As part of the celebrations for the Edith Sitwell Festival 2014, lecturer Charles Mundye discusses the poet’s life and work.
2014 is an important year for anniversaries, remembrances and commemorations. A hundred years ago, on 16 December 1914, something sudden and violent happened to the Yorkshire seaside town of Scarborough. In the early stages of World War One a fleet of German naval ships sailed inland and bombarded it with high-explosive shells, killing eighteen men, women and children and wounding many more.
In Swansea that December, the one-month-old Dylan Thomas was starting to exercise the vocal cords of what was to become one of the most famous voices of the twentieth century.
And fifty years later, in December 1964, a great poet died from the complications of old age. She had been born in Scarborough in 1887, and spent her early years growing up by the sea. By the time of her death she had lived through both world wars and, like Dylan Thomas, had written some of the best-known poetry about the experience of the Blitz, the aerial bombing raids that made the Second World War everyone’s conflict. At the end of this war she wrote an elegy for the dead of Hiroshima, and other poems reflecting on the new post-nuclear age. In a matter of decades the world had moved a long way in its technologies of destruction.
The poet in question is Edith Sitwell (1887–1964), and this year marks the 50th anniversary of her death. She remains one of the most overlooked yet astonishingly exciting poets of the last century. A popular image of Sitwell is of an eccentric aristocrat wearing oddly flamboyant costumes, or of her posing as a corpse with lilies for a photograph by Cecil Beaton. It is true that her upbringing was decidedly strange, even by a poet’s standards, and she cultivated a persona as a kind of shell with which to defend against the many cramping difficulties of living, let alone living creatively, in early and mid-twentieth-century Britain.
Edith Sitwell as a young girl. By very kind permission of Mrs Alexandra Hayward.
However, her poetry is alive with human life and fire; it is hilarious, musical, meditative, religious, and almost always experimental. In the 1930s Sitwell wrote a work of curious cultural biography entitled The English Eccentrics, underlining her interest in the quirky and the different. The etymology (origin) of the word ‘eccentric’ points to a sense of being decentred (from the Greek ekkentros: out of centre). And surely part of the job of poetry as well is to be out of centre, and inhabit places and perspectives that are to one side of the ordinary, to come at things slantwise.
In this respect Sitwell’s voice is inflected with her experiences of an early life in Scarborough. In her poetry are echoes of the rhythms of the sea and the raw seasons, and of people who live on the edge of things, sometimes making a living out of the vast and occasionally accommodating danger of the ocean, and sometimes enjoying the leisured, empty fashionability of a fishing town that also became Britain’s first holiday resort:
Daisy and Lily,
Lazy and Silly,
Walk by the shore of the wan grassy sea, –
Talking once more ’neath a swan-bosomed tree.
Each foam-bell of ermine,
They roam and determine
What fashions have been and what fashions will be
(Edith Sitwell, from ‘Waltz’)
Music is organised sound. It’s not a bad way of thinking about poetry too, which is alive to the rhythmic and tonal patterns available to language. Music and poetry both achieve their rhythm through patterns of stress in the sounds they make. Music also arranges its sound through variations and combinations of pitch and timbre; poetry through rhyme and assonance (patterns of vowels) and alliteration (patterns of consonants).
Poetry in the first decades of the twentieth century had a tendency towards relaxing some of the regularities of traditional patterns of sound – think of poets moving towards free verse instead of traditional forms with regular rhyme and metre, for example, which Robert Frost described as “playing tennis with the net down”. Sitwell was radical in her insistence not only on the importance, but at times the priority, of the organised music in the poetry, stating as she did that “the poems in Façade are abstract poems – that is, they are patterns in sound”.
It is perhaps no surprise that such poetry should attract the interest of musicians, and one in particular became a cutting-edge collaborator with Sitwell, resulting in one of the most extraordinary and daring stage performances of the 1920s. In Façade (1922) the composer William Walton doesn’t set Sitwell’s poems to music so much as provide a sound track to go with their declamation (saying in dramatic mode, not merely reading). In January 1922 Sitwell took centre stage for the first performance, but the audience couldn’t see her, as she sat behind a stage curtain. The decorated curtain had a hole through which Sitwell poked a Sengerphone (a type of megaphone) to declaim and amplify her poems. This was all part of the avant-garde spectacle, but it also ensured that the words didn’t get swamped by the music.
In one of the poems from Façade entitled ‘I Do Like to be Beside the Seaside’, her childhood Scarborough is just one point of reference in a kaleidoscope of surreal holiday romance and travel images. Set to the popular tune, manipulated by William Walton, the effect is astonishing and funny and complex. Try singing the following words to the tune before watching the clip:
Pasquito arrived at the seaside
Where the donkey’s hide tide brayed, he
Saw the banditto Jo in a black cape
Whose slack shape waved like the sea
(Edith Sitwell, from ‘I Do Like to be Beside the Seaside’)
Sitwell was a committed champion of younger poets, including the war poet Wilfred Owen, whose poetry she was instrumental in publishing and publicizing. She wrote her own war poems in the course of the Second World War, where the music of the poetry remains important, but becomes expressive of sorrow, elegiac regret, and only potential redemption. In this poem she reflects on the air raids of 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
With a sound like the pulse of the heart that is changed to the hammer-beat
In the Potter’s Field, and the sound of the impious feet
(Edith Sitwell, from ‘Still Falls the Rain’)
It is no surprise that this poem was set to music by the composer Benjamin Britten in 1954.
A later post-war collaboration took Edith Sitwell back to the performance of music and poetry on stage: her long poem ‘The Shadow of Cain’ was given a musical setting by the composer Humphrey Searle, and at its opening performance Sitwell shared the stage in reading her poetry with Dylan Thomas, only a year away from his own untimely death, for which Sitwell was to feel a deep sorrow. Reviewing the performance for the Manchester Guardian Neville Cardus wrote that “It was a joy and a privilege to hear the English language spoken with Dr Sitwell’s and Mr Thomas’s intense feeling for the beauty of words.”
This anniversary year affords us an opportunity to revisit Sitwell, Thomas, and the musicality of their poetry, to revel in its sound and to think how, more broadly, poetry and music can come together in a variety of different ways.
If you enjoy poetry, performance and multimedia:
Produce a short sound recording and/or video (maximum 3 minutes) of some performed interaction between music and poetry. You might well be inspired by the technique and/or subject of Façade, as a version of early twentieth-century rap, Sitwell style. You may wish to produce a collaboration or perform alone, to improvise with a wheelie bin or track down a 10-piece brass band. The choice is yours!
If you prefer ‘pen and paper’ alone:
Write a poem about some aspect of eccentricity. Please feel free to interpret eccentricity as widely and eccentrically as you dare. You should pay particular attention to the musical aspects of your text, the rhythm, rhyme, assonance and alliteration of the words, and attempt to create as concentrated and intense a music as you possibly can.
Winners will receive a lovely package of prizes including The Collected Poems of Edith Sitwell, A History of Food in 100 Recipes by William Sitwell, an exclusive Young Poets Network notebook and a stick of Scarborough rock!
How to enter
The challenge is now closed – but you can read the fantastic winners by following the links to the side of the page, and be inspired to write your own poem to submit to one of our Poetry Opportunities!
Charles Mundye is a university lecturer in English with particular interests in twentieth century poetry. He recently edited Keidrych Rhys’s The Van Pool: Collected Poems for Seren Books (2012).
You can read about the Edith Sitwell Festival 2014, Scarborough, on the Sitwell Society website and on the website of writer Kate Evans. You might also like to find out more about the anniversary of the Scarborough Bombardment and the Dylan Thomas centenary celebrations.