Sitwell, Edith (Vol. 9)
Sitwell, Edith 1887–1964
In 1954 Sitwell became the first poet to be created Dame, Commander Order of the British Empire. Her early poetry, however, was not readily accepted. Experimental in style, it concentrated on the essence of sound and the implications of techniques which would provide a wide range of sounds. For example, the poems in the collection Façade were written to be recited with, and enhanced by, dance and music. (See also CLC, Vol. 2, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
[Already] in her early poems Edith had amazing inventive power added to a musical ear and a trollish fancy. Her delight was especially in the radiant gaiety of things sensed and fancifully associated with a riot of other things, and in the musical succession of sounds into which she could convert them. She was as playful in her clever verses as the modern poets were to be solemn in theirs, and therefore it did not seem to be a very striking innovation that her images were taken from modern life and not borrowed from traditional poetry; and the internal rhymes and dissonances accorded with the jazz tune…. The nonsensical, the impish, the eerie, the fay, the grotesque appealed to the fancy of Edith Sitwell in her earlier phases, but always as something tripping to music, song and dance, olden or modern…. (p. 225)
Edith Sitwell's early poems shine like a design in many colours woven on a fabric; she describes gaily, and passes swiftly to decorative fancy, mingling the real and the unreal, the whole developing and completing the pattern of her mood. In Elegy on Dead Fashion (1926) she actually names the colours…. And in The Nectarine Tree do we not see as well as hear the laughter and the wind? (p. 226)
With the passage of time the poet becomes less playful and more serious, though always resisting the solemn. In that singular poem, Gold Coast Customs (1929), it is still fancy that predominates rather than imagination, but her humour has become grim and sardonic, and eeriness is intermingled with terror. Edith Sitwell's mood, which had well accorded with the lightness of the twenties, responds to the graver tones of the thirties and the tragedy of the subsequent war years…. Fancy gives way to imagination, under whose influence beautiful images copied from nature yield to more significant images 'modified', as Coleridge put it, 'by a predominant passion'. In becoming aware of things happening in the contemporary world she seemed to become more conscious of the nature of things always happening. Yet she was not of a disposition to yield to despair; and at the same time, while retaining Christian faith, she did not seek escape in Christian mysticism, but still sings: 'Hail to the Sun, and the great Sun in the heart of Man.' (pp. 226-27)
R. A. Scott-James, in his Fifty Years of English Literature 1900–1950, second edition, Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd., 1956.
Do the tricks of rhythm and rhyme, the exotic, improbable, nursery-tale objects make the early poems into anything more than delicious games? Was, in fact, Dame Edith, for all her inventions, ever 'modern' in any significant sense? I would suggest, instead, that she used the new taste for difficulty as an excuse to free herself not from outworn conventions of feeling and expression (she has her fair share of phrases like 'the glamour of eve'), but from the perennial convention that a poem should mean something. (p. 70)
[Perhaps the secret of the admiration Dame Edith's work inspires is that instead] of using poetry to express precisely the fullness of her experience, she has contrived with great care and invention a series of moulds into which the reader can pour just as much feeling as he wants. What she writes is not so much poems 'containing in themselves the reason why they are so and not otherwise' as challenges to his powers of free-association—a kind of 'do-it-yourself' verse. (p. 71)
A. Alvarez, "Edith Sitwell" (originally published in The Observer, 1957), in his Beyond All This Fiddle: Essays 1955–1967 (copyright © 1968 by A. Alvarez; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc. and Candida Donadio & Associates, Inc.), Random House, 1969, pp. 70-1.
Dame Edith Sitwell is a virtuoso of rhythm and accent. She has given me immense pleasure, intensifying my interest in rhythm, and has also encouraged me in my rhythmic eccentricities….
Façade, Dame Edith—or Miss Sitwell as she was then—insists, was but apprenticeship; of virtuoso quality with wit…. (p. 210)
"I used to practice writing," Dame Edith says, "as a pianist practices music." She says that she would take a waltz or a polka or the music of the barrel organ beneath her window and translate it into words…. Dame Edith then considered the long line and its possibilities. William Carlos Williams has said in his book, I Wanted to Write a Poem, "I found I could not use the long line because of my nervous nature." An adagio, moreover, "is hard to sustain at concert pitch," as the Times Literary Supplement noted. We have it, however, when Edith Sitwell writes
Of stars and young thin moons from great wings falling
As ripples widen.
How pleasing, the dactyls: porphyry, basilica, Babylon; and babioun (babioun borrowed from Ben Jonson, as she says). How neat, the rhyme "Noctambulo" with "folio"…. Dame Edith's irregularities in set meter are hyperskilful, as in creating a pause after any in "anybody": "Mary Stuart to James Bothwell" (Casket Letter No. 2):
Leaving you, I was sundered like the sea!
