Sisson, C(harles) H(ubert)
SISSON, C(harles) H(ubert)
Nationality: British. Born: Bristol, 22 April 1914. Education: University of Bristol, 1931–34, B.A. (honors) in philosophy and English literature 1934; University of Berlin and University of Freiburg, 1934–35; Sorbonne, Paris, 1935–36. Military Service: British Army Intelligence Corps in India, 1942–45. Family: Married Nora Gilbertson in 1937; two daughters. Career: Assistant principal, 1936–42, principal, 1945–53, assistant secretary, 1953–62, and under secretary, 1962–68, Ministry of Labour, London; assistant under secretary of state, 1968–71, and director of Occupational Safety and Health, 1971–73, Department of Employment, London. Co-editor, PN Review, Manchester, 1976–83. Awards: Senior Simon Research fellowship, University of Manchester, 1956. D.Litt.: University of Bristol, 1980. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1975. Companion of Honour, 1993. Agent: Laurence Pollinger Ltd., 16 Maddox Street, London W1R OEU. Address: Moorfield Cottage, The Hill, Langport, Somerset TA10 9PU, England.
Versions and Perversions of Heine. London, Gaberbocchus, 1955.
Poems. Fairwarp, Sussex, Peter Russell, 1959.
Twenty-One Poems. Privately printed, 1960.
The London Zoo. London, Abelard Schuman, 1961.
Numbers. London, Methuen, 1965.
Catullus. London, MacGibbon and Kee, 1966; New York, Orion Press, 1967.
The Discarnation; or, How the Flesh Became Word and Dwelt among Us. Privately printed, 1967.
Metamorphoses. London, Methuen, 1968.
Roman Poems. Privately printed, 1968.
In the Trojan Ditch: Collected Poems and Selected Translations. Cheadle, Cheshire, Carcanet, 1974.
The Corridor. Hitchin, Hertfordshire, Mandeville Press, 1975.
Anchises. Manchester, Carcanet, 1976.
Exactions. Manchester, Carcanet, 1980.
Selected Poems. Manchester, Carcanet, 1981; Redding Ridge, Connecticut, Black Swan, 1982.
Night Thoughts and Other Poems. Oxford, Inky Parrot, 1983.
Collected Poems 1943–1983. Manchester, Carcanet, 1984.
God Bless Karl Marx! Manchester, Carcanet, 1987.
16 Sonnets. London, H. and C. Laserprint, 1990.
Antidotes. Manchester, Carcanet, 1991.
Nine Sonnets. Warwick, Greville Press, 1991.
The Pattern. London, Enitharmon, 1993.
What and Who. Manchester, Carcanet, 1994.
Poems, Selected. Manchester, Carcanet, 1995; as Selected Poems, New York, New Directions, 1996.
Collected Poems. Manchester, Carcanet, 1998.
An Asiatic Romance. London, Gaberbocchus, 1953.
Christopher Homm. London, Methuen, 1965.
The Spirit of British Administration and Some European Comparisons. London, Faber, and New York, Praeger, 1959.
Art and Action. London, Methuen, 1965.
Essays. Privately printed, 1967.
English Poetry 1900–1950: An Assessment. London, Hart Davis, 1971.
The Case of Walter Bagehot. London, Faber, 1972.
David Hume. Edinburgh, Ramsay Head Press, 1976.
The Avoidance of Literature: Collected Essays, edited by MichaelSchmidt. Manchester, Carcanet, 1978.
Anglican Essays. Manchester, Carcanet, 1983.
On the Look-Out: A Partial Autobiography. Manchester, Carcanet, 1989.
In Two Minds: Guesses at Other Writers. Manchester, Carcanet, 1990.
English Perspectives: Essays on Liberty and Government. Manchester, Carcanet, 1992.
Is There a Church of England? Reflections on Permanence and Progression. Manchester, Carcanet, 1993.
Editor, A South African Album, by David Wright. Cape Town, Philip, 1976.
Editor, The English Sermon 1650–1750. Manchester, Carcanet, 1976.
Editor, Selected Poems, by Jonathan Swift. Manchester, Carcanet, 1976.
Editor, Jude the Obscure, by Hardy. London, Penguin, 1978.
Editor, Autobiographical and Other Papers, by Philip Mairet. Manchester, Carcanet, 1981.
Editor, The Rash Act, by Ford Madox Ford. Manchester, Carcanet, 1982.
Editor, Selected Poems, by Christina Rossetti. Manchester, Carcanet, 1984.
Editor, Selected Writings, by Jeremy Taylor. Manchester, Carcanet, 1990.
Editor, Poems and Essays on Poetry, by Edgar Allan Poe. Manchester, Carcanet, 1995.
