The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
If Mr. Schorer means to say—he sometimes expresses himself a little cloudily—that the modern industrial world, Lawrence’s pet nightmare, has destroyed, among a number of other things, some ancient harmony once existing between the sexes which Lawrence proposes to restore by uttering of short words during the sexual act, I must merely remind him that all history is against his theory. The world itself, as well as the relationship between men and women, has not “grown into confusion.” We have never had anything else, or anything much better; all human life since recorded time has been a terrible struggle from confusion to confusion to more confusion, and Lawrence, aided by his small but vociferous congregation—for there remain in his doctrine and manner the style of the parochial messiah, the Chapel preacher’s threats and cajolements—has done nothing but add his own peculiar mystifications to the subject.
One trouble with him, always, and it shows more plainly than ever in this book, is that he wanted to play all the roles, be everywhere and everybody at once. He wished to be the godhead in his dreary rigamarole of primitive religion as in The Plumed Serpent, but must be the passive female too. Until he tires of it, and comes up with a fresh set of rules for everybody. Mr. Schorer cites a passage from a letter Lawrence wrote to someone when his feelings were changing. “The leader-cum-follower relationship is a bore,” he decided, “and the new relationship will be some sort of tenderness, sensitive, between men and men, and between men and women.” He gets a good deal of himself into these few words. First, when he is tired of the game he has invented and taught as a religion, everybody must drop it. Second, he seems not to have observed that tenderness is not a new relationship between persons who love one another. Third, he said between men and men, and men and women. He did not say between women and women, for his view of women is utterly baleful, and he has expressed it ferociously over and over. Women must be kept apart, for they contaminate each other. They are to be redeemed one by one through the sexual offices of a man, who seems to have no other function in her life, nor she in his. One of the great enlightenments of Lady Chatterley after her experience of the sentimental obscenities of her gamekeeper is to see other women clearly, women sexually less lucky than she, and to realize that they are all horrible! She can’t get away fast enough, and back to the embraces of her fancy man—and yet—and yet—
True marriage? Love, even? Even really good sex-as-such? It seems a very sad, shabby sort of thing to have to settle for, poor woman. I suppose she deserves anything she gets, really, but her just deserts are none of our affair. The pair are so plainly headed, not for tragedy, but just a dusty limbo, their fate interests us as a kind of curiosity. It is true that her youth was robbed by her husband’s fate in the war. I think he was worse robbed, even with no way out, yet nobody seems to feel sorry for him. He is shown as having very dull ideas with conversation to match, but he is not more dull than the gamekeeper, who forgets that the lady’s aristocratic husband was not born impotent, as Lawrence insists by way of his dubious hero, all upper class men were. At this point Lawrence’s confusion of ideas and feelings, the pull and haul between his characters who go their own dreary way in spite of him, and the ideas he is trying to express through them, become pretty nearly complete. It would take another book to thread out and analyze the contradictions and blind alleys into which the reader is led.
Huizinga, on page 199 of his book, The Waning of the Middle Ages, tells of the erotic religious visions of a late medieval monk, and adds: “The description of his numerous visions is characterised at the same time by an excess of sexual imagination and by the absence of all genuine emotion.” Lawrence used to preach frantically that people must get sex out of their heads and back where it belongs; and never learned that sex lives in all our parts, and must have the freedom of the whole being—to run easily in the blood and nerves and cells, adding its glow of life to everything it touches. The ineptitudes of these awful little love-scenes seem heart-breaking—that a man of such gifts should have lived so long and learned no more about love than that!
“The Laughing Heat of the Sun”
The Canticle of the Rose:
Selected Poems 1917–1949, by Edith Sitwell.
New York: The Vanguard Press, 1949.
OF all fine sights in the world to me, the best is that of an artist growing great, adding to his art with his years, as his life and his art are inseparable. Henry James’s and W. B. Yeats’s careers occur to mind first as spectacles in which I took delight, and Edith Sitwell, with The Canticle of the Rose, the collected volume of her work of more than thirty years, joins them. The true sign of this growth, in all alike, is the unfailing renewal, the freshness of every latest piece of work, the gradual, steady advance from phase to phase of increased power and direction, depth of feeling, and virtuosity, that laurel leaf added to technical mastery. Decade by decade, the familiar voice adds other notes to its range, a fuller tone, more sustained breath: an organic growth of the whole being.
Miss Sitwell’s early work belonged to youth—it had the challenging note of natural arrogance, it was boldly experimental, inventive from a sense of adventure, full of high spirits and curiosity as to how many liberties the language would suffer to be taken without hitting back. There was sometimes also a certain artifice, the dew upon the rose turned out to be a crystal bead on a mother-of-pearl petal. Yet it was the work of a deft artificer, and a most ornamental rose, meant to amuse and charm, never intended to be mistaken for a natural flower.
