Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Collected Poems contains selections from the most significant poetry of Edith Sitwell, published in several volumes beginning in 1915. She proceeds chronologically, grouping poems by the titles of the books in which they first appeared. The poet revised some of her work, which she discusses in an introduction entitled “some Notes on My Own Poetry.” The poet’s introduction tends to concentrate on technical matters, on her concern with the sounds of words and the rhythms of her lines; it says little about the content or the themes of her poetry. Some of her most significant poems, however, are provided with context by a section of notes at the end of the collections.

Sitwell was greatly influenced by two French poets, Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) and Jules Laforgue (1860-1887), Symbolist poets who emphasized the poet’s dramatic and imaginative vision. Rimbaud and Laforgue were reacting against the realistic or mimetic tradition, in which the poet professes to be imitating or reflecting the actual world. They suggested that poetry should be less concrete, less bound by the rules of society, and should invent its own world. The tones and colors of the poet’s sensibility should be paramount, not what the world dictates to the poet’s eye and ear. As a result, they produced a poetry that was infinitely suggestive and mysterious, almost hallucinatory in its separation of poetry from everyday reality. Highly personal and elusive symbols became...

(The entire section is 560 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

At the beginning of his classic essay on Edith Sitwell, published in 1947, C. M. Bowra observed that there had been few female poets who had earned the accolades of greatness. He singled out Sitwell’s work as “not far from the highest,” an estimation that has rarely been seconded since her death in 1964. That she has earned a place in English literature is generally acknowledged, but the style of her later poetry has contributed to a decline in her reputation.

Yet Sitwell’s poetry will continue to be anthologized and examined for its impact on women’s literature and issues. In her lifetime, she served as a role model for other women who attacked the literary establishment and who sought their own unique styles. She competed on the same level as T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, W. B. Yeats, and other modernist poets. She also told her life story in her autobiography and publicized the life of poetry and poetic careers in a way unusual for a woman of hers or of any time. Although her early poetry claimed a special language and degree of insight unavailable to common discourse, she fought for the right of poets to be heard in the largest public forums. Both her prose and her poetry speak to a woman’s right to define herself, no matter how eccentric she may appear to be. Indeed, she was not averse to making a show of her eccentricity, appearing in public in medieval costumes. The story of her rebellion against her parents, who wanted a conventional...

(The entire section is 413 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Bowra, C. M. Edith Sitwell. Monaco: Lyrebird Press, 1947. Reprint, New York: Haskell House, 1975. An admiring but judicious account of Sitwell’s poetry of the early and middle periods.

Elborn, Geoffrey. Edith Sitwell: A Biography. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1981. A full-scale biography, with a helpful appendix of brief biographical sketches of the figures in Sitwell’s life. An extensive bibliography is included.

Glendinning, Victoria. Edith Sitwell: A Unicorn Among Lions. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981. An engaging and elegant biography which includes succinct readings of important poems.

Lehmann, John. Edith Sitwell. London: Longmans, Green, 1952. Offering more of an appreciation than a work of literary criticism, Lehmann helpfully sets up the context of Sitwell’s poetry. He argues for the distinctiveness of each phase of her poetic development.

Mills, Ralph J. Edith Sitwell: A Critical Essay. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1966. An insightful study of Sitwell’s poetry, both early and late, with an especially sympathetic view of her religious phase.