It is with horror that I have just noticed that it’s time for the 1938 Club hosted by Kaggsy and Simon and I had forgotten all about it. Too late to read and write about anything lengthy, but I wanted to participate at least in spirit and decided to post a poem from Stevie Smith’s second collection, Tender Only to One, which was first published in 1938. It’s a collection riddled with death, mothers and children, thus I’ve chosen a poem which combines all those themes. So suitable for spring! I didn’t know what Eulenspiegelei was – an owl’s fried egg? – and when I looked it up I came across this definition:
Eulenspiegelei signifies odd practical jokes, and is derived from Eulenspiegel, the traditional perpetrator of such pleasantries.
(Note to p. 49 of E.T.A. Hoffmann, The Sandman and The Elementary Spirit (Two Mysterious Tales), translated and edited by John Oxenford, New York: Mondial 2008.)
The poem has two main rhyme schemes, which alternate per stanza: ABAB CDDC EFEF etc. It feels unstable when you read it, especially as Smith then disrupts rhythm and rhyme scheme heartlessly. With its story of a stormy night and a changeling, it harks back to traditional ballads. But there’s an edge spiking the melancholy: that word ‘poke’ fits oddly with the archaic and ‘high poetic’ language of the rest of the poem and the overt reference to ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’. And there is less punctuation than we might like (‘Dear mother dear I cannot say’ – I expect a few commas there) which mocks the artlessness of the child’s utterances, makes them seem fake. The poem seems to be setting itself up as a spooky ballad and then undermining itself. The ‘mew’ at the end is a cruel way to describe the cries of the bereaved mother. I find it a disturbing poem but I like it.
To be so cold and yet not old
Oh what can ail the changeling child?
She has an eye that is too bold
Upon the night. She is beguiled.
The night is dark and the windowpane
Holds the rattle of the falling rain.
Oh look not forth but look within
Where the room lies safe from the stormwinds’ din.
The tears upon the infant eyes
Are held in icy thrall
And when she speaks contrariwise
The rivven echoes fall:
Oh mother come not near me now
Nor lay thy hand upon my brow
Few years if any heap upon my head
But I am old as the newly dead.
Now louder far than stormwinds’ jar
And the voice of mother and child
Is heard the scritch of the gravid bitch
That will be so wild.
Oh what can ail the gravid bitch
That howls upon the midnight stroke?
Dear mother dear I cannot say
Perhaps the devil gave her a poke.
The changeling child from her bed is gone
The mother weeps alone
And the stormwinds beat on the window pane
To mock the maternal moan.
Oh whither is fled thy changeling child
And by what witching craft?
It was the Eulenspiegel spake
And as he spake he laughed.
For well he knew that wrought it so,
The bitch and changeling too
Are vanished away from the stormwinds’ play
And the stricken mother’s mew.
(From The Collected Poems of Stevie Smith, edited by James MacGibbon; London: Allan Lane, 1975; pp. 98–99 of the Penguin Modern Classics edition)
(Photograph of Stevie Smith from here; alas I could not find the drawing she did which accompanies this poem in the book and I encourage you to get hold of a copy of the Collected Works because her drawings really do add something)