Departed from the place where I left my heart
I was as small as any body may be.
That is to say, with the accent on body.
There is no melody in Pope, Dame Edith says, because there is no irregularity. "To have melody, there must be variations in the outward structure." An expert of the condensed phrase, she also says, "I try to make my images exact"; and does, in "sundered"…. (pp. 210-11)
In the opening lines of "The Sleeping Beauty," the incantatory effect of the whole passage is a metaphor creating a sense of deep, mysterious, fairy-world remoteness:
When we come to that dark house,
Never sound of wave shall rouse
The bird that sings within the blood
Of those who sleep in that deep wood.
Some may regard as arbitrary a word of Dame Edith's or find a statement too "oracular." In her choice of words, she is, to herself, always justified. "Neatness of execution is essential to sublimity," she says;… considering language an "incarnation" of thought rather than "the dress of thought," and is instructively "neat" in revising her own work…. (p. 213)
For her "all great poetry is dipped in the dyes of the heart"; and, perhaps quoting Whitman, she says, "All things are in the clime of man's forgiveness"; saying of ideals she would reach, "How far I am from these no one could see more clearly than I. Technically, I would come to a vital language—each word possessing an infinite power of germination, spiritually give holiness to each common day." In her humility and compassion she cages conviction. (p. 215)
Marianne Moore, "Edith Sitwell, Virtuoso," in her A Marianne Moore Reader (copyright © 1961 by Marianne Moore; reprinted by permission of The Viking Press, Inc.), Viking, 1961, pp. 210-15.
During [Edith Sitwell's] long poetic career, time has served as a focal point for the continuing dialectic of affirmation and negation which is typical of her spiritual life. However, the theme bulks largest in her work during the period 1924–28, when she devoted three long poems to it. In these pieces (The Sleeping Beauty, 1924; Elegy on Dead Fashion, 1926; "Metamorphosis," 1928) Dame Edith, in overcoming her agonized preoccupation with the destructiveness of time, evolves the complex vision of the matter which characterizes her later poetry.
Sitwell's three early "time" poems share certain features of technique. Although they treat a difficult metaphysical problem with subtlety and depth, all three for the most part abjure either the language of philosophy or a discursive presentation of their theme. The crux with which the poet is dealing is so fundamental as to involve her whole personality. It embraces passion and reason, the body and the mind, the conscious and the unconscious. All of these levels of reaction are integrated into a richly sensuous and imaginatively resonant symbolism. Dame Edith's symbolic approach, which allows her to trace her preoccupation with time to its pre-conscious roots, is bound up with the mythopoeic or dream-structure of her three poems. All display an alogical yet meaningful process of imaginative and emotion association which connects them with both pre-rational and supra-rational states of mind. The visionary "dream-work" of the three pieces creates an organic imaginative architecture, in which form and significance arises from a genetic interaction of symbols. This process is both psychological and metaphysical, being governed by a romantic imagination which "dissolves, diffuses, dissipates" empirical consciousness, and recreates the world in terms of a religious vision centering upon innocence, fall and redemption.
In developing this Biblical schema, Sitwell passes through a spiritual labyrinth, a "chinese box" of multiple imprisonments in the destructiveness of time. The vision of the individual's entrapment in the natural cycles which is developed in The Sleeping Beauty is, in Elegy on Dead Fashion, placed within the context of the historical degeneration of the race. However, as in Dante's Inferno, the center of the labyrinth joins with a divine "circumference," which encompasses the poet's difficulties in a redemptive transcendence. In "Metamorphosis," Dame Edith unites fully with that "outer ring" in a tempered visionary ecstacy.
The Sleeping Beauty begins Sitwell's odyssey by treating the life of the individual in time as a result and a repetition of the Fall. This spiritual context is established in the gardener's song which both opens and concludes the poem. The song recasts the story of Jonah into a symbolic parable of the incarceration of fallen man, who has lapsed from a spiritual and eternal to a natural and temporal existence…. As the conclusion of the gardener's song suggests, his debarrment is at the same time an entrapment in fallen nature…. It is Sleeping Beauty's fate to remain perpetually retarded in … spiritual somnolence. The apparent suspension of time in her trance is illusory. Her sleep, which partakes of both life and death and yet is neither, in fact manifests both ends of nature's organic cycles. Sitwell's "telescoping" of natural time indicates the "Night-mare Life-in-Death" in which man is trapped in the womb-tomb of nature. This imprisonment in the round of "Birth, and copulation, and death," is appropriately expressed in sexual terms. In The Sleeping Beauty, both the frustration and the fulfillment of sexuality are death-symbols. In the cyclical time of nature, in which all fertility, life and growth are movements towards extinction, generation is in the last analysis as sterile as virginity.
