Portrait of a Barmaid


Portrait of a Barmaid - (2009)    

Edith Sitwell

for medium or high voice and piano


Metallic waves of people jar
Through crackling green toward the bar

Where on the tables chattering-white
The sharp drinks quarrel with the light.

Those coloured muslin blinds the smiles,
Shroud wooden faces in their wiles —

Sometimes they splash like water (you
Yourself reflected in their hue).

The conversation loud and bright
Seems spinal bars of shunting light

In firework-spurting greenery.
O complicate machinery

For building Babel, iron crane
Beneath your hair, that blue-ribbed mane

In noise and murder like the sea
Without its mutability!

Outside the bar where jangling heat
Seems out of tune and off the beat —

A concertina's glycerin
Exudes, and mirrors in the green

Your soul: pure glucose edged with hints
Of tentative and half-soiled tints.

[ 5 pages, circa 3' 10" ]

Edith Sitwell


The text is drawn from A Miscellany of Poetry, 1919, ed. W. Kean Seymour. It is eleven couplets, divided at the halfway point in the sixth couplet by the end of one sentence, and the beginning of another, making a fulcrum between the eleven couplets at the exact center. It is said that "Sitwell's satiric poetry contradicted the bucolic, Georgian poetry of the day." Certainly this odd portrait in verse reveals a less than bucolic image of the barmaid and the bar itself, its patrons "metallic." The characteristics which speak of the barmaid say she is sweet -- "pure glucose" -- and yet compromised in a most assuredly non-bucolic manner -- being "edged with hints of tentative and half-soiled tints."


Sitwell's portrait is much like the portrait which Ezra Pound "painted," The girl in the tea shop, the portrait which Carl Sandburg created in his "Red-Headed Restaurant Cashier" (set I have set as Red-Headed Girl), as well as akin to the so-titled and collected portraits of E. E. Cummings as found in his Tulips and Chimneys of 1923, & [AND] of 1925, and XLI Poems of 1925, some of which I have set but which remain unavailable until they become in the public domain.



For this half-soiled yet "pure glucose," I chose an utterly simple two-chord gesture, the bass line alternating between tonic and dominant with the added D-sharp to the F sharp minor scale. The slow tempo and rocking nature of the 6/8 time signature suggest in visual form as well as flowing two measure long gestures the "waves" of people which populate the scene in which the barmaid moves and works. It is her perspective, and not that of the people which serve as backdrop for this portrait which continues its steady round.



The score for Portrait of a Barmaid is available as a free PDF download, though any major commercial performance or recording of the work is prohibited without prior arrangement with the composer. Click on the graphic below for this piano-vocal score.


Portrait of a Barmaid