Edith Sitwell ‘Face to Face’.

Wonderful interview

by John Freeman with Edith Sitwell. Face to Face is a legendary series of interviews from the BBC and Freeman died in 2014 at the age of 99 years old.  Besides, Sitwell is an author I have always been more than intrigued by.

COLONEL FANTOCK

THUS spoke the lady underneath the trees :
I was a member of a family
Whose legend was of hunting — (all the rare
And unattainable brightness of the air) —
A race whose fabled skill in falconry
Was used on the small song-birds and a winged
And blinded Destiny. … I think that only
Winged ones know the highest eyrie is so lonely.
There in a land, austere and elegant,
The castle seemed an arabesque in music ;
We moved in an hallucination born
Of silence, which like music gave us lotus
To eat, perfuming lips and our long eyelids
As we trailed over the sad summer grass,
Or sat beneath a smooth and mournful tree.
And Time passed, suavely, imperceptibly.
But Dagobert and Peregrine and I
Were children then ; we walked like shy gazelles
Among the music of the thin flower-bells.
And life still held some promise, — never ask
Of what, — but life seemed less a stranger, then,
Than ever after in this cold existence.
I always was a little outside life —
And so the things we touch could comfort me ;
I loved the shy dreams we could hear and see —
For I was like one dead, like a small ghost,
A little cold air wandering and lost.
All day within the straw-roofed arabesque
Of the towered castle and the sleepy gardens wandered
We ; those delicate paladins the waves
Told us fantastic legends that we pondered.

And the soft leaves were breasted like a dove,
Crooning old mournful tales of untrue love.
When night came, sounding like the growth of trees,
My great-grandmother bent to say good-night,
And the enchanted moonlight seemed transformed
Into the silvery tinkling of an old
And gentle music-box that played a tune
Of Circean enchantments and far seas ;
Her voice was lulling like the splash of these.
When she had given me her good-night kiss,
There, in her lengthened shadow, I saw this
Old military ghost with mayfly whiskers, —
Poor harmless creature, blown by the cold wind,
Boasting of unseen unreal victories
To a harsh unbelieving world unkind:
For all the battles that this warrior fought
Were with cold poverty and helpless age —
His spoils were shelters from the winter’s rage.
And so for ever through his braggart voice,
Through all that martial trumpet’s sound, his soul
Wept with a little sound so pitiful,
Knowing that he is outside life for ever
With no one that will warm or comfort him. . . .
He is not even dead, but Death’s buffoon
On a bare stage, a shrunken pantaloon.
His military banner never fell,
Nor his account of victories, the stories
Of old apocryphal misfortunes, glories
Which comforted his heart in later life
When he was the Napoleon of the schoolroom
And all the victories he gained were over
Little boys who would not learn to spell.

All day within the sweet and ancient gardens
He had my childish self for audience —
Whose body flat and strange, whose pale straight hair
Made me appear as though I had been drowned —
(We all have the remote air of a legend) —
And Dagobert my brother whose large strength,
Great body and grave beauty still reflect
The Angevin dead kings from whom we spring ;
And sweet as the young tender winds that stir
In thickets when the earliest flower-bells sing
Upon the boughs, was his just character ;
And Peregrine the youngest with a naive
Shy grace like a faun’s, whose slant eyes seemed
The warm green light beneath eternal boughs.
His hair was like the fronds of feathers, life
In him was changing ever, springing fresh
As the dark songs of birds . . . the furry warmth
And purring sound of fires was in his voice
Which never failed to warm and comfort me.

And there were haunted summers in Troy Park
When all the stillness budded into leaves ;
We listened, like Ophelia drowned in blond
And fluid hair, beneath stag-antlered trees ;
Then, in the ancient park the country-pleasant
Shadows fell as brown as any pheasant,
And Colonel Fantock seemed like one of these.
Sometimes for comfort in the castle kitchen
He drowsed, where with a sweet and velvet lip
The snapdragons within the fire
Of their red summer never tire.
And Colonel Fantock liked our company ;
For us he wandered over each old lie,
Changing the flowering hawthorn, full of bees,
Into the silver helm of Hercules,
For us defended Troy from the top stair
Outside the nursery, when the calm full moon
Was like the sound within the growth of trees.

But then came one cruel day in deepest June,
When pink flowers seemed a sweet Mozartian tune,
And Colonel Fantock pondered o’er a book.
A gay voice like a honeysuckle nook —
So sweet, — said, ‘It is Colonel Fantock’s age
Which makes him babble.’ . . . Blown by winter’s rage
The poor old man then knew his creeping fate,
The darkening shadow that would take his sight
And hearing ; and he thought of his saved pence
Which scarce would rent a grave. . . . That youthful voice
Was a dark bell which ever clanged ‘ Too late ‘ —
A creeping shadow that would steal from him
Even the little boys who would not spell —
His only prisoners. . . . On that June day
Cold Death had taken his first citadel.

Edith Sitwell

Here are William Walton’s reminiscences of the Sitwells and the twenties.

About anthonyhowelljournal

Poet, essayist, dancer, performance artist....
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