The Complete Poetry of Cicely Fox Smith
Edited by Charles Ipcar and James Saville
Introduction by Dr. Marcia Phillips McGowan
($34.95, (7″ X 10″) Paperback, 790 pages, with 243 illustrations and photographs)
Cicely Fox Smith was considered by a 1926 reviewer in Punch Magazine the “poet of the sea,” in recognition of her peerless ability to articulate the true voice of sailors and sea faring people. Her poetry gave voice to the generations who sailed the seas, and has been turned into hundreds of songs. This complete collection, in its 2nd edition, full revised and edited by Charles Ipcar and James Saville, is the culmination of many years dedicated research by a dedicated group of enthusiasts and admirers of her poetry. The book includes over 240 illustrations, often the original artwork that accompanied individual poems on their first publication.
In this 2nd edition, apart from updated numerous notes, countless minor edits, and correction, we have added several reviews of her books and most importantly 74 new poems. These new poems include 23 published poems—pushing her earliest published poetry back to 1896, amazingly when she was just 14 years of old—and 51 previously unknown and unpublished handwritten poems secreted away in various archives around the world. Also included in this 2nd edition is an excellent introduction by Dr. Marcia Phillips McGowan, distinguished Professor Emerita of English, Eastern Connecticut State University, reprinted below.
INTRODUCTION BY MARCIA PHILLIPS MCGOWN
Cicely Fox Smith was a young, respectable, middle class woman at the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century. For someone in her social position, she possessed a rather unique talent: she was able to master the dialect of seagoing men and then reproduce it in enchanting poetry that has lent itself readily to the rhythms of sea chanteys. While this in itself is fascinating to me, I will instead focus on why Smith, once a celebrated narrative poet, has been in our day, largely forgotten. Despite a large body of significant work, Smith’s name is missing both from the standard literary canon and from the one that has been so extensively revised by feminist critics from the 1980s to the present.
In the first edition of The Complete Poems of Cicely Fox Smith, poet Joanie Di Martino remarks upon the fact that Smith’s work was critically acclaimed in her generation yet has been neglected since her death. Di Martino acknowledges that Smith “eschewed the literary movements of her generation” such as “Modernism, Imagism and the Free Verse Movement, which abandoned structure and rhyme” (xi) and mentions that the experimentalism of the avant-garde is missing in Smith’s work. I would like to posit that it is this missing element that accounts, at least partially, for the unjustifiable neglect of her work. In addition, Smith’s adherence to Victorian era values during a time of post-WWI disillusionment that was experienced by a large majority of the British population—most notably Modernist poets, writers and artists—undoubtedly influenced this neglect. Like her contemporaries John Masefield, Joseph Conrad, and Rudyard Kipling, Smith was attracted both to the sea and to traditional modes of narrative expression. She chose to ignore Ezra Pound’s famous dictum to “make it new.” In a time of social upheaval and inevitable movement towards rights for women, the Cicely Fox Smith who so purposefully mastered the language and rhythms of men ironically chose to remain an “old fashioned girl,” one who valued and celebrated the past in a time which insisted on looking to the future.
In fact, there is in Smith’s diction and poetry little acknowledgement of the changes wrought in post-WWI women’s lives. Perhaps as a result, when she is mentioned at all by feminist critics, it is only to refer to her as a “jingoist” writer, one who unquestioningly accepted her womanly role of supporting the disastrous war which cost at least ten million men their lives, virtually wiping out a whole British generation. In contrast, other women poets such as H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), Mina Loy, and even Edith Sitwell, reacted rather strongly in their poetry not only to Victorian formalist patterns and images, but to the values these patterns and images preserved. Whereas H. D., for instance, attempted to reconstruct gender norms in her poetry, Cicely Fox Smith seems to have accepted them, following the rhythms and images of the great male masters of Romantic and Victorian balladry such as Sir Walter Scott and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Alfred Lord Tennyson and Rudyard Kipling. The Modernists’ distrust of Victorian positivism, evinced by such writers as Wyndham Lewis, May Sinclair, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and Mary Borden, to name a few, continues to this day, as does the influence of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Henri Bergson. Smith, however, eschewed these influences and remained a positivist writer. Perhaps the popularity of her poetry in her own time is largely due to her rejection of what she may have seen as negative influences on her own writing and her celebration of the traditional cultural values of Imperial Britain. Smith’s poetry reaffirms the value of the past and, as Rosa Maria Bracco notes, offers us “an important insight into middle class ideology” (203). Like many middle class writers addressing a predominately middle class audience, Smith knew what her public wanted and gave it to them.
