29 November - Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962) Jul 14, 2008 22:09:43 GMT 2
Post by moira on Jul 14, 2008 22:09:43 GMT 2
Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962)
Vita Sackville-West is probably not best-known for her poetry or as a poet, though she is said to have valued her poetry most. She wrote in the book I'm about to quote one passage and one lyric from, "Small pleasures must correct great tragedies, /Therefore of gardens in the midst of war/I boldly tell." Maybe the indirectness (wordiness) here shows her flaws immediately. Compare Voltaire's "Il faut cultiver notre jardin."
Still when I found this book in a used bookstore in the days before the Net when it was not easy to find good books, I was entranced by her recreation of 18th century Georgic poetry in the booklength, The Land and the Garden. The Land and the Garden divides into cycles of winter, spring, summer, and autumn -- these repeat more than once. It is written mostly in blank verse (with Miltonic inversions now and again), but there are also sequences of stanzaic poems more playful rhythms for narrative and intervening lyrics.
The book I have was originally expensively published with old-fashioned (pseudo-medieval) woodcut drawings. I find them pleasing. The text is very realistic about country life, the land and making a garden (which is in the 18th century mode deriving ultimately from Virgil's Georgics). She provides much information, history and myth of the land around Knole, of Kent. Her poem does lack that burlesque quality (making fun of yourself) that the Georgics of the 18th century sometimes have (e.g., the very great "The Splendid Shilling" by Phillips, and also Anne Finch's close in Fanscomb Barn). She seems not to have an alert or self-conscious sense of humor; without this burlesque, her Georgic lacks the neurotic & nightmare, which I think central to powerful moments in most of them I've read. Sackville-West's poem has rather deeply imaginative and fanciful sequences. Peaceful. She craves peace. Modern pastoral?
This is from "Winter:"
What have they,
The bookish townsmen in their dry retreats,
Known to December dawns, before the sun
Reddened the earst, and fields were wet and grey?
When have they gone, another day begun,
By tracks into quagmire trodden,
With sacks about their shoulders and the damp
Soaking until their very souls were sodden,
To help a sick beast, by a flickering lamp,
With rough words and kind hands?
Or felt their boots so heavy and so swere
With trudging over cledgy lands,
Held fast by earth, being to earth so near?
Book-learning they have known.
They meet together, talk and grow most wise,
But they have lost, in losing solitude,
Something -- an inward grace, the seeing eyes,
The power of being alone;
The power of being alone with earth and skies,
Of going about a takskwith quietude,
Aware at once of earth's surrounding mood
And of an insect crawling on a stone ...
Now die the sounds. No whisper stirs the trees.
Her patten merged into the general web
The shriven day accepts her obsequies
With humble ebb.
Now are the noiseless stars made visible
That hidden by the day pursued the track,
And this one planet that we know too well
Mantles in black.
Then, from the thicket, sang the nightingale,
So wildly sweet, so sudden, and so true,
It seemed a herald from beyond the veil
Had broken through.
The common earth's confusion all unseen,
But worlds revealed in broad magnificence, --
That unembodied music thrid between
Sprang hence, or thence?
Nothing remained of the familiar round,
Only the soul ecstatic and released
Founted towards the spheres in jets of sound,
And died, and ceased.
But plangent from the thickets of the thorn
Broke other voices, taking up the choir,
While Cancer interlaced with Capricorn
In silent fire,
And all the harmonies were joined and whole,
Silence was music, music silence made,
Till each was both or either, and the soul
Was not afraid.
It's a poem about solitude and written in a spirit of hopefulness about life, of renewal through work that is useful and peaceful natural routines and pleasures. She is clearly turning away from the horrors of a barbaric war just ending.
She was this very upper class woman whose family goes back to Elizabethan times, much engaged by a place, Knole, the palace Eliz I gave one of her ancesters (we won't ask what for), which she couldn't inherit since she was a woman.
She was bisexual and had a long relationship with Virginia Woolf -- out of which the remarkable Orlando emerged. Woolf said Sackville-West had given her happiness and repsented S-W with the manuscripts of Orlando and Mrs Dalloway. Some may value S-W more for having been the muse of Woolf for Woolf's Orlando.
