Structure, form, whatever ..?
The poem flows like a river, sometimes quickly sometimes meandering along. A single long stanza, if you like, where the lines float and swirl into pools, through a weir and flow “merrily” downstream in rhyming couplets until reaching an abrupt and deadly end.
Mr Bruff has a bit to say about structure here.
He compares Simon Armitage’s Give and Stevie Smith’s The River God in terms of structure and then goes on to a detailed analysis of the structure of John Agard’s Checkin Out Me History. Worth listening to if you’re in a mood to concentrate ..
Character and Voice, yeh ..
Personification, uh of course .. The river is a god, old and powerful, uninterruptedly speaking his thoughts. He seems quietly dangerous, but sad somehow and lonely. This is why he doesn’t have too much patience for people who take him for granted and also why he eventually kidnaps a “lady who was too bold,” and hopes she will stay and be his companion. The River God is the dangerous spirit of the river that lies hidden beneath its surface.
Language – Who’s talking? How?
A dramatic monologue in the first person where the poet takes on the persona of the central character – The River God.
The poem starts out as if in reply to ‘accusations’ – who from? It is as if the river is talking to us.
Enjambment, alliteration – all over the place, giving us an idea of ‘who’ The River God actually is. Listen, if you like, to Mrs Tomkins. She has quite a lot to say about the language Stevie Smith chose for her poem here.
What’s it about? – On the surface ..
- Watch out! A warning – The River God is telling humans that while we may think that he is just a “smelly”, “old” river he is actually a powerful force. Be careful!
- We should feel sorry for him – The River God is lonely and misunderstood. He punishes people who don’t respect him and reminds us that while we may dismiss him as “rough and reedy”, he has many good qualities.
- This is a love poem – the River God has fallen in love with a human. The River God reminds us that while all of us have forgotten the beautiful lady he will never forget her or forgive her if she leaves.
- ‘The River God’ was inspired by an existing river – “the River Mimram in Hertfordshire, which rises from a spring to the north of Whitwell, in North Hertfordshire, and makes its confluence with the River Lea near Horn’s Mill in Hertford.”
What’s it about? – Themes ..
The power of nature, love, loneliness, rejection, respect, violence .. death.
The poem shows us how we take aspects of nature for granted when each part of it has its own inner life and holds secrets we know nothing about.
In a lot of ways, these days, the poem’s character might appear to be a bit creepy, or sinister. The 21st century context, with its purge of powerful, predatory people, particularly men, accused, charged and proven guilty of crimes against women and children, perhaps gives the poem a different feel.
It looks like this ..
I may be smelly and I may be old,
Rough in my pebbles, reedy in my pools,
But where my fish float by I bless their swimming
And I like the people to bathe in me, especially women.
But I can drown the fools
Who bathe too close to the weir, contrary to rules.
And they take a long time drowning
As I throw them up now and then in the spirit of clowning.
Hi yih, yippity-yap, merrily I flow,
O I may be an old foul river but I have plenty of go.
Once there was a lady who was too bold
She bathed in me by the tall black cliff where the water runs cold,
So I brought her down here
To be my beautiful dear.
Oh will she stay with me will she stay
This beautiful lady, or will she go away?
She lies in my beautiful deep river bed with many a weed
To hold her, and many a waving reed.
Oh who would guess what a beautiful white face lies there
Waiting for me to smooth and wash away the fear
She looks at me with. Hi yih, do not let her
Go. There is no one on earth who does not forget her
Now. They say I am a foolish old smelly river
But they do not know of my wide original bed
Where the lady waits, with her golden sleepy head.
If she wishes to go I will not forgive her.
It sounds like this ..
This is a reading of the poem set to video by Middlesex University students. It could be The River God, couldn’t it?
Stevie Smith (1902–1971) was born Florence Margaret Smith in Kingston upon Hull.
When she was three, her father left home and she moved with her mother, two aunts and sister to Palmer’s Green in London. At the age of five she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent to a sanatorium in Kent. She suffered from depression all her life.
Many of her poems explore death, a subject she became preoccupied with as a child. She thought of death as a release from what she called the ‘pressure of despair’.
She began writing poetry while working as a private secretary at a publishing company in London. She worked there for 30 years until she suffered a breakdown in her early 50s.
In the 1960s she was a popular, eccentric performer.
This is her talking about and reading what is probably her most famous poem – Not Waving But Drowning
Her poetry is unconventional and uses a dark sense of humour – amusing but also unnerving, a bit weird.
She wrote eight volumes of poetry and three semi-autobiographical novels. She drew pictures to accompany her poetry, but rarely found a publisher who wanted to include them in her books.
She died of a brain tumour in 1971.
What do you think?
You may feel some sympathy for the character. He’s been shunned by society for so long, people have used him and taken advantage of him. He has been kind and he has been patient and, most of the time, he has been good. And even when he was bad, he was only bad out of desperation and for want of connection with others, for want of love. Of course, he shouldn’t be so twisted. He should know better and he should be able to control himself and not use his strength and his power to do harm. You might think that. And you might be sure that he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t be like he was, if only people would give him a chance and if only he could find love again.
You might think, no wonder he’s alone. He’s a miserable old brute of a man with nothing but spite and self-interest in his heart. You might argue that he needs to be kept under watch and controlled in case he does harm. Indeed, if he has already done bad things, you might say that he should be locked up for the benefit of decent society. You might suggest even more punishment, depending on how strongly you felt about the crimes the character admits to.
Or you might think something different .. Wonder what Stevie Smith thought?