Collected Poems Critical Essays

Edith Sitwell


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

“Clowns’ Houses,” the second poem in Façade, is an excellent example of an early and accomplished work. Its title introduces the central symbol of the clown, a figure which appears in many Symbolist poems and in modern art. The clown represents the façade of civilization, colorfully made up but comic, empty, and nonsensical. The world is like a gaudy clown; it makes its extravagant gestures that may amuse and distract people, but it is not grounded in truth. If the reader does not key into the symbol of the clown, the poem’s first lines are puzzling. What world is it that has a “flat and paper sky,” a world that seems “out of tune”? It is the world of clowns’ houses, a hollow, dead world made of masked creatures and mummy’s faces—a world of spiritual sterility that the poet dramatizes by comparing it to the flimsy, cardboard stuff of a clown’s play, blunting perceptions of reality. The last lines of the poem suggest that the extent to which the poet enters the world of clowns’ houses, of modern civilization, is the extent to which the poet is silenced. The originality of poetry keeps the poet alive, attuned to those hints of reality that the rest of modern life is designed to obscure.

Gold Coast Customs has been recognized by virtually all the poet’s critics as a major advance in Sitwell’s work. It focuses on a juxtaposition of nineteenth century Africa and twentieth century Europe. There are two major characters: Munza, an African king who reigned over a tribe of cannibals in 1874 (according the the poet’s own note), and Lady Bamburgher, a fictional figure representing the equally cannibalistic nature of the West. Munza may rattle his bones in the dust, literally stripping human beings of their flesh, but Lady Bamburgher is no better, for the guests at her parties seem just as disembodied, a collection of grins, “strings of nerve,” and “drum-taut skin.” Read aloud, the poet’s phrases sound like the beating of drums, making a hollow sound, which imitates the emptiness of the modern life concealed in the veneer of “civilized” society. “Our worm-skin and paper masks” serve only to conceal “rotting bones,” the poet remarks, implying the enormous distance between the Bamburgher parties and the “cries of the slums”—a phrase that has been matched by the poet’s reference to the “cannibal drums.” The words “drums,” “slums,” “cries,” and “parties” produce a concatenation of sounds that subtly merge Africa and Europe into one binding revelation of a damned humanity, a hell on earth.

By 1940, the poet had moved beyond her excoriation of the modern world and of humankind’s evil propensities to a vision of poetry in which the poet not...

(The entire section is 1123 words.)