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C.H. Sisson (1914 - 2003)
Books by this author: C.H. Sisson Reader The Raven (2e) (Ed.) De Rerum Natura: The Poem on Nature (Tr.) Poems and Essays on Poetry (Ed.) Collected Poems The English Novel (Ed.) Christopher Homm Poem on Nature (Tr.) Collected Translations The Rash Act (Ed.) Ladies Whose Bright Eyes (Ed.) Selected Poems (Ed.) Poems: Selected A Call (Ed.) What and Who Antidotes Selected Poems An Asiatic Romance In the Trojan Ditch The English Sermon 1650-1750 The Poetic Art (Tr.) The Avoidance of Literature Some Tales (Tr.) Divine Comedy (Tr.) English Poetry 1900-1950 Song of Roland (Tr.) Anglican Essays The Aeneid (Tr.) Is There a Church of England? English Perspectives Selected Writings (Ed.) Selected Poems (Ed.) On the Lookout God Bless Karl Marx! In Two Minds: Literary Essays Rash Act Collected Poems and Plays
Born in Bristol in 1914, C. H. Sisson was noted as a poet, novelist, essayist and an important translator. He was a great friend of the critic and writer Donald Davie, with whom he corresponded regularly. Sisson was a student at the University of Bristol where he read English and Philosophy. As a poet he first came to light through the London Arts Review founded by the painter Patrick Swift and the poet David Wright. He reacted against the prevailing intellectual climate of the 1930s, particularly the Auden Group, preferring to go back to the anti-romantic T. E. Hulme, and to the Anglican tradition. The modernism of his poetry follows a 'distinct genealogy' from Hulme to Eliot, Pound, Ford Madox Ford and Wyndham Lewis. His novel Christopher Homm experiments with form and is told backwards. Sisson served in the British Army during World War II in India and joined the Ministry of Labour in 1936. He worked as a civil servant and wrote a standard text The Spirit of British Administration (1959) arising from his work and a comparison with other European methods. Sisson was a 'severe critic of the Civil Service and some of his essays caused controversy'. In his collection The London Zoo he writes this epitaph 'Here lies a civil servant. He was civil/ To everyone, and servant to the devil.' C. H. Sisson was made a Companion of Honour for services to literature in 1993. Carcanet publish his Collected Poems, his novels, essays, and his autobiography On the Lookout, as well as his versions of Dante, Virgil, La Fontaine, Du Bellay, Lucretius and others.
The great non-academic critic, political theorist and uniquely gifted poet
C.H. Sisson died on 5 September. He was 89 years old. With the poets of his
generation he shares what the Movement most distrusted, a changing prosody
sanctioned by instinct, irreducible to rule. Some of his poems are in
exacting, Metaphysical forms, some on a free verse that takes its bearings
from Eliot and Pound. He is in their direct line, and at the same time in
the line of Donne and Hardy. Donne and Hardy? The affinities (we cannot
speak of 'connections' since Hardy was not influenced by Donne or the
Metaphysicals) go beyond formal invention and have to do with elaboration of
syntax, the admission of the irrational, the unexpected, which reconfigures
experience and language.
Sisson's approach to the writer's he admires is to evoke their social and
intellectual milieux, sketch in the native landscape and antecedents, the
accidents and peculiarities that individuate them early on, and then to
consider how they combine and transcend these factors. In an essay on
Charles Péguy (1946) he asks, Is not every sincere life, in a sense, a
journey to the first years?¹ The first years of a life, of a culture,
beginnings, break-points and re-beginnings, are all-important. What does art
transcend, how does it transcend? This is not to confuse biography with
criticism. Criticism follows from it, biography (not of the tittle-tattle
sort) clears a ground, clarifies opacities, defines formative prejudices,
how consciously they are entertained, what the work makes of them.
Charles Hubert Sisson was born in Bristol in 1914. His father was from
Kendal in Westmorland, his mother from Wiltshire. His father became a
clock-maker and later, in Bristol, an optician. It was not a prosperous time
for anyone. The landscapes that took hold of the poet were those of the West
Country and of Somerset. He remembers in adolescence how he would know a
poem was about to happen to him, 'and I had not to think about it in case I
should spoil itthere is probably something in the nature of poetry which
makes it necessary to avoid conscious premeditation.' It was on this point
in particular that Sisson and Donald Davie tended to fall out. Sisson was
the one poet of his generation with whom Davie entertained a warm
friendship. In all likelihood it was because both men, from different
perspectives knew that Pound was at the heart of the century, and both men
Sisson attended the University of Bristol, then studied in Germany and
France when the forces of German militarism were gathering strength. He was
much affected by what he foresaw: a francophile, he was intensely anxious
for France, and for England. He entered the Civil Service in 1936. The next
year he married. He enlisted in 1942 and because of his fluency in French
and German was sent for two and a half years to the North West Frontier
Province. He translated Heine, read Dante and Virgil, and wrote the first of
his mature poems, caustic and precise.