She was married to a male, Harold Nicolson, also very upper in connections and behavior; he was a diplomat, publisher (ah), author, politician (conservative). So one could connect her to the thead on "infidelity" as both had other lovers not infrequently. So too Woolf had lesbian lovers. Sackville-West also had what's said to have been a painful affair with Violet Trefusis. They were childhood friends and at one point eloped to Paris.
One of S-W's two sons by Nicolson produced a best-seller when he published Portrait of a Marriage. This contains a moving autobiographical piece by Sackville-West about her (among other things) sexuality. (Autobiography and sex sell, don't you know as Sayers's Lord Peters, character redolent of S-W's fiction avers more than once.) Her novels are still known and sold at the time (The Edwardians); I like what I've read of her travel writings, histories, and biographies much better. To me Edwardians is wooden while Knole and the Sackvilles alive. She did editions and wrote about women to whom through her family she connected herself., e.g., Anne Clifford, and a ballet dancer, Giovanna Baccelli (ca. 1753-1801), who became a mistress to an 18th century duke, bore several of his children (I think more than one, but am not sure), but who had to hide away when middle class people came to see the Knole, but then survived to return to Italy to live in comfort. S-W also translated (Rilke).
The illustrations for Sackville-West's book (which interest me) try for pictures you might ideally dream you would see in medieval/early Renaissance calendars. Alas, I can't find any images from her book online. The prize culture had begun by the time of this book (the prix goncourt goes back to the 20s), so Sackville-West was able to win the Hawthornden Prize for The Land when it was first published, in 1926; The Garden was published 1946.)
response to posting:
I've always found Sackville-West's garden writing to be sharper (and certainly wittier) than her poetry. You're right -- the poems tend toward the overwritten and over-serious. I think she parked her sense of humor at the door when she was doing poetry. Her garden at Sissinghurst Castle, where she and Nicolson lived (she couldn't inherit Knole), is, I think, a National Trust property, still beautifully maintained and a genuine work of art.
A random sample of her close observation and wry self-awareness, from VS-W's Garden Book: She's digging up a wildflower with considerable difficulty because of the roots it had seeded among: "There was a potential oak-tree, sprouting from an acorn. There were young brambles, already in their innocence threatening invasion. There were young honeysuckles, inch high, preparing to hoist themselves toward the light with the twiggy support of the hazel coppice. All a living tangle underground, struggling together, and me the superior human with my sharp weapon, prising up the chosen plant I wanted, destroying all that other scrambling and wrestling life, which might have come to completion had I not interfered. Lying feverish in my bed I wondered whether I had done wrong or right. A whole crop of moral tangles came up. I had frustrated a young oak, but I had preserved a pink windflower. Where was the answer to be found in virtue?"
I seem to recall that, besides the ballet dancer, there was a more recent exotic mistress in the lineage -- maybe even as close as S-V's grandmother -- but I no longer seem to have my copy of Portrait of a Marriage (which is probably where I read that, if I didn't dream it altogether).
Thank you for your reply, Susan. The passage you picked is the sort of superb thing she can write when she's not writing either poetry or novels.
She's not good at novels either. And the hegemony of novels as selling commodities was a problem. She was driven to write them. The Colby's book, The Singular Anomaly is about a number of 19th century women writers who would have and did write far superior non-fiction to most of their fiction, but had to write fiction to live. One of these is Margaret Oliphant: she has a few strong (two masterpieces probably) in the novel kind, but her real strength was criticism and biography. Vernon Lee stayed with non-fiction, but she had money. She didn't become a "big name." Maybe she didn't want this. I guess she didn't. George Eliot is studied as someone who was pushed into novel writing.
On her not inheriting Knole, she wrote (funnily): there was a "technical fault." That might not be quite the phrase, but if not it's close. She lacked a penis. Otherwise it'd have been hers.
She also wrote about earlier women writers. Aphra Behn is one. I wonder if Woolf learned about Behn from Sackville-West.