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Edith Sitwell

Posted 12-13-2010 at 02:00 AM by Steve Bucknell
Updated 02-01-2011 at 01:00 PM by Steve Bucknell
Gertrude Stein noted, on meeting Edith Sitwell, that she possessed a most distinguished nose and she walked as if advancing and withdrawing at the same time. Her poems leave a similar impression:

When Cold December

When cold December
Froze to grisamber
The jangling bells on the sweet rose-trees--
Then fading slow
And furred is the snow
As the almond's sweet husk--
And smelling like musk.
The snow amygdaline
Under the eglantine
Where the bristling stars shine
Like a gilt porcupine--
The snow confesses
The little Princesses
On their small chioppines
Dance under the orpines.
See the casuistries
Of their slant fluttering eyes--
Gilt as the zodiac
(Dancing Herodiac).
Only the snow slides
Like gilded myrrh--
From the rose-branches--hides
Rose-roots that stir.

I had to make my own notes for the unfamiliar words:

Grisamber – from ambergris, a waxy grey substance secreted from the intestinal tracts of sperm whales; used in the manufacture of perfumes.

Amygdaline – resembling almonds or, in this case, almond-like blossoms?

Eglantine – another name for sweetbrier, a rose with a tall, bristly stem and single pink flowers.

Chioppines – clogs or pattens having a very thick sole, or, in some cases, raised up upon stilts to elevate the ladies above the mud.

Orpines – succulent perennial Northern temperate crassulaceous (shrubby, fleshy leaves) plant, with toothed leaves and heads of small purplish-white flowers. Also called ‘livelong’ (Brit). And ‘live-forever’ (U.S.)

Siegfried Sassoon, in 1921, wrote on a visit to Renishaw, home of the Sitwell family:

“Went to Renishaw. Blighted skies and blasted trees and blackened landscapes. Atmosphere of nerve-twitching exhaustion. Women in a gloomy room. What time is the next meal? Look at this! Look at that! Ancestor-worship in oil-paintings. Who will die first? Disgruntled offspring of distrusted parents. Rich food: the house a stronghold; decayed and morose dignities fronting the encroachments of industry. An oasis of landscape-gardening and terraced formality girdled by iron and tunnelled by coal-mines.”

Siegfried Sassoon, Diaries, 1920-22, Faber and Faber, 1981.

And another winter impression from Edith:

Gray Crystal Bells

Bells of gray crystal
Break on each bough--
The swans' breath will mist all
The cold airs now.
Like tall pagodas
Two people go,
Trail their long codas
Of talk through the snow.
Lonely are these
And lonely and I . . . .
The clouds, gray Chinese geese
Sleek through the sky.

Edith Sitwell.
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