Frog Prince

The Frog Prince' is reproduced here by kind permission of the Estate of James MacGibbon. Stevie Smith's work may not be downloaded, reprinted, or reproduced in any other form without the permission of the Stevie Smith Estate who may be contacted at Faber and Faber

'The Frog Prince' is an apparently simple poem, but appearances can be deceptive. The poem is told from the point of view of the frog, who begins by telling us who he is, how he arrived at his present situation, and what will happen to him:

The Frog Prince

I am a frog
I live under a spell
I live at the bottom
of a green well.
And here I must wait
Until a maiden places me
On her royal pillow
And kisses me
In her father's palace.
The story is familiar
Everyone knows it well

All seems straightforward so far. We would now expect the enchanted frog to express delight at the idea of becoming a Prince but instead,  doubts begin to surface:

But do other enchanted people feel as nervous
As I do? The stories do not tell.

Who are these other enchanted people? Is the frog/poet speaking to us? How could we be part of this familiar story or stories? What other stories is Smith thinking of?

Ask if they would be happier
When the changes come
As already they are fairly happy
in a frog's doom?

Can anyone be even fairly happy in a doom? The frog/poet goes on to describe his frog life:

I have been a frog now
For a hundred years
And in this time
I have not shed many tears

I am happy, I like the life
Can swim for many a mile
 
(When I have hopped to the river)
 
And am forever agile.

And the quietness
Yes, I like to be quiet
I am habituated
 
To a quiet life,
But always when I think these thoughts
As I sit in my well
Another though comes to me and says
It is part of the spell

To be happy
To work up contentment
To make much of being a frog
To fear disenchantment.

The frog/poet is happy in his quiet, simple and restricted life as a frog, and so the thought of being disenchanted is understandably daunting; he tells himself that this fear of disenchantment may be part of the spell and so he ought to welcome being free from the spell.

Says, it will be heavenly
To be set free
Cries, heavenly, the girl who disenchants
And the royal time, heavenly
And I think it will be.

Heavenly in Stevie Smith's time had two rather contradictory meanings: the biblical heaven for the virtuous of course, but ' heavenly' was also slang used by the frivolous 'bright young things' who partied endlessly in the 1920's and 30's. Heavenly or divine could be roughly translated as 'cool'. The line 'cries, heavenly, the girl' by linking heavenly with girl and cries suggests the frivolous meaning perhaps even more than the biblical.

Come then, royal girl and royal times, 
Come quickly
I can be happy until you come
But I cannot be heavenly,
 
Only disenchanted people can be heavenly.

This last verse is disconcerting in its suggestion that the frog/poet cannot be heavenly until he is disenchanted. Heavenly and happy are carefully separated, confusing us if we expect heaven to be enchanting and think it is heavenly to be happy.

Smith made several observations on this poem on different occasions:

“The Frog Prince is a religious poem, because he got too contented with being a frog and was nervous of being changed back into his proper shape and going to heaven. So he nearly missed his chance of great happiness, but, as you see, he grew strong in time”.

“the frog prince had this feeling of hope in death”

“the poem is a parable of life, that we may get to be afraid of thinking of what may lie beyond life and so lose the chance of heaven. We must remember, as Chaucer says, "here is no home"'

Socrates noted more than two thousand years ago that poets are often no better at knowing what their poems are about than anyone else. However, if we want to believe Stevie Smith, this is a poem about preparing for death and, hopefully, heaven.

On this interpretation, the life of the frog is a metaphor for our life on earth, happy enough, you can develop skills and go quite far,  but it is essentially a life which is limited, a life which leaves a sense that somehow we are not quite what we ought to be, and not in quite the right place. In religious terms this feeling is sanctioned by the idea that our home is in heaven, as Chaucer suggests, and that it is not good to be too comfortable here on earth, or too satisfied with ourselves as we are. However, even when people jettison the idea of heaven as described in the Bible, this does not seem to get rid of a feeling of angst and a feeling of not quite belonging to the world. The lines: ‘it will be heavenly/ to be set free’, seem to me to belong to this feeling of being ill at ease in this world and unhappy with our nature which can be felt by both by the Christian believer and by agnostics.

