A very modern revival
- February 12, 2021
- William Hutton
The poet Edith Sitwell has more to offer than her infamous reputation suggests.
The poet Dame Edith Sitwell was as lauded as she was ridiculed in her lifetime. With her brothers, Sacheverell and Osbert, she was known for fashioning a particular kind of ostentatiousness –– though Sitwell would prefer the word ‘vitality’ –– both on and off the page. From a townhouse on Carlyle Street, Chelsea, the Sitwells ‘declared war on dullness’, as Evelyn Waugh put it. And yet since her death in 1964, Edith Sitwell has largely been forgotten by readers and critics.
Born to a wealthy family in Scarborough, Yorkshire, in 1887, Sitwell suffered a psychologically abusive upbringing. Her mother, Lady Ida Denison, a society beauty who could trace her ancestry back to the Plantagenets, bemoaned her only daughter’s ugliness. Edith’s famously beaked nose was put inside a clamp for straightening while her posture underwent correction through the use of a primitive orthopaedic brace, and the corsets she was forced to wear would later be referred to as her ‘Bastille’.
It wasn’t until Edith escaped to London that her long harboured dreams of becoming a poet were realised. Her first disruption of the literary scene came in 1916 with the publication of Wheels, an annual ‘cycle’ of new verse that ran until 1921. It was not only edited by Edith and her brothers, it predominantly featured their own verse. Wheels was seen as a revolt against, in her words, the ‘monstrous excesses of dullness’ represented by the popular Georgian poetry published in, among other places, the London Mercury by J. C. Squire, a figure best remembered today for his dismissal of The Waste Land. Between the covers of Wheels readers were first introduced to the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Aldous Huxley.
But it wasn’t until the first public recitation of Façade: An Entertainment that Edith’s reputation would be forever mired in controversy. In the year following the publication of Joyce’s Ulysses and Eliot’s The Waste Land, when the Eliotian notion in poetry to ‘escape’ from ‘personality’ was all the rage, a thirty-five-year-old Edith and a nineteen-year-old William Walton, freshly plucked from Oxford, set about to ‘exalt the speaking voice’ to the level of music. For the stage performance, the sculptor Frank Dobson created two masks on front-cloth: one large, central half-pink, half-white mask from which Edith delivered her poems (using something called a ‘sengerphone’ to amply her speaking voice); a second, smaller black mask to its side from which the master of ceremonies –– on that night, Osbert –– made announcements. With them behind the front-cloth was their brother Sacheverell, acting as stage manager, the performance’s six musicians and a wide-eyed Walton, conducting. The result, which was performed at London’s Aeolian Hall in the afternoon of the 12 June 1923, is now considered by some to be the first instance of rap music in England. Façade was a strange burlesque of music hall entertainment, late Victorian send-up and modernist theory; here the rhythms of poetry and music harmonised into a complete sound––or at least that was the intention. Unpractised in performance, Edith delivered her poetry a beat off Walton’s accompaniment.
In attendance that afternoon were many of the great luminaries of modernism, though not many of them ‘got’ Façade. Virginia Woolf went home that night and admitted in her diary, ‘I kept saying to myself “I don’t understand . . . I don’t really admire.”’ Society papers of the time were less polite. The Daily Graphic published their report under the heading ‘Drivel They Paid to Hear.’ It read: ‘A friend of mine who was there tells me that, when he laughed, as Edith Sitwell recited drivel through a megaphone, a woman turned round and said, ‘‘How can I study a new art if you laugh?’’ That sums up the whole performance. If three had laughed, the Sitwell’s wouldn’t dare do it again.’ But dare do it again, the Sitwells did. Since that infamous first recitation, Façade has gone on to enjoy a successful staging history. Even Alec Guinness would lend his voice to its performance.
However, the Sitwells themselves would not fare so well. Years later Osbert would write of that infamous day: ‘the notion, difficult to dislodge, now entered the Philistine public’s head that Edith, Sacheverell and I were continually declaiming our poems through megaphones in order to call attention to ourselves’. Certainly, this has been the prevailing attitude since. One such ‘Philistine’ was the Cambridge literary critic F. R. Leavis who excoriated the Sitwells in his influential 1932 book, New Bearings in English Poetry. Leavis justified Edith’s omission from the collection saying, ‘the Sitwells belong to the history of publicity rather than poetry.’ Edith more than her affable younger brothers became as famous for her feuds as her poetry; with some justification. Noel Coward, who walked out of the 12 June performance, soon parodied Edith in an unflattering poetry collection. The Cubist portrait of ‘Hernia Whittlebot’ shared an uncanny likeness to Sitwell in the front piece of his spoof collection, Chelsea Buns. One poem from the book, ‘Theme for Oboe in E Flat’ reads in full:
Zooboom tweet tweet,
Suggestive beads of sound.
There is something of Florence Foster Jenkins in this imagining of Sitwell. But the fact is Edith Sitwell was an ambitious poet who truly dedicated herself to her profession and supporting others within it. She not only championed Dylan Thomas at the start of his career but sought audiences with everyone from Gertrude Stein in Paris to Marilyn Monroe in Hollywood.
Today critics have begun to turn back over Sitwell’s work. She is being centred in what Debora Longworth calls, ‘ornamental modernism’: a poetics of the extravagant, the theatrical and the eccentric; a modernism that foregrounds artistic celebrity. Celebrity indeed, Glenda Jackson played Sitwell in a BBC Radio drama last year, Edith Sitwell in Scarborough, a dramatization of her early years. At long last, the poet once described by a critic as ‘ugly as modern art’ is receiving a revival.