Edith Sitwell (1887-1964)

Edith Sitwell’s Influence at the 21st Birthday Party

Today’s blog post is definitely one of my favourites.  I have had such fun researching it.  It started with me reading the report of the 21st Birthday Party for the Ginner-Mawer School (1937).  I had no idea that the write-up in The Link would lead me down such fascinating paths – and there are a lot more strands yet to explore.  For this post, I decided to concentrate on the single paragraph which gave scant details of the evening’s entertainment.

When I first read the notes on the performances, it meant nothing to me – but once I had Googled all the names, the night suddenly began to come alive for me and I started to be able to visualise how things might have gone, and more importantly, I began to get a feeling for what Mawer and Ginner considered to be more-than-acceptable with regard to voice and movement

For example, Edith Sitwell (who I don’t think actually attended the dinner, but whose poetry was read and danced to, I will write more about this later in this blog post).  The only thing that I vaguely knew was that the restaurant critic for the Saturday edition of the Daily Telegraph was called Sitwell and that he had recently done an article where he dressed up in some outlandish clothing which had been owned by one of his female relatives. When I Gooled Edith Sitwell, it became clear that the two people were probably related, and further investigation confirmed him as the Great Nephew and her as his Great Aunt, Dame Edith Sitwell.

The Link states that “The programme opened with two dances to Edith Sitwell’s verse, spoken by Mrs. John Laurie and Avice Spitta.  The first was ‘Waltz,’ danced in an enchanting moonlight effect by Helen Guy-Smith, Lois Gray, and Primrose Story, and the second was ‘Polka’, gaily danced by Helga Burgess.”  If anyone can tell me, or give me any idea at all, of how the dancers moved to these poems, or what they might have worn, please get in touch with me.

I shall write more about Mrs John Laurie and Avice Spitta in future blog posts, but first, let’s see what we can winkle from Ginner-Mawer’s approval of Sitwell’s work.  The following information is from Wikipedia (I have only considered Sitwell’s published works prior to the performance, ie, up to and including 1937):

Edith Sitwell was from an extremely well-to-do family, but had a very unhappy family life.  Her parents were not interested in her and she was more or less estranged from them, though she was close to her brothers.

Sitwell published poetry continuously from 1913, some of it abstract and set to music. With her dramatic style and exotic costumes, she was sometimes labelled a poseur, but her work was praised for its solid technique and painstaking craftsmanship.

In 1929 she published Gold Coast Customs, a poem about the artificiality of human behaviour and the barbarism that lies beneath the surface. The poem was written in the rhythms of the tom-tom and of jazz, and shows considerable technical skill.

She became a proponent and supporter of innovative trends in English poetry and opposed what she considered the conventionality of many contemporary backward-looking poets. Her flat became a meeting place for young writers whom she wished to befriend and help: these later included Dylan Thomas and Denton Welch. She also helped to publish the poetry of Wilfred Owen after his death. Her only novel, I Live Under a Black Sun, based on the life of Jonathan Swift, was published in 1937.

Sitwell had angular features and she stood six feet tall. She often dressed in an unusual manner with gowns of brocade or velvet, with gold turbans and many rings. Her unusual appearance provoked critics almost as much as her verse, and she was the subject of virulent personal attacks (I think this means verbal and written, not physical).

Sitwell explored the distinction between poetry and music in Façade (1922), a series of abstract poems set to music by William Walton. Façade was performed behind a curtain with a hole in the mouth of a face painted by John Piper; the words were recited through the hole with the aid of a megaphone. The public received the first performance with bemusement.”

I find it very interesting that Sitwell was chosen by the Ginner-Mawer girls as the source of entertainment for their Chiefs (which is what they called Mawer and Ginner).  We are extremely lucky in that on You Tube there is a vocal recording of both ‘Waltz’ and ‘Polka’.  It is not entirely clear who is reading, but I think it is Sitwell herself:  it is an old recording of an older lady speaking in the ‘posh’ tones of a wealthy woman of her day.  If it is not Sitwell, then I imagine it is an extremely close likeness to her.

