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Edith Sitwell

Portrait of Sitwell by Roger Fry
Born 7 September 1887(1887-09-07)
Scarborough, England,
United Kingdom
Died 9 December 1964 (aged 77)
London, England,
United Kingdom
Occupation Poet
Nationality United Kingdom

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

Contents

Background

Edith Sitwell was born in Scarborough, Yorkshire, the only daughter of the eccentric Sir George Sitwell, 4th Baronet, of Renishaw Hall; he was an expert on genealogy and landscaping.[1] Her mother was the former Lady Ida Emily Augusta Denison, a daughter of the Earl of Londesborough and a granddaughter of Henry Somerset, 7th Duke of Beaufort. She claimed a descent through female lines from the Plantagenets.

Sitwell had two younger brothers, Osbert (1892-1969) and Sacheverell Sitwell (1897-1988) both distinguished authors, well-known literary figures in their own right, and long-term collaborators. Sacheverell married a Canadian woman, Georgia Doble, in 1925 and moved to Weston Hall in Northamptonshire.

Her relationship with her parents was stormy at best, not least because her father made her undertake a "cure" for her supposed spinal deformation—involving locking her into an iron frame. In her later autobiography, she said that her parents had always been strangers to her.

In 1912, 25-year-old Sitwell moved to a small, shabby fourth-floor flat in Pembridge Mansions, Bayswater, which she shared with Helen Rootham (1875-1938), her governess since 1903.

Portrait of Edith Sitwell, by Roger Fry, 1918

Edith never married. However, it is claimed that in 1927 she fell in love with the homosexual Russian painter Pavel Tchelitchew. The relationship with Tchelitchew lasted until 1928; the same year when Helen Rootham underwent operations for cancer, eventually becoming an invalid. In 1932, Rootham and Sitwell moved to Paris, where they lived with Rootham’s younger sister, Evelyn Wiel. Rootham died of spinal cancer in 1938.

Sitwell's mother died in 1937. Sitwell did not attend the funeral because of her displeasure with her parents during her childhood.

During World War II, Sitwell returned from France and retired to Renishaw with her brother Osbert and his lover, David Horner. She wrote under the light of oil lamps when the lights of England were out of service. 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. They include Street Songs (1942), The Song of the Cold (1945) and The Shadow of Cain (1947), all of which 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 as Canticle III: Still Falls the Rain).

Her poem The Bee-Keeper was set to music by Priaulx Rainier, as The Bee Oracles (1970), a setting for tenor, flute, oboe, violin, cello and harpsichord. It was premiered by Peter Pears in 1970.

In 1943, her father died in Switzerland, his wealth depleted. In 1948, a reunion with Tchelitchew, whom she had not seen since before the war, went badly.

In 1948 Sitwell toured the United States 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, including two recordings of Façade, the first with Constant Lambert as co-narrator, and the second with Peter Pears.

Tchelitchew died in April 1957. Her brother Osbert died in 1969, of Parkinson's disease, diagnosed in 1950. Sitwell became a Dame Commander (DBE) in 1954. In August, 1955, Sitwell converted to Roman Catholicism and asked author Evelyn Waugh to serve as her godfather.

Sitwell wrote two books about Queen Elizabeth I of England, Fanfare for Elizabeth (1946) and The Queens and the Hive (1962). She always claimed that she wrote prose simply for money and both these books were extremely successful, as were her English Eccentrics (1933) and Victoria of England (1936).

Around 1957 she was confined to a wheelchair after battling with Marfan syndrome throughout her life. Her last poetry reading was in 1962. She died of cerebral haemorrhage at St. Thomas’s Hospital on December 9, 1964 at the age of 77.

Sitwell's papers are held at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

Poetry

Sitwell published her first poem The Drowned Suns in the Daily Mirror in 1913 and, between 1916 and 1921, she edited Wheels, an annual poetic anthology compiled with her brothers—a literary collaboration 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. Her early work reflects the strong influence of the French symbolists.

