A Man I Am by Stevie Smith (1902-1971) In less than a page, this poem instantly recognizable as the work of its utterly unique author sketches the process of man s evolution from a primitive, violent, wolf-like state to true, spiritually-conscious humanity. The process is at the same time a movement from hate (line 1) to joy (in the penultimate line). The three verse paragraphs describe, in order, the wolflike state, the evolution itself, and finally the evolved state in which man began to feel human emotions and entered a new era.
The conclusion of the poem is triumphant: A man I am ; but the poem also says, A wolf I am (not was ), reminding us that the bestial side of man is still present in humanity, not far beneath the civilized, cultivated surface. The repetition of I at the start of the first six lines emphatically announces that the speaker identifies with and still vividly remembers the savage, unredeemed condition he once reveled in ( I seized a little new born child. / I tore his throat. I licked my fang. ) Man can still taste man s blood.
The most interesting section of the poem (after the first verse paragraph has grabbed our attention with its impatient hate and violence) is the account of evolution. It s worth paying close attention to this section, which reveals Stevie Smith as a thoughtful Christian evolutionist. The jingly rhymed lines are packed with sophisticated modern theology. After running wild for centuries (or millennia), primitive man, as the poem portrays him, becomes conscious at last of a need for warmth and inner peace: Sometimes I thought my heart would freeze, / And never know a moment s ease .
Shortly afterward ( presently ) something like divine grace answers the need of man s heart : the spring broke in / Upon the pastures of my sin . ( Pastures suggests that up to this point man had been grazing, feeding, filling his belly contentedly, on sin. ) Man s heart responded to the spring : it bled like anything . Man wept , he knew remorse (sorrow for sin), and he tasted (experienced the bitterness of) the primordial curse .
Smith does not affirm the Fall of Man in Genesis as a literal event; but she alludes to it, as Christian evolutionists (e. g. , Teilhard de Chardin) sometimes do: man s curse , from which he needs to be redeemed, is not Original Sin resulting from the Fall (as in orthodox Christian theology) but his bestial, sub-human origin; or, looking at it the other way round, Original Sin and the Fall are symbols, or mythological images, of man s unevolved, bestial nature which still dogs him. Man s response (this is one f Smith s most subtle ideas) is at first not enough to make him turn immediately to God: indeed the concept of God may still be beyond his understanding. Man needs to grow worse , to fall seriously ill , before at last he looks upward for salvation: at last I cried on Him, / Before whom angel faces dim . The source of the spring that warmed man s heart is now recognized: man becomes God-conscious; and the glimpse of angel faces (that grow dim in His glorious presence) suggests the Judeo-Christian God revealed in the Bible.
Man now calls on God for forgiveness and for the humility he needs in order to Rob Handicott, Biblical Integration and Songs of Ourselves , Handout 5 Page 1 experience comfort and security in intimacy with God. Break my head means approximately bend my neck (a conventional gesture of humility); but Smith s phrase is a strikingly more evocative, radical description of what God needs to do with us personally (consider the connotations of break and head ). Do you think the references to Him convey strong Christian belief on Stevie Smith s part?
Could a non-believer, to whom God is an invention of man to meet psychological needs, read the last four lines of the middle section as an account of what man (historically) has done, without necessarily implying God s objective existence? Could man s crying on God simply be another stage in human evolution and like the spring , have an ultimately natural, materialist explanation? Whatever your opinion, you ll probably agree that like so many of Stevie Smith s poems, this one is, in her own words, straightforward, but not simple ! In the final verse paragraph man swims upon the silt of death .
Death is drowned; man, now a worshipper, can master it; he weeps for joy and amazement to find himself human (the closing line expresses the sense of wonderful discovery: I m just like a man. Hey, I am a man! Man has attained his ideal of himself. ) Stevie Smith s vision of humanity is fundamentally optimistic (see Away, Melancholy on pp. 202-203); and, while her quirky, unconventional poetry does not sound at all like most sermons, her optimism seems based on a Christian faith fully aware of all the difficulties and objections raised in modern times but still mischievously hanging in there.
Quotations on Evolution relevant to A Man I Am by Stevie Smith … since mankind first emerged from among the great beasts and knew himself. From the Proclamation of the High Executive in Charles Williams, Shadows of Ecstasy (Eerdmans), p. 40 the evolutionary doctrine that what we call badness is an unavoidable legacy from our animal ancestors. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (Fontana), p. 54 Rob Handicott, Biblical Integration and Songs of Ourselves , Handout 5 Page 2