowledge of it only, and that is what Proteus has. Proteus is the slippery god of future knowledge. When he appears, he must be nabbed, if the future is to be known.

                 Old saltencrusted Proteus treads
Once more the watery shore that water weds
While rocking fathom bell rings round and rides. (PNC 17)

Diction (words of enclosure: "encrusted," "once more," "rings round"), sound ("watery . . . water," repeated initial consonants, "w" and "r"), and syntax establish the circumscribed, inviolable pattern of Proteus' movement. Proteus, the oracular sea god, is the keeper of the blind future. He is "the blind king of the water." Shape-shifting is the means by which he evades those who seek his oracular wisdom.

     The speaker, a political advisor of sorts, counsels the Prince of Proteus' capture.

Now when the blind king of the water thinks
The sharp hail of the salt out of his eyes
To abdicate, run thou,
O Prince, and fall
Upon him. This cracked walrus skin that stinks
Of the rank sweat of a mermaid's thighs
Cast off, and nab him; when you have him, call. (PNC 17)

Menelaus is the Prince of the Greek tale; Smith, however, has Telemachus in mind,40 which is puzzling, but interesting. The Telemachus identification suggests a direct connection between this poem and "Parable," wherein the boy tells the parable of a Ulysses-like abdication.

     The Prince represents any plotter who attempts to nab chaotic, shifting reality. The plotting Prince will use "deliberate disguises"; Menelaus used a stinking seal skin in order to blend in with hundreds of beach seals, Proteus' flock. The speaker addresses the royal Prince formally: "run thou, O Prince, and fall / Upon him." The perfunctory "thou" scarcely obscures the speaker's contempt for the Prince, clad in "this cracked walrus skin" and stinking "Of the rank sweat of a mermaid's thighs." The political advisor, with his sneering manner, manages the Prince, as well as the plot. The advisor's voice is manipulative and mocking. The elaborate plan concludes with three orders: "This cracked walrus skin . . . / Cast off, and nab him; when you have him, call." The last clause is jeeringly sceptical, implying "if you ever have him, call." The monosyllabic directions — cast, nab, call — of the plot contrast with the unpunctuated and fluid description of Proteus' movement, which concludes the octave.

     No doubt, as Pacey suggests, one meaning of the poem is the trammelling of "the life of the spirit" by politicians.41 However, the clever technical effects and the calling of attention (in line 1) to literary theme and thus to literature, suggests that literature, as much as politics, is a plot to nab reality. The poet recognizes in himself political advisor and prince; he is ironically aware of the "deliberate disguises" which he must put on for poetry. He "must borrow every changing shape / To find expression. . . ."42 Smith mocks the notion that poetry can nab reality; moreover, he mocks the "debilitated heads" (the romantics waiting upon inspiration) before whom he dangles this theme. In its irony and wit, in the yoking of myth and politics, in its serio-comic advice and, above all, in its deployment of language, "The Plot Against Proteus" draws on metaphysical techniques. Placed with "Parable" in The Hound and Horn and in the same section in Poems, New and Collected, "Plot" qualifies the "high falutin'"claims which Smith makes for poetry in "Parable." In his "religious" poetry Smith uses a range of personae (ascetic to blasphemer) to explore faith; similarly with poetics, he speaks from behind a number of "deliberate disguises," including the schemer as well as the aesthetic.

     In exploring a subject from opposite directions, Smith typically deprecates, or cancels, in one poem what he has established in another. Dealing with the subject of death, for example, Smith in "Beside One Dead" asserts that death makes "Something whole / that was broken," but in "The Archer," death is "what I know and hate — / That central black, the ringed and targeted grave." Similarly, here, the prince's noble dedication to "difficult, lonely music" ("Parable") is undermined by the speaker's wry cynicism in "The Plot Against Proteus."

