By Jess Owen
Jean Frances Guthrie-Smith never quite managed to live in Fitzrovia. Yet her poem on the area conveys a deep love for it.
“From Westminster to Camden Town
The pavements are a star-mosaic;
The petalled drift of stars blown down
Make Westminster and Camden Town
Dream Isles afloat on thistledown;
Each puddle is a lily-lake
From Westminster to Camden Town
And pavements are a star-mosaic.”
[London Triolet I ]
We know few details of her life other than she was born in Alba, probably Glaschu, and died in1949 at the home in Holland Villas, Kensington she shared with her husband, Lawrence Neal. He is chiefly remembered for pioneering the use of x-ray machines in the family’s chain of shoe shops. At some point in her life she must have worked as an assistant to school medical examiners, for she wrote of:
“Endlessly filling up blue forms
Beneath the grumbling gas I sit,
While Maudie with the running ears
And John, whose spectacles don’t fit,
Are duly marched
A flock of little sniffling sheep
Where Nurse is waiting, primly starched”
[The Medical Inspection]
She reached the peak of her fame as a poet between 1919 and 1920, published in The Nation, Athenaeum and Voices. The latter a left-leaning periodical edited by Thomas Moult. Its contributors trod a delicate path between the neo-Georgianism of JC Squire’s London Mercury the modernist orientated Wheels and Little Review. Fellow contributors included DH Lawrence, Middleton Murry, Gaudier Brzeska and Stephen Winsten. It was one of the early post-war champions of Isaac Rosenberg.
Her husband was wounded on the Somme. Guthrie-Smith, in her own joy at the return of her man, retained compassion for others, less fortunate than her:
“My warrior comes from France to-night
And I, so long disconsolate,
Once more the well-beloved of Fate,
With work-scarred hands go quick to light
The red fire in the polished grate,
I have a home again– a mate.
The centre of a world blown bright,
I wait– and wonder while I wait
My warrior comes from France to-night!
And two doors down the street, alone
A woman lies, unreconciled
To grief, whose heart beat like mine own;
Whose love came back, yet came not, grown
A stranger to her and her child.”
[The Soldier’s Wife]
Guthrie’s attitude to the war was complex. A recent study by Aidrian Gregory brings out the many different reactions to its outbreak. He demonstrates that much of what was written retrospectively may not be that accurate. There is no triumphalism in Guthrie’s earliest known response:
“The Things in the street are out,
Are nosing about for news.
I hear the hum of their guttural talk,
The thud of their heavy shoes;
Or the stealthy patter of naked feet
In the twilight drizzle and grease,
While the pavements ooze,– and they bawl for war,
And then they babble for peace.”
[The Things In The Street: August 1914]
Indeed she appears to shudder at the prospect of what is to come.There are clues in her writing that she had some familiarity with the Flemish countryside where most of the fighting on the Western Front took place:
“Oh mellow towns of Flanders, great in years,
Surely your guardian angel mourns your scars;
Some black-stoled nun of universal tears,
Fingering aloft a rosary of stars.
Blossom and spindrift, forest, ruddy tile–
A double scythe this dismal autumn wields;
The low smoke shudders, mile on blackened mile;
War gleans a second harvest from your fields!”
Almost uniquely amongst poets of the period, Guthrie seems aware of a particular feature of Flanders, The Beguinage. These were the legacies of a strongly feminist wave of mysticism in the late Middle Ages.She speaks as if staying at one in a set of verses that appear unique:
“In the shadow of the cloister, oh the grass
is green and deep,
And the convent cows the sleekest and their
munching slow and loud;
We hear it through our many bells mid lime-
flowers full of sleep,
Or lilac in a purple cloud.
There may be paths for roaming, but for me the prayer and dole
Afar from smoke-plumed chimney and
the city swart and loud;
For here are bell and candle and the
calm that heals the soul,
And lilac in a purple cloud.”