I, whose imperfection
Is evident and admitted
Needing further assurance
Must year-long be pitted
Against fool and trooper
Practising my integrity
In awkward places,
Walking until I walk easy
Among uncomprehended faces.
The humility of the lines is exemplary: the faces are uncomprehended, not
uncomprehending. He is not misunderstood but unable to understand. The poems
are an attempt. 'My beginnings were altogether without facility, and when I
was forced into verse it was through having something not altogether easy to
say.' The utter difference of India clarified what England meant to him, and
Europe. His translation work later in life keeps pace with his poetry, and
the radical changes in his poems can be related to his work on Catullus,
Virgil's Eclogues and Aeneid, Lucretius, Dante and others. He takes up a
translation task when he needs the freedom to concentrate on rhythm, without
having to generate 'content'. He characterises translation work as 'fishing
in other men's waters'. I seem to have undertaken the translations in order
to rid the voice of a certain monotony.¹
In 1945 he resumed work in Whitehall, rising to Under Secretary and
equivalent heights in the Ministry of Labour. He was a severe critic of the
Civil Service and his essays caused controversy. In The London Zoo, his
first substantial collection, he wrote this epitaph: 'Here lies a civil
servant. He was civil
To everyone, and servant to the devil.' Yet he is
rare among contemporaries in his belief that a writer serves best as a man
engaged with the social machine, guarding the integrity of social
institutions even as he criticises and perfects them. He is a Tory in the
Johnsonian sense: 'One who adheres to the ancient constitution of the state,
and the apostolic hierarchy of the Church of England.' But God himself is
difficult and often absent, especially latterly.
As a man of social engagement, Sisson admires writers like Marvell for his
double vocation, and Barnes, and Swift. Their writing matured in a world of
actual responsibilities. In 1972 he retired to Langport, Somerset. He had
published seven books: two novels, three collections of poetry, a history of
poetry in English of the first half of the century, and a classic tome on
public administration. In the year of his retirement he published with Faber
his savage appraisal of Walter Bagehot. Since his retirement he has become
one of the great translators of our time and a poet whose work increasingly
seems to mark the end, within English poetry, of high modernism and at the
same time of the kinds of satire and lyricism which Hardy brought forward
into the twentieth century. In the Trojan Ditch: Collected Poems and
Selected Translations appeared in 1974. Reticently, almost out of sight,
Sisson had developed through three generations, entirely along his own
lines. That development has continued in his later books. Of William Barnes
he says, 'The avoidance of literature is indispensable for the man who wants
to tell the truth'. The 'whole tact of the poet' is knowing when 'he has a
truth to tell'. Literary emotion is for him always factitious.
His poems can seem Augustan, but his poetic logic is, like Marvell's, a
language of association, not analysis (which belongs to prose). The poetry
does not anatomise experience: it establishes connections on the other side
of reason, communicating to the pulse through his distinctive rhythms.
'Reason may convince, but it is rhythm that persuades,' he quotes a French
critic as saying. 'The proof of a poem any poem is in its rhythm,' he
declares, 'and that is why critical determination has in the end to await
the unarguable perception.' Rhythm is authority. In 'The Usk', which Davie
characterises as 'one of the great poems of our time', rhythm is at its most
Lies on my tongue. Get up and bolt the door
For I am coming not to be believed
The messenger of anything I say.
So I am come, stand in the cold tonight
The servant of the grain upon my tongue,
Beware, I am the man, and let me in.
Rhythm integrates diverse material, performs feats of lucid fusion. In one
of his best poems, the long 'In Insula Avalonia', he taxes rhythm to the
utmost, fusing personal, religious and patriotic themes in Arthurian legend
(Mallory is as present in his verse as Virgil and Dante). He has made the
landscapes of Somerset his own much as Barnes and Hardy marked out Dorset.
Davie speaks of the interweaving of themes 'in a verse which, as it were,
goes nowhere and says nothing, which is Shakespearean and at times Eliotic
to just the degree that it is Virgilian.' As in his theology, body and soul
are one and cannot be understood except together. Donne was of the same
mind. The verse defies paraphrase: it is the meaning:
Dark wind, dark wind that makes the river black
Two swans upon it are the serpent's eyes
Wind through the meadows as you twist your heart.
Twisted are trees, especially this oak
Which stands with all its leaves throughout the year;
There is no Autumn for its golden boughs
But winter always and a lowering sky
That hangs it blanket lower than the earth
Which we are under at this Advent-tide.
Not even ghosts. The banks are desolate
With shallow snow between the matted grass
Home of the dead but there is no one here
When I first read his poems I found them rebarbative. It was not until I
read 'Metamorphoses', a sequence in unrhymed couplets, that suddenly my ear
attuned itself to what he was doing. It was through hearing his verse in all
its tonalities that I was able to hear the rhythms of Pound's Cantos, and to
move from that to hearing Bunting and, from a very different part of the
forest, Ashbery and O'Hara. Pound transformed Sisson's hearing, 'opening up
a new area in consciousness, indicating a point to which you may go from a
point you now occupy'; Pound caused 'one of those real adjustments of mind
which even the most omnivorous reader can expect from only a few writers'.
