Stevie Smith (1902-1971) led an outwardly uneventful life behind the respectable curtains of suburbia whilst nurturing a highly individual imagination. Born in Yorkshire, her father left the family to join the North Sea Patrol when she was very young. At the age of three she moved with her mother and sister to the North London suburb of Palmers Green where she lived for the rest of her life. Following her mother’s death when she was still in her teens, Smith and her sister went to live with their spinster aunt, an inspiring figure to Smith who dubbed her ‘The Lion’. Smith attended the North London Collegiate School for girls and after graduating worked as a secretary for the magazine publisher, George Newnes, and this remained her occupation for most of her life. Her first book, Novel on Yellow Paper (1936), examined unrest in England during the First World War. Her first collection of verse, A Good Time Was Had By All, appeared a year later and established that combination of “caprice and doom” which remained characteristic of both her poems and the quirky line drawings that often accompanied them. The jaunty tone of the title is also pure Smith whose work thrives on co-existing contradictions: jokey and serious; colloquial and formal; sophisticated and child-like. Nursery-rhyme motifs, puns and seemingly light-hearted verse structures are used to explore unsettling depths. The most famous example of this sure-footed negotiation of tone is the much-anthologised ‘Not Waving But Drowning’ which was also the title of her 1957 collection. In the 1960s Smith built a popular reputation as a performer of her own work, playing up her eccentricity and ceremonially half-singing some of her poems in a quavering voice. She also made a number of broadcasts and recordings, her skilful and extensive use of personae lending itself particularly well to reading aloud. In 1966 she was recognised by a Cholmondeley Award and in 1969 was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. Stevie Smith died of a brain tumour in 1971 only three years after her indomitable aunt.

In this BBC broadcast, Smith gives the listener an insight into the inspiration behind her work, the “pressures” of both despair and joy which prompt her to write. Both of the featured poems display Smith’s sensibility at its unnerving best: the startling disjunctions in tone, for instance, in ‘Not Waving But Drowning’, which mirror the gulf that can exist between our internal and external lives, or the innocent narrative voice of ‘The Frog Prince’ who looks forward to being “disenchanted”. Her rendition of these classic poems is just as mischievous: the word “playful” seems apt, but if so it’s the playfulness of a cat; charming and elegant but concealing very sharp claws.


These recordings come from the archives of the BBC. The Poetry Archive is very grateful to the BBC for its support in enabling us to feature this important material on the site.

Poems by Stevie Smith

Mother Among the Dustbins - Stevie Smith
The Frog Prince - Stevie Smith
Not Waving But Drowning - Stevie Smith

Books by Stevie Smith