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Dame Edith

In response to:

Nothing Like a Dame from the May 20, 1965 issue

To the Editors:

But he lies at peace, although geese
cackled and the jackals whined over his grave…

These lines from Edith Sitwell’s book on Alexander Pope should be an adequate defense against Mr. Grigson’s extraordinarily vicious attack upon her life and work. Yet I wish to add more.

First off, I never met Dame Edith, nor did I correspond with her. But I read her, and she was a delight to me from start to finish. I realize, only too well, that there is a certain Protestant moral ethic which simply will not permit fun and games. That poetry should delight and dazzle, that it dare concern itself with peacocks and gazebos, and make an art out of these unfashionables, that it should allow itself to yawn over the “daily struggle” may seem to be both sinful and snobbish. And this appears to be Mr. Grigson’s concern and annoyance. I don’t know of a recent review in which such a high moral tone has so predominated. Keats was almost destroyed by such treatment in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. He was attacked for many of the same reasons as we find in Mr. Grigson’s review.

Mr. Grigson presumes a certain naiveté in the appreciators of Dame Edith’s poetry—at least on this side of the Atlantic—to suppose that we really fell for those later poems. To believe that we were seduced by her pageantry is naive and snobbish, too. Her robes and rings were remarkable, but we quite saw that they were trappings. There was much that was pathetic in her insistence on Plantageny. Although Mr. Grigson seems to suggest it, her admirers were never taken in for a moment by the perfection of her “camp.”

I refuse to find her descriptions of her relations, parents and servants “frenetic insults.” If the anatomy looked like an “enormous pink ham which served her as a face”—well that’s the way it looked to Dame Edith. So what? I am certain that the person who made the caricature of Dame Edith which accompanies the review took no fine pains with the poet’s face.

Enough. I scarcely recall having read a review filled with such personal vituperation. “Sneering,” “malice,” “megalomania,” “arrogance,” these epithets abound. I wish to protest that this was not a review of a book, but an attack on the poet’s character.

Taken Care Of is a delightful, spontaneous, shrewd conversation piece. It is a short book, yet it contains comments on life and art of great size. Only a person of sophistication and talent, who had also found life a painful process, could have written it, or rather could have consented both to reveal and conceal so much. Dame Edith was proud and she was fearless. For a generation of younger poets she provided a splendid release from the polemics and academics of poetry. She replaced high seriousness with hi-jinks. Of course, Dame Edith did a great deal more for contemporary poetry. She gave sound, not merely assonance back to words.

Barbara Guest

New York City

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