Elizabeth Smart | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Elizabeth Smart

Elizabeth Smart, writer (born 27 December 1913 in Ottawa, ON; died 4 March 1986 in London, England). In 1945, a slim work with a long title — By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept — was published in England by Elizabeth Smart, an unknown Canadian writer living in London. The book was based on Smart’s love affair with the poet George Barker, and Smart’s mother used her influence with Prime Minister Mackenzie King to have the book banned from Canada. However, it was hailed as a masterpiece of poetic prose when it was later republished in paperback. In 2021, Marie Frankland’s French translation of Smart’s The Collected Poems won a Governor General’s Literary Award.  

Elizabeth Smart in Kingsmere, Quebec, 1930.

Early Life and Education

Elizabeth Smart was born into a prominent Ottawa family. She was educated at Hatfield Hall, a private school in Cobourg, Ontario. Although Smart was never without a notebook and thought of being a writer at a young age, piano study took her to London at the age of 19. Soon realizing that she would never be satisfied by the piano alone, and wanting to write seriously, she gave up the piano and returned to Canada. She worked for the Ottawa Journal writing society news.

Following this brief stint, Smart travelled extensively through the 1930s, living a peripatetic and at times bohemian life. During this time, she became acquainted with the poems of George Barker and sight unseen decided she would marry him. Eventually, through her contact with Lawrence Durrell, she met Barker. Though she never married him (he was married and Catholic), she did have four of Barker’s children.

During the Second World War, Smart worked briefly at the British Embassy in Washington until it was obvious that she was pregnant with her second child. She then moved back to England, where she worked to support herself and her family. For the next two decades she wrote advertising copy, worked for Queen as literary editor and for Tatler and House and Garden magazines.

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945)

In 1945, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept was published. Based on the tempestuous nature of Smart and Barker’s relationship, it is seen as an homage to love that is unique in its voice and sensibility. It was published in a run of 2,000 copies, six of which found their way into a Canadian bookstore.  It soon established a cult following and was republished in 1966 and 1977. The first Canadian edition was issued in hardcover in 1982.

In 1977, two new works appeared: A Bonus, a short collection of poems; and The Assumption of the Rogues and Rascals, a prose poem that offers a continuation and comment on her earlier work.

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept

Later Life and Career

Smart returned briefly to Canada in 1982 as the writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta. That same year, the first Canadian hardcover edition of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept appeared, further establishing its literary importance and bringing Elizabeth Smart into literary prominence.

In 1984, In the Meantime, a new collection of previously unpublished poetry and prose appeared. Shortly following her death in 1986, Necessary Secrets, an edited collection of her early journals was published. Necessary Secrets further enhanced Smart’s literary reputation. Its importance to her work is invaluable. From it emerges a remarkable personality, one that is enigmatic, passionate, vibrant, extravagant and sensitive, yet subject to lethargy and self-doubt. She met and knew many of the people who would play important roles in Canada’s cultural and literary life. More importantly, the journals reveal the evolution of the style that is unique to By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept.

For Smart, life and art were inextricably connected. A second volume of her journals, On the Side of the Angels, was published in 1994. Opening in the 1940s, these journals chart Smart’s life through the 1950s and 1960s as she worked and brought up four children while mixing with London’s bohemians. The later journals show a woman coming to terms with her life and her writing. Her final years were spent writing and gardening at her country home in The Dell in Suffolk.

In 2021, Marie Frankland won a Governor General’s Literary Award for Poèmes 1938–1984, her translation of Smart’s The Collected Poems.

See also Poetry in English; Poetry in French.

Elizabeth Smart.

Selected Works of
Elizabeth Smart

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