Edith Sitwell

1887–1964
Edith Sitwell
In the introduction to The Canticle of the Rose British poet Dame Edith Sitwell wrote: "At the time I began to write, a change in the direction, imagery and rhythms in poetry had become necessary, owing to the rhythmical flaccidity, the verbal deadness, the dead and expected patterns, of some of the poetry immediately preceding us." Her early work was often experimental, creating melody, using striking conceits, new rhythms, and confusing private allusions. Her efforts at change were resisted, but, as the New Statesman observed, "losing every battle, she won the campaign," and emerged the high priestess of twentieth-century poetry.

The Times (London) stated in 1955 that "she writes for the sake of sound, of color, and from an awareness of God and regard for man." She believed that "Poetry is the deification of reality, and one of its purposes is to show that the dimensions of man are, as Sir Arthur Eddington said, 'half way between those of an atom and a star.'" An admiring critic, John Lehmann, author of Edith Sitwell and A Nest of Tigers: The Sitwells in Their Times, admitted that "her tendency has always been rather to overwork her symbolism; by a certain overfluid quality in her imagination to make the use of the symbols sometimes appear confused and indiscriminate." This Baroque quality has its admirers, however. Babette Deutsch in Poetry in Our Time wrote: "like the medieval hangings that kept the cold away from secular kings and princes of the Church, the finest of [Dame Edith's] poems have a luxurious beauty that serves to grace the bareness, to diminish the chill of this bare, cold age." Writing in the London Times, Geoffrey Elborn commented that Sitwell's best work was written in the 1920s, collected in the volumes Bucolic Comedies, The Sleeping Beauty, and Troy Park. "These ... [were] written with a highly individual use of language still unsurpassed for its peculiar, inimitable artifice. Far from being trivial, these early poems by one 'a little outside life' should now find a greater acceptance in an era more concerned with Sitwell's concepts than her own age, earning her the deserved and secure reputation for which she herself so earnestly but recklessly fought."

The New Statesman has said that Sitwell's place in poetry is "roughly commensurate with that of Christina Rossetti in the previous century," and insists on the primacy of her personality. The sister of Osbert and Sacheverell was indeed not to be trifled with. Says Sacheverell: "She was always determined to be remarkable and she has succeeded." The New Statesman described her thus: "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."

Her outspoken manner and rebellion against accepted modes of behavior led to encounters with such as Wyndham Lewis and Geoffrey Grigson. When Facade was first performed in London in 1922, the response of the audience and of critics was derisive and indignant. Dame Edith recalled: "I had to hide behind the curtain. An old lady was waiting to beat me with an umbrella." (In 1949 the work was enthusiastically received in New York.) She remained wonderfully candid. On a visit to America she revealed that her most serious objection to certain Beat poets was that they smelled bad, and found she liked the late Marilyn Monroe, "largely because she was ill treated. She was like a sad ghost."

Robert K. Martin summed up Sitwell's literary career in Dictionary of Literary Biography: "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."

Career

Writer. Visiting professor, Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1957.

