Authors: Edith Sitwell

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English poet

Biography

Edith Sitwell, one of the twentieth century’s foremost poets and a flamboyant exponent of experimentation in verse, was the oldest child of Sir George Sitwell, fourth baronet of Renishaw Park, the family seat for six hundred years. Much of the extravagant personality of Edith and her brothers, Osbert and Sacheverell, is readily understandable to the reader of Sir Osbert Sitwell’s memoirs of their outrageous father, Left Hand, Right Hand.{$I[AN]9810000425}{$I[A]Sitwell, Edith}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Sitwell, Edith}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Sitwell, Edith}{$I[tim]1887;Sitwell, Edith}

Educated in secret (as she said), Edith Sitwell first became known in 1916 as the editor of an anthology, Wheels, which stridently featured for six years her own work, that of her brothers, and other authors whose voices were to be heard frequently in the 1920’s. One of the highlights of the 1925 theater season in London was the premiere of Sitwell’s Facade, in which she chanted her early fanciful and rhythmical verse to similarly exciting musical settings provided by William Walton. For the performance Sitwell spoke through an amplifying mask behind a screen, a device to provide artificiality for the exotic occasion. The London Hall was an uproar of Sitwell’s admirers and detractors. Twenty-five years later, the work was similarly performed in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, but so far had modern taste and Sitwell’s reputation advanced that the last occasion was almost regal in dignity, as befitted its central performer–Sitwell had been given the accolade of Grand Dame of the Cross of the British Empire in 1954.

Her flair for self-dramatization made students of literature uneasy about the seriousness of her poetry for a long time. Standing six feet in height, she always appeared in extravagant and archaic costumes and headgear, often medieval, spangled with ostentatious rings and necklaces. “I have always had a great affinity for Queen Elizabeth [I],” she said once. “We were born on the same day of the month and about the same hour of the day.”

Although her Dadaist stunts were calculated to express her love of being flamboyant and of irritating the stuffy (“Good taste,” she claimed, “is the worst vice ever invented”), her interest in poetry was serious, as was her talent. Her keenness for verbal experimentation found a fit subject in the extraordinary Gold Coast Customs, her own version of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) and one of the remarkable poems of the remarkable decade of the 1920’s.

For ten years after Gold Coast Customs Sitwell wrote little poetry, devoting herself to critical essays and nonfiction, including a biography of Alexander Pope, but mainly taking care of a friend, Helen Rootham, through her fatal illness. With the coming of World War II, Sitwell returned to poetry, still with her dazzling technical equipment but now with a rich store of traditional Christian imagery, having become a Roman Catholic in 1955. The agonies of the bombardment of London and the terror of the atomic bomb evoked from Sitwell some of the most moving poetry ever written about the cruelty of war.

Along with her delight in self-dramatization, Sitwell was renowned, from the publication of Wheels all through her life, for her championship of younger writers. Dylan Thomas is but one of the best known of the writers whose verbal experimentation she praised and championed early in their careers.

BibliographyBrophy, James D. Edith Sitwell: The Symbolist Order. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968. Brophy examines the themes and techniques of Sitwell’s admittedly difficult poetry. He finds in her work a coherent use of modernist symbolism. A valuable study for close analysis of her poems and critical views. Supplemented by a select bibliography and an index.Cevasco, G. A. The Sitwells: Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverell. Boston: Twayne, 1987. Edith and her younger brothers, all writers and famous personalities, are brought together in an excellent, compact survey of their writings and family life. Their texts are shown to respond to the major events that shaped the twentieth century: two world wars, an economic depression, and the opening of the atomic age. Contains a chronology, notes, a select bibliography, and an index.Elborn, Geoffrey. Edith Sitwell: A Biography. London: Sheldon Press, 1981. Traces Sitwell’s life, from her birth as an unwanted female to her solitary death (by her own command). Includes photographs that illustrate her life, twelve half-plates, two plates, notes, a bibliography, and an index.Glendinning, Victoria. Edith Sitwell: A Unicorn Among Lions. London: Phoenix, 1993. Revisionary appraisal separates the myths from the newer status of Sitwell’s work. Glendinning discusses Sitwell’s poetry, her criticism, and her literary relationships. Includes six plates, seventeen half-plates, notes, and an index.Pearson, John. Facades: Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverell Sitwell. London: Macmillan, 1978. A detailed, year-by-year account of the literary activities, travels, and relationships of the famous sister and her brothers, which places Sitwell in her literary environment. Photographs are placed throughout the text. Contains seventeen plates, notes, and an index.Salter, Elizabeth. The Last Years of a Rebel: A Memoir of Edith Sitwell. London: Bodley Head, 1967. Salter was secretary to the poet from the time Sitwell was sixty-nine until her death. The author brings out Sitwell’s humor, her loyalty, and her creative power. Salter has also published a companion book of extraordinary photographs and drawings. Presents an inside view from a devoted friend. Includes five plates, and six half-plates.Sitwell, Edith. Selected Letters of Edith Sitwell. Edited by Richard Greene. Rev. ed. London: Virago, 1998. A collection including previously unpublished letters to a remarkable array of notables, including Bertrand Russell, Gertrude Stein, Cecil Beaton, Kingsley Amis, T. S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf.
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