     Smith's habitual exploration of a subject from opposite poles explains the differences in attitude in these two poems, but it is further explained by his advice "To [the] Young Poet" to whom he recommends tremendous self- discipline, but from whom he exacts a product made "as though without care." In her poem, effort, though crucial, is to be unnoticeable, unremarkable. In a parallel way, in his poetics, the criteria he most emphasizes — effort — disappears in "The Plot Against Proteus" in an ironic mockery of the very effort to "nab" reality.

     Like those who plot for Proteus, the "Fisher Queen" ("To Jay Macpherson on Her Book of Poems")43 has tackle, "willow-rod and . . . fly," with which to catch or to capture the mystery.

Dear no-man's-nightingale, our Fisher Queen,
Whose golden hook makes muddy waters green,
With what dexterity of wrist and eye
You flick the willow-rod and cast the fly.
. . . (PNC 35)

The Queen catches, not the sea beast Proteus, but "the silver fish." With her "golden hook," her poetry, she makes "muddy waters green," creates order from chaos, reviving the land, as the Old King ("Parable") creates "a meadow in northern stone." These are the restorative powers of poetry. Macpherson is "no-man's nightingale"; belonging to "no-man," she is "our Fisher Queen." As liege, Smith offers his compliment; Smith's salutation parodies the spare, unadorned temper of Macpherson's poems, a quality which she shares with George Herbert, from whose "Jordan I,"44 Smith's salutory phrase derives.

I envie no mans nightingale or spring;
Nor let them punish me with losse of rime,
Who plainly say, My God, My King.

Smith admires Macpherson's aquiline "dexterity of wrist and eye." He sees the ease and elegance of a Queen's motion in her craft. Macpherson's simple elegance, like Herbert's, avoids the "wide" and "long pretence."45

And when the silver fish is caught and drawn,
How neat the table he's divided on,
How white the cloth, how elegant the dish,
How sweet the flesh
O sacramental Fish! (PNC 35)

Just as the Fisher King is the very essence of the Grail story, "the very heart and centre of the whole mystery,"46 so, too, the meaning of the Queen is central in this poem. Both priestess ("no-man's nightingale") and figure of life-giving potency, the Queen is "connected with the origin and preservation of life."47 From the "muddy waters" she draws "the silver fish"; the touch of her "golden hook" makes the "waters green." Smith aligns the poet's function with ceremonial life rituals. In the "dexterity," exactness, and elegance of her art, the living "silver fish" becomes the spiritual food, the "sweet . . . flesh" which nourishes and renews.

     In this poem Smith does not explain as he does in "To a Young Poet" the requirements of the craft — the surrender and discipline which belie while enabling the apparent ease of perfection. "To Jay Macpherson" salutes the accomplishment. Macpherson is the poet-priestess who, like Iphigenia, has served in and survived the service of Artemis "whose kind / Cruelty makes duty grace" and poetry elegant. Speaking of his own experience of "the poetic process" in the essay of that title, Smith wryly refers to himself as "a devotee at the shrine of some cruel deity."48 A letter-compliment to Macpherson on her volume The Boatman (1957, rpt. 1968), Smith's poem refers in particular to the poem with which she prefaces the volume's sixth section, "The Fisherman: A Book of Riddles."

And should one ask who's in the dish
Or how the beast was took,
Say: Wisdom is a silver fish
And Love a golden hook.

Smith's poem, though it, too, has the light touch of a riddle, gracefully celebrates her art.

     Poetry, Smith says, is a struggle to make, but it is, none the less, superbly, ceremoniously time-defiant. "The Fountain" (1934) and "In Memoriam E.J.P." (1964),49 taken together, reveal Smith's conception of the function of poetry. The subject of the poems of section one, Poems, New and Collected — "To a Young Poet," "Parable," and "Plot" — is the making of poetry; "The Fountain" and "In Memoriam: E.J.P.", found appropriately in other sections of Poems, New and Collected, explore poetry's function in relation to time, change, and death. "The Fountain" is a lyrical enactment of what poetry is — the formal beauty of the fountain triumphs over chaos and storm, season and time: "For fragrance here has grown to form, / And Time is fooled, although he storm" (PNC 63). In its alliteration and assonance, its steady rhythm and sibilant rhymes, "The Fountain" enacts the mellifluous sounds of the "enchanted tree" of its title.