Translator, The Poetic Art: A Translation of Horace's Ars Poetica. Cheadle, Cheshire, Carcanet, 1975.
Translator, De Rerum Natura: The Poem on Nature, by Laucretius. Manchester, Carcanet, 1976.
Translator, Some Tales of La Fontaine. Manchester, Carcanet, 1979.
Translator, The Song of Roland. Manchester, Carcanet, 1983.
Translator, The Regrets, by Joachim Du Bellay. Manchester, Carcanet, 1984.
Translator, The Aeneid, by Virgil. Manchester, Carcanet, 1986.
Translator, Britannicus, Phaedra, Ahaliah. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1987.
Translator, Collected Translations. Manchester, Carcanet, 1996.*
Manuscript Collection: University of Bristol.
Critical Studies: By Martin Seymour-Smith, in X (London), 2(3), 1961, in Agenda (London), summer-autumn 1970, and in Guide to Modern World Literature, London, Wolfe, 1973; by Donald Davie, in Listener (London), 9 May 1974; by Robert Nye, in Times Literary Supplement (London), 29 November 1974; by David Wright, in Agenda (London), autumn 1975; by John Pilling, in Critical Quarterly (Manchester), spring 1979; "C.H. Sisson Issue" of PN Review (Manchester), spring 1984; "The Poetry of Hell and the Poetry of Paradise: Food for Thought for Translators, Critics, Poets and Other Readers" by Valeria Tinkler-Villani, in Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester (Manchester, England), 76(1), spring 1994; "Time's Workings: The Stringent Art of C.H. Sisson" by E.M. Knottenbelt, in In Black and Gold: Contiguous Traditions in Post-War British and Irish Poetry, edited by C.C. Barfoot, Amsterdam, Rodopi, 1994.
C.H. Sisson comments:
My verse is about things that I am, at the moment of writing, just beginning to understand. When I have understood them, or have that impression, the subject has gone, and I have to find another. Or stop. Generally my resolution is to stop, but another subject is found in time, and I begin again. I began by stopping, so to speak, for having written some verse as an adolescent. I gave up at twenty because I had a great respect for poetry and did not think I could write it. The war and exile produced a few hesitant verses, wrung from me, but I stopped again without really having begun. A more productive start was about 1950, when I was already on the declining side del cammin di nostra vita. No wonder, therefore, that my themes have often been age, decline, and death, with the occasional desperate hopes of the receding man. Naturally some facility has come with practice, and the risk now is less from stopping than from going on. One comes to understand too much, or to think one does.
As to verse forms, whether they are what is called regular or not, it is a small matter. I have written in both kinds. What matters is the rhythm, which is the identifying mark of the poem. If that fails, there is no need for a poem; better shut up.
Influences: all one's interests bear, in unexpected ways, on what one writes. Still more, one's poetry may be prophetic of interests one is about to have. The influence of other poets, generally in youth, is deadly while it lasts. There is, however, a deliberate, mature learning that is beneficial. For this purpose I have found translations of the greatest value, with the Latins as the great, though not the only, masters. What I aim at is to make plain statements and not more of them than I need. "It is the nature of man that puzzles me"; I should like to leave a few recognizable, not novel, indications. The man that was the same in Neolithic and in Roman times, as now, is of more interest than the freak of circumstances. This truth lies at the bottom of a well of rhythm.* * *
In his collection God Bless Karl Marx! C.H. Sisson speaks of mankind, himself included, as "treaders of the obvious way." With a life as a career civil servant, it seems a particularly apt description of this apparently conventional man. As any reader of his poems soon discovers, however, appearances belie the truth. Though many of his themes—death, procreation, politics, society—are poetically conventional enough, Sisson is, in fact, an unusually original mind among poets today. This is because his most enduring theme and obsession is the questioning of the reality of consciousness itself: "What is the cure for the disease / Of consciousness?" He does not stop at merely the subverting question but asserts his negative discoveries in a curiously positive, yet never sanctimonious, fashion: "The swindle of the world, the mind / Visited upon humankind, / Reason, ha, ha!"
Sisson reminds one very much of the pessimist Hardy's demand that in order to discover the best we should first have a good look at the worst. Even so, there is nothing morbid—and surprisingly little pure despair—in Sisson's poetry. This has a good deal to do with his remarkably plain but hard-edged style, his pure diction, his acute wit, and his lack of self-pity. The very essence of his style is passion annealed, purified, and clarified to such a degree of limpidity that even his gloomiest diagnoses seem bathed in a curious and personal light, which is odd for such a disbeliever in the reality of the self.