However, Smith’s acceptance not only of the rhythms and carefully rhymed stanzas of Victorian poetry but of the very cultural values and gender norms that kept women out of the literary canon have done her no favors with the literary critics of the latter half of the twentieth century and the first part of the twenty-first. The fact that Smith, like many others of her generation, felt a need for affirming life and faith rather than destabilizing it, as did the Imagists, Vorticists, Surrealists and adherents to other revolutionary literary movements, should not condemn her to obscurity. We must remember that she was born in a time when women used synonyms or initials to sign their work because literature was considered a male purview; Marian Evans used the pseudonym George Eliot, and the Bronte sisters used the male pseudonyms Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell in order to gain the opportunity to be published. Smith was born into a world which showed her, until gender norms began to change and her work was well-established, that the use of the initials C. F. S. or the name C. Fox-Smith would bring credibility to a genre—the sea poem—long considered to be the privilege of men. However, the confluence of the first wave of the Women’s Movement with women’s contributions to the Great War effort from 1914-1918 led to the subsequent enfranchisement of British women over thirty in 1918. Women’s work in the war effort brought them access to professions hitherto restricted to men. Although women writers in general continued to struggle to maintain professional standing and respect, new opportunities brought self-awareness and a destabilization of gender norms.
In fact, many feminist critics have noticed a transition away from self-concealment to self-awareness and assertion in post-WWI women’s poetry. I detect an increasing self-assertion in Smith’s 1930s poems such as “I Have Seen,” from Anchor Lane, or in the tongue-in-cheek Punch poems such as “The Misanthrope,” “Sale By Auction,” “Tea in the Garden,” and “County Pleasures”—arguably the wittier poems of the 1930s. Smith’s sense of humor is evident in much of her poetry, but nowhere as much as in her underestimated Punch poetry. When poems framed in the first person appear, relating her own experiences, we are introduced to a new voice, one which asserts that everyday life as well as heroic deeds are not only worthy of note, but may be gently satirized. These poems are less conventional, more Dorothy Parker-like. This voice appears as well in Smith’s children’s poems, which are sheer joy to read. Such poems are a far cry from the better known sea poems and the hortatory poems celebrating the glory of empire. There is a new ease in them—a sense of fun that perhaps could only come with the relative freedom felt by women between the two world wars.