This fountain sheds her flowery spray
Like some enchanted tree of May
Immortalized in feathery frost
With nothing but its fragrance lost.
Yet nothing has been done amiss
In this white metamorphosis,
For fragrance here has grown to form,
And Time is fooled, although he storm.

Through Autumn's sodden disarray
These blossoms fall, but not away;
They build a tower of silver light
Where Spring holds court in Winter's night. . .

The fountain creates an "enchanted tree" beyond Time. Defying the effects of night, season, and Time, the fountain is an alternative structure where spring is eternal, in spite of season.

     A descriptive, symbolic poem, "The Fountain" celebrates the thing accomplished; it is not about the arduous task of making. Poetry is the "white metamorphosis," the "cold, immortal ghost of day." In "The Fountain" poetry is an enduring, formal beauty, lovely, but remote, which does not seem to mean anything much to human life.

This fountain sheds her flowery spray
Like some enchanted tree of May
Immortalized in feathery frost
With nothing but its fragrance lost.

Not until "In Memoriam: E.J.P." (1964) does Smith clarify that this foun tain is an exteriorization of "a fountain in the heart." Poetry memorializes:

                           a flood of ferocious joy
That springs like a fountain in the heart
And cannot be dammed or diverted or turned off. (PNC 142)

The fountain is not a triumph of the artificial; it is a triumph of the human. "In Memoriam: E.J.P." comes at the end of the second cluster of death poems (1956-64), after Smith's intermittent preoccupation for four decades with the subject of death. After the bluster and fuss, the begging and the defiance of death through many poems, there is in "In Memoriam: E.J.P.," part II, Smith's quiet acceptance of the death of his friend.

He was given his life.
He took, used, and enjoyed.
Now he has no more need.

We who are all need
Bring him our meed of praise..

The fountain is more, not less, triumphant in 1964 than it was in 1934 because it recognizes and incorporates human limitation in death, and still the fountain glitters. "How shall we speak of the death of an old poet in April?" Not, replies the speaker to his own question, by focusing on his death but by celebrating his poetry, the "ferocious joy" of which establishes within the communicant-reader the conditions of "an eternal April," the fountain which "cannot be . . . turned off." Like Yeats, Smith believed life's delight to be an "abounding glittering jet,"50 whose "metamorphosis" in poetry "renew[s] us."

     More cognizant of death than most are, and still joyful, Smith transforms "the glittering jet" to a durable formal beauty. We will not hear from Smith "Cries from the stitched heart / In soft melodious screams" ("On Reading an Anthology of Popular Poetry") (PNC 97), nor is Smith like "One Sort of Poet" (PNC 54) who does not know "What his heart will cry / Till the fountain rise /  In his columned throat." "I think of the act of a poet," wrote Smith in "The Poetic Process," "as the antithesis of a naive or primitive surrender to chance or impulse. . . ."51 Smith willed, and by tremendous effort achieved, a formal beauty, a fountain from a flood.

     The transformation of flood to fountain is what places Smith, as far as poetics go, in the company of other metaphysical poets. His self-imposed dictum, "Turn inward on the brain / The flashlight of an I" ("Casey Jones")52 results not in confession, but analysis. The phrase, "Turn inward," indicates that "It is upon the materials of the experience as they exist within himself and not upon the source of these materials"53 that Smith works. "Turning inward" is, in fact, what distinguishes the metaphysical from other lyric poets. A lyric records a fleeting emotion or "emotion recollected in tranquillity"; the metaphysical poem begins similarly in emotion, but the emotion is held back, thought about, held up for examination. "The emotion" in this kind of poetry (the Metaphysical), Smith writes, paraphrasing Grierson, "does not result directly from sensation, but is the product of cerebral activity,"54 or what H.C. White calls "the tight clutch of the mind on its own operations."55 In his essay on poetics, "Refining Fire," Smith writes that sense impressions are "all important," but not for themselves alone. The exhilaration is in the "intellectual act."56 In Smith's own poetry the generating emotion is acted upon; it is distanced, intellectualized, and dramatized, or as Smith puts it: "What is felt gains in power if its expression is controlled, dammed up, channelled, and then let loose in the right direction and at the right time."57

