Edith Sitwell (1887-1964)
My visit to Scarborough gave me many insights into people that I never realized had connections there. I haven’t mentioned Charles Laughton, that will have to wait but to finish off this mini-series of blogs, I shall leave you with three of the most surprizing people to have come from this North Yorkshire town – the Sitwells, Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell. The names say it all – they were very posh, descended from Plantagent monarchs it was said, but they were also very arty and, yes, in their way, avant-garde. All three were writers and all wrote poetry. Like most people who have heard of the Sitwells, I first came across them through that wonderful piece of 1920s smartness, Facade, a sequence of weirdly wonderful poems by Edith Sitwell set to music by the young William Walton – you can hear Edith performing it at the bottom of this page. Before that take a look at them and read their poems.
Scarborough is full of surprizes.
Tall as a crane,
The morning light creaks down again;
Comb your cockscomb-ragged hair,
Jane, Jane, come down the stair.
Each dull blunt wooden stalactite
Of rain creaks, hardened by the light,
Sounding like an overtone
From some lonely world unknown.
But the creaking empty light
Will never harden into sight,
Will never penetrate your brain
With overtones like the blunt rain.
The light would show (if it could harden)
Eternities of kitchen garden,
Cockscomb flowers that none will pluck,
And wooden flowers that ‘gin to cluck.
In the kitchen you must light
Flames as staring, red and white,
As carrots or as turnips shining
Where the cold dawn light lies whining.
Cockscomb hair on the cold wind
Hangs limp, turns the milk’s weak mind . . .
Tall as a crane,
The morning light creaks down again!
The Sitwell Family – Edith Sitwell (1887-1964), Sir George Sitwell, Lady Ida, Sacheverell Sitwell (1897-1988), and Osbert Sitwell (1892-1969) by John Singer Sargent, c. 1900
Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell Sitwell
Osbert Sitwell (1892 – 1969) by Emil Otto (‘E.O.’) Hoppé, 1918 (National Portrait Gallery)
Their youth was fevered – passionate, quick to drain
The last few pleasures from the cup of life
Before they turned to suck the dregs of pain
And end their young-old lives in mortal strife.
They paid the debts of many a hundred year
Of foolishness and riches in alloy.
They went to the death; nor did they shed a tear
For all they sacrificed of love and joy.
Their tears ran dry when they were in the womb,
For, entering life – they found it was their tomb.
Sacheverell Sitwell (1897 – 1988)
Li Tai Pe Drinks and Drowns
THE spray splashes on the petals of the anemone
Creasing the water to a mesh of magic circles moving outwards:
The petals shake like the notes
Of a woman singing.—
Then Li Tai Pe lifts back his cup
And the red scimitar goes back to its sheath.
The magical rings move further away
Till they shake the ivory towers of the water-lilies.
Now, as a finger shuts the notes of a flute,
The petals fold together.
Then Li Tai Pe with reeling mind
Sees the moon as an ivory mask
Hung from the belt of Fate the Histrion.—
With such a mask, the princesses will deem him of the
He jumps to catch it.
The moon-stained water runs into his mouth.
With open arms he sinks
And through the jade-cold water seeks his diadem.
Here is Edith with Marilyn Monroe – Marilyn is here because this blog has a policy of including photographs of her whenever there is even the slimmest justification. Scroll down to hear Edith Evans reciting Facade with the great English tenor, Peter Pears.
Edith Sitwell and Marilyn Monroe, 1953