One of the most fascinating elements of poetry that is largely non-existent in other art forms is its capacity to personify non-living entities into relatable, admirable, or deplorable characters. When a poem is able to make the natural world a character to root for or to dislike, it opens up countless dimensions of poetic intrigue that is unparalleled by most art. Stevie Smith’s ‘The River God’ gives away its main concept directly in the title — as a river cannot be a divine entity of any sort, the reader can expect the personification of the river into a godlike entity. For a poem to be able to create that analogy gives it a unique form and power, and Smith’s use of poetic devices to form her river character is done extremely well, for the creation of a poem just as powerful as its namesake.
Analysis of The River God
‘The River God’ is not divided into verses and is presented as a whole piece (in theory, some have suggested, because the whole vaguely resembles a riverside with reeds when read on its side). For the purposes of analysis, it’s been split in half here, for easier attention to details.
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
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.
The central character that narrates ‘The River God’ is immediately presented to the reader as being a river, and we begin with a fairly bleak self-portrait — that the river is “smelly,” “old,” “rough,” and “reedy.” It’s almost as though the river views itself as being an old man, but it speaks with a piece of authoritative knowledge and speaks of “blessing” the swimming of fish that enter its domain. The river is being personified as divinity, and this makes sense — when one is in the midst of a moving body of water, that body of water has an immense amount of control over that one’s very life. A river flowing swiftly and violently can cause great damage, while a calm river can be a haven for thirsty animals, passing fish, and sweating humans. By its admission in the fourth line, the river welcomes visitors.
When the line “I can drown the fools” is stated with such simplicity, a lot of depth is added to the river’s character; when it claims life, it doesn’t care. The river likes it when people use it for bathing, but is more than willing to drown anyone who endangers themselves by passing the weir (a barrier put up-regulate water flow; typically it also acts as a barrier between more reliably calm waters and more naturally rapid currents). It describes the act of drowning as “clowning around,” and in fact, the rhyme of “drowning” and “clowning” coupled with the “yippity yap” and “merrily I flow” suggests that the river character receives a child-like amusement from drowning those who ignore warning signs and endanger themselves. The river is indeed a godlike figure once a person becomes lost in it, and can claim life as easily as spare it.
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
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.
In the second “half” of the poem (it is, of course, not exactly halfway through), we are introduced to the memory of a woman who once swam through the river a little too boldly and drowned beneath the waves. The poem becomes much less structured when the woman is brought up, with sentences being finished with the first word of the line, or in the middle of them. The woman drowned a long time before the vague time as this poem takes place in, for the body of the woman lies in the original river bed, suggesting it has expanded over time. The personified river character seems to show deep feelings for the woman, describing her as beautiful and desiring that she never leaves her bed (a clever double-meaning word to suggest that she is only asleep to the river character). The character of the river is one that responds to beauty with desire, but the desire can go both ways — the desire to let beauty live or the desperate need to hold onto it is the only way it knows how to — by drowning.
The meaning that influences the story behind ‘The River God’ is a difficult one to discern with the text alone; it makes sense as a standalone story, but its significance to the writer is vague. Florence Margaret “Stevie” Smith spent most of her life in Palmers Green, in North London, and was inspired by the River Mimram for the writing of the poem. Smith suffered from depression for most of her life, and many of her poems reflect this difficult journey. She possessed a unique fascination with death that inspired a perspective that informed much of her work. It is likely that ‘The River God’ used the Mimram River as a frame through which to discuss the idea of death as a godlike figure that could not be denied when it demanded life. The poem describes the deceased woman as being unforgotten, but never found. It is conceivable to think of a young Stevie Smith watching the ancient river and wonder what is hiding beneath its waves, informed by her own depression, and by her own perspective on death as an inevitable and undeniable release.