This sense of ease was absent when Smith began to write in the late nineteenth century. The preface to The Poets and the Poetry of the Nineteenth Century: Christina Rossetti to Katharine Tynan (1907), edited by Alfred H. Miles, includes poems by Smith and mentions, in typical Victorian fashion, that her father was a Balliol man and the Arnold prize winner of his year (447). The fact that he became a barrister on the Northern Circuit and that her mother was a clergyman’s daughter must have instilled in Smith the upper middle class values that are immediately evident in her early poetry. She seems never to have questioned those solidly Christian values against which many of her contemporaries rebelled. Yet it is interesting that as late as 2006 she is included in the Home Front Encyclopedia: United States, Britain and Canada in World Wars I and II, wherein her volume of war poems, Fighting Men is mentioned as a “significant collection” (372). However, the definitive feminist critics of women’s writing during the Great War barely mention her except to note her jingoism. The writers most lauded by feminist critics are those who served either in the hospitals, at home, or the ambulance units near the front, and related the horrors of war that these positions revealed to them. In Women’s Poetry of the First World War, Nosheen Khan mentions Smith among writers like Katharine Tynan and Alice Meynell, who were of “established reputation” (5). However, Khan groups Smith with Jessie Pope as a “popular” writer whose “war verse is primarily jingoistic” (5). Khan does mention, however, that “despite modern unwillingness to admire the heroism that existed,” such verse is of relevance to the whole story of the years 1914-18. She admits that the anti-war view, so celebrated in the works of other feminist critics, “cannot fully explain the poetry of the First World War” (5). I agree and deplore the fact that Smith’s name does not appear in such seminal academic studies as Margaret Higonnet’s Women Writers of WWI or Claire M. Tylee’s The Great War and Women’s Consciousness. However, as Tylee does note, during and after the Great War, “…many women were unable to grasp the descriptions offered them in place of the blindfolds fabricated by the government’s propaganda apparatus…” (55). She adds that everyone not at the battlefront “was subjected to linguistic constructions which it was difficult to resist” (55). The points of view of women on the home front have been denigrated since Siegfried Sassoon’s bitter war poem “Glory of Women” (1918). Perhaps it is time to put such derision to rest. In truth, despite the experimental prose and verse of such writers as Mary Borden, who led ambulance units during both world wars, the poetic idiom of the soldier poets themselves is either primarily Georgian (think of Rupert Brooke’s sonnets) or a continuation of conventional Victorian verse (think of John McCrae’s “In Flanders Field”).
In addition, I would argue that Smith’s reputation and that of her sea poetry over the years suffered because of the institutional sexism of twentieth century reviewers and anthologists alike. Until she began to write sea songs, the genre was rife with masculine privilege. Like the written work of women writers that emerged from the Great War front lines, which was ignored for decades because of alleged inauthenticity, Smith’s sea songs, appearing as they did in successive volumes, suffered critically by comparison to those of such “authentic” male writers as John Masefield, Rudyard Kipling, and ironically, Joseph Conrad, who praised her work generously (Publisher’s Circular 259). Fox Smith’s gender led one reviewer, for instance, though she admired the poems in Sailor Town and Small Craft immensely, to speak of an author who writes “with glamour about the life before the mast” (Plaisted 729). I would venture to say that glamour is a word that has never been coupled with the works of the great male writers of sea poetry.
Moreover, the same reviewer diminishes Fox Smith’s “little volumes” by saying they “are not great in the sense that Masefield’s sea poems and some of the descriptive prose-poetry of Conrad are great” because of the narrowness of theme and confinement to the “seaman’s vocabulary and point of view” (729). So what is, perhaps, most remarkable in Smith’s work, her mastery of the language and experience of the seaman, is denigrated rather than praised. This is the same fate that many of her contemporary women writers and artists suffered. It is only in the last twenty or so years that the work of Mary Cassatt, for instance, has been recognized as equal to that of male Post-Impressionists to whom she was so often compared or that the work of Edith Wharton, which had always suffered by comparison to that of her friend and fellow writer Henry James, has been recognized as great in its own right. Ironically, after assuring the reader that these poems are “not great” (i.e. not worthy of being preserved in any literary canon), the reviewer goes on to praise the realism of Fox Smith’s poetry, “the feeling of a ship with the wild sea beneath it, the keen zest of battling for life against famine, cold, and shipwreck” (729). And she grants that “the sailorman himself would not be ashamed to roar them out on a gala night with such chanteys as ‘Home, dearie home’ and ‘Ah, fare you well’” (729).
One final insight into the virtual disappearance of Smith’s poetry before the appearance of this volume was suggested to me through reading Rosa Maria Bracco’s Merchants of Hope: Middlebrow Writers and the First World War. Bracco challenges prevailing views of a “modern” revolution in literature. Although she recognizes the “separateness” of men’s realities at the front from those of women at home, she argues that as England is “synonymous” with tradition (128), it is “middlebrow” writing that offers its readers “an anchor of meaning within the confusing and contradictory world of the 1920s and 1930s” (199). Though Bracco is speaking mainly of fiction, her assertion that middlebrow writing “reaffirmed historical continuity and the coherence of faith” (12) may be applied to poetry of the period, including that of Cicely Fox Smith.
