Edith Sitwell and “Fearful Symmetry”

On this date in 1964 Edith Sitwell died (born 1887).

Sitwell provided an enthusiastic review of Fearful Symmetry in the Spectator (10 March 1947) where she observed: “To say it is a magnificent, extraordinary book is to praise it as it should be praised, but in doing so one gives little idea of the huge scope of the book and its fiery understanding.”

Here’s Frye in his letter of thanks to Sitwell on January 7, 1948:

Dear Miss Sitwell:

Ever since I read your review of Fearful Symmetry in the Spectator I have been wanting to write you and wondering what to say.  I have finally decided that the best thing to say is thank you.  (Denham, Selected Letters, 24-5)

After the jump, a much longer letter to Sitwell written on April 12th of that same year.  Headnote and footnotes courtesy of Bob Denham.

Here’s a letter from Frye to Edith Sitwell from 12 April 1948, in reply to her having sent him a copy of her The Shadow of Cain.  Earlier in the year he had written Sitwell a note thanking her for her review of Fearful Symmetry.  Sitwell’s long reply to the letter that follows has been published in Selected Letters of Edith Sitwell, ed. Richard Greene (London: Virago Books, 1997), 294.

Dear Miss Sitwell:

Thank you very much for The Shadow of Cain, a very lovely, haunting, and almost unbelievably suggestive poem.  The apparently effortless way in which a contemporary situation expands, by way of certain human archetypes, into its ultimate values of primeval cold and unquenchable life, makes the poem a kind of miniature epic.[1] I know by this time what to look for in major poetry, and I always find it.  Reversing the axiom, when I find what satisfies me in a poem I know that it is major, and The Shadow of Cain belongs to the restricted canon of major poetry.  The close connection between your mind and Blake’s, which has become so striking in recent years, is an additional and personal reason for my liking it, not because I want all poetry to be “Blakean,” but because you are one of the few poets who confirm the authenticity of the experience I went through in submitting myself to Blake’s influence.

Thank you very much too for your letter and its warm appreciation of my book.  I am glad to hear what is slowly being confirmed by personal letters that it is gradually finding its way to the people for whom it is intended.  I know Messrs. Tchelitchew and Bowra only by reputation, but that is considerable enough to make me pleased with the success I have had in helping modern readers to know Blake.  I have written my publisher about having the book published in England, but he says that the shortage of paper in England makes it inadvisable, and that the best thing to do is to sustain pressure on Oxford, who distribute the book in England, to keep advertising it until the ban is lifted.  Meanwhile, of course, copies can be ordered from Princeton.  That’s the official communique: actually, I don’t think any pressure is being put on Oxford or that Oxford is responding if it is.  However, that’s his decision.  I’m sorry the book should be short when you and Mr. Keynes and the T.L.S. reviewer have been so good to it,[2] and I can only hope that eventually the people who want it will get it.  I am much obliged to you for the name of your agent, which will sooner or later be of great help to me.

I am pleased to see in a publisher’s announcement you are editing a selection of Blake for the Chiltern Library, which is building up one of the best reprint collections available.[3] Your remarks about Blake (e.g. in The Pleasures of Poetry) constitute a part of my own enlightenment on that subject, and I am eager to see more of them.

The academic term here, with the registration three times what it was two years ago, and which has kept me effectively snowed under all winter, is gradually relaxing, and I am looking round for more jobs to do.  I want to move back into the sixteenth century and write about The Faeries Queene and Shakespeare’s comedies and Rabelais.  Once a critic learns his job, criticism ought to come very easily, for if he is writing about a greater man than himself (the normal procedure), he has that man’s power available and ready to be tapped, if he will only realize that it is greater, and puncture the hole in the dam of his own ego.  The arrogance and self‑sufficiency I find in so much contemporary criticism, especially in America, bewilders me, as it seems to make things needlessly difficult.  Once again, thanks very much for your kindness to me, which, coming as it does from a famous poet to an unknown critic, has given me an idea of what is meant by the phrase “republic of letters.”


Northrop Frye.

[1] Frye had written a brief review of The Shadow of Cain in the Canadian Forum, 27 (January 1948): 238, remarking that Sitwell “is now a major poet, a necessary part of one’s literary education and current reading alike, and this poem is a beautiful and erudite proof of the fact.”

[2] Frye is referring to three reviews of Fearful Symmetry that had appeared in England: Sitwell’s own review: “William Blake,” Spectator 10 (October 1947): 466; Geoffrey Keynes, “The Poetic Vision,” Time and Tide 28 (27 December 1947): 1394; and “Elucidation of Blake” by an anonymous reviewer in TLS, 10 January 1948: 25.  Frye wrote to Sitwell on 7 January 1948, saying, in toto, “Every since I read your review of Fearful Symmetry in the Spectator I have been wanting to write to you and wondering what to say.  I have finally decided that the best thing to say is thank you.”

[3] No records exist for a selection of Blake’s poems edited by Sitwell and published by John Lehman in the Chiltern Library series.

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