When I listened to the recordings and read the lyrics, it was massively helpful to me as I think I could hear what I have been trying to understand since setting out on this voyage of discovery about Irene Mawer.  At first I only knew of the mime, then I came to realise that words were Mawer’s passion and that she taught voice as well as movement.  I have been struggling to understand Mawer’s experimental work with movement to words.  So when I heard Sitwell reading verses, (to the accompaniment of music, I hasten to add, which I don’t know if Mawer used music during her verse dancing), I began to have more of an understanding.

It was interesting for me to read that Sitwell’s 1929 poem Gold Coast Customs was set to the rhythms of the tom-tom and of jazz and I wonder what Mawer would have made of that poem.  Until recently, I had been under the impression (from what I have read by academics) that Mawer was unlikely to approve of jazz – but the more I learn, the more I wonder if this was actually the case, though I don’t have any actual evidence at the moment.

It is at this point in the blog post that I feel a note from the website of the London Mozart Players will be appropriate.  They publish some of Sitwells lyrics and caution that her workcontains a lot of outdated ideas, including racial stereotypes and other language we would now consider extremely offensive.  That in itself is a convincing argument for leaving her poetry well alone, and if it weren’t for Walton’s music you’d probably be unlikely to come across it outside academic circles.  But Walton composed his Facade to include Sitwell’s linguistic experiments – her exploration of sound and poetics over sense and meaning are part of it.  We’ve included Sitwell’s original words here to give us a fuller understanding of the music, although we acknowledge that there are arguments for avoiding using them in a performance.  The debate about how to treat art like Edith Sitwell’s is complicated and there is no easy answer,but it’s debate that we’re happy to keep having at LMP.”

The above quote is interesting for a quite unrelated reason: I note that Sitwell – a woman – is disliked for her views, yet Walton – a man – is not taken to task for setting his music to those views.  He must have agreed with the views, or he wouldn’t have set his music to them.  Therefore, it follows that he should bear the same warning, should he not?

Anyway, I digress.

On clicking the web links and reading more about Sitwell’s performances of the poems of the Facade collection, where the paying audience complained that they had listened to ‘drivel’, I can’t help but make comparisons with Yoko Ono!  This Sitwell woman was way ahead of her time and I am trying to grasp how Irene Mawer might have related to Sitwell’s work (and what would Mawer have made of Ono?!)

And, of course, how come Edward Lear (a man) was praised for his nonsense poems, which were (or at least I sense it from the short critiques that I have read) much less ‘clever’ than Sitwell’s nonsense works?

The next thing that I ask myself is, where does Mawer come in all of this timewise?  Where were her experiments with dance words in relation to Sitwell’s?  Mawer’s book The Dance of Words was published in 1925, whereas Sitwell’s ‘Facade’ collection (including ‘Waltz’ and ‘Polka’) was published in 1922.  At some point, I hope to return to NRCD and look at copies of The Link from the early 1920s – the magazine records a wide range of aspects of the Ginner-Mawer School, and may reveal if there are any other references to Sitwell.  In this way we might be able to draw some conclusions as to whether Mawer came by her experiments independently, or was influenced by Sitwell.  However, there is one big clue that we have, Charlotte Purkis, in her paper ‘Movement, Poetry and Dionysian Modernism in Britain: Irene Mawer’s experiments with ‘Dance Words’ tells us that in July 1916 Irene Mawer and Ruby Ginner first collaborated on ‘verse dancing’ in public, with the results not being successfully received.  

Purkis goes on to state that Mawer’s creative experiments with verse/rhythm/dance continued at least into the 1920s.  

Purkis tells us that throughout Mawer’s career she used the following terms:


Dance of words

Word rhythm


Dancing to verse

Patterned words



Speech rhythm

Voice of the Poetic Word

Rhythms of dance

Rhythms of words

Rhythm of human thought and emotion

Word dances

Purkis tells us that Mawer claimed that the Ginner-Mawer method was unique as previously no word-rhythms for dance had existed. (I don’t have a note of when Mawer said this, ie, which year she is referring to.  I will endeavour to find out in due course, but it won’t be just yet.)

So, going back to my question of where Mawer sits timewise in relation to Sitwell, this would be a very interesting line of enquiry to see if one influenced the other, or if they were independent of each other.  I don’t have enough knowledge of the general era to know if other people were also experimenting with combinations of moving the body to words, as opposed to moving the body to music.  If anyone reading this could tell me, or point me towards where I should be looking (but not too deeply) then please let me know.

