BOOKS AND WRITERS T HERE is a double cha,rm aLtout personal
anthologies, the charm of their surprising and idiosyncratic inclusions—and in these Dr. Sitwell's little book is rich indeed—and that of their unexpected juxtapositions. Who would have supposed that a piece by a young American, Jose Garcia Villa, would find its natural place in her section devoted to Christmas Day between a sentence from St. Bernard and Southwell's familiar "Burning Babe" ? "Tom o' Bedlam" and Blake's "Chimney Sweeper" are obviously denizens of the same city, but the imagery of an extract from the Book of Job derives unexpected freshness from being placed between two of Arthur Waley's translations. Such are the merits of A Book of the Winter ; on each aspect of the season, on the brightness around the hearth, on the cold outside, and on the darkness in the heart that awaits the fires of spring, Dr. Sitwell -finds passages that are united, whatever their dissimilarities in age, theme or speech, by the rare beauty of their language. She has the finest of ears for the cadences of good writing in whatever medium. So as a bedside book, or merely to be slipped into the pocket against a dull journey, her anthology will be found to contain pleasures to be savoured one by one, and more than once, by anyone who loves poetry.
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But there is a third charm about this particular anthology which outweighs the other two, and that is the light which it throws on the preferences of the poet who made it. The pedestrian history of literature is always ready with a llst of influences alleged to have worked on any and every writer, It is all to the good, therefore, that this writer has herself indicated those of her predecessors who have contributed something to her style or her way of thought. Dr. Sitwell achieved an independent vision at so early an age that, except for Rimbaud, who taught her the deregletnent des sens, his deliberate confusion of auditory with visual imagery, one might almost say that she has been subject to few major influences in the literary sense. Yet from her choices in this anthology one can judge the extent of her debt to Blake and to Christopher Smart for her , mastery of the long line. Her line is more plastic and richer in internal harmonies, but essentially the cadences of the "Song of the Cold" mark only one further stage of independence from the iambic norm beyond that reached by Blake in the "Four Zoas." Dr. Sitwell's affinities have never been with "free verse." Having learned in her "Sleeping Beauty "phase to master both blank verse and the eighteenth-century couplet, she has in the last two decades developed a rhetoric just as strict, although dependent on the internal texture of the line rather than on its length or on rhyme. Many of the prose passages which she has chosen throw light on her poetry also, though light of another kind, by revealing the ore from which her imagery has been refined. Her reading would seem always to be conditioned by the poet's search for myth or metaphor that will serve as the kernel for a poetic passage. For her imagery has not yet become fixed ; the contrast between "The Bee Keeper," which takes its fable from the Upanishads, "The Coat of Fire" with its references to The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and the more Christian imagery of many of the last great poems points to Dr. Sitwell's continued dependence on her reading. There will come a time, no doubt, when she will no longer require to look for imagery outside her own experience In the meantime, however, such an anthology as this is interesting as a source book that throws occasional light on her poetry itself.
There is no book of poetry published since Yeats's death to be compared with her Canticle of the Rose, now reprinted in this coun- try and published in the U.S.A. for the first time last autumn, with her introduction and half-a-dozen new poems not included in the Eng- A Book of the Winter. By Edith Sitwell. (Macmillan. 7s. 6d.) The Canticle of the Rose. By Edith Sitwell. (Macmillan 15s.) [American edition, The Vanguard Press. 5.3.75.] Façade and Other Poems : 1920-1935. Reprinted with introductory essay by lack Lindsay. (Duckworth. 8s. 6d.) lish edition. In this, her own selection from all that she Ism written in over thirty years, one can follow a complete line of development from the technical experiment and fascinated detachment from life of the ." Façade" poems to the mastery and compassion of "The Song of the Cold," "The Bee Keeper" and " The Shadow of Cain." Between these two peaks of achievement lies "Gold Coast Customs," the equivalent in Edith Sitwell's development of Eliot's "Waste Land," a central and sustained indictment of a society which she had hitherto viewed as no more than a clockwork puppet-show to be mocked to the tune of its own popular songs. The lack of feeling in these early poems is more apparent than real. The poet saw her fellow-men as so many "maimed dwarfs." Perhaps her first reaction to this discovery was to blame the age. Once giants had walked the earth, strong and purposeful ; but now-
" The air is like a jarring bell That jangles words it cannot spell, And black as Fate, the iron trees Stretch thirstily to catch the breeze."
From such a world she would fly to the childhood reveries and aristocratic past of "Troy Park." It is the poems of this Troy Park epoch that Dr. Sitwell has most drasticaliy rewritten or rejected in compiling her collected volume. Yet it is in one of these pieces, "The Elegy for Dead Fashion," that the crowning motive of com- passion makes its first and most dramatic appearance in her writing. Mourning her faded nymphs in their tattered finery of a past cen- tury, she at the same time assumes responsibility for the death that has overtaken them. It is our mountain-high forgetfulness, she says, piled above their dead bones, that is N blame for their loneli- ness; it is our deadness of heart that has created the sorry puppets that people the world. But, she asks:
"Do these Dead, shivering in their raggedness Of outworn flesh, know us more dead, and guess How day rolls down, that vast eternal stone Shuts each in his accustomed grave, alone ? "
From those lines to the justly famous "Lullaby," addressed to a child of 1940 or 1941,i,orphaned by the steel eggs of the pterodactyl plane, and on to the poems of horror aroused by the Hiroshima bomb, this theme of compassion is developed with greater certainty .and with an imagery in which the fortuitous and the freakish yield increasingly to a basic simplicity of statement. The poet's final standpoint is profoundly religious. Accepting old age as her fulfil- ment, she'cannot accept the death of the heart. Yet more terrible than the cold is its cause, the "conflagration of all the sins of the world." For man consumed by the private fire of his own desires has no warmth to spare for his neighbour. To this point the poet advanced in "The Coat of Fire." Gropingty; behind all phenomena, she detects a unity and a purpose ; and this without blinding herself to that cruelty and ugliness which we must feel as evil, even when we know that on a higher plane of reality it is part of a scheme whose values we may glimpse but not comprehend. Her affirmation is the more valid for her fearless acceptance of the worst, and her refusal ever to dissociate herself from the society and the state of death that she satirizei. She speaks as one maimed for the maimed, and in speaking ceases to be maimed.
Meanwhile, Dr. Sitwell's mastery over her long line has grown
to the seemingly effortless dexterity displayed in tile conclusion of such a poem as "Out of School," one of the new pieces in the American volume: "And fear not change or Time and darkness, but behold The elements are but as qualities That change forever, like all things that have known generation, like a gold Image taking a new form forever—mutable As the child who is innocence ahd oblivion, acceptance, A new beginning, primal motion, a self-moving game that changes Like the heart of forgetful Spring."
Such affirmation is the mark of a great poet. ConEN.