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.
Q: Who is speaking in this poem?
It is a dramatic monologue and like many Browning and Carol Ann Duffy monologues, this poem gives voice to a character we progressively find disturbing and even murderous. (See My Last Duchess, Porphyria’s Lover, The Laboratory,Havisham, Education For Leisure and Stealing for example). Stevie Smith enjoys writing about surreal psychological states haunted by death as my earlier blog entry about her otherAQA poem, Come on, Come back reveals.
The River God we presume is male and predatory, despite his occasional capacity for comedy and has a voice both playful and grotesque.‘I may be smelly, and I may be old..’ This apparently self deprecating start has a wily knowingness that ironises the sense and message. For those that underestimate the powers of this River God, do so at their own risk and peril. ‘Rough’ and ‘Reedy’ are connected by the alliteration in order to communicate the flow of the river and we feel a hint of malignancy behind the attempt at friendliness and intimacy. There is a malign smirk behind the poem’s sense and sound? The kindly ownership of the pronoun ‘my’ again creates a slight feeling of unease.
Is the speaker a benign dictator or a despot?
At any rate, we are listening to a ‘mythical’ creature talking to us and we are held by his contrary, dangerous nature, his insane meanderings and falsities. The pleasure of this poem lies in its eccentricities and the ‘slips’ in the narrator’s veneer of pleasantry. In this, the poem does have certain similarities to Browning’s My Last Duchess where again power seems to be the overriding principle of the speaker. Both are also murderers and ‘confess’ to their actions during the course of the poem.
This is a dramatic monologue and the River God speaks to us, the reader. The first word of the poem is and this personal pronoun is repeated many times throughout. The effect of this is that the voice is closely personal as the River God speaks openly about his feelings, actions and beliefs.
The speaker acknowledges his faults in the first two lines:
I may be smelly and I may be old,Rough in my pebbles, reedy in my pools
When somebody does this, we are more likely to believe what they tell us as they show a sense of self-awareness. We understand and realise that this is an old voice talking but we soon become aware that we should not underestimate the River God.
The poet uses a short, direct line to change the mood completely:
But I can drown the fools
In doing this, a different, darker, more serious voice is created than the old timer we first thought we might be encountering.
Smith also uses sounds rather than words, sounds which people might say or sing, distractedly:
Hi yih, yippity-yap...
And this adds realism, bringing the voice to life as everyone behaves like this from time to time, humming a tune or melody.
The voice becomes more real when the River God reveals some of his own insecurities:
Oh will she stay with me will she stayThis beautiful lady, or will she go away?
Rather than being the type of god who is all-powerful and mighty, the voice takes on a human frailty and we almost sympathise, forgetting that the River God has drowned a woman.