Collected Poems Analysis
by Edith Sitwell

Start Your Free Trial

Download Collected Poems Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Collected Poems Analysis

(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 only achieves a sense of reality by also affirms the truths of Christianity and the other great religions. In “Eurydice,” for example, the poet identifies herself with the woman of Greek mythology who died and entered the underworld to be brought back, temporarily, by her husband, Orpheus. The poet is far from the gloom of her earlier works when she declares: “All the weight of Death in all the world/ Yet does not equal Love—the great compassion/ For the fallen dust and all fallen creatures.” In her death, Eurydice identifies with the fallen world and resurrects herself in tune with the rhythm of the rising sun, which ripens not merely the earth but also the heart. Nature itself speaks to the fertilization of body and mind. In the poem’s conclusion, the poet yokes Eurydice’s rising from the darkness of death to the other resurrection stories of Adonis and Christ. She emphasizes that Adonis was born from a young myrrh tree, reborn each season and touched by the sun, which is personified in the line “I touched your mouth.” Sitwell explores the erotic, the spiritual, and the loving potentiality of the myths and the poetry that have enlivened the world.

“How Many Heavens. . . ,” written during World War II, continues the ecstatic declaration of “Eurydice” and is clearly influenced by Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855), as Sitwell acknowledges in her introduction to Collected Poems. The poem’s title, especially the emphasis on the plural, the “heavens” of the human imagination, is akin to Whitman’s celebration of human consciousness as a creation, a world in itself, but one that evolves out of nature—as with the leaves of grass and the leaves of a book. The poem’s first line—“The emeralds are singing on the grasses”—demonstrates the distance that the poet has traversed from the allusive, indirect style of her early poems to the outright declarative style of her final period. “My blood seem changed to emeralds like the spears/ Of grass beneath the earth piercing and singing.” The image of how a poet internalizes and re-created nature recalls the image of the poet loafing on the grass, examining its individual spears and symbolizing them as the “flag of my disposition” in Leaves of Grass.

In her postwar book The Canticle of the Rose (1949), which appears toward the end of Collected Poems, the poet extends and deepens her religious themes. In “The Bee-Keeper,” capitalized abstract nouns—Spirit, Birth, Death, Darkness—now dominate her work and are balanced by abstract nouns evoking the elements of nature— Sun, Water, Fire, Air, Thunder, Chaos—all of which are filtered through the “voice of Man,” the “bright immortal Lover who is All!” Her plentiful use of exclamation marks and exclamatory invocations of nature reverse the process of her earlier work, which shifted from the concrete to the abstract. Now it is the abstractions that are made concrete—as in her vision of “old and wrinkled Darkness” and a laughing sun.

The poetry of Sitwell’s final period had been faulted by many critics, who prefer the tension and satire of her earlier work. Ralph J. Mills has defended the poet’s later work, suggesting that it has been misunderstood by critics who wish to narrow modern literature to the accomplishments of a small body of writers. “Certainly, understatement and irony and the witty conceit could hardly convey her kind of knowledge,” he concludes. His defense begs the question, however, of whether “her kind of knowledge” has been conveyed as palpably as the skepticism of her earlier work. On the level of metaphor, which the poet must develop to persuade both believing and nonbelieving readers, Sitwell too often states rather than dramatizes her knowledge. Her later poems, read against the background her earlier ones, undoubtedly show how she worked through many years to earn her final affirmative phase, but some of the individual late poems, taken by themselves, are not self-sustaining.