It was the shimmer, the glancing light of this wit, this gaiety, one found so refreshing, for they were qualities markedly absent from the serious poetry of that long grim generation of censorious poets who were her contemporaries or later. Hardly anyone knew how to laugh, and those who did hardly dared to; it was no time for frivolity, and laughter was frivolous in such a murderous time. Miss Sitwell dared: she laughed outright whenever she felt like it, and the reader laughed too: for plainly this laughter was not levity nor frivolity, it was the spontaneous merriment of a vital spirit, full of natural courage and confidence. The idea of death, which has paralyzed the humanity of so many poets for more than a century, affected her very differently. In the old robust way, she set out to make hay while her sun still shone. One felt this quality in her then, one is reassured of it now: “My poems are hymns in praise of the glory of life,” she writes without any shade of apology for such an antique point of view. This praise is as clear in the early “Trio for Two Cats and a Trombone,” or “Hornpipe,” as it is in “Still Falls the Rain,” written during a night raid in 1940.
The glory of life—the force of the affirmative passion of love in this poet, the feeling for glory in her, are the ground-virtues of her art, twin qualities almost lost for the present in the arts as in all human existence; as in her youth it sharpened her wit and her comedy, in middle life her sensuous celebration of the noble five human senses, in age her spiritual perceptions. This is such a progression as makes life and art worth practicing.
Her early poetry was, for me, associated, for all its “modern” speed and strepitation, with the old courtly music of Lully, Rameau, Purcell, Monteverdi, that I loved and do love: festival music, meant to be played in theaters, at weddings, christenings, great crystal-lighted banquets; or in the open air, in sweet-smelling gardens and the light of the full moon, with the torches waving their banners under the trees—gay music, serious great music, one can trust one’s joy in it.
So with Edith Sitwell’s poetry in those days between two wars, and so it is still. I am tempted to pick out here and there a few lines from some of those early things, but they do not take well to it. They are in full flight, it would be like plucking feathers from a bird. Pretty feathers, but they do not sing. Every word, every syllable does its part toward the final effect—her country songs are fresh as country mornings; her kitchen songs are a welter of sooty pots, hard cold early light and tangle-haired sleepy girls fighting with early cook-fires that will not catch. The beggar maid is “that pink
Large numbers of the public felt lost, too. It all sounded horridly novel and they hated it. Miss Sitwell did not have an easy time of it. The story has been told by her brother Sir Osbert Sitwell in his memoirs, so we need not go into it here. After all these years, Time having brought it about that Miss Sitwell is now being called “classic” by the younger generation, she being famous, a Doctor of Letters, at last she has time to sit down and explain what she was doing in those days and why, and what she meant by it.
She chooses many poems, those which caused the most disturbance when they were new; line by line, syllable by syllable, sometimes letter by letter, patiently she threads out meanings and makes a design of them. It makes good sense—that good sense the artist can always make of his intentions and methods after he has done the work. It is an endearing habit artists have, and I find nothing so enthralling as to hear or read a good artist telling how he does it. For practical purposes he might as well try to communicate his breath for our use. For example, Miss Sitwell chooses words not only for their meaning, but for sound, number of syllables, color, shape, texture, speed or slowness, thickness, thinness, weight, and for the shadow they cast upon the words near them. “Said King Pompey” is built on a scheme of R’s for very good reasons. It is also “a poem about materialism and the triumphant dust.”
Her introduction to The Canticle is good reading, and you can see, by the passages she cites, that whether or not it was so deliberate a thing as she now believes, she got her effects by just the means she says she did; a good deal more than most artists can prove. Beginning poets should be warned that this is not a ready-made technique, a bridge to anywhere. The live, inborn instinct for language, for the mother-tongue, must first be present, and whoever else has it to anywhere near this degree, will not get anything from Miss Sitwell except the pleasure of reading her poetry and an incitement to get on with his own work. This is about all that one artist can do for another, and it is really quite enough.
This poet’s vision: “Seeing the immense design of the world, one image of wonder mirrored by another image of wonder—the pattern of fern and feather by the frost on the window-pane, the six rays of the snowflake mirrored in the rock-crystal’s six-rayed eternity—seeing the pattern on the scaly legs of birds mirrored in the pattern of knot-grass, I asked myself, were those shapes molded by blindness? Are not these the correspondences, to quote a phrase of Swedenborg, whereby we speak with the angels?” Her theme: the eternal theme of saints and poets: the destiny of Man is to learn the nature of love and to seek spiritual rebirth. Her range of variations on this theme is endless. Every poem therefore is a love poem, even those towering songs of denunciation out of her counter-passion of hatred for the infamies of life and the willful wrong man does to the image of God in himself. So many peevish and obscene little writers of late have been compared to Swift I hesitate to set his name here even where I feel it is not out of place. In “Gold Coast Customs” I find for the first time in my contemporary reading a genius for invective as ferocious as Swift’s own, invective in the high-striding authoritative style, the same admirable stateliness of wrath, the savage indignation of a just mind and generous heart outraged to the far edge of endurance. The mere natural murderousness of the human kind is evil enough, but her larger rejection is of “the terrible ideal of useless Suffering” symbolized by “Lazarus, the hero of death and the mud, taking the place in men’s minds of the Hero of Life who was born in a stable.”
