Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Imaginary Africa and London's Urban Wasteland in Edith Sitwell's "Gold Coast Customs"

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Imaginary Africa and London's Urban Wasteland in Edith Sitwell's "Gold Coast Customs"

Article excerpt

After reading Edith Sitwell's Gold Coast Customs in 1930, William Butler Yeats wrote that "something absent from all literature for a generation was back again" (qtd. in Greene vii). Since then, Sitwell's impressive 1929 poem has been missing from scholarly conversations about modernism for several generations. Now that Sitwell studies is seeing a revival, there is room to focus more sharply on her contributions to modernism and to modernism's conflicted relationship with imperialist discourse. My aim in this essay is to add to this growing conversation by returning to the now nearly forgotten poem "Gold Coast Customs," a poem set partly in the British protectorate of the Gold Coast of West Africa circa 1875. Merging the Gold Coast with 1920s London, condensed imagery with chant-like metrical experiment, the poem generates its central argument: so-called civilized society is sliding backward in time to its savage and primeval origins, which are represented by an Africa imagined into being by European imperialism. My essay thus investigates the poem's imperialist trope as it combines the modernist sense of social malaise with modernist experimental poetics. I begin by sketching a context for the poem both in Sitwell criticism and in recent scholarship on modernist primitivism, then move to a close reading of the poem and its representation of the Ashanti through the lens of nineteenth-century anthropology. Africa, and the Ashanti specifically, become in Sitwell's poem the source of a modernist poetics that signals its own end, and this image of an imaginary primitive also plays a significant role in the self-fashioning of the modernist poet as both scholar and sage.

Edith Sitwell published Gold Coast Customs in 1929, (1) ending a seven-year hiatus in the publication of her poetry since the initial performance of her most famous work, Facade. Facade is a collection of short and seemingly nonsensical poems spoken in combination with William Walton's playful musical settings; it was first performed in 1922. During this gap in her poetic careen, Sitwell focused her writing energy mainly on critical literary essays for periodicals as diverse as The Nation and Athenaeum, The New Criterion, and Vogue. To some extent, "Gold Coast Customs" is Sitwell's attempt to be taken seriously at the end of the twenties as an important modernist poet. Like T. S. Eliot's The Waste Laud, the ur-poem of modernism, Sitwell's long poem combines dense and obscure language with a bleak picture of modern London. "Gold Coast Customs" is set first in the African region of its title, but the setting quickly shifts to overlap or include the London of the 1920s. The opening lines obliquely identify the setting with their allusion to King Munza (2) and exemplify the style and imagery that dominate all 500-plus lines:

One fan tee wave
Is grave and tall
As brave Ashantee's
Thick mud wall.
Munza rattles his bones in the dust
Lurking in murk because he must.

Describing the settings as "phantasmogoric," Susan Gubar notes the variety of scenes that mix bewilderingly:

  the Ashantee tribal ceremonies, the decadent parties of one Lady
  Bamburgher, and a dock scene of sailors and prostitutes. Presented as
  if a poetic vision of cinematic montage, all three share inexplicable
  but convulsive images of cannibalism, animality, corruption and
  degeneration. (144)

Out of this disorienting combination emerges the poem's major social critique: modern culture has degenerated to the point that it is as evil, corrupt, and excessive as some of the cultures that Sitwell imagines as most primitive, those of the Ashanti and the Monbuttoo.

The poem pretends to a "primitive" style of poetics (what Gubar calls the "Boomlay BOOM" style of Vachel Lindsay's "The Congo" [137]). Its insistently rhyming short lines with alternating stressed syllables do not fit any conventional verse forms. However, they do invoke some European idea of the rhythmic chanting accompanying sacrificial ritual. …

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