The English poet and critic Dame Edith Sitwell (1887-1964) was one of England's dominating literary figures for half a century and its most eminent woman poet.
Edith Sitwell was born in Scarborough on Sept. 7, 1887, into a family of landed gentry. Her brothers, Osbert and Sacheverell, both younger, also became celebrated writers. She was privately educated on the family estate at Renishaw until she entered the literary circles of London shortly before the beginning of World War I. Her first volume, The Mother and Other Poems, was published in 1915, and the following year she began to edit an annual anthology, Wheels, which set out to repudiate the comfortable, familiar, English sentimentalities of the Georgian poets. Its bizarre, satirical, self-conscious verse anticipated that judgment of the contemporary scene that was to be perfectly articulated shortly thereafter by T.S. Eliot in The Wasteland. Edith Sitwell was thus in the vanguard of the movement that radically changed English poetry at the end of World War I.
Edith Sitwell's early poems, which intermingle startling images of the demonic, the mechanical, and the natural world and employ as their favorite figure the clown or the metaphor of the harlequinade, present an elaborately distorted, nonnaturalistic picture of a world gone mad. Yet they also show evidence of the richness of color and sensuality to which the poet had responded as a rather solitary child and that influenced her poetry throughout her life. They also exhibit an extraordinary sense of rhythm which, with other experiments in sound, proved to be Edith Sitwell's most marked and controversial gift to contemporary poetry.
The manner in which Edith Sitwell chose to present her despair at the emptiness and hypocrisy of a world without spirit was so genuinely avant-garde that the audience at the first public theatrical presentation of the lyrics collected under the title Façade, in 1923, thought itself the victim of hypocrisy and her poetry the empty hoax.
The apparently cynical, amoral grotesquerie of her early poems may have been less than entirely satisfactory to the maturing Edith Sitwell herself. By the time she published Gold Coast Customs in 1929, the pervasive sense of horror—the stifling awareness of the death of the living— was not created within the confined imagery of the artificial commedia dell'arte but spread through a broad anthropological landscape. There are images of vast distance, of journeys, of the sea, and of the visions and barbarities of ancient cultures.
Edith Sitwell wrote little poetry in the 1930s. She exercised herself in the preparation of a number of anthologies and in prose. A critical biography, Alexander Pope, was published in 1930. In 1937 she published her only novel, I Live under a Black Sun; in 1943, A Poet's Notebook. By the time of World War II she had become not merely a literary celebrity but a doyenne of letters whose sponsorship was eagerly sought by younger poets. As a leader in the literary haut monde, she published Street Songs in 1942 and The Canticle of the Rose: Poems 1917-1949 in 1949.
Although her poetic vision remained as much pagan as Christian, Edith Sitwell became a Roman Catholic in 1955. She also became "respectable" and respected. In 1933 she had received the poetry medal of the Royal Society of Literature, and in 1953 she was made a dame commander of the Order of the British Empire. In the 1950s she traveled widely, reading and lecturing to admiring audiences both in England and in the United States. She continued to write and to edit; she left ready for publication after her death, in London on Dec. 9, 1964, an autobiography, Taken Care Of. As a poet, Edith Sitwell never achieved the fashionable following she secured as a person. In a sense her own technical brilliance and artistry precluded this.
Further Reading on Dame Edith Sitwell
Edith Sitwell wrote her memoirs in Taken Care Of: The Autobiography of Edith Sitwell (1965). So consistently did she associate herself with her brothers, Osbert and Sacheverell, in championing the aristocratic literati that it is difficult to explore her life and thoughts without reference to the family as a whole. Rodolphe L. Megroz, The Three Sitwells: A Biographical and Critical Study (1927), is an early example of such a family study. John Lehmann, a friend, publisher, and admirer, wrote A Nest of Tigers: The Sitwells in Their Times (1968). The autobiographical works of Osbert Sitwell, comprising Left Hand, Right Hand! (1944), The Scarlet Tree (1946), Great Morning (1948), Laughter in the Next Room (1948), and Noble Essences: A Book of Characters (1950), are invaluable. John Lehmann, Edith Sitwell (1952), is a sympathetic study of her life. Cecil M. Bowra, Edith Sitwell (1947), represents the judgment of another close friend. Geoffrey Singleton, Edith Sitwell: The Hymn to Life (1960), is recommended.
Additional Biography Sources
Elborn, Geoffrey, Edith Sitwell, a biography, Garden City, N.Y.:Doubleday, 1981.
Glendinning, Victoria, Edith Sitwell, a unicorn among lions, New York: Knopf, 1981.
Pearson, John, The Sitwells: a family's biography, New York:Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979, 1978.
Salter, Elizabeth, Edith Sitwell, London: Oresko Books, 1979.