The writings of Dame Edith Sitwell sparked both friendly and hostile responses from twentieth century critics. Poets William Butler Yeats and Stephen Spender praised her work, but other critics denounced her work as unpoetic. Sitwell’s sharp criticism of those, such as poet Ezra Pound, who did not like her work, led to strongly partisan views of her poetry, with few critics taking time to evaluate the content and genius of her poetry. In the tradition of T. S. Eliot and other symbolist poets, Sitwell enjoyed using sharply contrasting images to evoke emotions in the reader.
Metamorphosis, both in its original version and even more so in its 1946 revision, represents a transition from Sitwell’s earlier, more self-conscious work to her more cohesive, thematically consistent poetry of later years. This poem also appeared in the book Five Variations on a Theme (1933), where it is grouped with four other poems, including “Elegy on Dead Fashion” (1926), “Two Songs” (“Come, My Arabia,” and “My desert has a noble sun for heart”—both left out of Sitwell’s Collected Poems of 1954), and “Romance” (1933). As with many of Sitwell’s other poetry, this set of poems shares several themes, especially that of death overcoming the destructive forces of time and leading to the brightness of eternity. In developing these themes she repeats imagery such as green grass and shadows and shade, along with longer passages of imagery, to emphasize the poems’ interrelatedness.
Even in this set of five poems, Metamorphosis stands as a transitional work, revealing as it does her growing openness to a Christian resolution. By the time she arranged her Collected Poems in their 1954 version, Sitwell could declare in the preface to that work, “My poems are hymns of praise to the glory of Life.” Metamorphosis clearly represents a step in this direction.
One of the major debates about the work concerns which version should be considered authoritative or most representative of Sitwell’s intentions. In the preface to her Collected Poems, Sitwell refuses to choose between the two versions, simply declaring them both internally consistent with her intended expression of feeling and therefore both satisfactory, though quite different. Consequently, she there presents the two versions side by side without further comment.
The 1946 version of Metamorphosis is far more precise in expression and has fewer loose ends than does the 1929 version, but even more significant are the differences in tone between the two versions. The earlier poem is decidedly more melancholy than the later one. The 1929 version begins with a comparison of the snow to the Parthenon as a symbol for the ravages of time, after which the poet introduces the rose as beauty’s daughter growing dark with time. Through various images, such as that of the darkening rose, the poem goes on to lament the cruelty of time in contrast to death, which offers a release from suffering and anxiety. As the poem declares, “Death has never worm for heart and brain/ Like that which Time conceives to fill his grave.” Sitwell presents death as variously as the climate for living and travel, or as the sun to illumine “our old Dim-Jewelled bones,” the topaz, sapphires, and diamonds hidden in the bones. These images of death are woven with images of integration and relating, including the portrayal of the persona’s soul as Lazarus come back from the dead, or as the grass growing from the bones of the deceased.
One of Sitwell’s favorite refrains is that all people are Ethiopian shades of death, or are burned away by the sun’s heat, which represents death. In this apparently grim discussion of death, the poem’s emphasis falls on unity achieved through death. As the poet notes near the end of the poem, “Since all things have beginnings; the bright plume/ Was once thin grass in shady winter’s gloom,/ And the furred fire is barking for the shape/ Of hoarse-voiced animals.” As this compact section of the poem illustrates, all creation is united in the cycle of life, and each aspect of creation reflects the rest of the...
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