"How superficial is the mind of man!"; uncertainty remains the "end of all," and "no word covers a square inch unharmed"; "I advise / The young who would be wise / They should all read examples / Of the philosophers." One of the principal concerns of Sisson is epistemology—how we know what we think we know:
...I sought to find
What errors might be in a human mind
And to embrace them all, the skimpy ghosts
All through his work is this ceaseless exploration against despair, an excavating at the very roots of consciousness. "There is no question, as it has come to me, of filling note-books with what one knows already," he writes in the foreword to Collected Poems 1943–1983. Yet how, when all is said and done, can Sisson continue to write engaging poetry when his main preoccupation is, to borrow I.A. Richards's phrase, "the meaning of meaning" or, as Sisson might adapt it, "the meaninglessness of meaning"? The answer is quite simply, as I have said, that he has a personal voice of remarkable clarity, totally unmannered but stunningly direct in real authority. Indeed, to reverse the sense, he seems to speak with the authority of the real, and it is his great achievement to do so not by following William Carlos Williams's famous dictum of "no ideas but in things" but by using judiciously both the concrete image and the most precise abstraction. His utterance is instinct with passion, but it is a passion that moves like water under ice.
If there is one image that is both abstract and concrete at the same time and that engages all of Sisson's love, it is England—the England of tradition, faith, and fact. In his poem "Sisson's Goodnight" he would have you understand that "but once I dabbled in the Creed / And England always has my love." This patriotic belief is shored against his own corroding skepticism by the experience that has taught him in the end to be sure at least of this: "For now I know, only the past is true." Sisson's idea of England is not capricious or theoretical, however, but visionary. This is demonstrated conclusively in a late, small poem called "Aller Church," where, though he is walking "under the half-edge of Sedgemoor" in Somerset, he asks, "When shall I see England again?" and realizes that he must content himself not with a precise answer but with the assertion that "this world is not yours." England, if it is anything, is an imaginative, though not imaginary, experience, and, as with the visitations of the muse, it is infrequent but creative when it occurs.
Sisson is not an eccentric but an original. A principal feature of his originality is an obsessive and almost bleak self-criticism:
His youthful walk
And grey moustache
Conceal a heart
Which cannot feel.
The deadness of the heart in old age, the lust attendant upon both youth and age, a highly ambivalent eschatology, a profound disbelief in the self or in "personality," a strong sense not so much of original sin as of the sheer ignorance of humans about anything, and a mercilessly honest way of looking at himself and society ("Iago was an honest man; / I have that reputation")—these are the concerns that have conspired, or driven, Sisson to develop a poetry that is as complete "a criticism of life" as ever Matthew Arnold could have dreamed of when he gave his famous definition to the world. In Sisson's words, "the conscious task" of his poetry "becomes the rejection of whatever appears with the face of familiarity" so that, though any one of his themes may be familiar enough, their bleakly oblique or their dismally direct presentations are somehow always unfamiliar. It is an unfamiliarity—in the words of Donald Davie an "unadvertised drama" of truth and experience—that is set free by a controlled passion transmuted into an instrument of the profoundest irony. Sisson has a thoroughly unsentimental intelligence that also has authored some of the finest and most effective prose of its age, and his work is the most serious corrective available to flabby, facile, or false versifying in our time.
In Antidotes Sisson's tight-lipped skepticism shows a slight shift toward didacticism, sometimes with a whiff of dogma: "The only hope the living have / Is Christ, and never mind the dead." This didacticism finds formal excellence in, for example, "The Quandary," actually a soliloquy that shows what a fine traditional metrical craftsman he is. But there is a problem in that his restless, passionate, but despairing nature—productive though it is of beautiful if bleak utterance—is unable to celebrate unreservedly and so must either repeat itself, like a needle stuck in a worn groove, or obsessively question words and the reality of reality:
—Only another lie
As once there was in youth:
Then, that the body spoke,
Now, that old age is truth.
Elsewhere he says, "When we name that, we say what we cannot know" and "How, in the end, can anybody say / That his life had this or that thing in it, / Or that it failed or succeeded, caught, / As all time is, in multiples of nought?"
Sisson surely is our greatest, purest nihilist, yet he is driven by such passion as to make his nihilism believable by making poetry of it. This happens, for instance, in the spare, grim, sad "Thurloxton," where feeling redeems nihilism and makes it poetry.
Until I had read the later work of Sisson, I would not have believed it possible to make so much beauty out of so much doubt. In What and Who, published for his eightieth birthday, Sisson's great crisis of identity continues to be obsessively explored, but as in Antidotes, so in this volume there is wonderful and beautiful relief to be found from time to time. He is, as one blurb says, "one of Britain's finest living writers," though not, given his remorseless negativity, ever likely to be one of its most popular.