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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 commotion.

G.K. 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 formidable foe.

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 moderns.

"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.

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