The Magazine

Original Edith

The Sitwell with, arguably, the main claim to genius.

Jul 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 41 • By EDWARD SHORT
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Does a biography bring any psychological insight to the portrayal of its subject? Does it place its subject in the context of his or her contemporaries? Does it have anything of critical substance to say about its subject? Is it well written? Is it entertaining? Is it animated by that sympathetic fellow-feeling without which biography too often is little more than prurient gossip? 

Sitwells

Edith and Osbert Sitwell, ca. 1925

Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis

No literary biography of recent years has met all these exacting criteria with anything close to the same élan as Edith Sitwell: Avant Garde Poet, English Genius. And what makes Richard Greene’s achievement all the more admirable is that he has found so many new and incisive things to say about a subject that has not been untilled. Victoria Glendinning wrote a life of the famous sister of Sir Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell that is still worth reading. Then again, in her own time, Sitwell had several redoubtable admirers: W. B. Yeats, Virginia Woolf, Siegfried Sassoon, Roy Campbell, and W. H. Auden all praised her work. Yet, in his depiction of the life of this now unjustly neglected figure, Greene has transformed our view of the poet by looking behind her famous eccentricities and showing us the vulnerable, heroic woman who was capable not only of memorable verse but of great kindness, resilience, loyalty, and grace. And, being a poet himself, Greene offers his animadversions on Sitwell’s poetry with a certain practical authority.  

In his latest collection, Boxing the Compass, Greene ends with a poetic travelogue of sorts, which includes these striking lines:

The streets of Georgetown are out of
     time,
one ancient house of blue granite on
     M Street
was erected before tea and tax
turned colonies into musket-bearing
     states—
the oldest are stone and then came
     brick—
houses built at the edge of pavements,
fashionable, then slum, now revived
     as chic.

In his own work of revival, Greene realizes that Sitwell’s reputation has suffered in a critical ethos hostile to her mystery-honoring aesthetics. After noting that many now ignore the work Sitwell did after Façade (1920), her musical collaboration with William Walton, he makes an incisive point: “That evasion happens because we do not yet have the nerve to say that the generation of Philip Larkin imposed as orthodoxy a painfully narrow, indeed incoherent account of where poetry comes from.” And this largely was a result of the baleful influence of logical positivism, which held (as Greene reminds readers) “that knowledge must be strictly empirical, and that metaphysics and theology are meaningless.” Now that an edition of Larkin’s complete poetry has been published (see “Philip the Great,” The Weekly Standard, June 25, 2012), it is a good time to reappraise his achievement in this rarely considered light.   

As Greene shows, Sitwell refused to comply with the attenuated poetics exemplified by Larkin, insisting instead on seeing all glory hidden in small forms / The planetary system in the atom, the great suns / Hid in a speck of dusk. Indeed, in a poem she wrote in 1942 entitled “From An Old Woman,” Sitwell did not hesitate to take on themes that directly contradict the positivists’ fashionable nihilism: 

For though the soundless wrinkles fall
     like snow
On many a golden cheek, and creeds
     grow old
And change,—man’s heart, that sun,
Outlives all terrors shaking the old
     night:
The world’s huge fevers burn and
     shine, turn cold,
Yet the heavenly bodies and young
     lovers burn and shine,
The golden lovers walk in the holy
     fields
Where the Abraham-bearded sun, the
     father of all things
Is shouting of ripeness, and the whole
     world of dews and splendours are
     singing
To the cradles of earth, of men, beasts,
     harvests, swinging
In the peace of God’s heart. And I, the
     primeval clay
That has known earth’s grief and
     harvest’s happiness,
Seeing mankind’s dark seed-time, come
     to bless,
Forgive and bless all men like the holy
     light.