At present Smith continues to be recognized principally as the fine maritime poet that she is. There can be no higher tribute than her early recognition by Joseph Conrad (see Appendix A, p. 729.) as “the quintessence of the collective soul of the latter-day seaman.” Her mastery of the vocabulary of the sea and the rhythms of its men are perhaps without peer. How Smith attained this mastery as a conventional, even evangelical, woman of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries remain a mystery. But as so many of her ballads lend themselves to musical expression perhaps she will be perceived, at last, not only as a master of verbal phrasing that is musical both in sound and intent but as a versatile poet whose voice, if not convictions, changed over time. The past was not dead to those, like Cicely Fox Smith, who sought to preserve British conservative values. It was to be cherished, and its poetry was to sustain and celebrate it. Whatever our own politics, it must be acknowledged that it is this singleness of purpose as well as the skillful use of rhyme, rhythm and diction that have enabled the well wrought poems of Cicely Fox Smith at last to be included in their own volume.
Marcia Phillips McGowan, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor Emerita of English, Eastern Connecticut State University
Cicely Fox Smith was born February 1, 1882, into a middle class family in Lymm, near Warrington, England during the latter half of the reign of Queen Victoria. Her father Richard Smith was a barrister and her mother Alice Wilson Smith was a housewife. Cicely well might have been expected to have a brief education and then to settle down to life as a homemaker either for her family or her marriage partner. Thankfully that did not happen.
Cicely was well-educated at The Manchester High School for Girls from 1894 to 1897, where she described herself later as “something of a rebel,”1 and started writing poems at a comparatively early age. In an article for the school magazine she later wrote “I have a hazy recollection of epic poems after Pope’s Iliad, romantic poems after Marmion stored carefully away in tin tobacco boxes when I was seven or eight.”2 All of that early work is lost unfortunately. She published her first book of verses when she was 17 and it received favorable press comments.
Wandering the moors near her home she developed a spirit of adventure. She would follow the Holcombe Harriers hunt on foot as a girl, no mean feat.3 She had a fierce desire to travel to Africa but eventually settled for a voyage to Canada.
She sailed with her mother and sister Madge in 1911 on a steamship to Montreal. They then traveled by train to Lethbridge4, Alberta, and stayed for about a year with her older brother Richard Andrew Smith before they continued on to British Columbia (BC).5 From 1912 to 1913 the three of them resided in the James Bay neighborhood of Victoria, 350 Semco Street6, at the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Cicely described herself working as a typist for the BC Lands Department and later for an attorney on the waterfront. Her spare time was spent roaming nearby wharves and alleys, talking to residents and sailors alike. She listened to and learned from the sailors’ tales until she too was able to speak with that authoritative nautical air that pervades her written work.7
On November 23, 1913, Cicely, together with her mother and sister, arrived home in Liverpool aboard the White Star Dominion Line steamer Teutonic on the eve of World War I.8 She and her family then settled in Holcombe Cottage, Boothroyden. The family then shifted to Bury, Lancashire, and after the end of World War I to Hampshire. Her final residence was in West Halse Bow, Crediton, North Devon from about 1950 to 1954.
She soon put her experiences to use in a great outpouring of poetry, some of it clearly focused on supporting England’s war efforts. Much of her poetry was from the point of view of the sailor. The detailed nautical content of her poems made it easy to understand why so many readers presumed that Cicely was male. One correspondent wrote to her as “Capt. Fox Smith” and when she tried to correct him he wrote back “You say you are not a master but you must be a practical seaman. I can always detect the hand of an amateur.”9 He was almost correct. She was familiar with life at sea as few armchair amateurs would ever be. It was only when she was well-established that she started routinely using the by-line “Miss C. Fox Smith” or “Cicely Fox Smith.”
