Dame Edith Sitwell was a poet like no other, an eccentric, an aristocrat, and very much her own person. Not only that, a number of reputable sources describe this so-called High Priestess of Poetry as the world’s first rapper.
The following quotation appears on The Poetry Foundation’s website:
“In the introduction to The Canticle of the Rose, British poet Dame Edith Sitwell wrote, ‘At the time I began to write, a change in the direction, imagery and rhythms in poetry had become necessary, owing to the rhythmical flaccidity, the verbal deadness, the dead and expected patterns of some of the poetry immediately preceding us.’”
Eccentric Dame Sitwell
Matthew Sweet, presenter and poet, on the BBC4 television programme “Making it New, Great Poets in Their Own Words,” explains how Dame Edith Sitwell projected her confusing, experimental and melodious poetry in her shrill, carping voice, all set to the music of composer William Walton, from behind a gaudily painted curtain created by artist John Piper.
Her first public performance featured her poem “Façade” on 12 June, 1923, in post-war London. Her audiences were both fascinated and bewildered. No one knew what to make of this bizarre poet. As a result, claims John Mullen, scriptwriter of the documentary, Making it New, the audience believed they were victims of “an elaborate hoax” and Sitwell became the most talked-about poet in the country.
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“She knew she looked weird and so she set herself to look even weirder,” says feminist writer Germaine Greer, on “Making it New.” Sitwell was a striking-looking woman, six feet tall, with an extraordinary dress sense. Her clothes were unusual and she festooned herself in jewellery and enormous rings.
Although audiences couldn’t see Dame Sitwell, behind her painted curtain in the London theatre, her extraordinary voice was full of musicality and richness as it blared from a megaphone. “It was,” explains Matthew Sweet, “quite alienating.”
Her techniques were unconventional, and relied on quick wordplay and free association – hence her designation as the first ‘rapper.’
Dame Sitwell’s eccentricity wasn’t limited to her poetry: She once posed for the photographer Cecil Beaton, as a corpse with lilies.
Sitwell on Television
In 1959, John Freeman interviewed Dame Edith on the television programme “Face to Face.” Freeman asked her directly what sort of person she really was, behind her remote, eccentric and somewhat dangerous reputation. She replied that she couldn’t possibly dress fashionably, because she was a “throwback to her ancestors.”
She remarked that it would unsettle God Almighty were she to “look like that.” As the programme switched back to “Making it New,” Matthew Sweet remarked on how she somehow seemed to “transcend the flesh…as though she was a confection and a construction.”
Sitwell was anxious to air one of her own personal grievances on “Making it New,” that of people who believed they should tell her how she should write poetry, which she’d been doing all of her life. “I don’t like being taught my job,” she complains. “I don’t tell plumbers how to plumb.”
Dame Edith Sitwell’s Poetic Style
For a taste of her inimitable style, here is an excerpt from one of her poems, as presented on the website of the Young Poets Network.
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’)
A Radical Influence on Culture
Born Dame Edith Louisa Sitwell in Scarborough 1887, her childhood was not ideal. She had two older, literary brothers, but her parents were unloving and she was a solitary child who relied on her governess to meet her needs. In spite of this inauspicious start, Dame Edith was a woman far ahead of her time. The Encyclopedia of World Biography says:
“Her first volume, The Mother and Other Poems, was published in 1915, and the following year she began to edit an annual anthology, Wheels… 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.”
Both Edith Sitwell’s and T.S. Eliot’s worlds were lacklustre, lacking in spirituality, empty and despondent. This was what made poetry take an entirely different slant from that of the Georgian poets, one that desired to express, in all its misery, the state of play in a world that they judged to be hypocritical and without direction.
Dame Edith Sitwell: Still Remembered and Revered
According to the Young Poets Network, Edith Sitwell is still remembered in her birthplace, Scarborough, where this year they held an Edith Sitwell Festival 2014 to mark fifty years since her death in December, 1964. The article says Scarborough lost “one of the most overlooked yet astonishingly exciting poets of the last century.”
Lecturer Charles Mundye discussed her work and set “two intriguing and inspiring writing challenges” for young poets. It is good to know part of Sitwell’s enormous legacy is the inspiring of the young.
Sitwell was also a critic, and in 1930 she wrote a critical biography of Alexander Pope. She became a Dame of the British Empire in 1953.
Dame Edith Louisa Sitwell, DBE, died in 1964, but her legacy continues, that of the early twentieth century’s most influential woman poet.