Wednesday, April 26, 2017

For National Poetry Month: 30 Poets, #26

"I am patient with stupidity but not with those who are proud of it."

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Dame Edith Louisa Sitwell, DCE (1887-1964)
Poet, biographer, critic

The first half of the 20th century was, in England, the Age of The Sitwells. World-class eccentrics, Edith and her brothers- Osbert (1892-1969) and Sacheverell (1897-1988)- were astonishingly gifted and productive writers. In collaboration, and working solo, they produced a staggering output that included 103 books: songs, poems, histories, biographies, art criticism, and articles and essays beyond counting.

The family counted itself descended from the Plantagenets. Resident at Renishaw Hall since 1625, they made money; spent it on enlarging the house at intervals; and intermarried with other great families to replenish the coffers. Edith’s father was the 4th Baron Sitwell, inheriting the title in infancy in 1862; he married a duke’s granddaughter.

Edith was an odd child, very tall and angular. She suffered from Marfan’s Syndrome, which her father diagnosed as a “spinal deformation” to be cured by encasing her in an iron brace for years. While her brothers were sent to Eton, Edith’s education was the traditional, and haphazard, gallimaufry of private classes intended to give women the social graces with which to adorn their husband’s lives. She and her parents held each other in a hearty dislike; when Lady Sitwell died in 1937, Edith refused to attend her funeral.

At 26, Edit published her first poem in The Daily Mail, determined to be a writer, and moved out. She settled in a dingy flat in the London suburb of Bayswater with her governess, Helen Rootham. The two shared lodgings until Rootham’s death in 1938.

Edith embraced the Twenties and the new ideas that roiled the arts. Her poetry, which enjoyed good reviews, was influenced by French symbolism, and she was fascinated by the relationship of words and music in a magazine she and her brothers published, Wheels, between 1916 and 1921.

That interest led to her most famous composition, Facade. The work was made up of a series of her poems, read rapid-fire to give the impression of a cross between stream of consciousness and Edward Lear on drugs. After some private performances, the work was unveiled to the public in early 1923:

The public premiere of the entertainment was a succès de scandale. The performance consisted of Sitwell's verses, which she recited through a megaphone protruding through a decorated screen, while Walton conducted an ensemble of six players in his accompanying music. The press was generally condemnatory. One contemporary headline read: "Drivel That They Paid to Hear". The Daily Express loathed the work, but admitted that it was naggingly memorable. The Manchester Guardian wrote of "relentless cacophony". The Observer condemned the verses and dismissed Walton's music as "harmless".In The Illustrated London News, Edward J. Dent was much more appreciative: "The audience was at first inclined to treat the whole thing as an absurd joke, but there is always a surprisingly serious element in Miss Sitwell's poetry and Mr Walton's music ... which soon induced the audience to listen with breathless attention." In The Sunday Times, Ernest Newman said of Walton, "as a musical joker he is a jewel of the first water".Among the audience were Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward. The last was so outraged by the avant-garde nature of Sitwell's verses and the staging, that he marched out ostentatiously during the performance. The players did not like the work: the clarinettist asked the composer, "Mr Walton, has a clarinet player ever done you an injury?" Nevertheless, the work soon became accepted, and within a decade Walton's music was used for the popular Façade ballet, choreographed by Frederick Ashton.

Sitwell herself recalled,"I had to hide behind the curtain. An old lady was waiting to beat me with an umbrella."

Coward became one of the Sitwells' most devoted antagonists, feuding with them in the papers for decades. Edith and her brothers were a target-rich environment: as posh as they came, with larger-than-life personalities and avant-garde friends (“Hot water is my native element,” she declared. “I was in it as a baby, and I have never seemed to get out of it ever since”). It was easy to dismiss their work as that of dilettantes, especially that of Edith, who had taken to dressing like an Ottoman pasha, trailing rich brocade robes, golden turbans, and oversized rings on her elongated fingers. The New Statesman wrote of her,

"great rings load the fingers, the hands are fastidiously displayed, the eye-sockets have been thumbed by a master, the eyes themselves haunt, disdain, trouble indifference, and the fashions are century-old with a telling simplification." At times, and perhaps not unintentionally, she looked like a Tudor monarch. The author of a study of Elizabeth I, she once remarked: "I've always had a great affinity for Queen Elizabeth. We were born on the same day of the month and about the same hour of the day and I was extremely like her when I was young." Dame Edith always insisted that she was no eccentric: "It's just that I am more alive than most people. I am an unpopular electric eel set in a pond of goldfish.”

“She was determined to be remarkable,” Sacheverell said, “and she succeeded.”

She apparently fell in love only once, in 1927-28, with a homosexual Russian emigre painter. She spent the mid-Thirties in Paris, looking after Helen Rootham with Helen’s sister, and published less. When the war broke out, Edith returned to Renishaw Hall, settling in with Osbert and his lifelong partner, David Hunter, and turned out an endless stream of knitted goods for soldiers. Her wartime poetry, more formal in style, won her a new audience.

The Sitwells’ father died in 1948, after having run through most of the money and retired to Switzerland to sit out the war. Osbert, Sachie and Edith did a famous lecture tour of America to refill the coffers yet again.

Osbert not only inherited the title, but title to Renishaw Hall and a ruined Italian castle Sir George bought on a lark in 1909, and that Oberst and David restored as their home; all three Sitwells needed money. Edith was the tour’s big draw; her signature number was a re-enactment of Lady Macbeth’s mad scene. She revived Facade to great acclaim, declared the American Beat poets needed to bathe more often, and formed a fast friendship with the actress Marilyn Monroe, "largely because she was ill-treated. She was like a sad ghost."

She turned her hand to biography, producing two best-sellers on Queen Elizabeth I and her circle, and turned her London flat into a salon for young poets of the postwar years. Edith’s seventieth birthday was turned into a triumphant public fete; even Noel Coward came around to kiss the rings and make up.

She converted to Catholicism at 68, naming the uber-traditionalist Evelyn Waugh her godfather, and became a sort of National Monument, endlessly dispensing bon mots (“Vulgarity is, in reality, nothing but a modern, chic, pert descendant of the goddess Dullness”).

Wheelchair-bound in her last years by complications of Marfan's, Edith Sitwell died in 1964. Osbert followed in 1969 after a debilitating siege of Parkinson’s disease. Sachie inherited the baronetcy and died in 1988. Renishaw Hall remains in the family and the home of a Sitwell Museum.

Debate still churns over whether Edith Sitwell was Pure Act, or sui generis in her work as much as in her persona. The Dictionary of Literary Biography has the best summary of her place in literature:

Sitwell's reputation has suffered from the exceptional success of Facade, which was often treated as if it were the only work she had ever written. Inadequate attention has been paid to her development as a social poet, as a religious poet, and as a visionary. Her career traces the development of English poetry from the immediate post-World War I period of brightness and jazzy rhythms through the political involvements of the 1930s and the return to spiritual values after World War II. Her technique evolved, and, although she always remained a poet committed to the exploration of sound, she came to use sound patterns as an element in the construction of deep philosophic poems that reflect on her time and on man's condition. Edith Sitwell needs to be remembered not only as the bright young parodist of Facade, but as the angry chronicler of social injustice, as a poet who has found forms adequate to the atomic age and its horrors, and as a foremost poet of love. Her work displays enormous range of subject and of form. With her contemporary [T. S.] Eliot she remains one of the most important voices of twentieth-century English poetry.

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