Sitwell explores the difference between the lust/passion and the traditional idea of true love in contrasting our hearts and our minds. Our sexualised love is represented in various ways as being grand and all-powerful, but ultimately something that dies and disappears, while the mind endures and true love outlasts and overpowers it in the end.
tawny – orange-brown colour;
Hercules – Greek demi-god super strong hero, but a mortal nonetheless;
Samson – had God given strength that help him kill lions, but apparently this gift was granted with the proviso he must not cut his hair as a mark of respect, but then some nasty Philistines do it for him and everything goes to pot!
SAID the Lion to the Lioness – ‘When you are amber dust, –
No more a raging fire like the heat of the Sun
(No liking but all lust) –
Remember still the flowering of the amber blood and bone,
The rippling of bright muscles like a sea,
Remember the rose-prickles of bright paws
Though we shall mate no more
Till the fire of that sun the heart and the moon-cold bone are one.’
Said the Skeleton lying upon the sands of Time –
‘The great gold planet that is the mourning heat of the Sun
Is greater than all gold, more powerful
Than the tawny body of a Lion that fire consumes
Like all that grows or leaps…so is the heart
More powerful than all dust. Once I was Hercules
Or Samson, strong as the pillars of the seas:
But the flames of the heart consumed me, and the mind
Is but a foolish wind.’
Said the Sun to the Moon – ‘When you are but a lonely white crone,
And I, a dead King in my golden armour somewhere in a dark wood,
Remember only this of our hopeless love
That never till Time is done
Will the fire of the heart and the fire of the mind be one.’
Edith Sitwell (1887-1964)
Sitwell’s got an interesting history that is well worth a read if you’re into this sort of thing. From an affluent and high-ranking background (daughter of a Baronet), she had a tempestuous relationship with her parents and declared them strangers to her in later life.
However, she was close to her two younger brothers and the three were all literary figures of some note in their day. In addition, she became something of a poetry matriarch, hosting to all of London’s poetic circle. Although she wrote poetry throughout her life, she is perhaps best known for her work during the Second World War. This poem was written towards the end of the war in 1944.
Her work consistently explores themes of time/mortality, love and consciousness. In this poem she explores the importance of passion, but recognises that ultimately it will be trumped by a love forged in the mind and soul rather than the heart and trousers. This could link to her long-term relationship/attachment to a gay Russian painter called Pavel Tchelitchew. It seems that this was a complicated relationship and one that probably wasn’t very sexual considering that she lacked some crucial equipment to keep him interested.
We could also consider the war-time context to be part of the subject of the poem. True love is seen to transcend the physical and endure even after death in some sense, which I am sure would’ve been a comforting thought for soldiers and their wives respectively.
As above, this is exploring different forms of love and relating their importance through exploring our own mortality. We see the passion and fire of physical love melting away, while the less tangible love of the mind and soul endures forever.
This is the most challenging poem and difficult to interpret that I’ve analysed so far, but more rewarding for the confusion it has caused me and the questions that still remain about it.
I’ll try my best to explain my understanding, but please do add your own comments as I am open to ideas for several aspects of this poem.
So, we begin with a lion talking to his Mrs. He wants her to look into the future after she’s died and is no longer the randy sod he describes her to be. Sitwell describes this passion in terms that suggest grandeur and power, but looks to a time after the passion to when the fire has been cooled. At this time the lovers are seen as being together and truly united, unlike when the fires were raging.
Sitwell then moves from the lions’ chit chat to a skeleton (he could be the skeleton of the lion, but it isn’t worth thinking about). The skeleton takes the imagery one step further by comparing passion not just to a bloody big lion, but now to the scorching ball of flaming gas that gives life to everything. Pretty impressive, yeah?
Well, yeah… but even the Sun will eventually die (Sitwell is thinking long-term here, some billion years or so into our future – don’t worry we’ve got a bit of time to figure out what to do next!).
However, the mind and memory cannot die. Why? Well, they are a metaphysical construct and aren’t tangible. The memory or thought that represents true love can never be killed because it doesn’t actually exist in any physical sense (metaphysics is some pretty crazy stuff to contemplate).
Next we have the Sun and the Moon having a chin wag. They are presented as lovers and the Sun asks the Moon to remember that their physical love is hopeless, but that their mental connection cannot be denied so easily. This draws the poem to a close with a clear contrast between the time limited nature of physical love and the eternal nature of true love or the minds of lovers.
Language and techniques
Let’s start with the imagery Sitwell uses to present physical love, lust or passion. Immediately we are presented with two personified lions that represent the emotion. This choice seems to deliberately provide us with connotations of power, strength and all importance when considering passion. Lions are an important symbol of authority and regality. Our passion for another lifts us above normality and for a time makes us the most important things in each others’ lives.
Further, Sitwell figuratively links passion with ‘a raging fire’ and ‘the heat of the Sun’, which connects us with a sexual intensity and urgency. Exploring these comparisons closer also helps to connect us with an idea of the grandeur of passion as ‘a raging fire’ is something that is uncontrollable and the Sun is the source of all life and thus all important.