She initially had her poetry published in a wide variety of magazines and newspapers such as Blackwood’s Magazine, Blue Peter, Canada Monthly, Country Life, Cunard Magazine, Daily Chronicle, Grand Magazine, Holly Leaves, Outlook, Pall Mall Gazette, The Daily Mail, The Dolphin, The London Mercury, The Nautical Magazine, The Spectator, The Sphere, The Times Literary Supplement, Westminster Gazette, White Star Magazine, The Windsor Magazine, The Daily Colonist (British Columbia), The Register (Australia), Nelson Evening Mail (New Zealand), and last but hardly least Punch magazine for which she wrote many poems between 1914 and her death in 1954. She later re-published most of these poems in poetry books. In all, she published some 680 poems.
Other literary works by her included three romantic novels, numerous short stories and articles, as well as several books describing “sailortown.” She also published a book of traditional sea shanties that she had collected, and edited a collection of sea poems and stories primarily by other authors. In 1937 she finally realized a childhood dream by sailing around the coast of Africa, as a guest of the Union-Castle Mail Steamship Co. Ltd., stopping in the harbors along the way. She wrote of her experiences in All the Way Round: Sea Roads to Africa. In the 1940’s she began writing children’s sea stories with her sister Margaret (Madge) Scott Smith, other travel books, history books, a book about ship models, at least one biography titled Grace Darling, and contributed to and edited many collections. She also contributed many literary reviews for Punch magazine and the Times Literary Supplement.
The fine art work of her older brother Philip Wilson Smith, known at the time for his etchings of Elizabethan architecture and oil paintings, illustrates many of her poetry and prose books. Her brother was also a veteran of World War I. He died May 7, 1954.
Her literary outpourings were such as to persuade the Government to award her, at the age of 67, a modest pension for “her services to literature.”
She kept writing to the end of her life about many things and many places but always with the accuracy and knowledge of an expert. She even chose her own gravestone epitaph, an extract from one of Walter Raleigh’s poems:10
But from this earth
My lord shall raise me up
Cicely Fox Smith died on April 8th, 1954, in the village of West Hasle Bow, Devon, where she’d been living with her sister Madge. Madge lived on another 19 years, dying in September of 1973.
She is now gaining a wider audience as more and more musicians are putting her poems to music and producing many fine songs, primarily in the nautical folk song tradition; over 80 of her poems have so far been adapted for singing and have been recorded. It is hoped that the present book will help further such interest in the creative work of this fine writer.
Charles Ipcar and James Saville,
March 1, 2014
1. All the Way Round, Cicely Fox Smith, published by Michael Joseph, London, UK, 1938, p. 13
2. “Cicely Fox Smith of Bow,” A. B. Blackmore, in Devon Life, UK, May, 1977, p. 28.
3. “Cicely Fox Smith,” by W. A. F., The Bookman, published by Hodder & Stoughton, London, UK, Volume 64, September, 1923, p. 274
4. Later English Poems 1901-1922, J. E. Wetherell, published by B. A., McClelland & Stewart, Limited, Toronto, Canada, 1922, pp. 35-36
5. 1911 British Census; Later English Poems 1901-1922, pp. 35-36 and 1908 Passenger List (Montreal/Quebec)
6. Henderson’s Greater Victoria City Directory, 1913, on p. 799; she is listed as “writer” “r” (resident) at 350 Simcoe Street; her sister is noted on p. 802 as is her mother on p. 803.
7. Sailor Town Days, p. 163-182; Peregrine in Love pp. 86-87; A Book of Famous Ships, p. 160
8. 1913 Passenger Lists (Liverpool)
9. Songs and Chanties: 1914-1916, Elkin Mathews, London, UK, 1919, p. 232.
10. “Cicely Fox Smith of Bow,” A. B. Blackmore, in Devon Life, UK, May, 1977, p. 29; in All the Way Round, p. 216, the poet quotes the entire Raleigh verse after musing beside the grave in Rhodesia of one of childhood heroes, Leander Starr Jameson, who was one of Cecil John Rhodes’ principal assistants:
“Even such is Time, that takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with age and dust;
Who in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days!
But from this earth, this grave, this dust,
The Lord shall raise me up, I trust.”
There is no doubt in our minds that she chose part of this verse as her own epitaph in memory of her childhood hero.