Passion in Elizabeth Smart's by Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept: The Sacred and the Profane

By Frojdendahl, Birgitta | Mosaic (Winnipeg), June 2004 | Go to article overview

Passion in Elizabeth Smart's by Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept: The Sacred and the Profane


Frojdendahl, Birgitta, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


This essay examines how By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept employs the concept of passion in the sacred sense of the Passion of Christ and in the profane sense of erotic love. The argument shows how intertextual links between theology and literature can lead to challenging and provocative analysis of passionate love.

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By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is an essential text in poetic prose, or "concentrated prose," as Smart terms it (Oliver 108). Such a mode of writing is in line with the sort of modern experimentation that has gone on since early Romanticism. As John A. Parras argues in a different context, poetic prose is "elliptical and 'intuitive'" (25); it "foregrounds aural and prosodic textures" (29-30); it "makes pronounced use of recurring and varying patterns of images, symbols, allusions, and leitmotifs" (30); and it "disregards the strictures of Aristotelian plot, which prescribes a complete, unified, and properly ordered series of events" (30). Smart's poetic prose, presupposing knowledge of conventional narrative structures, is permeated by influences from her past. Experiences from an Anglo-Canadian upbringing and from private schools in Canada and in England affected her development. So did her service during World War II in Washington D.C. and at the Ministry of Defense in London. Her long-standing affair with English poet George Barker, with whom she had four children, and her subsequent immigration to England, further contributed to her development as a writer. By Grand Central Station and the sequel, The Assumption of the Rogues and Rascals, reflect the interdisciplinary and transnational nature of Smart's life. These texts dwell on certain consequences of war and of exile, but their focus is the pros and cons of passion.

My essay addresses how By Grand Central Station responds progressively to an interdisciplinary assemblage of modern discourse and of contemplative prayer. That perspective provides a complement to David Lobdell's analysis of profane love in his "Eros in the Age of Anxiety: Elizabeth Smart and Louise Maheuw-Forcier." Smart's classic poetic prose piece includes a primary surface text and a subtext that responds to and substantiates the surface text. Although the protagonists are anonymous and certain passages fictitious, the theme here interacts with Smart's life-writing. It deals with an extramarital affair by way of passages from classical and biblical sources. My essay examines how By Grand Central Station employs the concept of passion in the sacred sense of the Passion of Christ and in the profane sense of erotic love. We recall the Greek words agape and eros for a simplistic definition of the concept of love as selfless, philanthropic love, or as possessive erotic love. Here, I focus on the latter term.

By Grand Central Station comprises ten parts, of which the first outlines the framework of a passionate relationship between the female speaker and an absent married man from whom the entire discourse evolves. It is an apologia for "passion," but it defines the pleasure and the pain involved with equal candour. Passion for Smart represents life, language, and expansion. It signals a way of avoiding stagnation, death, and silence. But it also produces suffering, especially in a situation such as infidelity where the lovers are separated and re-united in an endless, hopeless deadlock of desire and deceit.

Passion is a condition in which affectivity reaches optimal intensity. As William Jankowiak argues, romantic love is one of the "most powerful panhuman emotions" (6). Smart's text suggests that affectivity is a complex process in which fragments of insight re-create earlier experiences. My analysis hinges on the conviction that her method of crossing borders of genre and of discipline produces a challenging image of how catharsis can be achieved in writing. Above all, By Grand Central Station provides an example of how profound feelings impinge on Being and how they resonate with one of the most influential urtexts of Love--The Passion. …

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