Edith Sitwell Sitwell, Edith (Vol. 2) - Essay

Sitwell, Edith (Vol. 2)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sitwell, Edith 1887–1964

A British poet and eccentric, Dame Edith was early an experimental poet who became poetry's high priestess. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

[Miss Sitwell's] verse resembles [Pope's] insofar as it is the product of a cultivated mind accustomed to the amenities of a less distracted civilization than ours. She exhibits neither the objectivity, the clarity, nor the mechanistic philosophy of the Augustan Age. On the contrary, her poetry, extremely personal, involute, of allusion all compact, is expressive of a sensibility deeply affronted by the mechanized world. Even in her later, more sombre, poetry, she works by means of association and suggestion, though less intensively using what she calls "a new scale of sense-values." Actually it is as old as the Rig-Veda and has become as much a poetic commonplace as Baudelaire's theory of the correspondences between the senses. The trouble with Miss Sitwell's perfumes, sounds, and colors is that their correspondences are sometimes overly private….

The great gates swing on their hinges for Miss Sitwell in the poems written among the thunders and fires of World War II. It is as though these broke in upon the artificial eighteenth-century world for which she felt the attraction and repulsion of kinship, and led her back to celebrate the innocent animalism, the shining insights of childhood with the religiosity of middle age….

Not the least notable fact about Miss Sitwell's later work is the abandonment of purely abstract sound, with a correspondingly greater control of cadence. The poet confides her hope, her belief, to a simpler and more ample line. There are instances of exquisite lyricism, especially in some of the Songs, and the recurrent image of the summer rose evokes some of its richest associations. To many, the somber lyrics called forth by the second world war will speak with an authenticity that the mystical poems cannot have, yet even the agnostic must surrender to the spell that she knows how to weave out of consonants and vowels as out of shapes and colors and bright old threads of legend. She sings a "Green Song," and in the midst of death hers is the poetry of the living: the light of the sun, the sap in the leaf, the warm fluid in the vein, which this poet, like the physician who discovered the circulation of the blood, conceives as the seat and instrument of the soul.

She does not favor austerity and this makes for discursiveness. It also makes for an extravagance of imagery that sometimes almost overwhelms the poem. Not only have the syncopated rhythms and delicate vocables of her youthful verse given place to a long sonorous line; even her most spiritual poems abound in sensuous figures.

Babette Deutsch, in her Poetry in Our Time (copyright by Babette Deutsch), New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1952, pp. 221-27.

The brittle and exhibitionist verbal patterns of Edith Sitwell, brilliant in their way but somehow lacking in fullness and depth of poetic utterance—a highly-coloured surface art of remarkable virtuosity—continued well into the 1930s, though her later poetry showed her striving for a simpler and deeper human note. The exhibitionist brilliance of some of her earlier poetry led some critics to dismiss her as a publicity-seeking clown, but this was unjust and imperceptive. For even her most stylized work shows not only an uncanny eye for the arresting image but an ability to place the image so that it unexpectedly illuminates an area of human passion. Sometimes she repeats herself, or the pressure drops too low, or the pattern of meaning seems too wantonly contrived. But she has the true poet's respect for the uncanny power of words and for the source of that power in the elemental depths of human consciousness. And the tone and texture of her poetry are often strikingly original.

David Daiches, in his The Present Age in British Literature, Indiana University Press, 1958, pp. 52-3.

Edith Sitwell is the nearest thing to a major poet that the British Isles have produced since Hardy, Lawrence and Yeats. With the exception of Hugh McDiarmid she is now the only British poet who possesses that special accent of both individuality and scope which makes a writer a member of world literature. Possibly this is because, like the others, she is both intensely national, even local—in her case "county," if you will—and yet aware in a living way of the literature of the whole civilized community, its problems, its ambitions, its disasters.

It is all too common nowadays in the modern academy to talk of Edith Sitwell as though she didn't mean anything, as though her poetry was just art. Few poets have had more to say or said it more explicitly, even didactically….

What Edith Sitwell … wrote in the period when she made her reputation is a tense, inspired and highly sophisticated doggerel of the sort invented by Goethe and practiced so whimsically in our day by W. H. Auden. Most of all in her young days she was like Laforgue….

French poetry before Apollinaire, and Edith Sitwell's with it, was a shocked cry of protest against the mechanization of life itself. Her early books may all be frightfully chic and so like glittering shop windows of tinsel and dummies and commodities. This wasn't what is called in American universities a value-neuter statement. Two generations of her fans who have been developed by the fashion magazines would be scandalized to know that what the poems say is that she doesn't like it that way at all.

The consumptive glitter and rattle may have been the latest thing from France, but the moral earnestness was British, "to the core," as they say—that earnest, moral, British core…. As Aristotle said, you have to be an aristocrat or a reactionary to write a good proletarian poem.

Kenneth Rexroth, "Edith Sitwell," in his Assays (© 1961 by Kenneth Rexroth; reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation), New Directions, 1961, pp. 219-22.

Dame Edith Sitwell's early verse is full of hard, bright-coloured images; everything is objectified, and abstractions are banished. It is a world of things rather than of thoughts; at the same time it is a world of sensations rather than of appearances. Objects and scenes are often robbed of their visual quality so that they may be given a sensation quality. The reader is expected to receive an impression of things—not through descriptions that enable him to recognize them as things known by sight, but by an application of epithets designed to revive the sensations previously experienced in contact with similar objects, or in similar circumstances: Edith Sitwell's earlier verse is too varied to be comprehended in a single category. It has echoes of older poetry—the traditional ballads, Donne, the Augustans, Wilde, and others …—while in pictorial effect a proportion of the poems resemble vivid fashion-plate pictures alternating with kaleidoscope designs.

