Vita Sackville-West, Knole and Sissinghurst

Coming to the end of the first quarter of the year, one of the (M)DWS authors in residence was Vita Sackville-West — I’m sorry I didn’t manage to squeeze in more books by James Baldwin too, but I have every intention of making up for that during the rest of the year. Anyway, I’m glad I at least took some time to explore VSW’s writing, as well as her and Virginia Woolf’s story — since Woolf was one of our authors in residence last year, it seemed only fitting to circle back to her and tie that particular knot, too, as it were.

I’ll be posting on the books by and about Sackville-West that I read separately; since I’ve had the real pleasure of also spending time at both of the places that she is most closely associated with — Knole and Sissinghurst — some years ago, I thought I’d share a few impressions from both of these visits first. (I decided to divide this post into separate pages, as it turned out to be rather long.)

The above portraits are by Philip de László (left) and William Strang (right) and show Vita Sackville-West at ages 18 (1910) and 26 (1918), respectively. She first met Virginia Woolf (who was 10 years older than her) a few weeks before her 30th birthday, in early 1922.


Knole

The hereditary seat of the Sackvilles since Tudor days and the place where Vita grew up; since inheritance was entailed away from the female line, however, at her father’s death ownership of Knole passed to Vita’s uncle (her father’s younger brother) and she had to leave her beloved childhood home.

Virginia Woolf was smitten with Knole from her first visit on and lovingly paid tribute to it in Orlando; while the book is a (not-so) veiled biography of and love letter to Vita Sackville-West in the first place, in a not entirely negligible way it is also a paean to Knole. (Note: The outdoor images are mine; the building plan and the indoor images are scans from the visitors’ guidebook; it’s forbidden to take photos inside the castle. The text are scanned excerpts from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.)

 

Vita Sackville-West: Beechwoods At Knole

How do I love you, beech-trees, in the autumn,
Your stone-grey columns a cathedral nave
Processional above the earth’s brown glory!

I was a child, and I loved the knurly tangle
Of roots that coiled above a scarp like serpents,
Where I might hide my treasure with the squirrels.

I was a child, and splashed my way in laughter
Through drifts of leaves, where underfoot the beech-nuts
Split with crisp crackle to my great rejoicing.

Red are the beechen slopes below Shock Tavern,
Red is the bracken on the sandy Furze-field,
Red are the stags and hinds by Bo-Pit Meadows,

The rutting stags that nightly through the beechwoods
Bell out their challenge, carrying their antlers
Proudly beneath the antlered autumn branches.

I was a child, and heard the red deer’s challenge
Prowling and belling underneath my window,
Never a cry so haughty or so mournful.


Sissinghurst

Vita’s “pink tower”, as Virginia Woolf called it; the home that Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicholson bought a few years after Vita had to give up Knole. Sissinghurst was the place that cemented her fame as a gardener, and it is still one of England’s very finest gardens today (it’s now administered by the National Trust — unlike Knole, which is still owned by the Sackvilles). We were lucky to visit on an absolutely brilliant summer day, and took full advantage of the fact (all photos in this section of the post are mine; the map is scanned from the visitor information booklet).

The original Hogarth (printing) press, for which Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s publishing house was named, and on which their, as well as Vita Sackville-West’s and a number of other Bloomsbury writers’ works were first printed — part of an exhibition just outside the entrance to the main grounds of Sissinghurst.


Vita’s library, as left at her death.

 

Vita Sackville-West: Sissinghurst

A tired swimmer in the waves of time
I throw my hands up: let the surface close:
Sink down through centuries to another clime,
And buried find the castle and the rose.
Buried in time and sleep,
So drowsy, overgrown,
That here the moss is green upon the stone,
And lichen stains the keep.
I’ve sunk into an image, water-drowned,
Where stirs no wind and penetrates no sound,
Illusive, fragile to a touch, remote,
Foundered within the well of years as deep
As in the waters of a stagnant moat.
Yet in and out of these decaying halls
I move, and not a ripple, not a quiver
Shakes the reflection though the waters shiver —

My tread is to the same illusion beyond
Here, tall and damask as a summer flower,
Rise the brick gable and the spring tower;
Invading Nature crawls
With ivied fingers over rosy walls,
Searching the crevices,
Clasping the mullion, riveting the crack,
Binding the fabric crumbling to attack,
And questing feelers of the wandering fronds
Grope for interstices,
Holding this myth together under-seas,
Anachronistic vagabonds:
And here, by birthright far from present fashion,
As no disturber of the mirrored trance
I move, and to the world above the waters
Wave my incognisance,
For here, where days and years have lost their number,
I let a plummet down in lieu of date,
And lose myself within a slumber
Submerged, elate.
This husbandry, this castle, and this I
Moving within the deeps,
Shall be content within our timeless spell,
Assembled fragments of an age gone by,
While still the sower sows, the reaper reaps,
Beneath the snowy mountains of the sky,
And meadows dimple to the village bell.
So plods the stallion up my evening lane
And fills me with a mindless deep repose,
Wherein I find in chain
The castle, and the pasture, and the rose.

Beauty, and use, and beauty once again
Link up my scattered heart, and shape a scheme
Commensurate with a frustrated dream.

The autumn bonfire smokes across the woods
And reddens in the water of the moat;
As red within the water burns the scythe,
And the moon dwindled to her gibbons tithe
Follows the sunken sun afloat.
Green is the eastern sky and red the west;
The hop-kilns huddle under pallid hoods;
The waggon stupid stands with upright shaft,
As daily life accepts the night’s arrest.
Night like a deeper sea engulfs the land,
The castle, and th meadows, and the farm;
Only the baying watch-dog looks for harm,
And shakes his chain towards the lunar brand

In the high room where tall the shadows tilt

For now the apple ripens, now the hop,
And now the clover, now the barley-crops;
Spokes bound upon a wheel forever turning,
Wherewith I turn, no present manner learning;
Cry neither “Speed your process!” nor “Stop!”
I am content to leave the world awry
(Busy with politic perplexity.)
If still the cart-horse at the fall of day
Clumps up the lane to stable and to hay,
And tired men go home from the immense
Labour and life’s expense
That force the harsh recalcitrant waste to yield
Corn and not nettles in the harvest-field;
As candle-flames blow crooked in the draught,
The reddened sunset on the panes was spilt,
But now as black as any nomad’s tent
The night-time and the night of time have blent
Over my head the years and centuries sweep,
The years of childhood flown,
The centuries unknown;
I dream; I do not weep.

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