She became a proponent and supporter of innovative trends in English poetry and opposed what she considered the conventionality of many contemporary backward-looking poets. Her flat became a meeting place for young writers whom she wished to befriend and help: these later included Dylan Thomas and Denton Welch. She also helped to publish the poetry of Wilfred Owen after his death.

Her only novel, I Live under a Black Sun, based on the life of Jonathan Swift, was published in 1937.

Publicity and controversy

Sitwell had angular features resembling Queen Elizabeth I (they also shared the same birthday) and stood 6' (183 cm) tall, but often dressed in an unusual manner with gowns of brocade or velvet with gold turbans and a plethora of rings - her jewelry may be seen in the jewelry galleries of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. 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 1923 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 in Façade (1922), which was set to music by William Walton, a series of abstract poems the rhythms of which counterfeited those of music. Façade was performed behind a curtain with a hole in the mouth of a painted face (the painting was by John Piper) and the words were recited through the hole with the aid of a Sengerphone. The public received the first performance with bemusement, but there were many positive reactions.

References in popular culture and society

  • Alan Porter's poem, 'The Cosmopolitan', in The Signature of Pain and Other Poems London: Cobden-Sanderson, 1930, p. 57, is dedicated to Edith Sitwell. The Sitwells published Porter's poems in Wheels.
  • In the novel, Lucky Jim (1954), by Kingsley Amis, one of Jim's "faces" is the Edith Sitwell face.
  • In Seymour Barab's 1956 opera Game of Chance the second knitter states "I'd rather have been an Edith Sitwell."
  • The main character Sarah in Adrienne Kennedy's play Funnyhouse of a Negro (1962) aspired to "write poetry filling white page after white page with imitations of Edith Sitwell."
  • Robert Hunter drew on Sitwell's poem Polka in writing the lyric to the Grateful Dead's China Cat Sunflower (1969).
  • In Dorothy Hewett's Chapel Perilous (1972), the protagonist, Sally Banner, proclaims, "I want to be a second Edith Sitwell."
  • In Saul Bellow's 1973 novel Humboldt's Gift, the narrator describes his mistress' mother, the Señora, sitting "in her wimple like Edith Sitwell".
  • Sitwell is among many celebrities mentioned in Tim Curry's 1979 song "I Do the Rock" from Fearless, which also mentions her brothers.
  • In 1991, Morrissey appropriated Sitwell's image for use as a stage backdrop and t-shirt design during his "Kill Uncle" tour.
  • Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Aspects of Love (1989) has a scene where a GEORGE is being sculpted by GIULETTA, who quips "Still, George! If you can't keep your tongue still, You will have the face of Edith Sitwell!"
  • The song I Don't Care (1992) by Shakespear's Sister contains a quotation from Sitwell's poem Hornpipe.
  • In the T.C. Boyle novel Tortilla Curtain (1995) the main characters' pets are called Osbert, Sacheverell (dogs) and Dame Edith (cat).
  • In Tama Janowitz's novel By the Shores of Gitchee Gumee (1996), the narrator uses "Edith Sitwell" as a euphemism for the female genitalia.
  • The song "Pazuzu (Black Rain)" (1996) by the metal band Nefilim contains a quotation from Sitwell's poem Still falls the rain.
  • Neil Gaiman's novel American Gods (2001) contains a diatribe by the character Sam who states that she believes that "Edith Sitwell and Don Marquis" were the greatest poets of the last century.
  • The popular cafe Sitwells, in the trendy neighborhood of Clifton in Cincinnati, Ohio, is named after Edith Sitwell, she appears on the front of the menu.
  • A song by Kit and The Widow, satirising the Sitwell-Walton Façade collaboration, claims her as the precursor of rap.
  • Michael Stipe of R.E.M., declared Edith Sitwell to be his favourite poet.[citation needed]

Poetry collections

  • Clowns' Houses (1918)
  • Rustic Elegies (1927)
  • Gold Coast Customs (1929)
  • The Song of the Cold (1948)
  • Façade, 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)
  • Taken Care Of (1964) autobiography

References

  1. ^ Eccentric patriarch with slender grip on reality, Tim Harris, The Age, January 2003, accessed March 2010

Further reading

  • John Malcolm Brinnin's book Sextet: T. S. Eliot, Truman Capote and Others (1981) includes a section called "The Sitwells In Situ" which offers insight into the Sitwells' everyday lives.

