Edith Sitwell’s Façade: The Face of the English Avant-Garde

dc.contributorQuillian, Bill
dc.contributorLass, Andy
dc.contributor.advisorAlderman, Nigel
dc.contributor.authorDienstag, Isabelle
dc.description.abstractIn her poem, “Sitwell Edith Sitwell” Gertrude Stein writes, “She had a way of, she had a way of not a name.” Indeed, Edith Sitwell (1887-1964) has largely been written out of the canon of modernist and avant-garde poetry. Women, in general, have been excluded from this canon and those who have been included — Virginia Woolf, and H.D., for example, — benefit from connections to London’s Bloomsbury Group of influential intellectuals, writers, and artists. Sitwell operated outside of Bloomsbury but worked to assert herself in the London avant-garde. Like other modernists, Sitwell started her own group —the Anglo-French Poetry Society— and also established the ground breaking and experimental poetry journal, Wheels. Sitwell was attracted to French symbolism, a poetry of fluid uncertainty that asserted itself as an indelible force of social conscience, one whose gravity could, “épater le bourgeois” (shock the bourgeoisie), and fight what Sitwell saw as the corrupting power of an emerging mass and consumer culture. Through her own poetry Sitwell aims to “defamiliarize” language and poetic form, and to make the objects they represent strange, in order to revive perception as the antidote to the perils of modernity. My work centers on Sitwell’s post-war collection of poetry, Façade, written between 1921-1923, which was as much a performance as a book of poetry. The poems were set to music by William Walton and declaimed by Sitwell herself through a megaphone that protruded through a hole in a large, tightly pulled curtain on which was painted a leering image that one reviewer described as, “crude” with “a monstrous face, half-white, half- pink, with closed eyelids and an aperture for mouth.” (Morning Post, June 13, 1923) Emanating from this chasm, Façade depicts the declining state of art and society with a multiple and, at times, baffling array of images, words, and sounds that culminate by representing the phoenix- like death and rebirth of poetry itself. Although it received mixed reviews, Façade is largely remembered for the bad ones as well as for Sitwell’s haughty dismissal of the “pipsqueak[s]” who targeted her. When critics do discuss Sitwell they attend to her odd appearance, which she augmented by wearing over-sized jewelry, black gowns with excessive fabric, and often turbans, and they detail her varied and interesting relationships with other members of the modernist avant-garde, including Robert Graves, Wyndham Lewis, T.S. Eliot, Pavel Tchelitchew, and Cecil Beaton. She is portrayed almost entirely biographically and rarely is her work considered. My thesis argues that Edith Sitwell is a crucial figure in understanding modernist English poetry and more specifically that Façade captures the radical energy of the post World War I avant-garde.en_US
dc.rightsAttribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States*
dc.subjectSitwell, Edithen_US
dc.titleEdith Sitwell’s Façade: The Face of the English Avant-Gardeen_US
mhc.institutionMount Holyoke College