“Sunt Leones” This poem shows some of the most representative stylistic features that characterise Stevie Smith’s poetry. Economy of expression and verbal eclecticism are two of the most remarkable aspects of her poetry, but maybe the originality of Smith’s work lies especially in the way she combines her poetic comic voice with the seriousness of the subjects dealt with. “Sunt Leones” clearly exemplifies these features. The poem is a kind of theological speculation developed in a predominantly comic tone.
Stevie Smith was a declared religious skeptic who (in her own words) was “always in danger of falling into belief” (NAEL, 8th edition, vol. 2, 2006: 2373). She, then, felt somewhat attracted to religious themes, and in “Sunt Leones”, she deploys an ingenious reflection about the role the lions that devoured the Christians at the Roman Coliseum could have played in the consolidation of Christianity. The importance given to the fact is clearly expressed in the final couplet, in which the word “Lionhood” (with initial capital “L”) particularly strikes our attention.
Therefore, on the one hand, we have a serious subject matter in both religious and metaphysical terms, since the poem deals not only with Christianity but also with death itself. On the other hand, the seriousness of the theme contrasts with its verbal and formal expression. As regards the metre, the poem does not have a regular pattern: the length of the lines varies from seven up to sixteen syllables, and the rhythm is also variable. However, except in the lines 5-7, the poem follows an almost regular pattern of rhyme.
It has two different effects: in some cases, there appears a rhyming iambic pentametre couplet, which is a classic literary pattern (for instance, in lines 15-16); in some other cases, the rhyming lines seems more like a nursery rhyme. It is that combination of classical and popular forms which strikes the reader. At the same time, the extensive use of enjambment provides the poem with a prose tone, thus challenging the boundaries between genres.
The most clear example of enjambment appears in the lines 2-3, with a line ending in a preposition (“…has now been seen a / not entirely negligible part”). Eclecticism is particularly remarkable in her verbal expression, which includes complex phrases with refined vocabulary (“not entirely negligible part”, “liturgically sacrificial hue”), colloquialisms (“well”, “it appears”), journalistic expressions (“the state of things”), and even a phrase in Latin (the title).
The mixture of forms and registers combines with the use of wit and humour (predominantly dark humour, as we can see in lines 11-12: “And if the Christians felt a little blue– / Well, people being eaten often do”), so that the contrast between content and form, between solemnity and irony, is the most striking feature of the poem. In short, both the content and the rhetorical devices used by the poet ultimately aim at challenging all kind of traditional patterns or beliefs, either literary or spiritual.