External links

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Quotes

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

I have often wished I had time to cultivate modesty... But I am too busy thinking about myself.
Let us speak of our madness...
My poems are hymns of praise to the glory of life.

Edith Sitwell (7 September 18879 December 1964) was an English poet and critic.

Contents

Sourced

Poetry is the deification of reality.
The poet speaks to all men of that other life of theirs that they have smothered and forgotten.
I am an unpopular electric eel in a pool of catfish.
It is a part of the poet's work to show each man what he sees but does not know he sees.
Why not be oneself? That is the whole secret of a successful appearance. If one is a greyhound, why try to look like a Pekingese?
  • Let us speak of our madness. We are always being called mad. If we are mad — we and our brothers in America who are walking hand in hand with us in the vanguard of progress — at least we are mad in company with most of our great predecessors and all the most intelligent foreigners. Beethoven, Schumann, and Wagner, Shelley, Blake, Keats, Coleridge, Wordsworth were all mad in turn. We shall be proud to join them in the Asylum to which they are now consigned.
    • Yea and Nay : A series of lectures and counter-lectures given at the London school of economics in aid of the hospitals of London (1923) edited by C David Stelling, Section IV, Poetry and Modern Poetry
  • I have often wished I had time to cultivate modesty... But I am too busy thinking about myself.
    • As quoted in The Observer (30 April 1950)
  • I have taken this step because I want the discipline, the fire and the authority of the Church. I am hopelessly unworthy of it, but I hope to become worthy.
    • On converting to Roman Catholicism at the age of 67, in news reports (15 Aug 1955), as quoted in Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations (1988) compiled by James B. Simpson
  • My poems are hymns of praise to the glory of life.
    • "Some notes on my poetry" Collected Poems (1957)
  • As for the usefulness of poetry, its uses are many. It is the deification of reality. It should make our days holy to us. The poet should speak to all men, for a moment, of that other life of theirs that they have smothered and forgotten.
    • Lecture "Young Poets" (1957) published in Mightier Than the Sword: The P.E.N. Hermon Ould Memorial Lectures, 1953-1961 (1964), p. 56
    • Variants:
      • Poetry is the deification of reality.
        • As quoted in Life magazine (4 January 1963)
      • The poet speaks to all men of that other life of theirs that they have smothered and forgotten.
        • As quoted in The Beacon Book of Quotations by Women (1992) by Rosalie Maggio, p. 247
  • The poet is a brother speaking to a brother of "a moment of their other lives" — a moment that had been buried beneath the dust of the busy world.
    • "The Poet's Vision" (1959)
  • I am an unpopular electric eel in a pool of catfish.
    • Life magazine (4 January 1963) attributed variant: I am not eccentric. It's just that I am more alive than most people. I am an unpopular electric eel set in a pond of goldfish.
  • It is a part of the poet's work to show each man what he sees but does not know he sees.
    • As quoted in The Reader's Digest Great Encyclopedic Dictionary Special Supplement (1966), p. 2047
  • The trouble with most Englishwomen is that they will dress as if they had been a mouse in a previous incarnation... they do not want to attract attention.
    • As quoted in Edith Sitwell: Fire of the Mind : an Anthology (1976) by Elizabeth Salter, p. 176
  • My personal hobbies are reading, listening to music, and silence.
    • As quoted in Reader's Digest Vol. 111, No. 666, (October 1977)
  • A great many people now reading and writing would be better employed keeping rabbits.
    • As quoted in Writers on Writing (1986) by Jon Winokur, p. 24
  • Why not be oneself? That is the whole secret of a successful appearance. If one is a greyhound, why try to look like a Pekingese?
    • Quoted in Edith Sitwell, a Unicorn Among Lions (1981) by Victoria Glendinning, p. 54, and in An Uncommon Scold (1989) by Abby Adams, p. 74
  • I wish the government would put a tax on pianos for the incompetent.
    • As quoted in An Uncommon Scold (1989) by Abby Adams, p.176
  • I am one of those unhappy persons who inspire bores to the greatest flights of art.
    • As quoted in An Uncommon Scold (1989) by Abby Adams, p. 226
  • Hot water is my native element. I was in it as a baby, and I have never seemed to get out of it ever since.
    • As quoted in 20,000 Quips & Quotes (1995) by Evan Esa

