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C.H. Sisson (1914 - 2003)

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  • 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, ŒIs 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 itŠthere 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
    said so.
     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'. ŒI 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 hereŠ

     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?
     If so,
    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
     Are we
    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
    deliberate regression.
     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
    Œliturgy¹, 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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