Bibliography

  • The Mother and Other Poems,Basil Blackwell, 1915.
  • (With brother, Osbert Sitwell) Twentieth Century Harlequinade and Other Poems,Basil Blackwell, 1916.
  • Clown's Houses(poems), Longmans, Green, 1918.
  • The Wooden Pegasus(poems), Basil Blackwell, 1920.
  • Facade(poems), Favil Press, 1922, new edition with introduction by Jack Lindsay, Duckworth, 1950.
  • Bucolic Comedies(poems), Duckworth, 1923.
  • The Sleeping Beauty(poems), Duckworth, 1924.
  • (With brothers Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell) Poor Young People(poems), Fleuron, 1925.
  • (Author of introduction) Ann Taylor, Meddlesome Matty and Other Poems for Infant Minds,John Lane, 1925.
  • Poetry and Criticism,L. and V. Woolf, 1925, Holt, 1926, Folcroft Press, 1969.
  • Troy Park(poems), Duckworth, 1925.
  • Elegy on Dead Fashion,Duckworth, 1926, reprinted, Folcroft, 1977.
  • Twelve Poems,E. Benn, 1926.
  • Rustic Elegies,Knopf, 1927.
  • Popular Song(poems), Faber and Gwyer, 1928.
  • Five Poems,Duckworth, 1928.
  • Gold Coast Customs(poems), Duckworth, 1929.
  • Alexander Pope,Cosmopolitan Book Corp., 1930, reprinted, Ayer Co., 1972.
  • The Collected Poems of Edith Sitwell,Duckworth, 1930, Vanguard, 1968.
  • (Editor) The Pleasures of Poetry: A Critical Anthology, Duckworth, Volume 1: First Series, Milton and the Augustan Age, 1930, Volume 2: Second Series, The Romantic Revival, 1931, Volume 3: Third Series, The Victorian Age,1932, Norton, 1934.
  • Children's Tales from the Russian Ballet,[London], 1930.
  • Epithalamium,Duckworth, 1931.
  • Jane Barston, 1719-1746,Faber, 1931.
  • In Spring(poems), privately printed, 1931.
  • Bath,Faber, 1932, new edition, 1948, 1932 edition reprinted, Hyperion Press, 1981, 2nd edition, International Specialized Books, 1984.
  • (Author of introductory essay to translation by Helen Rootham) Rimbaud, Prose Poems from Les Illuminations,Faber, 1932.
  • Five Variations on a Theme,Duckworth, 1933.
  • The English Eccentrics,Houghton, 1933, revised and enlarged edition, Vanguard, 1957, abridged edition, Arrow Books, 1960.
  • Aspects of Modern Poetry,Duckworth, 1934, Scholarly Press, 1972.
  • Selected Poems,Duckworth, 1936.
  • Some Recent Developments in English Literature,University of Sydney, 1936.
  • Victoria of England,Houghton, 1936, revised edition, Faber, 1949.
  • (Author of introductory essay) Sacheverell Sitwell, Collected Poems,Duckworth, 1936.
  • I Live Under a Black Sun(novel), Gollancz, 1937, Doubleday, Doran, 1938, new edition, Lehmann, 1948.
  • (With O. and S. Sitwell) Trio: Dissertations on Some Aspects of National Genius, Macmillan, 1938, published as Triad of Genius,British Book Centre, 1953, reprinted, Rebecca West, 1979.
  • (Editor) Edith Sitwell's Anthology,Gollancz, 1940.
  • Poems New and Old,Faber, 1940.
  • (Editor) Look! The Sun,Gollancz, 1941.
  • English Women,Collins, 1942.
  • Street Songs,Macmillan, 1942.
  • A Poet's Notebook,Macmillan, 1943, Little, Brown, 1950, 1950 edition reprinted, Greenwood Press, 1972.
  • Green Song and Other Poems,Macmillan, 1944, Vanguard, 1946.
  • (Compiler) Planet and Glow-Worm: A Book for the Sleepless,Macmillan, 1944.
  • The Song of the Cold(poems), Macmillan, 1945, Vanguard, 1948.
  • Fanfare for Elizabeth,Macmillan, 1946, Dufour, 1989.
  • The Shadow of Cain(blank verse), Lehmann, 1947, reprinted, Folcroft, 1977.
  • A Notebook of William Shakespeare,Macmillan, 1948, Beacon, 1961.
  • The Canticle of the Rose: Selected Poems, 1920-1947,Macmillan, 1949, Vanguard, 1949.
  • (Author of foreword) Charles Henri Ford, Sleep in a Nest of Flames,New Directions, 1949.
  • (Compiler) A Book of the Winter(poems and prose), Macmillan, 1950, Vanguard, 1951.
  • Poor Men's Music,Fore Publications, 1950.
  • (Editor) The American Genius,Lehmann, 1951.
  • Facade: An Entertainment with Poems by Edith Sitwell,with music by William Turner Walton (performed in 1922), Oxford University Press, 1951.
  • (Compiler) A Book of Flowers,Macmillan, 1952.
  • Gardeners and Astronomers: New Poems,Vanguard, 1953.
  • Collected Poems,Vanguard, 1954.
  • (Editor) The Atlantic Book of British and American Poetry,Little, Brown, 1958.
  • (Author of introduction) Jose Garcia Villa, Selected Poems and New,McDowell, Oblensky, 1958.
  • (Editor) Algernon Charles Swinburne, Swinburne: A Selection,Harcourt, 1960.
  • Edith Sitwell(poems), Vista Books, 1960.
  • The Queens and the Hive,Little, Brown, 1962.
  • The Outcasts(poems), Macmillan, 1962.
  • Music and Ceremonies(poems), Vanguard, 1963.
  • Taken Care Of(autobiography), Atheneum, 1965.
  • Selected Poems,compiled with an introduction by John Lehmann, Macmillan, 1965.
  • Selected Letters, 1919-1964,edited by Lehmann and Derek Parker, Macmillan, 1970, Vanguard, 1971.
  • Facade and Other Poems, 1920-1935,Duckworth, 1971.
  • Edith Sitwell: A Fire of the Mind, An Anthology,compiled by Elizabeth Salter and Allanah Harper, Joseph, 1976.
  • The Early Unpublished Poems of Edith Sitwell, edited by Gerald W. Morton and Karen P. Helgeson, Lang (New York, NY), 1994.
Editor of Wheels, an annual anthology of modern verse, 1916-21.