Clowns' Houses (1918)

The dust lay dead and white
As powder on a mummy's face...
Chill Silence, like a surging sea,
Slowly enveloped me.
  • The busy chatter of the heat
    Shrilled like a parakeet;
    And shuddering at the noonday light
    The dust lay dead and white

    As powder on a mummy's face,
    Or fawned with simian grace
    Round booths with many a hard bright toy
    And wooden brittle joy:

    The cap and bells of Time the Clown
    That, jangling, whistled down
    Young cherubs hidden in the guise
    Of every bird that flies;

    And star-bright masks for youth to wear,
    Lest any dream that fare
    — Bright pilgrim — past our ken, should see
    Hints of Reality.

    • "Clowns' Houses"
  • Tall windows show Infinity;
    And, hard reality,
    The candles weep and pry and dance
    Like lives mocked at by Chance.

    The rooms are vast as Sleep within;
    When once I ventured in,
    Chill Silence, like a surging sea,
    Slowly enveloped me.

    • "Clowns' Houses"

The Wooden Pegasus (1920)

Within your magic web of hair, lies furled
The fire and splendour of the ancient world...
  • Within your magic web of hair, lies furled
    The fire and splendour of the ancient world;

    The dire gold of the comet's wind-blown hair;
    The songs that turned to gold the evening air
    When all the stars of heaven sang for joy.
    • "The Web of Eros"

Façades (1922)

  • White as a winding sheet,
    Masks blowing down the street:
    Moscow, Paris London, Vienna — all are undone.
    The drums of death are mumbling, rumbling, and tumbling,
    Mumbling, rumbling, and tumbling,
    The world's floors are quaking, crumbling and breaking.
    • "The Last Gallop"
  • Oh how the Vacancy
    Laughed at them rushing by.
    "Turn again, flesh and brain,
    Only yourselves again!
    How far above the ape
    Differing in each shape,
    You with your regular
    Meaningless circles are!"
    • "Switchback"

Still Falls the Rain (1940)

Still falls the Rain —
Dark as the world of man, black as our loss —
Blind as the nineteen hundred and forty nails
Upon the Cross.
  • Still falls the Rain —
    Dark as the world of man, black as our loss —
    Blind as the nineteen hundred and forty nails
    Upon the Cross.
  • Still falls the Rain
    At the feet of the Starved Man hung upon the Cross.
    Christ that each day, each night, nails there, have mercy on us —
  • Still falls the Rain —
    Still falls the Blood from the Starved Man's wounded Side:
    He bears in His Heart all wounds, — those of the light that died,
    The last faint spark
    In the self-murdered heart, the wounds of the sad uncomprehending dark...

Green Song & Other Poems (1944)

Remember only this of our hopeless love
That never till Time is done
Will the fire of the heart and the fire of the mind be one.

Heart and Mind

  • The great gold planet that is the mourning heat of the Sun
    Is greater than all gold, more powerful
    Than the tawny body of a Lion that fire consumes
    Like all that grows or leaps... so is the heart
    More powerful than all dust.
  • The flames of the heart consumed me, and the mind
    Is but a foolish wind.
  • Remember only this of our hopeless love
    That never till Time is done
    Will the fire of the heart and the fire of the mind be one.