Like the poets he opened up for me, his plain and his Virgilian styles are
capable of suggesting various contexts in which a single idea exists and
acts. Biblical and classical are not separate strands, the one ethical, the
other aesthetic. In our culture they express a similar impulse, only one is
redeemed, the other not.
The social urgency of Sisson's satire knows that the cause is lost. The
material basis of 'values', the erosion of traditional and theological views
of 'self', 'person' and 'identity', the triumph of the golden calf he will
not accept. It is a sham deity, for we possess nothing; we cannot even be
said to possess memory. We are possessed by existence, and by God; and
whether we will or not, by history and our historical institutions which we
do well to accept, explore and perfect. We are only in relation to them, in
all their ramifications.
What is the person? Is it hope?
If so there is no I in me.
Is it a trope
Or paraphrase of deity?
I may be what I do not know.
The poem ends,
There is one God we do not know
Stretched on Orion for a cross
And we below
In several sorts of lesser loss
In number not identity.
Our concern with the dynamic surface of reality is such that we lose sight
of what Coleridge called the 'Principles of Permanence'.
Clearly we are dealing here with a wholly English phenomenon, a man as
English as MacDiarmid is Scottish or Clarke is Irish. It is that Englishness
which emerges in the satires and in the increasingly autumnal and elegiac
note that the later poems strike, the note of 'Burrington Combe', which goes
back to his first years and beyond them, to the legendary and very English
figures, northern and southern, out of which his heritage is made. All
through his work there is a love of reversed chronology. The novel
Christopher Homm is told backwards; the first collected poems was placed in
reverse order, a poem like 'Homo Sapiens is of No Importance' is a
Throughout his work, even in disrupted free verse and irregular blank
verse, there is a sense of rhyme. It is a rare effect, heard most clearly in
'Metamorphoses', 'Virgini Senescens' and the acerbic poems about old age.
This feeling of rhyme has much to do with balanced phrasing, rhythmic
equivalents suggesting firm closure, and assonances that produce a couplet
effect even when we are reading unrhymed tetrameters. It is also the effect
of an instinctive, accurate parcelling out of content in correct contrast
phrase by phrase, a parcelling which does not disrupt the rhythmic movement
of the poems.
It is less in the poems that orchestrate ideas and more in those that
harmonise disparate areas and allusions, where wholeness emerges from a
juxtaposition of fragments, that his English vision is clearest. Its
historical point of reference is the heart of the seventeenth century when
history abruptly defined the institutions which had seemed natural and
given, in particular the monarchy. The works in which writers engaged with
events, the conflict between Charles I and Cromwell, and the aftermath, are
the most agonised and truthful in our literature. His last major sequence is
the 'Tristia', the title a tribute to Ovid, ten terse elegiac epigrams in
which he makes unconsoling sense of old age and what an older poet called
'the vast shipwreck of my life's esteems'. The ninth 'Tristia' declares:
Speech cannot be betrayed, for speech betrays,
And what we say reveals the men we are.
But, once come to a land where no-one is,
We long for conversation, and a voice
Which answers what we say when we succeed
In saying for a moment that which is.
O careless world, which covers what is there
With what it hopes, or what best cheats and pays,
But speech with others needs another tongue.
For a to speak to b, and b to a,
A stream of commonalty must be found,
Rippling at times, at times an even flow,
And yet it turns to Lethe in the end.
Thus the 'technique of ignorance¹ which a poet must cultivate leads, for a
moment, to a stream of commonalty that runs variously, that 'for a moment'
manages to say 'that which is'.
Sisson's modernism has a distinct genealogy. It starts with Hulme and moves
through Eliot and Pound, Ford Madox Ford and Wyndham Lewis (about whom he
has written brilliantly). It is not a literary tradition so much as a
tradition of speech and seeing. Into this modernism he introduces the
possibility, without affectation or extreme formal disruption as in David
Jones, of a religious dimension. The only comparable English poet in this
respect is Donald Davie. Sisson's verse moves into and then away from
liturgy¹, the decisive fusions and assimilations occurring in the poems he
wrote around his fiftieth year. There is a falling away from that wholeness
of vision. Having attained it, the gap that grows with the years between it
and where the poet is now has proven vertiginous and this poetry of negative
emotion and thought is some of the most vigorous of the century.
Praise for C.H. Sisson (1914 - 2003) `His poems move in service of the loved landscapes of England and France; they sing (and growl) in love of argument, in love of seeing through, in love of the firm descriptions of moral self-disgust; they move in love of the old lost life by which the new life is condemned.'
Donald Hall, New York Times Book Review 'I think he is worth a place on the short shelf reserved for the finest twentieth-century poets, with Eliot and Rilke and MacDiarmid.'
Robert Nye, the Scotsman
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