     In the poems on poetics "Parable" and "To a Young Poet" Smith advocates renunciation and discipline; in "The Fountain" and "In Memoriam: E.J.P.," he rejoices in the "benison" from such a poetry:

Poems, which are the spiritual blood of a poet,
Renew themselves in an eternal April,
And renew us also who take them into ourselves.
. . . .
We receive a benison
       Not necessarily holiness,
Not necessarily wisdom
                     Rather a flood of ferocious joy...

Poetry charges the world with meaning, making the ordinary "sacramental" ("To Jay Macpherson") and transforming "chaotic darkness" to form ("The Fountain"). In the "shadowy and obscure universe," the poet sees, Smith says, "the possibility of subtle unity and strives in his poetry to achieve it."58 To do so, it is necessary, he writes, "to descend . . . deeply into the heart of reality" — "to pierce uncompromisingly through to the heart of an experience,"59 and this often meant, for Smith himself, an approach from opposite poles. It is what he admired in John Donne; Donne has "the ability to wind and twist and push right in to the heart of an idea which before its final capture seeks to force an escape through every byway and alley of association, and is dragged to the light at last with a whole glittering host of attendant ideas."60

     Smith's poems on poetics present moments of intense engagement: Iphigenia's dance of death at Aulis, the boy-prince's renunciation of a kingdom, and the Fisher Queen's salvation of hers. These are occasions of fierceness, devotion, and discipline patterns for poetry. Created in fierceness and effort, the "hard thing done / Perfectly" should appear, paradoxically, to have been done "as though without care." Twenty years after his advice "To a Young Poet," in the essay "Poet" (1956), Smith outlined the demands of the craft: "self-discipline, self-control, and the humility that comes from submission to the laws of craftsmanship are so essential."61

     Although in "Shadows There Are" Smith acknowledges his own limitations in confronting the meaning of death, it was this subject, his earliest and most often recurring, that elicited the tense effort which is obvious in a poem such as "The Archer."

Bend back thy bow, O Archer, till the string
Is level with thine ear, thy body taut,
Its nature art, thyself thy statue wrought
Of marble blood, thy weapon the poised wing
Of coiled and aquiline Fate. (PNC 158)

That strain, that effort, became for Smith a criteria for poetry. The poems on poetics, though intimately connected with his poems on death, celebrate the results of poetic discipline — the song, the dance, the ceremonial moment, the feast — which can renew with "meadow . . . the northern stone."


  1. A.J.M. Smith, "Refining Fire: The Meaning and Use of Poetry 1954," On Poetry and Poets: Selected Essays (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1977) 64. "Refining Fire: The Meaning and Use of Poetry" was first published in Queen's Quarterly 61 (Autumn 1954) 353-364. Hereafter referred to as "Refining Fire." With co-editor Adrian Jaffe, Smith projected an anthology of modern literature to be called The Refining Fire. Their selections of prose, both fictional and non-fictional, and poetry, were to illustrate "the spiritual dilemma of modem times." Although a contract with a publisher was signed 21 April 1960, the anthology was never published. Bata Library, Trent University, B-80-005/2(14).[back]

  2. F.W. Watt, "The Plot Against Smith," Canadian Literature 105 (Summer 1985): 117.[back]

  3. A.J.M. Smith, "The Archer," Poems, New and Collected (Toronto: Oxford, 1967) 158. Smith's poetry is quoted from this collection.[back]

  4. Watt, "The Plot Against Smith": 126.[back]

  5. "Studies in the Metaphysical Poets of the Anglican Church in the Seventeenth Century," diss. Edinburgh University, 1931. Bata Library, Trent University, B-80-005/3 (8-14).[back]

