The River God – Stevie Smith
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 their time drowning
As I throw them up now and then in a 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.
Once again we come to a second poem by Stevie Smith. I can remember when doing my GCSEs that we looked at a Stevie Smith poem back then and I was left with that sinking feeling you get in the pit of the stomach after reading it for the first time.
Let’s see if this one has the same effect.
It begins in the first person, using the term “I” instead of third person which would be about a person, like her poem in the conflict section. But this “I” is reflecting, saying “I may be smelly, and I may be old,” which immediately should have an effect on the reader, making them feel empathy towards the character speaking. If anything it is meant to be said in such a way as to get that effect from the reader.
So this person, or thing, for the title says “river God,” feels as if it is smelly and old, but then we see a further description in that it is seeing itself as “rough in my pebbles, reedy in my pools,” which is slightly odd as a way of describing itself, unless we keep to the idea of a god being described, but what form does that ‘god’ take? If it is in a river, is it the biggest fish or predator in there? The answer is given in the next line where it says “but where my fish float by I bless their swimming,” so this is no fish, but rather, something that ‘allows’ the swimming fish to take their place amongst the other life in the river.
This god then adds “I like the people to bathe in me, especially women.” Once again, who or what is the river god? What form of creature or being is it that likes to have people bathe in it, unless it is the river itself speaking. At least in that way, we can see the personification at work here as it adds “but I can drown the fools who bathe too close to the weir, contrary to rules.” In this way, the poet uses personification to bring the river to life. We speak of a river as a living thing normally. We might say to children to be very careful for a river is a dangerous thing indeed. And we would be right to do so, but we forget at our peril what we are doing with language at that point as we bring life into the river as though it is alive [which it indeed is].
There is a feeling of disdain in this poem from the river [god] to the people as well. Just as much as it rejoices in the swimmers who know what they are doing, it makes snide comments about the ones who do not follow the rules as they “take their time drowning” and dying within its grasp. This is a reference to the power that water has. A river has currents that can be tricky to swimmers if they do not know what they are doing. Indeed, where I live, there has been three deaths in the river [Ouse] in this last twelve months because drunken revellers have ended up in the water and been caught out by the strength of the water beneath them. One such body was not found for weeks.
Stevie Smith then has the river [god] mention that it throws them up “now and then in a spirit of clowning.” It is a strange comment or line to make even from this god of wrath, but one that shows the fickle nature of the creation it exists within. The words “Hi yih, yippity-yap, merrily I flow, O I may be an old foul river but I have plenty of go” show the reader that this is something that does not care, does not have feelings or compassion, but rather, is something that exists and should be taken great care with. It shows the danger and it shows the power that a river has at its disposal. Our concept of God [with a capital G] may be one thing or another. Our concept of a god [with small g] may be something else. But what is true is that this personified being is a mighty one indeed.
This is reflected in the next line where the river [god] tells the story of one of its victims. We are told that “once there was a lady who was too bold.” Immediately, we are led into thinking that this is another victim that is being described here, as “she bathed in me by the tall black cliff where the water runs cold,” itself a description meant to make the reader think certain things. Coldness is a symbol, or even metaphor, for death or dying and one is immediately aware here that Smith’s other poem, in the conflict section, is also about the onset of death. Is there a parallel here? Is she pre-occupied with death as a writer? Or if not death, with suffering and pain?
The river itself gives us the answer to that question as it adds “so I brought her down here to be my beautiful dear.” It is as if the river god needs to have its victims from time to time, needs to have a partner of some description, as if it yearns for the next person to not take enough care so it can gobble down its prey. It is personified therefore, as a predator in the wild, just like any other wild animal. The river god asks “oh will she stay with me will she stay, ,this beautiful lady, or will she go away? It is as if the question is being asked of someone or something else. It is like she [the river god-dess now?] needs to have permission to take this victim down to her depths? Is this an all powerful God then? I think not because an all powerful, omnipotent God does not need permission to do things.
And as this dramatic monologue continues we then begin to see how much the river god wants to keep her prey. We see the words “she lies in my beautiful deep river bed with many a weed,” deep and safe [in a morose sense] so as to never be found. This is not a god then who is loving in the normal sense but one who loves the ones that end up at the bottom on the river bed with “many a waving reed” to hold them in place.
The river god tells us from her depths that she has capabilities of reassuring and calming the victim/lover that exists within her depths. She says “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.” She has the ability therefore with time and decay, to wipe away any fear, to make good on her promises and to keep the person there for all eternity. In that way, she is like the God she suggests she is. Once again we see the sing song style made up words of “Hi yih,” followed by “do not let her go.” She is imploring us to look after the ones we love, to not let them get into danger, to make sure that they are safe, otherwise, she will take them given half the chance. She is after all, a jealous God and one that will take what she can.
So, we humans who exist above her depths need to be aware of each other, to love each other and care for each other; to not make it so that “there is no one on earth who does not forget” to do this and then lose someone close. The river god describes herself as a “foolish old smelly river” and one who has a “wide original bed where the lady waits, with her golden sleepy head.” It is as if an animal exists down there inside the water, an animal that is the river itself, something that wants its prey, a hunter if you like, who seeks out and keeps those wayward strays that come from above into the murky waters.
And she is a jealous God too because in the last line we hear her say “if she wishes to go I will not forgive her.” This is a reference to the woman in the previous lines but it shows an entity that will not be forgiving should the lady in question be rescued by those who want to save her, in the god’s view, a woman who “wishes to go” back to dry land.
This therefore, is a very classy poem. It uses personification to bring the river god to life. It tells us how effective she is at securing and keeping her prey, her victims who have drowned and it shows a range of emotions as if a river could have them; calmness, gentility, rage, jealousy to name but a few. If I had the chance to write about this in the exam, I would choose this one because it is, I think, easier than some of the others to get into and unpack!