Edith Sitwell’s early poems produced a series of shocks. To some, her verse was artificial; others could see that she purposefully created an artificial world. Her teeming imagination fashioned a luscious, semimechanical microcosm, one having “furry light” from “a reynard-coloured sun,” trees that “hissed like green geese” with leaves as “hoarse as a dog’s bark,” a domain populated by “poor flaxen foundlings . . . upon a darkened stair.” The world she wrote about in her poetry was, as she put it, “like a bare egg laid by the feathered air.”
Of her seriousness as an artist, there is no doubt. A childless woman, she actually lay in her bed and labored for as long as six hours a day for more than forty years to bring forth reams of poetry. A few of her creations may be idiot brainchildren afflicted with echolalia; more are precocious offspring of her metaphysical imagination; most are somewhere between these extremes. In short, though she was wildly eccentric in all she did and wrote, she was still a poet of emotional depth and sincere human concerns. What she wrote was hardly for the common man, but she often maintained that the public enjoys poetry, “unless it is lethally boring or they are frightened out of doing so by bad critics.” The matter, the form, and the method employed by so many of her contemporaries aroused her ire. Like an electric eel in a pond full of catfish, she attacked such poets for their lack of tactile and visual sensibility and their inability to please those sensibilities by means of the written word.
Most admirers of her work rank the poems of her last years higher than the verbal legerdemain of her experimental period. Louise Bogan is one of the few who prefers Sitwell’s earlier efforts to her later brooding reflections on the world’s evils. In many of her early poems, Sitwell was more concerned with evoking beauty and producing sonorous effects than with communicating ideas; however, in her later work she manifested a somberness and intensity, an almost grieving understanding of, and compassion for, the sufferings of humanity.
The Mother, and Other Poems
The pattern for much of Sitwell’s early verse can be found in her first published work, The Mother, and Other Poems, wherein she deals with a prissy, dollhouse world full of such exotic objects as tambourines, mandolins, parakeets, nutmeg trees, and chinoiserie. Technically, the third poem in the collection, “Serenade,” is one of the best. In its music of evening, the primacy of darkness is established in the opening lines: “The tremulous gold of stars within your hair/ Are yellow bees flown from the hive of night.” In attributing the sun’s color to the stars, she suggests a causal relationship between darkness and light, night and day. The yellow bees, born from the mothering hive of night to experience the darkness of the evening world, find the blossoms of the eyes of the beloved more fair “Than all the pale flowers folded from the light.” Finally, “Serenade” pleads that the loved one open dreaming eyes “Ere those bright bees have flown and darkness dies.”
Most of the poems in Clown’s Houses and The Wooden Pegasus are similar to those in The Mother, and Other Poems, but the poems making up Bucolic Comedies deal less with rhythm and exotica and more with what Sitwell labeled “sense transfusions.” Though at first glance most of these poems may seem comedic nonsense, a careful reading indicates that even their oddest images have a purpose.
In “Aubade,” for example, Sitwell depicts the sad stupidity of a servant girl on a country farm coming down to light a morning fire: “Jane, Jane,/ Tall as a crane,/ The morning-light creaks down again.” The dawn “creaks” about Jane because early light does not run smoothly. It is raining and Jane imagines each drop of moisture hardening into a “dull blunt wooden stalactite.” Facing daily chores of weeding “eternities of kitchen garden,” she senses flowers that cluck and mock her. (The flowers “cluck” for they are cockscombs.) The flames of the fire remind her of the carrots and turnips she has to clean and cook continually. Her spirits hang limp as “the milk’s weak mind.” Like so many of Sitwell’s early poems, “Aubade” contains recollections of her own childhood. Thinking of the servant, Jane, brings to the poet’s mind “The shivering movement of a certain cold dawn light upon the floor suggestive of high animal whining or whimpering, a half-frightened and subservient urge to something outside our consciousness.”
Sitwell’s early volumes caught the attention of only a limited number of readers, but on June 12, 1923, after reciting her Façade at London’s Aeolian Hall, she achieved instant notoriety. Everything about her performance provoked controversy. She sat with her back to the audience, barely visible behind a transparent curtain adorned with a crudely painted moon face. The ostensible purpose of the curtain was to allow the audience to concentrate chiefly on the auditory qualities of the poems. The moon face was in keeping with the dreamlike world of apes, ducks, grotesque lords and ladies, clowns, peasants, and servant girls she had written about. Rumors of the nature of Façade had reached the literary world after one or two private recitations, and on opening night a large and curious audience was present.
Sitwell chanted her poems through an instrument called a Sengerphone (named after its inventor, George Senger). Out of the Sengerphone, which was made of compressed grasses meant to retain the purity of magnified tonal quality, came such baffling words as “The sound of the onycha/ When the phoca has the pica/ In the palace of the Queen Chinee!” Music may have the power to soothe the savage breast—and there was little adverse reaction to William Walton’s orchestration—but the response to Sitwell’s poetry bordered on the primitive. After the performance the audience became so threatening that the poet had to remain on stage behind the curtain. Someone whispered to Sitwell that an old lady was waiting to hit her with an umbrella. Disgruntled spectators complained loudly that they were victims of an enormous hoax. They had come to Façade expecting to enjoy Walton’s music and hear some edifying verse. What they heard sounded like gibberish. Had they listened more attentively they might have found subtle criticisms of modern life, innuendoes of decay, death, nothingness.
Never had more brickbats been hurled at a poet. In her defense, when Sitwell wrote Façade, she believed a change in the direction, imagery, and rhythms of poetry had become necessary, owing, as she expressed it, “to the rhythmical flaccidity, the verbal deadness, the dull and expected patterns” of modern poetry. The poems in Façade, consequently, are in most cases virtuoso exercises in verbalizing, studies in rhythmical techniques. “Fox Trot,” “Assface,” “Sir Beelzebub,” “Waltz,” and “Hornpipe” are excellent examples of her rhythmical techniques; these poems, in particular, consist of experiments concerning the effect that sound has on meaning.
One trisyllabic word, Sitwell discovered, had greater rapidity than three monosyllabic words. Two rhymes placed immediately together at the end of each of two lines, furthermore, would be like “leaps in the air.” In “Fox Trot,” for example, she wrote: “’Sally, Mary, Mattie, what’s the matter, why cry?’/ The huntsman and the reynard-coloured sun...
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