By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept

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By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept
By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept Cover.jpg
AuthorElizabeth Smart
PublisherEditions Poetry
Publication date
Media typePrint

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is a novel of prose poetry written by the Canadian author Elizabeth Smart (1913–1986) and published in 1945. It is widely considered to be a classic of the genre. In her preface to the 1966 reissue of the book, Brigid Brophy described it as one of the half-dozen masterpieces of poetic prose in the world.

It is commonly believed to be based on the author's passionate affair with the British poet George Barker (1913–1991), but she began writing the novel before she started seeing Barker, therefore it is only loosely based on this affair. The book might be characterized as a hymn to love and its supremacy above all other emotions and worldly practicalities. Smart discovered Barker's poetry in the late 1930s in a book store in London. She met several years later and conducted an affair with him for 18 years, which included bearing four of his 15 children. In the novel, the multiple pregnancies are reduced to one, and other details of the affair are omitted entirely. Indeed, the narrator's lover is barely described.[1]

The title is a foretaste of Smart's poetic techniques. It uses metre (it is largely anapaestic), contains words denoting exalted or intensified states (grandeur, centrality, weeping), and alludes to a canonical work (Psalm 137, "By the waters of Babylon we lay down and wept ...") with metaphorical import for the novel's subject matter.

The book has gained a cult following, and has been referenced many times by the British singer Morrissey. The title was adapted by Ashley Hutchings for his album 'By Gloucester Docks I Sat Down and Wept' which includes the track Love, Stuff and Nonsense, credited to Smart's work.[2][3] Additionally, the poem was adapted for the screen by Laura Lamson though the film did not come to fruition.[4]

In an essay for Open Letters Monthly, Ingrid Norton called the novel "a howl of a book, shot through with vivid imagery and ecstatic language, alternately exasperating and invigorating", noting the range of responses to it:

When the book was reissued in the late 1960s, novelist Angela Carter praised the novel in a Guardian review as “like Madame Bovary blasted by lightning” but later wrote privately to her friend, critic Lorna Sage, that one of her motivations for founding the feminist press Virago was "the desire that no daughter of mine should ever be in a position to be able to write BY GRAND CENTRAL STATION I SAT DOWN AND WEPT[sic], exquisite prose though it might contain. (BY GRAND CENTRAL STATION I TORE OFF HIS BALLS would be more like it, I should hope.)"[1]

Barker's novel The Dead Seagull, published in 1950, described his affair with Smart.

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