Edith Sitwell: Modernity and Tradition
by Joseph Pearce
Edith Sitwell was a shock-trooper
of the poetic avant garde, a champion of modernity who
revelled in the use of shock tactics to push the boundaries of
poetry, angering traditionalists in the process. Perhaps, therefore,
she would seem an unlikely convert to the creed and traditions
of the Catholic Church. Yet, like her friend, "the ultra-modern
novelist" Evelyn Waugh, she would
come to realize that the liberating power of orthodoxy could
transfuse tradition with the dynamism of truth.
Born into privilege, as the
daughter of Sir George Sitwell and Lady Ida Sitwell of Renishaw
Hall in Derbyshire, and as the granddaughter of Lord Londesborough,
she would also seem to be an unlikely revolutionary. Yet, from
the appearance of her first published poem, Drowned Suns,
in the Daily Mirror in 1913, she had sent tremors through
the landscapes of literary convention. The tremors grew to seismic
levels between the years of 1916 and 1921 with her editorship
of Wheels, an annual anthology of new verse. The poetry
selected by Sitwell for these anthologies was not only self-consciously
modern in style but was superciliously contemptuous of the flaccid
and idyllic quietism of the so-called "Georgian poets."
In 1922, Sitwell published
Façade, her most controversial poem to date,
which, accompanied by the music of William Walton, was given
a stormy public reading in London. In the same year, the publication
of Eliot's The Waste Land had polarized opinion still
further between the "ancients" and the "moderns."
A reviewer in the Manchester Guardian called The
Waste Land "a mad medley" and "so much waste
paper," whereas a more sympathetic review in the Times
Literary Supplement spoke of Eliot's "poetic personality"
as being "extremely sophisticated" and his poem as
being an "ambitious experiment." Clearly the battle
lines were being drawn for a very uncivil war of words between
the forces of modernity and those of tradition. Poetry was in
Chesterton was critical
of some of the modern trends in poetry, and the young C.S. Lewis
was hostile to what he referred to contemptuously as "Eliotic"
verse. It was, however, in the person of Alfred Noyes, a respected
poet of the old guard, that Sitwell and Eliot found their most
Noyes had found himself out
of favor and out of fashion in the atmosphere created by the
moderns, and Sitwell had dismissed his poetry as "cheap
linoleum." Unprepared to take such abuse lightly, Noyes
came out fighting, throwing down the gauntlet of tradition in
defiance of modern trends.
The first blows were struck
at a public debate held at the London School of Economics, at
which Noyes and Sitwell were to discuss "the comparative
value in old poetry and the new." Edmund Gosse, who had
agreed to chair the discussion, asked Noyes not to be too hard
on his opponent. "Do not, I beg of you, use a weaver's beam
on the head of poor Edith." Noyes, for his part, believed
that he might become the victim of Sitwell's vociferous supporters
an d could "suddenly be attacked by a furious flock of strangely
colored birds, frantically trying to peck my nose."
Noyes's quip was an act of
sartorial sarcasm aimed at Sitwell's flamboyant taste in clothes.
She arrived for the debate dressed in a purple robe and gold
laurel wreath, contrasting clashingly with Noyes's sober American-cut
suit and horn-rimmed spectacles. The contrast was sublimely appropriate,
the dress addressing the issue.
The debate began uneasily when
Edith asked if her supporters might sit on the platform with
her. Noyes agreed, but took advantage of the situation by telling
the audience that he wished he could bring his supporters along
as well, naming Virgil, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dante, and others.
The riposte was effective, if a trifle unfair. Sitwell had not
renounced any of these poets, and T.S. Eliot, the other "ultra-modern"
poet, was steeped in poetic tradition and was deeply devoted
to Dante. Nonetheless, the coup de theatre had the desired
effect and Sitwell shamefacedly sat alone on the platform with
Noyes and Gosse.
