10 SEPTEMBER 1948, Page 18

Miss Sitwell

Edith Sitwell. By C. M. Bowra. (The Lyrebird Press. 5s. 6d.)

DR. BowRA's essay on Miss Sitwell, printed in Monaco, has a cosmopolitan look. One imagines it being read by people of many different races, and by a large English-speaking public which does not live in England. Nothing could be better, for the empire of literature is so widespread that the opposite frontiers can easily lose touch. There must be hundreds of people- who have read Miss Sitwell's poems, but know little about the country of her birth and upbringing, the social conditions she has lived in, or the literary movements which have affected her most. An intelligent study of Miss Sitwell would not only interest them, but probably increase their understanding of her work. On beginning the essay one feels that Dr. Bowra realised that he had this opportunity, for he tells us how rare an event is the birth of a poetess. The ancient world had Sappho, the nineteenth century had Christina Rossetti, and our own age is fortunate in having Miss Sitwell. We would give a great deal for a forty-page first-hand account of Sappho's life and work. Let us imagine some of the things we should like to find in it, and then perhaps we shall be able to realise what someone who has read Miss Sitwell's poems, but has never been to England and has an understandable difficulty in imagining the conditions here, might expect when buying this pamphlet.

First we should like a description of Sappho's surroundings, the appearance of the streets, the houses and the landscape of her island, for in these we could hope to find at least one source of her imagery. Miss Sitwell, lives in-the most weird and dramatic part of England, where classical and Gothic palaces stand on the hills above the flame and smoke of steel foundries and the derricks of coal mines. The remnants of forests, blackened and wind-torn, cling to the hills as if in tefrified flight from the new forests of houses creeping up their sides. Bolsover, undermined, is slipping down its cliff, and the towers of Hardwicke look out over a landscape that is largely industrialised. Miss Sitwell herself lives in one of these palaces. We may well ask whether this romantic countryside had nothing to do with "The Sleeping Beauty," but Dr. Bowra does not tell us. Then we should want to know about Sappho's career as a poetess. But in writing about Miss Sitwell, Dr. Bowra is silent on this too. The reader might imagine that it was some other poet who wrote Façade with William Walton, and might wonder how a life of Pope and a book about Bath could have had so little significance for her that they need not be mentioned. But more important still, we should want to know what philosophers and poets Sappho had met, what books of theirs she had read. In her recent poems Miss Sitwell has often referred to works of oriental philosophy and theology. These must surely be important to her, but Dr. Bowra does not mention one.

What Dr. Bowra does say is that Miss Sitwell is a poetess with a strong visual sensibility, that her work is remarkable for its " texture," that she has inherited this quality from the Symbolists, and that her outlook is religious ; nothing that an intelligent reader could not decide for himself by picking up a volume of Miss Sitwell's poems. He also tells us that, although she uses. Christian symbolism in her poems, "there is something that is not narrowly or specifically

Christian " in her attitude to the metaphysical world. She sees the earth as " a manifestation of God himself."

La nature est un temple ok de vivants piliers Laissent par lois sortir de confuses paroles was Baudelaire's way pf putting it, an idea that he took from Sweden- borg. Yet it is strange if, as Dr. Bowra says, Blake and Baudelaire have influenced Miss Sitwell so strongly, that he does not trace her transcendentalism back through these poets to the transcendentalism of Swedenborg and point out a connection which might have ex- plained what he means by " something not narrowly or specifically Christian." The fault of this essay lies in its taking for granted too much knowledge in the reader without giving enough in return. If we depended on Dr. Bowra we should know as little about Miss