Monday, March 29, 2010

Edith Sitwell

This isn’t really a post about Edith Sitwell, about whom I know next to nothing. This is about poems whose pleasures reside in the sounds and texture of the words themselves, rather than in the intellectual or emotional content of those words. The poem below the cut is a fine example of such a poem.

My favorite part is the lovely lines “Made of painted notes of singing birds/ Among the fields of tea.” The synesthesia of something painted (a visual image) with the notes of singing birds (an auditory ones) suggests that the poem’s superficial simplicity is made possible only by the author’s deep knowledge of, and facility with, poetics.

This poem is in the wonderful The New Oxford Book of Children's Verse.As I mentioned in my post on Ezra Pound, I picked up this book at a used book store years and years ago. I’ve probably derived more simple and unadulterated pleasure from this book than any other – which suggests that my tastes haven’t really evolved much since my own childhood, though I first encountered this particular poem as an adult.

The Amazon image for the book isn't what the cover actually looks like; I imagine the mixup is the result of some scanning snafu.

The King of China’s Daughter

The King of China’s Daughter,
She never would love me,
Though I hung my cap and bells upon
Her nutmeg tree.
For oranges and lemons,
The stars in bright blue air
(I stole them long ago, my dear)
Were dangling there.
The Moon did give me silver pence,
The Sun did give me gold,
And both together softly blew
And made my porridge cold;
But the King of China’s daughter
Pretended not to see
When I hung my cap and bells upon
The nutmeg tree.

The King of China’s daughter
So beautiful to see
With her face like yellow water, left
Her nutmeg tree.
Her little rope for skipping
She kissed and gave it me—
Made of painted notes of singing-birds
Among the fields of tea.
I skipped across the nutmeg grove,—
I skipped across the sea;
But neither sun nor moon, my dear,
Has yet caught me.


  1. Delightful... I for some reason had in my brain the fantastic birds that are painted on old china cups... perhaps the tea and yellow water did it.. The poem does work in my head... speaking it... have you ever heard a Sitwell speak? That is an experience! No one speaks that way anymore.

  2. I have not! But I love archaic forms of speech. :)

  3. You will be happy to learn that Natalie Merchant used your favorite part of the poem in a new song. Simply delightful.

  4. I found your post after hearing Natalie Merchant's version in song. I wanted more information about the King of China's Daughter and that lead me here. Thank you for posting and for your insight :)