Friday, September 07, 2007

Happy Birthday, Dame Edith Sitwell

Happy Birthday to Dame Edith Sitwell, born on September 7, 1887, in Scarborough, Yorkshire. Sitwell was the daughter of "the aristocratic but eccentric" Sir George Sitwell, 4th Baronet, and Lady Ida Emily Augusta Denison, daughter of the Earl of Londesborough.

Along with her brothers Osbert and Sacheverall, the Sitwells formed the most famous literary family of the 20th Century. The trip of Edith and her brothers to the United States in 1948 was one of the most important literary events (important because of the writers it drew into close social proximity, often for the first time) in the immediate post-war years. Edith Sitwell was a prolific writer, and her work (in addition to poetry) includes a book on Alexander Pope and two widely read books on Queen Elizabeth II.

Sitwell is perhaps most remembered for her distinctive mode of costume, which (with its long dark dresses, wimples, and her many-ringed fingers), often suggested a medieval sorceress.

Dame Edith Sitwell died at the age of 77 on December 9, 1964.

Here's a poem by Dame Edith that seems appropriate, given the aristocratic but eccentric hour of the day:


Cried the navy-blue ghost
Of Mr. Belaker
The allegro Negro cocktail-shaker,
"Why did the cock crow,
Why am I lost,
Down the endless road to Infinity toss'd?
The tropical leaves are whispering white
As water; I race the wind in my flight.
The white lace houses are carried away
By the tide; far out they float and sway.
White is the nursemaid on the parade.
Is she real, as she flirts with me unafraid?
I raced through the leaves as white as water...
Ghostly, flowed over the nursemaid, caught her,
Left her...edging the far-off sand
Is the foam of the sirens' Metropole and Grand;
And along the parade I am blown and lost,
Down the endless road to Infinity toss'd.
The guinea-fowl-plumaged houses sleep...
On one, I saw the lone grass weep,
Where only the whimpering greyhound wind
Chased me, raced me, for what it could find."
And there in the black and furry boughs
How slowly, coldly, old Time grows,
Where the pigeons smelling of gingerbread,
And the spectacled owls so deeply read,
And the sweet ring-doves of curded milk
Watch the Infanta's gown of silk
In the ghost-room tall where the governante
Gesticulates lente and walks andante.
'Madam, Princesses must be obedient;
For a medicine now becomes expedient--
Of five ingredients--a diapente,
Said the governante, fading lente...
In at the window then looked he,
The navy-blue ghost of Mr. Belaker,
The allegro Negro cocktail-shaker--
And his flattened face like the moon saw she--
Rhinoceros-black (a flowing sea!).

NOTE: The painting is "Sitwell Family" (1900) by John Singer Sargent. That's Edith in the red dress, Sir Osbert on the far right, Sacheverall next to him on the floor. The painting hangs in Renishaw Hall, the Sitwell family home.


Blogger Talia said...

I bet that biography is a good one!

8:19 AM  
Blogger greg rappleye said...


Yes, she was an intersting person. And, I think, a better writer than some credit her.

9:17 AM  
Blogger JforJames said...

A wonderful book by Sitwell is The Poet's Notebook (McMillian, 1944), being here commonplace book and chockful of lovely quotations, and few of her own insights as commentary or counterpoint.

"It is this simultaneity, a kind of water-clearness (into which he fell as into a river) on the verge of death, to which Baudelaire has attainted." Edith Sitwell, XX, A Poet's Notebook

11:26 AM  
Blogger petemoon said...

How utterly bizarre!

Just now, in the middle of sewing a jacket, my mind wandered into some dusty corner where it encountered, " . . . the allegro negro cocktail shaker . . . " and it wouldn't turn it loose until it could peg just where this loose bit belonged.

Google brought me straight here, and your blog post took me right back to hours of childhood delight with a recording of Dame Edith's works called "Facade." Do you know this work? It's a collection of her poetry read by Peggy Ashcroft and Paul Scofield, set to music by Sir William Walton. It's on the Decca label and it's from 1972. I highly recommend it!

Scotch Rhapsody is my fav, but Four in the Morning is a close second.

Thanks for providing the link that allowed me to put my mind at ease!

p.s. from the Small World Department, the aforementioned childhood took place in North Carolina. Weird, huh?

9:38 AM  
Blogger Paul Pincus said...

I have seen the Sargent...the feeling was more incredible than the first time I saw Madame X!

It's nice to meet a fellow Sitwell fan/atic.


1:31 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home