Later, Edith Sitwell developed into a religious and metaphysical poet, under the stressful and sobering influences of the troubled nineteen-thirties and the ensuing Second World War. The Song of the Cold (1945), though containing mainly poems written from 1939 onward, also includes a number of pieces from her early and middle period, and shows her progress from the fantastical to the spiritual—a progress which, in the light of her poetry as a whole, can be seen as orderly and inevitable.

A. C. Ward, Twentieth-Century English Literature 1901–1960, Methuen-University Paperbacks, 1964, pp. 186-87.

Edith Sitwell wrote poetry for nearly half a century, and her work went through many phases; it was always unmistakable for the work of anyone else, and in spite of many sharp differences between one phase and another, always showed a basic unity of inspiration; but, as in the case of another great poet of the twentieth century, W. B. Yeats, the sum of her work is greater than its parts. Her early poetry, like Yeats's, would always have been read for its fresh lyricism, its wit and colour, if she had never written another word after her first two volumes; but the work of her supreme phase, during the war and in the years immediately following, was so much more profound and satisfying in its vision of life and displayed such an infinitely subtler control of the technical means, that it reflected some of its glory on what went before; while the interest it has for us is enhanced when we see in it the resolution of contrasting themes from the earlier work and can savour it as the full ripening of a mind and artistic personality of extended and persistent growth. (pp. 5-6)

In [the] power of transformation, of creating new wonder and significance by the marriage of the familiar with the unexpected symbol already rich in imaginative associations, Edith Sitwell always excelled. The deepest inner experiences and discoveries of her childhood were exploited in this process for her poetry; she never lost them; but, equally, she never ceased to add to them. The acquisitive Ariel of her restless mind continually brought new treasures back to its master spirit of poetry, from the works of mystic philosophers, scientists, and poets of all lands and all ages: anyone who wishes to understand how tireless this activity was should study the notes she added to all her major poems of the forties and after. (p. 12)

One of the most interesting things about Edith Sitwell's art is the way in which all aspects of it seem to be present at every stage in her development, while at each stage one particular aspect becomes dominant. (p. 17)

Alexander Pope is one of the most important prose works of Edith Sitwell. It tells one almost as much about the author as about Pope, and has in abundance the special fascination of all biographies written by one great poet about another. (p. 33)

John Lehmann, in his Edith Sitwell, Longman Group Ltd., for the British Council, revised edition, 1970.

[Edith] Sitwell's own mature poems, published from 1940 onwards, [are] distinguished for both their encyclopedic scope and their architectural accomplishment. W. B. Yeats perceived with characteristic acumen that even Miss Sitwell's early verse forms a closely-woven fabric from which single pieces cannot properly be detached. Her later work is even more tightly knit. Northrop Frye has justly termed these pieces miniature epics, but we must not forget that the individual poems are also panels in a much more expansive tapestry. This greater poetic entity is an epic hymn or divine comedy, which … arises from the binding together of the later poems by the incremental repetition of concepts, symbols, epithets, expressions, and even groups of several lines. These recurring elements, which are interwoven through the later poetry with the greatest cunning, emerge on careful reading as a comprehensive spiritual system which is accompanied by a corresponding grammar of images. Each individual poem is attached to a cosmic framework, thereby gaining immensely in resonance and luminosity….

[One] of Miss Sitwell's greatest poetic achievements is her ability to infuse simple rustic figures and their humble occupations with an aura of sacramental significance. In this way, she manages to evoke in all of its poignant loveliness the passionate and visionary innocence which characterizes man's vernal condition in the earthly paradise….

Although it is possible to trace a well articulated ladder of being in Edith Sitwell's later poetry, her scale of created forms is not a rigid and static hierarchy whose divisions and gradations are absolute. Rather, her central emphasis upon organic cohesion and vitality leads to a universe which is characterized by a radical unity on the one hand, and by fluidity and change on the other. In particular, the activity of the life force inspires growth and development, and this involves a movement up the ladder of being in which, to borrow Aristotle's terminology, the potential of matter for higher form is gradually actualized….

Miss Sitwell's great faith in the origin of all life and being in God's vitalizing love for His creation has further implications for the poet's cosmological democracy. In the first place, it leads her to Blake's position that "Everything that lives is Holy." However, the whole of the cosmos is not merely sacred, but is also the object of the concern of a personal Divinity, and the sun which symbolizes His presence is accordingly an "eye of God." As a beloved expression of His own nature, every being has equal dignity and value in His sight, and is equally the recipient of His compassion and care. Thus, as Coleridge's Ancient Mariner learns to his cost, because God "made and loveth all," it is incumbent upon us to do the like. It is by his transgression of the law of universal love which is imposed by the sacredness of man and nature in the eyes of God that the plutocrat, the chief ravager of modern society, incurs the guilt of Cain and of Judas.

John B. Ower, "Cosmic Aristocracy and Cosmic Democracy in Edith Sitwell," in Contemporary Literature (© 1971 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 12, No. 4, Autumn, 1971, pp. 527-53.