Edith Sitwell

Edith Sitwell (September 7 1887December 9 1964) was a British poet and critic.

Contents

Background

Edith Sitwell was born in Scarborough, Yorkshire, of aristocratic but eccentric parentage of Lord George Sitwell and ex-socialite Lady Ida Sitwell of Renishaw Hall. She would later claim that she was descended from the Plantagenets. She had two younger brothers, Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell who were well-known literary figures in their own right and long-term collaborators. Her relationship with her parents was stormy at best, especially when her father locked her into an iron frame to "correct" her supposed spine deformation. In her later autobiography she said that her parents had always been strangers to her.

Sitwell left for London at the age of twenty-five with the governess Helen Rootham. In London she moved into a fourth-floor flat in Pembridge Mansions, Bayswater.

Poetry

She published her first poem The Drowned Suns in the Daily Mirror in 1913 and between 1916 and 1921 edited Wheels, an annual poetic anthology drawn up in collaboration with her brothers as a literary clique generally called the Sitwells. In 1929 she published Gold Coast Customs, a poem about the artificiality of human behaviour and the barbarism that lies beneath the surface. The poem was written in the rhythms of the tom-tom and of jazz, and shows considerable technical skill.

She became a proponent and supporter of innovative trends in English poetry and opposed what she considered the conventionalism of many contemporary backward-looking poets. She was an unusual sight herself, having angular features resembling Queen Elizabeth I and being six feet (183 cm) tall, but mainly because she often dressed in an unusual manner with gowns of brocade or velvet with gold turbans and a plethora of rings - her jewellery may be seen in the jewellery galleries of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Her flat became a meeting place for young writers who she wished to befriend and help: these later included Dylan Thomas and Denton Welch.

Publicity and controversy

Her unusual appearance provoked critics almost as much as her verse, and throughout her life she was the subject of more or less virulent personal attacks from Geoffrey Grigson, F. R. Leavis and others, which she returned with vigour. As she lay dying, the critic Julian Symons published the last of these attacks in The London Magazine of November 1964, accusing her of 'wearing other people's bleeding hearts on her own safe sleeve.' Her 'enemies' were treated with scorn; after Noel Coward wrote a skit on Sitwell and her two brothers as 'The Swiss Family Whittlebot' for his 1922 revue London Calling she refused to speak to him until they were reconciled after her triumphant 70th birthday party at London's Festival Hall. To her friends she showed great sweetness and invariable kindness.

Sitwell was most interested by the distinction between poetry and music, a matter explored at 1923 in Fašade, published in 1922, and set to music by William Walton, a series of abstract poems the rhythms of which counterfeited those of music. Fašade was performed behind a curtain with a hole in the mouth of a painted face and the words were recited through the hole with the aid of a megaphone. The public received the first performance with bemusement, but there were many positive reactions.

Later works

During World War II, Sitwell retired to Renshaw with her brother Osbert and wrote under the light of oil lamps. She knitted clothes for their friends who served in the army. One of the beneficiaries was young Alec Guinness, who received a pair of seaboot stockings.

The poems she wrote during the war brought her back before a public which had been taught to ignore her; Street Songs (1942), The Song of the Cold (1945) and The Shadow of Cain (1947) were much praised; Still Falls the Rain, about the London blitz, remains perhaps her best-known poem (it was set to music by Benjamin Britten).

In 1948 Sitwell toured USA with her brothers, reciting her poetry and, notoriously, giving a reading of Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene. Her poetry recitals were always occasions; she made recordings of her poems, and two recordings of Facade, the first with Constant Lambert as co-narrator, and the second with Peter Pears.

She became a DBE - Dame Commander, Order of the British Empire - DBE in 1954. In 1955 she converted to Roman Catholicism. She wrote two books about Queen Elizabeth I, Fanfare for Elizabeth (1946) and The Queens and the Hive (1962). Though she always claimed that she wrote prose simply for money, both these books were extremely successful, as were her English Eccentrics (1933) and Victoria of England (1963). Her only novel, I Live under a Black Sun, based on the life of Jonathan Swift, was published in 1937.

In her 70s she was confined to a wheelchair. Her last poetry reading was in 1962.

Edith Sitwell died in 1964 at the age of 77.

Quote

  • "My personal hobbies are reading, listening to music, and silence."

Poetry collections

  • Clowns' Houses (1918)
  • Rustic Elegies (1927)
  • Gold Coast Customs (1929)
  • The Song of the Cold (1948)
  • Fašade, and Other Poems 1920-1935 (1950)
  • Gardeners and Astronomers (1953)
  • Collected Poems (1957)
  • The Outcasts (1962).

Other books

  • Alexander Pope (1930)
  • The English Eccentrics (1933)
  • I Live under a Black Sun (1937)
  • Fanfare for Elizabeth (1946) (biography of Elizabeth I)
  • The Queens and the Hive (1962) (biography of Elizabeth I)

External links

  • Sitwell (http://www.recmusic.org/lieder/s/sitwell/) from the Lied and Art Songs Text Page (http://www.recmusic.org/lieder/) - Contains the texts of some of Sitwell's poetry
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