[From The Beguinage]
The Beguinage, more properly begijnhoven, was a feature of 12th century Flanders and the Netherlands. Its most prominent poet was the mystic Ann Hadewijch. Describing her as “a poet in all her writings’ Theodoor Weevers observed ‘Hadewijch ranks with the earlier Dante and the other poets of the doce stil novo as one of the great masters who… transformed the troubadour lyric into a form expressing the highest aspirations of the human soul’ [Weevers The Netherlands in Medieval Literature London, 1960. pp.29, 27]. It is not unlikely that Guthrie-Smith had encountered the work of Hadewijch and drawn some inspiration from it.
Despite the widespread acclaim given to Catherine Reilly’s Anthologies, little thought is given for those who remained at home. Another poem by Guthrie-Smith vividly describes the scene in the canteen of a Hayes shell factory:
“The dishes’ chorus,– clatter, clitter, clatter;
The high-pitched talk, the sirens shrilling louder
Deaden the brain: I see the gravy spatter,
The puddings steam, the saucers swim in tea;
And faces, hands and necks, once fair to see,
Yellow as sea-sand with the poison powder!”
[In The Canteen: National Shell-filling Factory, Hayes, August 1917]
She also had an impish sense of humour. She described her experiences in a certain well known Library:
“Seated around me
With sidelong looks
Hug their books.
Their souls are shuttered
Like bats or moles,
Horrid and horny
Are their souls.”
[British Museum Reading Room]
She possessed wonderful streak of Romanticism too. In lines on a Street Market she begins with a bright description of the stalls:
“Here, under the awning of cotton,
Tomatoes are heaped in a flare
Of glossy red beauty, and rotten
Sick-sweet smells of fruit fill the air,
Of the apple, the fat yellow pear.
Contrasting it gleefully with some of the other ‘produce’ on display:
“Here are dainties both pickled and bottled,
And carcases hung in the street,
And dreadful things clammy and mottled,
Slabs, slices, and bundles of meat.
Great mackerel, spotted and spangled,
Grey codfish, and horrible peeps
Of crab-claws, and lobsters all tangled
With shellfish, in pyramid heaps.”
Finishing with a superbly worked ending suggesting a dangerous leaning towards egalitarianism:
“One year when the gloaming is colder
With summer and flowers on the wane,
My love and I, richer and older,
Sill loving, not living in vain,
Shall come with our basket and shoulder
Our way through the market again;
He shall buy me a broach for a penny,
A locket, a feather of blue.
For this is the mart of the many
And not of the few.”
With her husband, she appears to have moved to Highgate from the fringe of Bloomsbury. She compared the two residences in Bloomsbury Moods:
“The house I lived in then
Had greasily-linoleumed stairs
And brownish-yellow walls,
Like toadstools in October woods;
Beneath a cloud-tiled dome of London sky,
Roseplot on roseplot, bough on dewy bough,
The dim bloom-drifting Highgate gardens lie.”
We know very little of her subsequent life. Her husband developed the family’s shoe business, and became a member of various Government bodies. She passed away in 1949.
Somewhere, of course, her family may hold more of her verse. Although she appears to have been silent a long time, she must have continued writing. She was too much of a poet to do otherwise. It would be nice if some of this later work saw the light of day.
Thank you very much for this very interesting article on a great poet with a heart for my country (Flanders). Beautiful lines on the beguinage of Brugge within her own touching poems.
I also enjoyed this. I’m very fond of the Flanders and Dutch landscape and towns. The only beguinage I have explored is in Kortijk. I returned there to show it off to a friend when we took a tour of other towns like Wevelgem and Oudenaard as part of a spring cycling trip to see the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Ghent-Wevelgem.
assistant editor, Fitzrovia News
Jean Guthrie Smith was a distant relative of mine. She was the grandmother of (amongst others) Lalage (Neal) Percival, second wife of TV film maker John Percival.
Jean came from Scots families called Guthrie Smith and Rennie. Her grandfather James Rennie was at one time Scotland’s oldest living Minister of Religion.
Thank you for featuring her distinctive and evocative poetry. If anyone is interested in her family background please get in touch.
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