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Fistfuls of beryls and rivets and citrines: Edith Sitwell in Lecale

ALL WRITERS are autodidacts, if they are doing it properly.

However well-versed in the literary orthodoxies, they should be cobbling an aesthetic together out of inner tubing, razor wire, Hilti wall plugs and cotton buds.

It’s that category of inspired ‘generalist’, anarchic and irregular, upon which academic scholars frown; who light on brilliant insights by dint of incontinent but prodigious intelligence gathering, frustratingly, annoyingly, certainly without sign of that systematic approach which begins by identifying alternative readings of facts then dismisses each in turn until only the most plausible remains. On a good day, like Fred Hoyle, perhaps, or Chesterton.

Writers born into a world without books have perhaps only this advantage. With no pre-packaged store of ‘good’ literature pushed under their noses, they grab what is available, consuming it whole and, usually, extremely quickly, lest it be snatched away.

In such a teenage world - the night in which all cows are black, as Hegel characterised Fichte’s concept of the Absolute - the westerns of Louis L’Amour lie down with the autobiographies of Sean O’Casey, Wuthering Heights with Tarzan, Norman Vincent Peale with The Abolition of Pain, Black Beauty with Count Robert of Paris, the Lady of Shalott with Dangerous Dan McGrew, Jeanne d’Arc with Betsy Gray, ‘Laurence Hope’ with Isaac Babel, the Victor’s grim-fisted Tommies with the night-walking adventuresses and ‘firm friends’ of the Bunty’s Four Marys ...

Across such expanses, every province of feeling will send its necessary emissaries to the desperate reader and none will be turned away, however cheap the raiment, gaudy the gemstones, bizarre the lifestyles, unlikely the friendships, unexpected the interlocutors, brilliant and difficult and memorable and complex and dazzling the high talk.

Welcome to Downpatrick, Northern Ireland, 1972.

Murmurings of ‘The Old Woman of the Roads’ - a survival of an older endurance on what were then lanes patrolled by saboteurs and urban insurgents levying low-grade war on barrack and workplace; astonishing contemporary apparitions of the uncanny, or their absences, on Flannan Isle; the cropping of the dark turf; gunfire sprinkling the lighthouse walls (the tallest in Ireland); funerals already treading a path from one kind of plot to another; the sound of iron on stone.

It was all steampunk already. Bombs made out of fertiliser and sugar smoking in milk churns buried in the hedges, soap on a rope, chunky glasses, mercury tilt switches, the irony of a teacher drawing concentric circles on a flip chart map of the barony showing the destructive power of an atom bomb were it dropped on tiny Crossgar with its Passionist monastery.

Secretly in that landscape, though, were also interred the fistfuls of beryls and rivets and citrines and swathes of silk and armour plate and vast ingots of amber, that are the poems of Gardeners and Astronomers, a collection by one “Dr Edith Sitwell”, herself then dead for eight years, her book 11 years older, but arriving with a new reader, perhaps its only reader in a generation in the barony of Lecale, as brand new, charged, intoxicating, dangerous and as womanly as the gynoid Maschinenmensch in Metropolis.

A baroque temperament with a flapper’s daring, she was already settling into the role of seer, prophetess, scientist of a bleak heartland, facing into the late 1950s with a gentle threading lyricism veering from incantation and declamation to sudden happenings upon tenderness, with an intense focus on musicality of diction and cadence, sometimes at the price of literal sense, and an oddly streetwise - not to say, street-fighter’s - wisdom, or even an aesthetic cunning, borne out of physical pain and emotional loss and loneliness.

Where the green airs seem fanning palms and the green psalms

Of greater waters, where the orange hangs huge as Orion, and day-long great gauds and lauds of light

Pierce their gold through the seeds, behold their secrets

And the weight of the warm air

Shapes the exquisite corolla to a world of gold rain

Closed in thick gold armour like a King’s,

Old men, dark gold with earth and toil,

Praise their green heavens.”

“How on earth do you keep those long lines going?” gasped Cecil Day Lewis, himself facing into a legacy of utter oblivion. “By rights they ought to fall down and break their backs: it’s a sort of levitation - astonishing.”

There was about Gardeners and Astronomers something as engaging as MacNeice’s glass and huge roses, between ‘plant and phantom’ - connection of the outside with the inside of things which poetry always was, between the rooted and the transcendental, the earth and the imagination.

Something was also advanced and ‘space age’ about her speculations, her integration of that technology into “the sound of the planetary system in the veins”, “the hues of false victories, of the fallen suns, fallen Caesars and cities - / The brightness of air - the Nothing-country that has no chart”.

Of course, everything about her sort was to be despised. Forget about the nuances of her own surprising democratic politics: she was aristocratic, a ‘big house’ dweller, her family and herself were freaks and spongers; they had no authentic narrative, no spine; no purpose. She hadn’t the intrinsic value of Virginia Woolf as a feminist icon; none of the kick or the glamour or the bardic tragedy of Plath; appeared charmless, stilted, self-regarding and just plain ill. So not a good look. In short, she was as English as it was possible to be, while being a Plantagenet.

But that year, when I was ten, Gardeners and Astronomers was on the bottom shelf of the tiny portable suitcase library in our primary school. The pale blue cabinet opened and there was Edith Sitwell. To this day, I have sardonyx, vortice, azoic, lynx, jonquil, porphyry, amaryllidious, oragious, “smaragdum to smeraldo” ... a strange persistent muttering of gorgeousness that was all about words; and a certain preoccupation with the stigmata, the crucifixion; “I have no eyes/But my all-seeing wounds; and I am dumb,/But yet from all the open mouths of the world’s wounds I rise: I come to testify”.

Perhaps it was her drift towards Rome, shepherded there by Evelyn Waugh and Alec Guinness, that secured that volume its place in that school’s sparse though meaty repository of the intellect.