Because he is aware of his fate, the imprisonment of fallen man in natural time is psychic as well as physical. His bodily entrapment in its cycles is projected mentally in three states which may be termed innocence, experience and despair. (pp. 207-08)
As Sitwell indicates by her grotesque representations of decay and death as a "wingless and bemired" destiny and a "pig-snouted Darkness" …, nature is not simply uncaring, but positively malignant. A full imaginative recognition of its destructiveness is a nightmare, the horror and despair of which constitute another psychic reflection of man's death-in-life in cyclical time. (p. 210)
[Seasonal] imagery and its association of man with the vegetable world … [are] two of Sitwell's recurring symbols of the imprisonment of fallen humanity in nature's round. The plant suggests a life completely restricted by cyclical time. In its connection with man's awareness of his natural life as a prison and a tomb, the vegetation-image is at once ironic and tragic. It implies that insofar as he assimilates to nature, he becomes passive and insensate, losing his unique capacities. If he preserves his soul, he falls into the dilemma of Shelley's Sensitive Plant which, by its simultaneous existence on the two irreconcilable planes of nature and human awareness, is doomed to a spiritual death-in-life.
In Elegy on Dead Fashion, Sitwell begins to transcend her nightmare vision of the imprisonment of the individual in natural time. She paradoxically does so by placing the tragedy in the context of the historical degeneration of the race. The poet returns to a primeval Golden Age, in which the natural paradise of childhood has not yet been uprooted from its spiritual foundations by the Fall. Both the new vision of nature in the Elegy … and the concept of time which it involves are antithetical to those which dominate The Sleeping Beauty. This reversal in turn allows the poet glimmers of hope about the destiny in the immediate present of both the individual and the race.
The positive relationship of man to nature and time in the Golden Age has a foundation which is both psychological and metaphysical. Originally, man's consciousness was not dissociated from his instinct. Because "natural law and moral were but one,"… he could act without the interference of a critical self-awareness, and was untroubled by frustrated desire or guilt. This paradise of instinctual liberty and creative self-expression is appropriately associated with a bucolic setting, in which man is one with nature. However, Sitwell's primitivism is combined with a baroque efflorescence of the elegant artifice which is also traditional in pastoral art. The poet not only clothes her nature-spirits and divinities in the fashions of the 1840's, but metaphorically recasts nature in similar terms.
The "continuing conceits" in which Sitwell joins art and nature, the rustic and the civilized, embody the metaphysical basis of her poem. This closely resembles the "clothes philosophy" of Sartor Resartus. Nature is a "fabric" woven upon the "loom of time" by an immanent divinity. God's creative omnipresence is figured by Prometheus, a "blacksmith-god" who continuously brings living forms from the amorphous inertia of matter. In a process analogous to artistic creation, the life which is inspired in the "uncouth earth" … by Prometheus' heavenly "fire" … is given harmony and pattern by his divine logos. Nature is thus the archetype of human art and civilization. In terms of Sitwell's clothes metaphor, God both expresses and veils Himself in the "many-coloured coat" of His creation. Similarly, the "god's soul" … within man employs its creative powers to weave both the "costume" of his body and a rich "tapestry" of civilized refinement.
God is thus immanent in man as He is in nature. Psychologically speaking, the incarnate divinity takes the form of the instinctual unconscious. Therefore, as Sitwell suggests through the image of dancing satyrs …, the free play of instinct which characterizes humanity in the Golden Age produces an Appollonian wisdom and beauty. In metaphysical terms, this spontaneous culture symbolically embodies the divine, and consequently also mirrors God's creative activity in the universe. Thus, the unity of nature and civilization in the Golden Age implies that creation is still in a state of embryonic unity, in which it is impossible to differentiate God and man, the individual and the cosmos, the natural and the supernatural, energy and order, art and nature, the bucolic and the urbane, morality and instinct. (pp. 210-12)
Sitwell's notion of time as an extended process of aesthetic creation implies an evolutionary view of nature. Thus, the first "rough" and "uncouth" … human forms are progressively refined and developed both in body and spirit.
In the present stage of human history, time is not creative but destructive. Once again, Sitwell sees the individual as doomed to decay and death in the prison of the natural cycles. However, in the Elegy …, the grim vision of time which appeared in The Sleeping Beauty is placed in perspective by being viewed as itself a function of history. Age and death assume such overwhelming proportions for modern man because he is the end-product of a long decline, during which his spiritual powers and perspective have radically diminished. The apocalyptic intuition of the Golden Age has been replaced by a purblind materialism, which regards only the physical surface of creation. The civilized elegance which expressed the indwelling Spirit has accordingly become an empty triviality…. It is this spiritual debilitation which has rendered man's life in time a nightmare. (p. 212)
Sitwell is not explicit about how the historical time of the race changes from a creative evolution to a spiritual degeneration. However, we may surmise that man's soul began to wither when his consciousness developed to the point at which it broke away from instinct…. As soon as man ceased to be an expression of nature and its time-process, their creative and nurturing relationship with him was reversed. Time and matter became devouring and destructive, a prison in which the individual was condemned to decay and death.