Paradoxically, the debate proceeded
with Sitwell defending innovation from a singularly traditionalist
perspective. "We are always being called mad," she
complained. "If we are mad . . . at least we are mad in
company with most of our great predecessors . . . Schumann .
. . Coleridge and Wordsworth were all mad in turn." She
might have added that the Romanticism of Coleridge and Wordsworth,
considered very "modern" and avant garde in
its day, spawned the reaction against the "progressive"
scientism of the anti-Catholic Enlightenment and was influential
in the resurrection of Medievalism in England in the form of
the Gothic revival and the Oxford Movement.
Equally paradoxically, Noyes
defended tradition from the perspective that it was always "up-to-date,"
declaring with the great French literary critic Sainte-Beuve
that "true poetry is a contemporary of all ages." Thus,
there was, it seemed, a unity in their apparent division that
neither poet perceived at the time.
This higher reality, or true
realism, was largely lost in the increasingly vitriolic war of
words that followed the much-publicized debate. In the furious
controversy that raged in the press throughout the 1920s the
prevailing bias was in favor of the moderns. Eliot and Sitwell
were popularly perceived as marching "hand in hand . . .
in the vanguard of progress" whereas the ancients, as the
agents of reaction, merely sought to turn back the tide. Tides
turn on their own, of course, but it was true at the time that
the waves of sympathy were flowing, for the most part, with the
"Certain things are accepted
in a lump by all the Moderns," Chesterton complained in
a review of a book by Noyes, "mainly because they are supposed
(often wrongly) to be rejected with horror by all the Ancients."
Taking the example of Edgar Allan Poe, Chesterton remarked that
the moderns hijacked their favorite ancients, bestowing honorary
modernity on them. Poe had been "set apart as a Modern before
the Moderns," whereas he was "something much more important
than a Modern . . . he was a poet."
Noyes wrote that Chesterton
was one of the few who "completely understood my defense
of literary traditions, as well as my criticism of them."
Perhaps so. Yet Noyes had singularly failed to perceive that
Sitwell, like Eliot, was "something much more important
than a Modern . . . she was a poet."
In 1929, Sitwell published
Gold Coast Customs, a vision of the horror and hollowness
of contemporary life that not only echoed Eliot in its purgatorial
passion but which served as an early indication that she was
on the road to religious conversion. Her sublimely sorrowful
Still Falls the Rain, depicting the bombing of London during
the Blitz in 1940, resonated with the bitter imagery of Christ's
Crucifixion and humanity's perennial culpability:
Blind as the nineteen hundred
and forty nails
Upon the Cross.
Most memorable, perhaps, were
her "three poems of the Atomic Age," inspired darkly
by eyewitness descriptions of the dropping of the atomic bomb
on Hiroshima in 1945. The Shadow of Cain, the first
of the poems, was about "the fission of the world into warring
particles, destroying and self-destructive. It is about the gradual
migration of mankind, after that Second Fall of Man . . . into
the desert of the Cold, towards the final disaster, the first
symbol of which fell on Hiroshima." The poem's imagery was,
she explained, "partly a physical description of the highest
degree of cold, partly a spiritual description of this."
Sitwell's desire, spiritually,
to come in from "the Cold" drew her, ever more surely,
to the warm embrace of the Church.
Another, more personal influence
on her slow progress toward Christianity was her admiration for
the convert-poet, Roy Campbell. She looked upon Campbell not
only as a friend but as one of the few people who would defend
her from her critics.
Edith Sitwell was finally received
into the Catholic Church in August 1955. She asked Evelyn Waugh
to be her godfather and he recorded in his diary how she had
appeared on the day of her reception "swathed in black like
a 16th century infanta."
The happiest irony of all resided
in the fact that Alfred Noyes, her most bitter enemy, had also
been received into the Church many years earlier. In their reconciliation
in the same spiritual communion, they had, symbolically and poetically,
united modernity and tradition the unity of ancient and modern
in something greater than both.
This article is reprinted with permission from Lay
Witness magazine. Lay
Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith,
Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support,
defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.