The Canticle of the Rose (1949)

The living blind and seeing Dead together lie
As if in love ... There was no more hating then,
And no more love; Gone is the heart of Man.
The Canticle of the Rose: Selected Poems, 1920-1947 (1949)
  • Mother or Murderer, you have
    given or taken life —
    Now all is one!
    • "Three Poems of the Atomic Bomb: Dirge for the New Sunrise"
  • Our hearts seemed safe in our breasts and sang to the
    Light —

    The marrow in the bone
    We dreamed was safe. . . the blood in the veins, the
    sap in the tree
    Were springs of Deity.
    • "Three Poems of the Atomic Bomb: Dirge for the New Sunrise"
  • The living blind and seeing Dead together lie
    As if in love . . . There was no more hating then,
    And no more love; Gone is the heart of Man.
    • "Three Poems of the Atomic Bomb: Dirge for the New Sunrise"

Taken Care Of (1965)

The man of genius and the aristocrat are frequently regarded as eccentrics because genius and aristocrat are entirely unafraid of and uninfluenced by the opinions and vagaries of the crowd.
Taken Care Of : The Autobiography of Edith Sitwell (1965)
  • The public will believe anything, so long as it is not founded on truth.
    • Preface
  • Eccentricity is not, as dull people would have us believe, a form of madness. It is often a kind of innocent pride, and the man of genius and the aristocrat are frequently regarded as eccentrics because genius and aristocrat are entirely unafraid of and uninfluenced by the opinions and vagaries of the crowd.
    • Ch. 15
  • Vulgarity is, in reality, nothing but a modern, chic, pert descendant of the goddess Dullness.
    • Ch. 19
  • I'm not the man to baulk at a low smell,
    I’m not the man to insist on asphodel.
    This sounds like a He-fellow, don’t you think?
    It sounds like that. I belch, I bawl, I drink.
    • "One–Way Song", p. 118
  • There are people, also, who cannot believe that beauty and gaiety are a part of goodness.
    When we think of cruelty, we must try to remember the stupidity, the envy, the frustration from which it has arisen.
    • p. 221

The Last Years of a Rebel (1967)

I am patient with stupidity but not with those who are proud of it.
The Last Years of a Rebel : A Memoir of Edith Sitwell (1967) by Elizabeth Salter
  • I am patient with stupidity but not with those who are proud of it.
    • p. 24
  • People are usually made Dames for virtues I do not possess.
    • p. 24
  • I wouldn't dream of following a fashion... how could one be a different person every three months?
    • p. 24
  • The aim of flattery is to soothe and encourage us by assuring us of the truth of an opinion we have already formed about ourselves.
  • I am resigned to the fact that people who don't know me loathe me. Perhaps it is because I am a woman writing poetry. It must be annoying to a man who wants to write to see this horrid old lady who can.
  • Good taste is the worst vice ever invented.
  • I'm afraid I'm being an awful nuisance.
    • Last words to her personal secretary (Elizabeth Salter) as she was being carried into an ambulance.

Misattributed

  • Small things I handled and caressed and loved.
    I let the stars assume the whole of night.

    But the big answers clamoured to be moved Into my life. Their great audacity
    Shouted to be acknowledged and believed.

    • This is from the poem "Answers" by Elizabeth Jennings, which has wrongly been attributed to Sitwell at a few sites on the internet.

Quotes about Sitwell

Each of them is inhabited by a bland demon ... valid enough to give them the right to speak with the authority of artists. ~ Rebecca West
  • I can believe things that are true and I can believe things that aren't true and I can believe things where nobody knows if they're true or not. ... I believe that the greatest poets of the last century were Edith Sitwell and Don Marquis, that jade is dried dragon sperm, and that thousands of years ago in a former life I was a one-armed Siberian shaman. ... I believe that life is a game, that life is a cruel joke, and that life is what happens when you're alive and that you might as well lie back and enjoy it.
  • Her tall figure, swathed in black, looking like some strange eccentric bird... she seemed like an ageing princess come home from exile.
    • Alec Guinness on her appearance at her official reception into the Roman Catholic Church in August 1955.
  • Each of them is inhabited by a bland demon, as the German metaphysicians used to call that which gets into a man and makes him creative, not so forcibly that it turns them away from criticism, but valid enough to give them the right to speak with the authority of artists.
    • Rebecca West of Edith and her two brothers, in The Strange Necessity (1928) Ch. 5

External links

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