The reversal of the relationship between man and natural time is suggested in the Elegy … by a symbolism which recalls Robert Graves' tripartite White Goddess. The first two phases of Sitwell's White Goddess are the kore and the earth-mother…. Together, the divine maiden and the earth-goddess suggest the joyous vitality arising from man's organic communion with a protective, nourishing nature, in which time and matter form a creative matrix. However, the wolf also implies the third aspect of Sitwell's White Goddess: the devouring hag who symbolizes nature as a dungeon and a tomb. One form of the hag who relates specifically to time is the goddess Fortune, who presides over the chance governing modern man's temporal existence…. Another is the "Numidean sibyl" … who, in prophesying the triumph of death over love, suggests the despair of the individual trapped in natural time.
In the Elegy … Sitwell suggests, if only very tentatively, the essentials of her later resolution of the problem of time…. [She] implies that the same world-soul which made history a process of creative evolution in the Golden Age may bring a renascence of that happy era…. She now envisages a twofold cyclical movement of rebirth, the renewal of the primordial Eden coming about through a revolution within nature. This takes the form of a process of evolution inspired by the immanent divinity, in which the dead matter to which everything is reduced by time is reborn in a succession of living forms. In the Elegy …, this hopeful vision is overwhelmed by the poet's despair, but in "Metamorphosis" it is developed into a tempered visionary ecstasy in which the crux posed by a destructive time is transcended.
"Metamorphosis" indeed opens with the same despondency which dominated the Elegy…. The later poem develops the themes of the destruction of the individual and the race by time in much the same terms as the earlier. Once again, man's imprisonment in the natural cycles is characterized as a peculiarly modern problem by its association with the historical "fall" of the species. In "Metamorphosis," as in the Elegy …, Sitwell repeatedly suggests her own entanglement in the crisis. However, in the second poem, Dame Edith's identification with the plight of her age is offset by a visionary detachment…. Sitwell now realizes that she is obsessed with time and death because she has been viewing life from the same inverted perspective as her contemporaries…. Having recognized the mote in her own eye, Sitwell is able to rise to a new perspective on time and nature. (pp. 212-14)
[The] dialectic of light and "shade" is a fundamental metaphor throughout Sitwell's poetry for the genetic interaction which produces life and growth. To describe this creative process in the organic structure of a poem, Dame Edith employs the term "texture." Texture is the imaginative pattern which emerges when a piece is created or read. It combines energy with order, content with form. It is both static and dynamic, an unfolding succession and a finished artifact. In ["Metamorphosis"], Sitwell applies this concept of texture to nature….
Dame Edith has thus combined her conceptions of nature as a garment and an organism into that of a living "texture," which is woven in time by the intercourse of light and shade. If light implies the creative life-giving role of the immanent spirit in this process, then darkness must represent its metaphysical opposite: the inertia of matter which causes the decay of all natural entities in time. Just as the genetic interaction of light with earth brings about organic evolution, so darkness is associated with an atavism that marks the descent of life towards amorphous, dead matter.
Sitwell's conception of the natural time-process as "texture" thus involves a nexus of organic cycles, in which light and darkness, death and life, come to predominate in succession. This rhythm recurs in "Metamorphosis," and constitutes an important element in the poet's solution of the problem of time. It is true that "Metamorphosis" repeatedly associates the seasonal and diurnal cycles with the individual's decline from youth to age. The history of the race has similarly moved from the "spring" of the Golden Age to the "winter" of modern degeneracy. However, such negative movements are merely preludes to rebirth. Thus, "Metamorphosis" opens with the poet's despair over time and death, but concludes with her spiritual rejuvenation. (p. 215)
[The] "marriage" of light and shade in the round of time involves more than a simple succession. The notion of "texture" implies that in all phases of evolution and organic growth, light and darkness are simultaneously present in a creative dialectic….
The dialectic of light and shade thus underlies and controls the cyclical alternations of natural time. This dynamic conception of "texture" forms the dominant idea of time in the mature poetry which Dame Edith wrote after 1940. (p. 216)
John Ower, "A Golden Labyrinth: Edith Sitwell and the Theme of Time," in Renascence (© copyright, 1973, Catholic Renascence Society, Inc.), Summer, 1974, pp. 207-17.