  6. Collected Poems (Toronto: Oxford, 1962). The Classic Shade: Selected Poems (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart), 1978.[back]

  7. M.L. Rosenthal, in his introduction to The Classic Shade, says: "If we viewed Smith's complete ouevre as a unit, we would find in it analogous balancings of joy in the life-force and more depressive visions" (12).[back]

  8. "Shadows There Are," The Nation, 15 June 1927: 671; rev. News of the Phoenix (Toronto: Ryerson, 1943); rpt. CP, PNC; trans. Canadian Literature 39 (Winter 1969): 29; rpt. ellipse 22 (1978): 86; trans. ellipse 22 (1978): 87; rpt. CS. "Shadows" comes second in CP, third in CS. For each poem that I discuss, I provide a note listing periodical and book publication of the poem, excluding anthologies. For the publication, history of Smith's poems, I am indebted to the bibliographies of Ann Burke and Michael Darling. Anne Burke, A.J.M. Smith: An Annotated Bibliography (Toronto: ECW Press, 1983). Michael Darling, "A Variorum Edition of the Poems of A.J.M. Smith with a Descriptive Bibliography and Reference Guide," diss. York University, 1979.[back]

  9. A.J.M. Smith, "A Note on Metaphysical Poetry," Canadian Mercury 1.3 (Feb. 1929): 61.[back]

  10. Rosenthal 15.[back]

  11. A.M. Klein, "The Poetry of A.J.M. Smith," The Canadian Forum 23.277 (Feb. 1944): 251.[back]

  12. Peter Stevens sees Smith as "a much more romantic poet than is usually conceded." "The Legacy of A.J.M. Smith," Canadian Poetry 11 (Fall-Winter 1982): 4.[back]

  13. Michael Hornyansky believes Smith pretends to be "a ghost or relic," but his living presence makes shades of the pretenders. "Review of The Classic Shade," University of Toronto Quarterly 48 (Summer 1979): 345.[back]

  14. Smith is ironical and sceptical about poetic inspiration; poetry is the "difficult, lonely music" of the human heart. Layton, Smith's opposite in this, describes his experience of poetic creation: "I am not capable of thinking like a normal person until the poem is completed. I am possessed by the Great White Goddess or some Anima Mundi. . . . I am a prophet, the Delphic oracle. . . ." Irving Layton in an opening address to the Foster Poetry Conference, 1963, qtd. in Elspeth Cameron, Irving Layton: A Portrait (Toronto: Stoddart, 1985) 456. Supposedly, the earthy Layton challenged repressed and effete poets, like A.J.M. Smith, but it is Smith, not Layton, who writes poetry from the earth-bound, human position, without claim to prophetic inspiration.[back]

  15. Smith, "Refining Fire," On Poetry and Poets 60.[back]

  16. George Williamson, "Donne and the Poetry of Today," A Garland for John Donne, 1631-1931, ed. Theodore Spencer (Gloucester: Peter Smith, 1958) 176. See also Cleanth Brooks "Notes for a Revised History of English Poetry," Modern Poetry and Tradition 219-244.[back]

  17. A.J.M. Smith, "The Poetic Process: On the Making of Poems," Fifth Annual Centennial Review Lecture, 1964, Michigan State U, East Lansing, Mich. 22 May 1964. Printed in The Centennial Review of Arts and Sciences 8 (Fall 1964) 353-70. Rpt. Towards a View of Canadian Letters: Selected Critical Essays 1928-1971 (Victoria: University of British Columbia Press, 1973) 223-230.[back]

  18. "The Poetic Process," Towards a View of Canadian Letters 219.[back]

  19. "The Poetic Process," Towards a View of Canadian Letters 219.[back]

  20. "The Poetic Process," Towards a View of Canadian Letters 222.[back]