This passage is from “Gold Coast Customs”:
But Lady Bamburgher’s Shrunken Head
Slum hovel, is full of the rat-eaten bones
Of a fashionable god that lived not
Ever, but still has bones to rot:
A bloodless and an unborn thing
That cannot wake, yet cannot sleep,
That makes no sound, that cannot weep,
That hears all, bears all, cannot move—
It is buried so deep
Like a shameful thing
In that plague-spot heart, Death’s last dust-heap.
Again: “Though Death has taken/And pig-like shaken/ Rooted, and tossed/the rags of me—”
“At one time,” writes Miss Sitwell, “I wrote of the world reduced to the Ape as mother, teacher, protector. But too, with poor Christopher Smart, I blessed Jesus Christ with the Rose and his people, a nation of living sweetness. My time of experiment was over.”
This was later, and there is still the vast middle section of the work, the rages, the revolts, the burning noon of drunkenness on sensuous sound and image, the exaltation of the pagan myth, the earth’s fertility; the bold richness of the roving imagination taking every land and every sea, every far-off and legendary place, every dream and every nightmare of the blood, every response of every human sense for its own. In this part, I find my own favorites are all, one way or another, songs of mourning: “Colonel Fantock”; “Elegy on Dead Fashion”; “Three Rustic Elegies”—“O perfumed nosegay brought for noseless death!” She acknowledges his power over the suffering flesh, the betrayed heart: but he can plant only carrion which belongs to his kingdom of the dust; Christ the Golden Wheat sows Himself perpetually for our perpetual resurrection. Rarely in the poetry of our time is noseless death stared down so boldly.
“After ‘Gold Coast Customs,’” writes Miss Sitwell, “I wrote no poetry for several years, with the exception of a long poem called ‘Romance,’ and one poem in which I was finding my way. Then after a year of war, I began to write again—of the state of the world, of the terrible rain” (of bombs). During this long pause, she made the transition from the short, violently accented line, to a long curving line, a changed tone and pace. Of the late poems, the first one begins:
I who was once a golden woman like those who walk,
In the dark heavens—but am now grown old
And sit by the fire, and see the fire grow cold,
Watch the dark fields for a rebirth of faith and of wonder.
Again, in “Tattered Serenade”:
These are the nations of the Dead, their million-year-old
Rags about them—these, the eternally cold,
Misery’s worlds, with Hunger, their long sun
Shut in by polar worlds of ice, known to no other,
Without a name, without a brother,
Though their skin shows that they yet are men.
In these later poems, without exception tragic, a treasure of distilled tragic experience, the mysterious earthly rapture is mingled with a strain of pure, Evangelical Christianity, raised to the apocalyptic vision. Here, rightly, are some of the most wonderful (wonderful, and I know the meaning of that word) love songs in the English language: “Anne Boleyn’s Song”; “Green Song”; “The Poet Laments the Coming of Old Age”; “Mary Stuart to James Bothwell”; and here begins the sustained use of the fire symbols, of gold the color of fire, the sun, the sun’s flame, the gold of wheat, of lions’ manes, of foxes’ pelts, of Judas’ hair, fire of the hearth, molten gold, gold seed, the gold of corn, golden cheeks, golden eyelids; “the great gold planets, spangling the wide air,” “gold-bearded thunders”—a crescendo of rapture in celebration of fire after the ice-locked years of war when fire carried only death. As every symbol has many meanings, and is corruption or purification according to its relationships, so the sun, “the first lover of the earth,” has been harnessed by man to his bloody
And I who stood in the grave-clothes of my flesh
Unutterably spotted with the world’s woes,
Cry, “I am Fire. See, I am the bright gold
That shines like a flaming fire in the night—the gold-trained planet,
The laughing heat of the Sun that was born from darkness.”
In “The Song of the Cold,” the cold which is the symbol of poverty, death, the hardened human heart, there is the final speech of marrow-frozen grief: “I will cry to the Spring to give me the birds’ and the serpents’ speech,/That I may weep for those who die of the cold—” but “The Canticle of the Rose” says:
The Rose upon the wall
Cries—“I am the voice of Fire:
And in me grows
The pomegranate splendor of Death, the ruby, garnet, almandine
Dews: Christ’s wounds in me shine!”
This is the true flowering branch springing fresh from the old, unkillable roots of English poetry, with the range, variety, depth, fearlessness, the passion and elegance of great art.
The Art of Katherine Mansfield
The Short Stories of Katherine Mansfield,
with an introduction by John Middleton Murry.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1937.
THIS past fourteenth of October  would have been Katherine Mansfield’s forty-ninth birthday. This year is the fifteenth since her death. During her life she had a fabulous prestige among young writers in England and America. Her readers were not numerous but they were devoted. It must be a round dozen years since I have read any of her stories; reading them again in the collected edition, I am certain she deserved her fame, and I wonder why it was not greater.