Saturday, August 21, 2004

The poetry of Edith Sitwell

T.S Eliot derided Edith Sitwell’s poetry as ‘garden gods and mandolins’. No doubt she must have frothed at the mouth when she heard this description of her work. She was famous for her literary feuds, and took many a writer to court for defamation – and won. Her poor brothers would groan when she had a new fight to pick with someone, but duly fell into line. The family name had to be protected.

I have only read bits and pieces of her writing. Her personality and flamboyant dress are probably the most interesting part about her. Although I do remember reading in a recent biography of Osbert Sitwell that she was ‘enormous’ fun to be around. I have no doubt this was true.

Her biography of Alexander Pope I found just so-so. Her book of English eccentrics I couldn’t finish. Yet her jokes are terrific. In the Pope biography she describes Pope’s rages, and how innocent bystanders unfairly incurred his wrath. The line went something like this: He was a war horse when it came to poetry. The bugle sounds. The horse charges and the village idiot is knocked down.

I always thought that the funniest line.

She wrote two books on the first Queen Elizabeth, which were very popular, and I presume they might be better than what I have read so far.

I re-read a volume of her poetry lately, chosen by her, in a Penguin edition. You can see what T.S Elliot meant. She works with her hammer and anvil, trying to create thunderous images. It all seems a bit dated now.

She includes an introduction on her poetry, which seems kind of silly. I loved this haughty paragraph:

‘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.’

See her ambition? Not always a good sign.

She was a fan of music, and this comes across. I love the opening lines to Gold Coast Customs:

‘One fantee wave
Is grave and tall
As brave Ashantee’s
Thick mud wall.
Munza rattles his bones in the dust,
Lurking in murk because he must.’

Here’s a good example of her thundering poetic persona:

‘Amid the thunders of the falling Dark
In the Tartarean darkness of the fog,
I walk, a Pillar of Fire.’

In your dreams, maybe! Her love affairs – never consummated – were embarrassing disasters. She remains a literary curio – famous as part of ‘the Sitwells’.

Perhaps she exemplifies Oscar Wilde’s line about bad artists making fascinating persons. Not that she was a bad artist. But neither was she a brilliant poet.

1 comment:

Giddy London said...

Hmmm, why do I know that name so well? I think I might have seen a portrait of her in an exhibition last year. I will do a web search and see if it jogs my memory. I could do an interesting psycho-sexual analysis of her writings... seems pretty obvious to me... she longs for a pillar of fire, but all she gets is a bit of rhythmical flaccidity!