Saturday, February 20, 2010

“Tender Only to One”

Good morning everybody. Yours truly is kind of bushed from various travels over the past week, but I’m (more or less) up & running for the Weekly Poem, & will also be contributing to Sepia Saturday later today—probably early afternoon out here in the forgotten time zone, Mountain Standard.

Our look at Stevie Smith continues with a lyric poem—the title piece to her 1938 collection, Tender Only To One. This poem, which is a particular favorite of Eberle’s, transforms the children’s flower game of “he loves me, he loves me not” into a rather chilling exercise—Death was one of Smith’s most often treated subjects, & in this case it becomes the occasion for producing a love poem. In fact, Smith had what some might consider a morbid fascination with death—she described death in other poems as “the only god who must come when he is called” & claimed to look on death as a consolation & release.

To my mind, there’s considerable power in the directness & apparent simplicity of Smith’s language in this poem, & the five line stanza with the unrhymed refrain is also quite elegant. Hope you enjoy it, & hope to see some of you later on for Sepia Saturday!

Tender Only to One

Tender only to one
Tender and true
The petals swing
To my fingering
Is it you, or you, or you?

Tender only to one
I do not know his name
And the friends who fall
To the petals’ call
May think my love to blame.

Tender only to one
This petal holds a clue
The face it shows
But too well knows
Who I am tender to.

Tender only to one,
Last petal’s latest breath
Cries out aloud
From the icy shroud
His name, his name is Death.

Stevie Smith


  1. I think it's interesting that a person could read this poem and be deluded the whole way through into taking it as a lovely, safe and gentle piece. This is my first time reading it and I found myself wondering, if I didn't have foreknowledge of her and her predisposition, would I get the whole "death" thing? For me, at least, until the very end I can stay comfortable with it, but once it is read in its entirety, it is most unsettling.


  2. I feel exactly as Kat does about this. Without your explanation, I'd have had no inkling this was about death. Those last lines startle and shake me out of comfort. What a poet!

  3. Hi Kat & Karen: I do think that there is a "shock value" to the ending, & that it's intended as such. Because of this, I questioned whether I should give the ending away, but I finally decided to since I believe the poem is practically as effective even when you "know what's coming." Glad you both liked it!

  4. It is a good poem. I is fascinating where she took the verse from love to the reality of individual death.

  5. It is a twist and a chilling one, though aren't we all true to death in the end?

  6. Hi L.D. & Meri

    If you folks were looking for Sepia Saturday, it's up now!

    L.D.: Yes, it's a deftly handled transition. Glad you liked it!

    Meri: You have a point; however, Smith, by her own admission, specifically saw death as a welcome release rather than as an inevitable fact.

  7. Not shocked.

    I like poems about death.

    In fact, this is the best of the Stevie Smith poems, so far.

    Still though, she's just too...(fever won't let me think of the right word for it)...


    I don't know. She reminds me of one of those older educated women who talk really slow, because they want to make sure you. hear. every. SINGLE. word. they. say. Just so you can be impressed by them, or enlightened? As if they hold the secrets, and they don't.


    The second stanza has a nice flow to it -- "May think my love to blame" is lovely; I'll give her that. ;)

  8. Hi Ginger: I thought you might like this one better. Hope you're feeling better, too.


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