By the 1970s, I see now, the dramatic fervour of Apocalypse which might have been thought germane to dramatic communal suffering, had long worn off; the Movement poets with their suburban preoccupations and formal conservatism, had healed over the reckless extravagances of the post-war idiom and even Dylan Thomas’s cult had faltered on the cusp of a new type of literary hero and a new poetry culture, with Pam Ayres at one end and whole box sets of ‘new generation’ poets nearer us at the other.

Sitwell’s own early triumph, the 1920s flirtatious and jazzy Façade, both as poetry and as a high-grade orchestral cabaret to music by William Walton, had receded, though it was about to be revived as a ballet by Frederick Ashton at Aldeburgh that year and its minor-key retro appeal as a feminist ‘new world’ vision after the Great War was just beginning to emerge.

What was palpable though, even then, was the sense of a rare and archaic quality to her work. The artefact appeared dull in pastels - some pages still uncut; an antiquated touch which entirely belied the fact that, before she voyaged back to Britain from the US in 1957, where she was being wooed into a film contract (consider that!) by George Cukor, Sitwell was such a sensation she had given a press conference, taking questions from the assembled hacks. It was a 20th Century Life.

The ‘woke’ reader will, of course, appreciate that she was also the target of some of the most vitriolic literary and personal abuse of that or any century - Julian Symons in the London Magazine having yet another go at the 77-year-old poet as she lay dying in November 1964.

If her critics were often of repute, so were her champions, among them Yeats and Eliot; her friendships with Marianne Moore and Carson McCullers were enduring and loyal. Her response to younger poets and writers she liked was generous and genuine - Ted Hughes, whose work she praised though they never met, expressed “liking, with an inclination to defend her”. Plath regarded her and Moore as “ageing giantesses and poetic Godmothers”.

Her presence as an actual person - corporeality, as it were - was a source of distress to those around her, and of physical discomfort to Sitwell herself. Her parents had forced her into iron underwear and metal orthopaedic braces; the ‘cartilaginous deformity’ of her long nose was strapped in a truss, prongs fastened to her face by a leather strap. She was not conventionally beautiful and was subject to invasive treatments aimed at ‘fixing’ the features, posture and demeanour of this most distinctive of humans.

“My nerves were completely broken and my nervous system ruined for life before I was ten years old,” she wrote in 1944. “This was perfectly well known to the doctors who attended me then and to the doctors who have attended me since.”

Aren’t these the ingredients of the Life of a Saint? If so, the odour of sanctity would be the top note of her days: the bravura of her life, her chastity (albeit involuntary), her kindness, her gift, her persistent ailments from abscesses to poisoned glands to sciatica to falls to blinding headaches, her arrival by ambulance and stretcher to birthday celebrations in the Royal Festival Hall, forced asceticism, her stoicism in the midst of all, her late conversion. All she needs to join Chesterton in the bid for the Catholic ranks, is a proven miracle for a stricken devotee invoking her name.

But the child I was simply fell in something like love.

When I imagine “the lamentable planets of those lives” now - one of which I was embarking upon in 1972 - it is with difficulty that I place the document of those poems, hardly recognised then even as such.

There was a visionary grasp of the galactic ambitions already then in play - Mercury, Gemini, Apollo - genuine imaginative efforts to contain imminent discoveries at the outside of earthly experience.

There was also some accidental counterpart to the Bible’s glossy illustration of Salome prancing with the severed head of the Baptist in “Now you shall faithless be/To the flesh of orange-blossom and arbutus honey-hearted/Seeing my lips cold as the unburied sapphires in the desert air/Approach your own”, that bloody exchange.

But even the “young, the unfledged Murders/(So, young ambitions lie in the heart of Man)” were too richly characterised just yet for the long abattoir still to come in Ulster.

This was the horizon of Seamus Heaney’s Wintering Out - of the bye-child reared in the hen house, shore women and sea women, place-names and their mythic charm. The elements were assembling, but still analogue though. It was before the punishing awakenings of North, bog queens, Grauballe, strange fruit, those murderings; and just, just, just before Kinsella’s 'Butcher’s Dozen' reckoned with the 13 corpses those square-jawed squaddies out of the Victor had bequeathed to Ireland forever on Bloody Sunday.

New forensics were indeed waiting - new bombs, new bodies, new visions of wounds and blood in yet more intimate proximity which was to make the 1950s and even the 60s as remote a destination as the Crimea or Khartoum.

But stepping into that gap in the continuum, was that not the Queen of Araby?

For that small reader, that tiny bean-counter of carnelians and peridots, a decade down the line lay the discovery of Beaton’s savage and vertiginous portraits, that staggering 1959 Face to Face interview with John Freeman which is so many manners of being a poet and remaining a human, as close to the Wars of the Roses as we are ever likely to get, lit upon late at night when Channel Four began.

And then those astonishing photographs of her on a settee with Marilyn Monroe - each of those two persons suddenly understood, in an instant, and each understanding each, as (stunningly, breath-takingly) the exact inside of the other.

Later still, then, modestly, the return of that syntactical dexterity as something of a model of the potential and also the risks of a longer line. “Prodigies of virtuosity in variations on the scherzo,” as the TLS’s Alan Pryce-Jones diagnosed in Gardeners and Astronomers, though “an adagio music which is particularly hard to sustain at concert pitch.”

Bordered with great vines whose solar system of the grapes

Shines like the centaur’s skin, hard as cornelian grains,

The hue of honey sarcophagising or of sard -

Holding small stars for seeds

And planets of noon-dew, and the long rains

And the cool sea-winds from the far horizons.

Aye, indeed. Just so, m’Lud. Guilty as charged.

This piece first appeared in the Irish issue of The North magazine, issue 61

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