C. H. Sisson
B. 1914 D. 2003
The last English modernist ? Guardian
About C. H. Sisson
C. H. Sisson died in 2003 at the age of 89. He was known as a critic, political theorist, poet, novelist, and translator. He was a great friend of the critic and writer Donald Davie, with whom he corresponded regularly. His obituary in the Telegraph remembers him as, “A shy, private man…[who] devoted most of his life to serving the Civil Service” – an assessment which belies his fierceness as a critic (encompassing the longstanding defence of his high-Tory views, and persistent mockery of the Left-liberal establishment), his devout Anglicanism, and enduring achievement as a poet.
Born into a lower middle class family in Bristol in 1914, he was educated at the University of Bristol, where he read English and Philosophy, and in France and Germany. During the Second World War he served in India. Sisson entered the Ministry of Labour in 1936, and continued to work for the Civil Service until his retirement in 1972. The Spirit of British Administration (1959) was the product of a research fellowship, and compared British with French, (then West) German, Swedish, Austrian, and Spanish administrative methods. Despite his fundamental belief in the British way of doing things, he became a noted critic of the institution, and some of his essays caused controversy. His collection The London Zoo bears the epitaph, “Here lies a civil servant. He was civil / To everyone, and servant to the devil.” In 1937 he married Nora Gilbertson (d. 2003); they had two daughters. In 1993 he was appointed a Companion of Honour for his services to Literature.
Sisson admired writers like Marvell, Barnes, and Swift as men of social engagement, and thought that poetry matured best in a world of real responsibilities. As a poet 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. Sisson was a Tory, “a four-letter word,” as he put it, but his Toryism was one of “profound scepticism.” Called by some ‘the last English modernist’, his poetry follows in a tradition partly of his own discerning, through Hulme, Eliot, Pound (who caused him “one of those real adjustments of mind which even the most omnivorous reader can expect from only a few writers”), Ford Madox Ford and Wyndham Lewis. His work experiments with form and register, but crucially allows for the possibility of a religious dimension. Some of his poems are in exacting, Metaphysical forms, others in a free verse that takes its bearings from Eliot and Pound. Sisson was a prolific translator, and he credited the shifts and developments of his own poetry in part to the translations he made of Catullus, Virgil, Lucretius, and Dante, among others; revealingly, he called translating, “fishing in other men’s waters,” and further remarked, “I seem to have undertaken the translations in order to rid the voice of a certain monotony.” In the Trojan Ditch, a volume which includes a selection of his translations, appeared in 1974. Sisson has been called, “a wholly English phenomenon, a man as English as MacDiarmid is Scottish or Clarke is Irish,” and central to his poetry is the tension between satire and lyricism. His poems regard the literary production of emotion with suspicion, and are often acerbic, yet are able to produce a kind of harsh beauty. In this, his use of rhythm is paramount: “Reason may convince, but it is rhythm that persuades,” he quoted a French critic as saying. He was also a poet of place, and made the landscapes of Somerset his own.
Michael Schmidt, editor at Carcanet (and of PN Review, the magazine which Sisson also edited), has selected four of Sisson’s poems to be featured on the Archive. ‘The Usk’ was described by Donald Davie as “one of the great poems of our time,” and demonstrates Sisson’s distinctive use of rhythm, alongside his mastery of the tight, associative free verse which remains his outstanding achievement:
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.
These recordings are taken from C H Sisson: Selected Poems read by C H Sisson (Canto, 2001), used by permission of Carcanet Press.