  21. "To a Young Poet, for C.A.M.," Poetry 44 (July 1934): 197; rev. NP; rev. CP; rpt. PNC; trans. Canadian Literature 39 (Winter 1969): 29; rpt. CS; trans. ellipse 22(1978): 63; rpt. ellipse 22 (1978): 62. No dedication NP.[back]

  22. "The Fountain," The Adelphi 7 (Jan. 1934): 236; rev. NP, rpt. CP, PNC, CS. "The Fountain" is in section 3, PNC.[back]

  23. John Donne, The Complete Englieh Poems 105; Grierson's commentary, The Poems of John Donne 2.62.[back]

  24. Appeared as "Proud Parable," Canadian Mercury 1 (Dec. 1928): 15; rev. Hound and Horns (Jan.-Mar. 1932): 207; rev. NP; rpt. CP; trans. Canadian Literature 39 (Winter 1969): 28; rpt. PNC; trans. ellipse 22(1978): 65; rpt. ellipse 22 (1978): 64; rpt. CS. Hereafter referred to as "Parable."[back]

  25. Watt, "The Plot Against Smith": 116.[back]

  26. Louis Martz, The Poetry of Meditation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954) 28.[back]

  27. I have noticed this 3-part structure, or movement, in other Smith poems — "Good Friday," "The Archer," and "Prothalamium." It may be that Smith is following a pattern, familiar to him from the Metaphysical poets, a pattern which Louis Martz argues derives from meditative exercises. "My point," writes Martz in his Preface to the Second Edition of The Poetry of Meditation, "was not to suggest that any of these English poets had read any particular version of these treatises: it was to show that these methods had already entered into the English language, that the treatises had become a part of the popular culture of the era . . . ." (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954) xvi.[back]

  28. T.S. Eliot "A Game of Chess," "The Waste Land," Selected Poems (London: Faber, 1961)54.[back]

  29. A.J.M. Smith, "Hamlet in Modern Dress," McGill Fortnightly Review (3 Nov. 1926) 2.[back]

  30. Desmond McCarthy, letter to A.J.M. Smith, n.d., A.J.M. Smith Papers, Bate Library, Trent University (B-78-007-1(2)). McCarthy objected to the "counterpane" line.[back]

  31. In the original (1928) version, the narrator asks for "such a strength in blood and bone / As nerved the Spartan spearman when he died."[back]

  32. I.S. MacLaren in "The Yeatsian Presence in A.J.M. Smith's 'Like an Old, Proud King in a Parable,'" CanadianPoetry 4 (Spring-Summer 1979): 61-62 finds that a certain phrase in the poem "invites a biographical reading of the poem in terms of Yeats' unhappy abdication of his public roles at the Abbey Theatre and elsewhere." "Smith," MacLaren continues, "is invoking the 'father' Yeats as his master craftsman and perhaps even as his muse"; the poem "announces the aspiration of his (Smith's) poetical identity." MacLaren is incorrect in identifying a 1926 McGill Fortnightly version of the poem (61). The "Proud Parable" to which MacLaren refers is another poem. See McGill Fortnightly 1.8 (March 1926): 65.[back]

  33. In the 1928 Canadian Mercury first publication of the poem, the events of the parable are those which "old masters say."[back]

  34. However much Smith's renunciatory procedures for poetry resemble the procedures which he outlines for faith, in one way faith and poetry are radically different. In his "Pilgrimage" towards faith, Herbert identifies as one of the obstructions, "The rock of Pride" (Herbert 142); Smith deals at length in his thesis with Herbert's struggle with pride. In at least two of Smith's poems, "Offices" and "The Cry," humility is the prerequisite for faith, but in this poem, "Parable," pride is his "paramour," his illicit lover. In the renunciatory language of "Parable," Smith reassures himself that poetry is, nevertheless, certainly as difficult as faith.[back]

  35. Smith, "Refining Fire," On Poetry and Poets 65.[back]

  36. "The Plot Against Proteus," Hound and Horn 5 (Jan-Mar. 1932): 206; rpt. NP, CP, PNC; rev. Adam International 32.313-315 (1967): 47; trans. ellipse 22 (1978): 67; rpt. ellipse 22 (1978): 66; rpt. CS.[back]