I would like to explore more about Edith Sitwell, but it is taking me too far away from my studies on Mawer just at the moment.  So I will leave you with the lyrics to ‘Waltz’ and to ‘Polka’ and I urge you to follow the links to the You Tube recordings.  Its an eye opener!  (The link to You Tube is at the end of each poem.)



Façade: An Entertainment – Poems by Edith Sitwell

Edith Sitwell’s Façade contains racial stereotypes and other language we’d now consider extremely offensive.  The debate about how to treat art like Edith Sitwell’s is complicated and there is no easy answer.


Tra la la la la la la la


See me dance the polka”, Said Mr Wagg like a bear, “With my top hat

And my whiskers that – (Tra la la la) trap the Fair.

Where the waves seem chiming haycocks I dance the polka: there

Stand Venus’ children in their gay frocks, – Maroon and marine, – and stare

To see me fire my pistol

Through the distance blue as my coat;

Like Wellington, Byron, the Marquis of Bristol, Busbied great trees float.

While the wheezing hurdy-gurdy

Of the marine wind blows me

To the tune of Annie Rooney, sturdy, Over the sheafs of the sea;

And bright as a seedsman’s packet With zinnias, candytufts chill,

Is Mrs Marigold’s jacket

As she gapes at the inn door still,

Where at dawn in the box of the sailor, Blue as the decks of the sea,

Nelson awoke, crowed like the cocks, Then back to the dusk sank he.

And Robinson Crusoe

Rues so

The bright and foxy beer, –

But he finds fresh isles in a negress’ smiles, – The poxy doxy dear.

As they watch me dance the polka”, Said Mr Wagg like a bear,

In my top hat and my whiskers that, – Tra la la la, trap the Fair,

Tra la la la la la – Tra la la la la la – Tra la la la la la la la La

La La!”’




by Dame Edith Sitwell

Daisy and Lily, 

Lazy and silly, 

Walk by the shore of the wan grassy sea— 

Talking once more ‘neath a swan-bosomed tree. 

Rose castles, 


Those bustles 

Where swells 

Each foam-bell of ermine, 

They roam and determine 

What fashions have been and what fashions will be— 

What tartan leaves born, 

What crinolines worn. 

By Queen Thetis, 


Of tarlatine blue, 

Like the thin plaided leaves that the castle crags grew; 

Or velours d’Afrande: 

On the water-gods’ land 

Her hair seemed gold trees on the honey-cell sand 

When the thickest gold spangles, on deep water seen, 

Were like twanging guitar and like cold mandoline, 

And the nymphs of great caves, 

With hair like gold waves 

Of Venus, wore tarlatine. 

Louise and Charlottine 

(Boreas’ daughters) 

And the nymphs of deep waters, 

The nymph Taglioni, Grisi the ondine, 

Wear plaided Victoria and thin Clementine 

Like the crinolined waterfalls; 

Wood-nymphs wear bonnets, shawls: 

Elegant parasols 

Floating were seen. 

The Amazons wear balzarine of jonquille 

Beside the blond lace of a deep-falling rill; 

Through glades like a nun 

They run from and shun 

The enormous and gold-rayed rustling sun; 

And the nymphs of the fountains 

Descend from the mountains 

Like elegant willows 

On their deep barouche pillows, 

In cashmere Alvandar, barège Isabelle, 

Like bells of bright water from clearest wood-well. 

Our élégantes favoring bonnets of blond, 

The stars in their apiaries, 

Sylphs in their aviaries, 

Seeing them, spangle these, and the sylphs fond, 

From their aviaries fanned 

With each long fluid hand 

The manteaux espagnoles, 

Mimic the waterfalls 

Over the long and the light summer land. 


So Daisy and Lily, 

Lazy and silly, 

Walk by the shore of the wan grassy sea, 

Talking once more ‘neath a swan-bosomed tree. 

Rose castles, 


Those bustles! 


Of the shade in their train follow. 

Ladies, how vain—hollow— 

Gone is the sweet swallow— 

Gone, Philomel!’



Author: Janet Fizz Curtis

Janet Fizz Curtis is trained in the Irene Mawer Method of Mime and Movement and is now writing a book about the life of Irene Mawer.

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