Monday, February 12, 2007

Stevie Smith on Mark's Gospel

The Airy Christ
by Stevie Smith After reading Dr Rieu’s translation of St Mark’s Gospel.

Who is this that comes in splendour, coming from the blazing East?
This is he we had not thought of, this is he the airy Christ.
Airy, in an airy manner in an airy parkland walking,
Others take him by the hand, lead him, do the talking.
But the Form, the airy One, frowns an airy frown,
What they say he knows must be, but he looks aloofly down,
Looks aloofly at his feet, looks aloofly at his hands,
Knows they must, as prophets say, nailèd be to wooden bands.
As he knows the words he sings, that he sings so happily
Must be changed to working laws, yet sings he ceaselessly.
Those who truly hear the voice, the words, the happy song,
Never shall need working laws to keep from doing wrong.
Deaf men will pretend sometimes they hear the song, the words,
And make excuse to sin extremely; this will be absurd.
Heed it not. Whatever foolish men may do the song is cried
For those who hear, and the sweet singer does not care that he was crucified.
For he does not wish that men should love him more than anything
Because he died; he only wishes they would hear him sing.

Stevie Smith, “The Airy Christ” from New Selected Poems. Copyright © 1972 by Stevie Smith. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.Source: The New Selected Poems of Stevie Smith (New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1988).

In this poem, Stevie Smith presents the Airy Christ as a fresh breathing image in Rieu's translation of the gospels. "If Christ is not God," she wrote, "he is a human being, a lofty and noble creature, someone we may love an admire and whose words we may sort." If Christ is God, She argued, then he is party to an ignominious bargain, the death of God's son to redeem our sin, a bargain that imposes an intolerable burden of guilt and gratitude.

In general, she had no patience with aspects of the New English Bible translation and poor syntax. She argued that the translation of Gen 1: "When all things began, the word already was.." leads naturally to the question, "Was what?" since the construction is not current English. Moreover, changing the words of the Lord's Prayer from "Lead us not into temptation" to "Do not bring us to the test" would conjure up for the British reader images of going to a series of cricket matches called "test matches."

Stevie Smith's attitude to Christianity is that of an agnostic who could not entirely abandon belief in a God of Love (Spaulding, Stevie Smith, 234). Alongside her Anglican background was "my formidable conscience, a most practical agent, a really literal creature, full of the plainest common sense and a determination to make words mean what they say."

1 comment:

Julian said...

Stevie Smith's poem is an extraordinary contrast in satire and serious spiritual commentary. The opening lines draw the reader in, prepared to be smirking all the way through -- clearly the translation she is parodying will be a source of hilarity -- then suddenly the reader is twisted around, jerked into profound spiritual reflections. I'm a bit disturbed that the opening lines would put off those over-serious religious readers who really need to hear the final lines. But I LOVE the image of the singing Christ.