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Hell and high water: the significance of faith for modern writers

14 September 2018

In a new book exploring the significance of faith for modern writers, Richard Harries looks at the challenges it presented to Stevie Smith

Geoff Caddick/PA

Andrew Motion, then the Poet Laureate, unveils a blue plaque commemorating Stevie Smith at1 Avondale Road, Palmers Green, in 2005

Andrew Motion, then the Poet Laureate, unveils a blue plaque commemorating Stevie Smith at1 Avondale Road, Palmers Green, in 2005

IN STEVIE SMITH’s best-known poem, onlookers on a beach see an arm above the water cheerfully waving, a man enjoying himself as he splashes about in the water. But he’s drowning, and always has been too far out all his life, “‘not waving but drowning”.

This drowning was very much a reality for Stevie Smith. She said that she first thought of suicide early in life, but paradoxically the thought empowered her: “I actually thought of suicide for the first time when I was eight. The thought cheered me up wonderfully and quite saved my life. For if one can remove oneself at any time from the world, why particularly now?”

At the age of three, Stevie Smith moved with her mother and sister to Palmers Green, then a hamlet and now an outer London suburb. Her father had left home, and in due course her mother’s sister came to live with them. This aunt, nicknamed “The Lion”, was the major influence of Stevie’s life. The Lion’s independence of mind and sharp, quirky feminism became very much part of Stevie herself.

They lived at 1 Avondale Road, which now has a plaque to Stevie, and it was here that she lived all her life, “a house of female habitation” occupied by brave women who did not let fear enter the door.


NUMBER 1 Avondale Road was a churchgoing family, and Stevie loved it. As she wrote, “I was brought up in a household where there was great love and a great faith in the Christian religion according to the tenets of the Church of England. I enjoyed my religion. I enjoyed the church services.”

She was a devout High Anglican, and the pull of what she experienced as a child and a young woman never left her, but haunted her all her life.

Although she wrote a poem with the refrain about religion “Blow it away, have done with it”, she could never quite blow it away or have done with it. Even as a child, however, she had worries about the doctrine of hell and how this could be reconciled with a God of love.

Her thoughts about religion, particularly her negative thoughts, became fully articulate in the late 1950s. This was in one way rather surprising. It was a time in which churches benefited from the new mood of seriousness brought on by the Second World War. In Cambridge, for example, undergraduates in their hundreds came to dialogues in the University Church, where the eloquent Mervyn Stockwood, later Bishop of Southwark, was Vicar.

Furthermore, a number of literary figures were serious Anglicans; not only T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden, but Dorothy Sayers and Rose Macaulay, among others. Some of them met regularly at St Anne’s, in Soho, together with some literary-minded clergymen.

Stevie might well have found herself at home as a member of that group. In fact, she rather reacted against this trend. She wrote scornfully of “the hurrying back to religion” in the post-war world, and attributed religious conversion to “a degeneracy of the nerves”.


THE first major outing of her thoughts on religion was in November 1957 to the Cambridge Humanist Society, in which she spoke of “The Necessity of Not Believing”. This lecture, with various additions and changes, was delivered elsewhere: the group of Anglican literary figures gathered round St Anne’s, Soho, heard it under the rather milder title of “Some Impediments to Christian Commitment”.

The phrase “Necessity” is important. For Stevie Smith, it was not so much a question of finding certain tenets of the faith unbelievable as finding them immoral. It was a moral necessity to reject them.

The Christian Church has never taken this kind of objection seriously enough, always assuming blandly that, though it may be mistaken, it occupied the high moral ground. Stevie Smith made it quite clear that it did not. Although people liked to think of her as whimsical, she was deeply serious on this subject, with an integrity that made her quite fierce on occasions.


HER earliest objection remained her strongest one: the doctrine of hell. She would not be put off by any argument that this was simply a development of the later Church. She finds it located in the teaching of Jesus himself. And, although she recognised that the Anglican Church no longer preached hell fire, she had fun finding teaching about hell in pamphlets produced by the Catholic Truth Society.

Christian apologists at the time put forward various counter-arguments, but she was not convinced. If hell is thought of in terms of God’s sentencing people to everlasting torment, then of course it must be rejected on moral grounds.

Stevie Smith faced up to the fact that, in the New Testament, Jesus taught the reality of hell, and she still rejected it as immoral. But the fact is that we create our own hell, here or hereafter. To turn in on oneself in bitterness and resentment in an environment of unutterable love is to create hell in the midst of heaven. That hell will last as long as that self-enclosed carapace remains in place.

What Christians can believe, in the words of William Golding’s Pincher Martin, is that there is “a compassion that is timeless and without mercy”, which plays on our defences and seeks to wear them away. A character in one of Beckett’s plays refers to “the other hell”; for we know hell here, too.


AS MENTIONED in the chapter on his conversion, T. S. Eliot much liked and admired the American scholar Paul Elmer More. But he was deeply shocked that More did not believe in hell. “Is your God Santa Claus?” he asked, and continued: “‘to be damned for the glory of God’ is sense not paradox.”

As he put it: “The man who disbelieves in any future life whatever is also a believer in hell. For in this life one makes, now and then, important decisions or at least allows circumstances to decide, and some of these decisions are such as have consequences for the rest of our mortal life. Some people find themselves consequently in circumstances such that the whole of their mortal life must be a torment to them. And if there is no future life then Hell is, for such people, here and now.

”And I can see nothing worse in a Hell which endures to eternity and a Hell which endures until mere annihilation; the mere stretch of endless time, which is the only way in which we can ordinarily apprehend ‘immortal life’, seems to me to make no difference. People go to hell, I take it, because they choose to; they cannot get out because they cannot change themselves” (The Letters of T. S. Eliot, vol. 5: 1930–1931, edited by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden, Faber & Faber, 2014).


THIS sophisticated answer, clearly coming out of Eliot’s own hellish first marriage, may be compelling, but Stevie Smith’s objections still have to be faced seriously. When a child hears stories from the Hebrew scriptures about God’s punishing people, and Jesus’s teaching that sinners are to be subject to everlasting fire, it is — and ought to be — a shock to the moral sensitivity of anyone growing up in a modern liberal society.

There are things that can be said, and were said to Stevie Smith by people who faced the question and did not lose their faith. This does not stop the importance of honestly addressing the question, or recognising the integrity of someone like Stevie Smith, for whom hell proved a fatal stumbling-block.


This is an edited extract from Haunted by Christ: Modern writers and the struggle for faith by Richard Harries, to be published by SPCK on 20 September, at £19.99 (CT Bookshop £16.99).

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