I finally satisfied my desire for poetry, though the two (very different) volumes I ordered have nothing to do with the Confederation Poets I so eagerly looked for a few weeks ago.
Alfred Edward Housman (1859-1936) was the eldest son of a country solicitor and grew up in Worcestershire, a region of England which had a deep and lasting influence on him. His mother died when he was only twelve, leaving behind seven children, among whom two others, Laurence and Clemence, also became writers. Housman was educated locally then went on to study classics at St John’s College, Oxford. Though he failed his degree and was obliged to take a job as a clerk in London, he became a reputed classical scholar, and in 1892 was offered the Professorship of Latin at University London College. In 1911 he left London to take up another Professorship, this time at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he lectured until his death. He is still considered one of Britain’s foremost scholars.
Poetry came second to Housman’s academic work and he published comparatively little. Only once did he speak in public about his poetry, in 1933. A Shropshire Lad, a cycle of sixty-three poems, was published in 1896 at his own expense and was an unexpected success. Contrary to what one might think, there are no classical allusions whatsoever in his poetry – no Greek gods or Roman emperors, no naiads or centaurs, no bacchanals or Saturnalia. Housman is concerned only with rural England and the rural Englishman. In the great pastoral tradition, A Shropshire Lad conjures up busy market-places or farmers working in golden fields, church bells ringing, and courting lads and lasses. Despite the peacefulness of these scenes, the poems are infused with a deep melancholy, a sense of the transience of cherry-blossom and youth. Housman’s England is threatened by distant wars and the spectre of death, and his lads exhort their sweethearts to love them quickly while they still can.
It turned out I already knew one of the poems, “To an Athlete Dying Young”, which is the poem Karen Blixen reads at Denys Finch Hatton’s funeral in “Out of Africa”. And I was delighted to find that Finch Hatton’s toast to “rose-lipt maidens” also came from a Housman poem.
Housman’s verses are almost nursery-rhyme like in their simplicity. His evocations of green meadows and flowering cherry-trees are charming (though I am more of a Yeats and apple-blossom girl myself) but it is when speaking of soldiers leaving or fallen on the battlefield, when the sweetness is compounded with bitterness, that he is at his most haunting. He is never sentimental in a sickly sort of way, but he is nevertheless very Victorian, and it is this quality which, at times, makes me a bit impatient with him: his rhythms are just a little too decorous, a little too sedate. In the long run, they make me feel like a horse champing at the bit and longing to be given a free rein!
Edith Sitwell (1887-1964) was, on the contrary, one of those larger-than-life characters of which the first half of the twentieth century seems so full. She was the eldest child and only daughter of Sir George Sitwell, 4th Baronet of Renishaw Hall, in Derbyshire (where the Pemberley scenes were shot in the 1980 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice). Through her mother, she was related to the Earl of Londesborough and the 7th Duke of Beaufort. Her brothers Osbert and Sacheverell were both well-known and distinguished authors in their own right. Edith supported innovative trends in poetry and her own work was sometimes considered perplexingly avant-garde. Her early poems were much influenced by the French Symbolists but she was also interested in the distinction between poetry and music.
Sitwell did not get on well with her parents, and in 1914 she left home and moved to Bayswater, where she shared a flat with her former governess, Helen Rootham. In 1932 the pair moved to Paris, where Edith continued to live even after Helen’s death, until the outbreak of World War Two forced her back to England. Her London flat became a meeting-place for young writers like Dylan Thomas. Later in life, she retired to Renishaw Hall, where she lived with her brother Osbert and his partner. In 1927 she fell in love with the Russian painter Pavel Tchelitchew and the two had an affair. Tchelitchew was a homosexual, however, and the relationship did not last long. She never married.
As well as for her aristocratic lineage and literary career, Sitwell was famous for her eccentric appearance: she had angular features very like those of Queen Elizabeth I, a resemblance she was fond of emphasizing, and she liked to wear brocade or velvet gowns, gold turbans, and a wealth of large and ornate rings. Of course, her flamboyant dress style made her an easy prey for the caricaturists – though, personally, I love its theatricality! It turns her into a figure from a medieval pageant, or a cross between a gypsy and a fairy godmother, an impression heightened by the dream-like quality of her poetry.
Strange rhythms, elliptic syntax, and a dense network of images and symbols make her poems difficult to understand – perhaps they are confused, as some critics have asserted, but I find them more exciting by far than Housman’s decorous verses. Sitwell creates an enchanted world, an Otherworld, of fairy-tale princesses, yellow-aproned maids and goose-girls, turbaned sultans, and satyrs dancing with Pan in the forest gloom. Recalling Verlaine’s “Fêtes Galantes”, lovely archaic words like apricock and palanquin go side by side with gavottes and salampores, making an exotic music out of their strange sounds. Colours grow more vibrant, like those in stained glass windows, and the ancient power of Nature calls and beckons: the light is golden, the rain mauve; figs glow greenly in the shadow of leaves, and strawberries take on a darker, richer red. Even Sitwell’s titles are beautiful, like the “Trio for Two Cats and a Trombone” with its jazzy overtones, or “Miss Nettybun and the Satyr’s Child”. There are echoes here of Lewis Carroll.
Perhaps Sitwell’s poetry, like Housman’s, is a little dated; if his was too Victorian, perhaps hers is too obviously, too laughably, part of the early twentieth-century avant-garde. Despite her artifices and her excesses, though, I will choose her over Housman any day, for her poetry is rich and sensual, and catches at the imagination as Housman’s can never hope to do.
Further Reading: those who are interested can visit the Edith Sitwell page on the Poetry Foundation website. I also found a recent review in The Australian of Richard Greene’s biography, Edith Sitwell: Avant-Garde Poet, English Genius, which is made highly entertaining by the author’s patent dislike of Sitwell.
© Florence Berlioz 2011