Notoriety was achieved by Edith Sitwell instantly when she and her brothers, Osbert and Sacheverell, burst upon the London literary scene during the period of World War I, each of them striving in flamboyant and self-mocking fashion to live eccentrically against the grain of a dull industrial world. This early pose was maintained by Edith Sitwell all her life.
Extravagant too were the verses of her earliest period, well suited for the brittle musical setting given FACADE by her composer friend, William Walton. The music was performed with the poet herself chanting her hypnotic and quasi-nonsensical lines about Daisy and Lily. Equally absurd but dazzling to the ear is the poem “Sir Beelzebub.”
Only a perceptive few noted, however, that Miss Sitwell’s extravagance was serious and that in her own amusing, provocative way she was forging a poetic instrument that would eventually do as much as the poetic practices of the better-known poets Pound and Eliot. When she began to write, she said later, the conventional rhythms, outworn language, and stale imagery made necessary a new direction and more immediate effects of sight and sound in poetry. So when she wrote of the morning light in its “creaking” descent she was endeavoring to make the reader hear the morning as well as see it, and thus feel a new dimension to the dawn. The same deepening of sensuous experience is found in many of her poems during this period. Trees, for example, are compared to hissing green geese; the wind is a blue-maned horse that whinnies and neighs. Some of Miss Sitwell’s experiments in synesthesia are strained and excessive, but just as often she does achieve that newness called for by Ezra Pound that is the goal of all good poets. Every reader of Miss Sitwell’s criticism of her own work and of that of others, in essays and prefaces, instantly recognizes her keen ear and her constant concern with the relation between sense and sound in poetry, a concern that lay behind all her experimentation and made her deliberately strain or even break old associational patterns in her quest for fresh effects.
Miss Sitwell was obviously a student of the later Yeats and of Gerard Manley Hopkins, but her own work had a different cast and, as the years went by, a meaning all its own. Though the verbal techniques of FACADE are clearly on display in GOLD COAST...
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