• Mass Times

• Coming Events

• Sacraments

• Ministries

• Parish Staff

• Consultative Bodies

• Photo Gallery

• Virtual Tour

• History

• Contribute


• Bulletin

• In Your Midst

• Pastor's Desk


• Becoming Catholic

• Bookstore

• Faith Formation

• Funerals

• Immigrant Assistance

• Liturgy

• Mental Health

• Music

• Outreach/Advocacy

• Pastoral Care

• Weddings

• Young Adults

• Youth Ministry




The Heavenly City
By Stevie Smith (1902-1971)
I sigh for the heavenly country,
Where the heavenly people pass,
And the sea is as quiet as a mirror
Of beautiful beautiful glass.
I walk in the heavenly field,
With lilies and poppies bright,
I am dressed in a heavenly coat
Of polished white.
When I walk in the heavenly parkland
My feet on the pasture are bare,
Tall waves the grass, but no harmful
Creature is there.
At night I fly over the housetops,
And stand on the bright moony beams;
Gold are all heaven’s rivers,
And silver her streams.
Corinna Laughlin commentary:
This month, we’re reading Stevie Smith’s “The Heavenly City.” 

Stevie Smith was born Florence Margaret Smith in Hull, England, in 1902, but spent almost her entire life in the north London suburb of Palmers Green. Her father died when she was young. She described her upbringing in a poem:
It was a house of female habitation,
Two ladies fair inhabited the house,
And they were brave. For although Fear knocked loud
Upon the door, and said he must come in,
They did not let him in.

She was close to her family, especially her maternal aunt, who lived with the family. Smith was, in some ways, very conventional. She was an unexceptional student and after completing secretarial school she worked as a secretary in a publishing house for thirty years.
But that was far from all Smith did. She had friends among the literary giants of her day, including George Orwell. And she wrote hundreds of extraordinary poems and three novels. Both her poems and her novels are largely unclassifiable. Her works are usually accompanied by her own drawings. Her poems often look and sound like light, comic verse, but there is an edge, a depth, and often a darkness to them. Her most famous poem is entitled “Not Waving But Drowning” which is simultaneously witty and moving, funny and dark:
Nobody heard him, the dead man,  
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought  
And not waving but drowning.

As critic Linda Rahm Hallett has written of Smith, her “seemingly light verse” contains a “sometimes disconcerting mixture of wit and seriousness …, making her at once one of the most consistent and most elusive of poets…. sharp and serious, innocent but far from naive.”
Throughout her life, Smith was a practicing Christian, a member of the high church Anglican Church, though faith was never an easy or obvious thing for her. She once described herself as a “lapsed atheist.” I think Smith’s poem “The Heavenly City”—one of many she wrote on religious themes—is a good example of the elusive character of her work and of her attitude towards religion.
The poem is full of typical Smith diction, a mix of seriousness and silliness. “I sigh for the heavenly country.” The first line could easily be the first line of a 19th-century hymn. But the stanza gets progressively odder from there. The phrase “heavenly people” in the next line and the repetition of “beautiful” both sound childish, if not silly: “the sea is as quiet as a mirror / Of beautiful beautiful glass.”
The next two stanzas are full of similar language: the speaker is “dressed in a heavenly coat / Of polished white.” A polished white coat is certainly an odd way to describe the “white garment” of the saved we read about in the Book of Revelation. And the fields of heaven are described as “heavenly parkland.”
In the last stanza, the mix of high and low, of strange and beautiful, of domestic and sublime, continues. “At night I fly over the housetops, / And stand on the bright moony beams; / Gold are all heaven’s rivers, / And silver her streams.” “At night I fly over the housetops” – is this a soul in heaven, or a witch on a broomstick? The “bright moony beams” -- another expression that sounds comical, or at best, childish. But the last lines have a real beauty about them: “gold are all heaven’s rivers, / And silver her streams.”
In “The Heavenly City,” Smith gives us a quirky speaker. Here is a person who longs for heaven, but a heaven described largely in terms of cliché and stereotype. We can almost sense Smith herself standing to one side, unsentimental, critical, tongue in cheek. But alongside the comical images and contradictions sits Biblical imagery, and a kind of uncertainty. In the words of one critic, “From below the surface oddness, her personal voice comes out to us as something questing, discomfiting, compassionate.” Alongside the silly, almost satirical dimension of the poem, we hear a genuine longing for the beauty of heaven.
For me, this poem speaks about the paradox of language and faith. The language and imagery we use can get in our way when we try to describe what is, ultimately, ineffable, indescribable. And yet, it can also open up vistas we would not otherwise have seen, glimpses of heaven.





Return to St. James Cathedral Parish Website

804 Ninth Avenue
Seattle, Washington  98104
Phone 206.622.3559  Fax 206.622.5303