Further Reading

BOOKS
  • A Marianne Moore Reader,Viking, 1961.
  • Bogan, Louise, Selected Criticism,Noonday, 1955.
  • Bowra, M. C., Edith Sitwell,Lyrebird, 1947.
  • Bradford, Sarah, The Sitwells and the Arts of the 1920s and 1930s,University of Texas Press, 1996.
  • Brophy, James, Edith Sitwell,Southern Illinois University Press, 1968.
  • Cevasco, G. A., The Sitwells: Edith, Osbert, and Sachervell,Twayne, 1987.
  • Contemporary Literary Criticism,Gale, Volume 2, 1974; Volume 9, 1978, Volume 67, 1992.
  • Daiches, David, Poetry and the Modern World,University of Chicago Press, 1940, pp. 85-9.
  • Deutsch, Babette, Poetry in Our Time,Columbia University Press, 1956, pp. 220-28.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 20: British Poets, 1914-1945,Gale, 1983.
  • Fifoot, Richard, A Bibliography of Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverell Sitwell, Hart/Davis, 1963, revised, Archon, 1971.
  • Fraser, G. S., The Modern Writer and His World,Andre Deutsch, 1964, pp. 283-86.
  • Glendinning, Victoria, Edith Sitwell: A Unicorn among Lions,Knopf, 1981.
  • Lehmann, John, Edith Sitwell,Longmans, Green, 1952.
  • Lehmann, A Nest of Tigers: The Sitwells in Their Times,Little, Brown, 1968.
  • Megroz, R. L., The Three Sitwells,Doran, 1927, reprinted, Kennikat, 1969.
  • Mills, Ralph J., Jr., Edith Sitwell: A Critical Essay,Eerdmans, 1966.
  • Moore, Marianne, A Marianne Moore Reader,Viking, 1965, pp. 210-15.
  • Pearson, John, Facades: Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell, Macmillan, 1978; also published as The Sitwell's: A Family Biography, Harcourt, Brace, 1979.
  • Pinto, Vivian de Sola, Crisis in English Poetry: 1880-1940,Hutchinson, 1967, pp. 190-93, 205-08.
  • Poetry Criticism,Gale, Volume 3, 1991.
  • Salter, Elizabeth, The Last Years of a Rebel: A Memoir of Edith Sitwell, Houghton, 1967.
  • Singleton, Geoffrey, Edith Sitwell: The Hymn to Life,Fortune Press, 1960.
  • Sitwell, Edith, and Osbert Sitwell, Triad of Genius,Part 1, British Book Centre, 1954.
  • Sitwell, Edith, Taken Care Of(autobiography), Atheneum, 1965.
  • Villa, Jose Garca, A Celebration for Edith Sitwell, New Directions, 1948.
PERIODICALS
  • Agenda, Volume 21, number 3, Autumn, 1983, pp. 57-68. Comparative Literature,Volume 7, number 3, Summer, 1955, p. 240-51.
  • Contemporary Review,Volume 195, number 1118, February, 1959, pp. 120-23.
  • The Cornhill Magazine,Volume 161, number 965, July, 1945, pp. 378-87.
  • Criticism,winter, 1967.
  • Encounter,May, 1966.
  • Hudson Review,Autumn, 1954, pp. 445-53.
  • Life,January 4, 1963.
  • Life and Letters,Volume 64, number 149, January, 1950, pp. 39-52.
  • Listener, Volume 100, number 2588, November 30, 1978, pp. 731-32.
  • London Magazine,September, 1970.
  • Nation,June 7, 1965.
  • New Republic,April 24, 1965.
  • New Statesman and Nation,January 23, 1954.
  • New York Times,December 10, 1964.
  • Observer,April 4, 1965.
  • Spectator,November 10, 1950, p. 472.
  • Time,December 18, 1964.
  • Times(London), September 7, 1987.
  • Vogue, July, 1960.

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Poet Categorization

POET’S REGION England

SCHOOL / PERIOD Modern

LIFE SPAN 1887–1964

Edith Sitwell

Biography

In the introduction to The Canticle of the Rose British poet Dame Edith Sitwell wrote: "At the time I began to write, a change in the direction, imagery and rhythms in poetry had become necessary, owing to the rhythmical flaccidity, the verbal deadness, the dead and expected patterns, of some of the poetry immediately preceding us." Her early work was often experimental, creating melody, using striking conceits, new rhythms, and . . .

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