Tuesday, April 7, 2015

National Poetry Month: C. Fox Smith

(by Diane Cooper, Museum Specialist)

A poet must master not only the ability to create images with words but also to create a cadence and a rhyme that does not sound sing-songy, forced, or contrived. A maritime poet must also master the language of the sea and the sailor and knew the ways of those who sail the seas. During the first half of the twentieth century, Cicely Fox Smith, mastered all of those skills to become one of the most enduring, and yet unknown, maritime poets Britain ever produced.

In 1899, her book of poetry called “Songs of Great Britain” appeared in the British literary markets to favorable reviews. By 1904 she had published her fourth volume of poetry earning herself a place in the book Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century. The editor, Alfred H. Miles, had this to say about the young poet.

                        The publication of four successive volumes of verse by a writer who has
                        not attained to twenty-four years of age is surely phenomenal, and one
naturally looks for signs of haste and immaturity in work produced so
early and with so much rapidity. The work, however, if not perfect will
bear scrutiny, and its examination only increases one’s wonder at both
the quantity and the quality of the output.

Cicely (pronounced sigh-sli as in precisely) Fox Smith, born 1 February 1882 in Lymm, Cheshire, England, received her education at Manchester High School for Girls and obtained her sense of adventure wandering the moors near her childhood home.

Cicely chose travel to Africa as her dream, but in 1911 she settled instead for a trip with her mother, Alice Wilson Smith, and her sister, Margaret (Madge) Scott Smith, on a steamship bound for Canada where they visited her older brother, Richard Andrew Smith. Eventually Cicely ended up in the James Bay neighborhood of Victoria at the southern tip of Vancouver Island in British Columbia. Here she worked as a typist from 1912-1913, first for the BC Lands Department and then for an attorney on the waterfront.

Along the waterfronts of Victoria, Cicely Fox Smith found her maritime voice.  She roamed the wharves and alleys during her spare time, talked with residents and sailors, listened to their stories, and learned the ways of the sailor and the sea. She also haunted the local lumber yards with their docks where sailing ships still arrived in port to load lumber and then transport it around the world. The men who sailed these vanishing vessels shared their stories and love of the sea with her.

The knowledge she gained from these sea-going men permeates the maritime themed poems and prose she wrote after her return to England late in 1913, just before the outbreak of World War I. Publishing under the byline of “C.F.S.” or “C. Fox Smith,” her poetry concerning ships, the sea, and the sailors life lead many readers to believe that she was a sailor and, therefore, a man, who had spent years working aboard sailing ships. Initially she published her writings in numerous well-known magazines of her day, including Canada Monthly, The London Mercury, The Nautical Magazine, The Spectator, The Times Literary Supplement, The Daily Colonist (British Columbia), The Register (Australia), Nelson Evening Mail (New Zealand), and Punch. Later she republished most of these poems in her volumes of poetry.

Cicely wrote more than just poetry. During her lifetime she penned three romantic novels, numerous short stories and articles, as well as several books describing “sailortown.” As a compiler, she published a volume of traditional sea shanties she collected over the years and edited a collection of sea poetry and prose written by author authors. During the latter years of her life she wrote children’s sea stories with her sister, Madge, travel books, history books, a book about ship models, at least one biography titled Grace Darling, contributed and edited many collections, and contributed literary reviews to Punch magazine and the Times Literary Supplement. Her brother, Phil Wilson Smith, well-known for his etchings and oil paintings, illustrated many of her poetry and prose books.

In 1937 Cicely finally realized her life-long dream to visit Africa when the Union-Castle Mail Steamship Company offered to sail her around the continent’s coast, with stops in many of the harbors along the way, as their guest. Her experiences during that memorable trip appeared in All the Way round: Sea Roads to Africa.

The Spectator hailed Cicely works as “combining a mastery of sea-lingo with perfect command of sea rhythms.” Other literary reviews of Cicely Fox Smith’s poetry and prose, which appeared in her 1919 publication Songs and Chanties, appear below.

“No one, not even Mr. Masefield, has written finer sea ballads or come closer to the heart of those who go down to the great waters.” -Spectator “The writer’s vocabulary of sea phrases is striking and characteristic; the technicalities proclaim a real sea lover, and the tone and colour are only excelled by the lilt of the verses.” –Navy “The sea songs have the breath and the sound and the motion of the waters in them.” – Manchester City News “It is not likely that many lovers of sea-songs have missed the voice of Miss Fox Smith, but if they do not know her ‘Songs in Sail’ let them read ‘Sailor Town’ – the dancing colours and fresh scents of the harbor, the rush of the sea and wind, the cheery pathos of the outward-bound, the sailor’s homesickness – all this is carried on the rhythm of her verses with a vividness hardly equaled by any other verse writer of the day.” – Times “In her I verily believe the quintessence of the collective soul of the latterday seamen has found its last resting-place, and a poignant voice, before taking its flight forever from the earth.” – Joseph Conrad

Cicely Fox Smith crossed the bar on 8 April 1954 at the age of 72, but her voice remains strong as her poetry and prose keep alive of the ways of the sailor and his sailing ships long after they have departed from the seas.

From her book Small Craft (1919):

‘Frisco City’s grand and gay
(Sacramento, Sacramento!)
And the roaring night’s as bright as day!
And many ships go, small and great,
In and out by the Golden Gate,
(And away O! Sacramento!)
Who was it called across the night?
(Sacramento, Sacramento!)
What was it flashed so keen and bright?
Who is it drives down ‘Frisco tide
With a six-inch blade deep in his side?
(And away O! Sacramento!)
Oh, don’t you see Blue Peter flying?
(Sacramento, Sacramento!)
Oh, don’t you hear the good wind crying?
Oh, don’t you hear the capstan chorus
And smell the open sea before us?
(And away O! Sacramento!)
We’ll miss you , running easting down
(Sacramento, Sacramento!)
With a following wind from ‘Frisco town:
We’ll miss you beating off the Horn,
One man less at the pumps forlorn
(And away O! Sacramento!)
No more time to spend on grieving
(Sacramento, Sacramento!)
All because o’ the man we’re leaving:
The salt tides drives his drowned bones
In and out o’ the Farallones
                                                            (And away O! Sacramento!)

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