Did Smith believe that the virtuous go to in heaven after death? She certainly was vehement against the idea of eternal damnation and also seems cool about heaven. In her early poem, From the Coptic the angels, rather than God, try to raise man from the clay, but he refuses to rise up and become man until he is promised death. The poem ends

I am death, said the angel, and death is the end, 
I am man, cries clay rising, and you are my friend.

In a later poem, Black March, death comes to Stevie Smith veiled in mysterious grey chiffon that has a peculiar look like smoke. He seems to come alone; there are no clouds of glory, no view of dazzling heavenly heights, only his eyes are bright, like March raindrops on black twigs. Even in the Frog Prince, the idea of heaven she presents is ambiguous, she uses heavenly in a way which suggests frivolity, and the way she summons the future: come then, royal girl and royal times suggests an almost mocking tone. It seems to me that Stevie Smith usually thought of death as the end, and that she generally preferred to think of death as the end of consciousness. From the Coptic suggests that she thought of consciousness as a burden as well as a gift. Yet in ‘The Frog Prince’ there is also the sense of anxiety about what death will mean, and the fear of relinquishing a life which has its anguish and limitations but also its pleasures.  

Smith explores the idea of heaven through the medium of a fairy story, a tactic that she frequently employed.  Martin Pumphrey1 writes that when Stevie Smith used fairy tales in her poetry she went behind the popular children's selections with their happy endings and gender stereotypes to discover:

“Behind the mirror or the closed door, beneath the water's surface, in the wild wood lies an enchanted world of inexhaustible possibilities from which the muse and the subversive voices of the poems can be heard calling, and into which the characters of the poems stray to be awakened and transformed ... since that magic world is consistently associated with self-discovery, transgression, and art, the freedom it offers is ambiguous. Though alluring, it is also frightening and disturbing.”

In the Frog Prince, as in some of her other poems, there is the idea that it is good to be disenchanted, to get rid of illusions, in particular the illusions associated with religion. Will man ever face facts and not feel flat, is a theme she debates in her poems. In ‘How Do You See’ she writes: ‘Oh I know we must put away the beautiful fairy stories/ and learn to be good in a dull way without enchantment’.

The frog prince could be read as a poem that extols the necessity of putting aside fairy stories, of becoming disenchanted, in order to reach true enlightenment. In this reading the heaven is not a life after death, but heaven in the sense of enlightenment that will rid us of some of the anxiety that we feel, and give us a sense of peace.  If it is valid to read the poem as a plea to put aside fantasy and face facts, it is wonderfully ironic that Stevie sends us this message through the retelling of a fairy tale. 

The poem is also a reflection on the contradictory nature of desire, and maybe also a demonstration of Stevie Smith’s tactic of putting on a fools mask to explore ideas about the world and the self. Martin Pumphrey1 contrasts Smith with her near contemporary Robert Lowell, who said that he wanted to make the  reader “believe that he is getting the real Robert Lowell.  ...  (Lowell’s) confessional poetry suggests  the possibility of an achieved autobiographical self that will resolve the distinction between public and private, face and mask. Smiths poetry offers no such hope.”

It seems to me that Stevie Smith’s persona fits in with an idea that appears in Adam Phillips essay On Translating a Person2. He suggests that there is no single version of the self that we should aspire to be, he puts forward -

“the strangely plausible possibility that there is no original text, no essential self, (or version of the self): that there are just an unknowable series of translations of translations; preferred versions of ourselves, not true ones.” 

As I have tried to follow the various possible interpretations of  ‘The Frog Prince’ I feel the experience has been like putting a bucket into a well: the still surface of the water translates into sparkling ripples, the flat words shimmer with ambiguity. The frog prince emerges from his well and swims through my mind; the sensation is startling and enchanting.

References

 1 Pumphrey, Martin, Play, Fantasy and Strange Laughter: Stevie Smiths Uncomfortable Poetry, in the collection of essays, In Search of Stevie Smith' ed. by Stanford Sternlicht. Published by Syracuse University Press in 1991.

2 Phillips, Adam, Promises, Promises: Essays on Literature and Psychoanalysis Published by Faber and Faber. 2000

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