The third, fourth and fifth lines are pretty graphic and make me remember some pretty awkward fumbling in my youth. ‘Flowering’ implies the budding of something new into life and is often used to represent sexual awakening and I think here is no exception. Follow the next two lines as if they describe a sexual encounter with ‘rippling…muscles’ flowing over each other ‘like a sea’. Do I need to draw you a picture? I’m fairly sure a quick x-rated search and you’ll know what I’m getting at. Additionally, Sitwell uses ‘rose-prickles’ to add detail to this imagery as sexual intimacy (hah! I think I’ve come up with a polite way of referring to sexy time/getting jiggy with it/making the beast with two backs!) is often accompanied by flushed skin, which can look a little like a heat rash.
If we weren’t convinced that this is what Sitwell was imagining (the dirty so and so), she moves us on from this imagery by thinking about a time when the lions ‘shall mate no more’.
Lions not your thing? Well, Sitwell also compares passion to the Sun – which is also connected to royalty in the final stanza as a ‘dead King in golden armour’ – in detail in the third stanza. ‘Greater than all gold’ shows us the intensity and value that we see in passion and again the intensity of the emotion – nothing else matters, no even gold! She tells her reader that she is stepping up her imagery from lion to Sun because we recognise that ‘flame consumes’ a lion’s body and ‘all that grows or leaps’. Thus she is asking us to recognise that her initial comparison wasn’t strong enough to make us understand the intensity of sexual lust and desire.
She then compares the Sun directly to the power of our hearts by saying both are ‘More powerful than all dust’. This is an extremely powerful comparison and elevates passion to the position of something that gives life to us – is she saying that once in a while we all need a good f… (no, I won’t finish that 😉 )?
We get two more comparatives to help us consider this kind of love. Hercules and Samson are both figures of great strength, from mythology and religion respectively, but figures that had crucial weaknesses that led to their downfall. Their strength is presented as ‘pillars of the sea’. Now, as far as I am aware (any scientists out there?) there are no pillars holding up the sea, but if there were they’d be pretty damn powerful and that’s the point Sitwell is making. Not that it does them any good because like everything else they crumble and they die, leaving only a cold skeleton (the chap who is the voice providing this comparison).
Make sure you talk about the fact that Sitwell deems passion important enough to justify this variety of impressive comparisons. Her exploration of the idea shows just how crucial she sees passionate love as being, but ultimately she recognises that it is secondary to true love. Even the all-powerful Sun will eventually die and be a ‘dead King in [his] golden armour somewhere in a dark wood’ and thus lose his authority and only exist on in memory and history. Ultimately she recognises that passionate love is finite and a ‘hopeless love’, while the ‘fire of the mind’ can never be extinguished.
Flipping it over to look at her perception of true love and its enduring qualities, we see Sitwell presenting it as a closer kind of love. After the lions are no more and the Sun has burnt up, our lovers ‘are one’ because they ‘remember’ each other and their love is based in the mind. Sitwell repeats the word ‘remember’ three times across the poem to drill home where we should put love and that is firmly in the mind rather than solely in the heart.
In the fourth stanza, she uses a simile to describe true love and the mind as a ‘foolish wind’. This doesn’t sound very complimentary, but she is doing two things. First she is connecting us to the sense that true love is not a physical concept, (something we can see, hold or touch), but rather is metaphysical and as such we can only contemplate, but never truly understand. However, Sitwell is also showing us that as a ‘wind’ it is untouchable as how would it be possible to go about destroying the wind? It does not consist of one place, time or set of molecules, but is ever enduring in some form. Even if the Earth is destroyed presumably there will be wind in other atmospheres, planets, galaxies.
I don’t think she had thought about the possibility of the Universe collapsing in on itself and no longer ceasing to exist, but as far as I’m concerned until scientists know exactly what will eventually happen to the universe then we can let Sitwell off.
In fact, what am I talking about? She did think of this because she concedes that ‘never till Time is done’ will the love of the mind be defeated. By this she means only when the Universe stops will the concept disappear.
Having argued her case convincingly, Sitwell ends with an emphatic declaration that the ‘never… will the heart… and… the mind be one’.
Oh, I’ll just add briefly a little explanation of the three personified speakers in the poem. The lion is significant due to its position within the animal kingdom and the associated regal symbolism; the skeleton represents our mortality and in turn suggests that passion shares this quality; finally the Sun whispering to the Moon – mythically these two are seen as legendary lovers who just never seem to get together, so when the Sun says the mind is more important than the physical, he makes their relationship seems meaningful rather than one defined by their physical separation.
This is written in free verse and as such has no regularity in terms of stanza construction or the rhyme or rhythm of the poem. We get little bursts of rhyme either in couplets or in alternating lines, but this is punctuated by quite a lot of half rhyme.
Why has she decided to do this? In the 1940s she didn’t have access to a rubbish online rhyming dictionary, so… Sorry, I’m in a stupid mood. I think she is trying to mirror her image of true love, it is not something that is easily defined and quantified as it is a metaphysical concept rather than a physical reality of sexual passion and lust.
I’d say the poem is reflective. Clearly she feels strongly about the importance and power of lust and passionate love, but ultimately she considers and wants us to consider that in the end the only love that matters and that will endure is in the mind and soul.