  37. Watt, "The Plot Against Smith": 120.[back]

  38. Eliot, Selected Poems 17-21.[back]

  39. Smith, "Studies in the Metaphysical Poets of the Anglican Church in the Seventeenth Century" 5.[back]

  40. Gordon Johnston and Michael Peterman, "The Voice to go with the Room," interview with A.J.M. Smith. Friends of the Bata Library 2 (1979-80): n.p.[back]

  41. Desmond Pacey, Ten Canadian Poets (Toronto: Ryerson, 1958) 216.[back]

  42. Eliot, "Portrait of a Lady," Selected Poems 21.[back]

  43. "To Jay Macpherson," Tamarack Review 10 (Winter 1959): 37; "To Jay Macpherson on Her Book of Poems," CP, PNC, CS.[back]

  44. The Works of George Herbert, ed. F.E. Hutchinson (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1941) 57. Sandra Djwa in "A.J.M. Smith: Of Metaphysics and Dry Bones," Studies in Canadian Literature 3 (Winter 1978): 17-34, notes connections between Smith's poetry and that of George Herbert.[back]

  45. Herbert, "Jordan II," The Works of George Herbert 103.[back]

  46. Jessie L. Weston, From Ritual to Romance (New York: Doubleday, 1957) 136.[back]

  47. Weston 125.[back]

  48. Smith, "The Poetic Process," Towards a View of Canadian Letters 220.[back]

  49. "In Memoriam: E.J.P.," Tamarack Review 32 (Summer 1964): 38-39; rev. PNC; rev. CS. In Classic Shade the line "Only the simplest words have meaning," is dropped. "In Memo riam" is in section 6, PNC. The origin of this poem is as follows: "We had a Tamarack editorial meeting last night and I suggested that you might possibly be persuaded to write a poem about him (Pratt) which we would then publish in our summer issue, as a memorial from you and the magazine. I suggest this partly remembering your wonderful poem to W.B. Yeats." Robert Weaver, letter to A.J.M. Smith, 28 Apr. 1964, A.J.M. Smith Papers, Thomas Fisher Library, University of Toronto, Box 2.[back]

  50.                              Yet Homer had not sung
    Had he not found it certain beyond dreams
    That out of life's own self-delight had sprung
    The abounding glittering jet.        "Ancestral Houses," "Meditations in Time of Civil War,"
    Collected Poems 255.[back]

  51. Smith, "The Poetic Process," Towards a View of Canadian Letters 217.[back]

  52. "What the Emanation of Casey Jones Said to the Medium," The Nation, 12 Jan. 1957: 44; rpt. CP, PNC; rev. CS.[back]

  53. Helen C. White, The Metaphysical Poets:A Study ofReligious Experience (1936; New York: Macmillan, 1966) 16.[back]

  54. Smith, "Studies in the Metaphysical Poets of the Anglican Church in the Seventeenth Century" 5.[back]

  55. White 86.[back]

  56. Smith, "Refining Fire," On Poetry and Poets 61.[back]

  57. M.L. Rosenthal and A.J.M. Smith, eds. Exploring Poetry (New York: Macmillan, 1955) xv.[back]

  58. Smith, "A Note on Metaphysical Poetry" 61.[back]

  59. Smith, "Refining Fire," On Poetry and Poets 59-60.[back]

  60. Smith, "Studies in the Metaphysical Poets of the Anglican Church in the Seventeenth Century" 160.[back]

  61. Smith "Poet," (1956) Towards a View of Canadian Letters (Victoria: University of British Columbia P, 1973) 191. "Poet" was first delivered as an address to The Canadian Writers' Conference Queen's U, Kingston 28 July 1955. Writing in Canada: Proceedings of the Canadian Writers' Conference, Queen's University 28-31 July, 1955. Ed. George Whalley (Toronto: Macmillan, 1956): 13-24.[back]