C.H. Sisson

C.H. Sisson most recent books are Selected Poems and English Poetry 1900-1950: An Assessment. A former civil servant, he is the author of The Spirit of British Administration.

Another candidate for recollection Is Charles Worlock, surely from my mother’s family, For they farmed in Gloucestershire since who knows when – Perhaps since Saxon times there on the marches – And he embarked under the shining arches Of North Star and Plough, 22, fair, 5 ft 10, No further away than Bristol, to where he would see The blaze instead of southern constellations.


A Poetry of Opposites

C.H. Sisson, 9 July 1992

Whatever may now be the state of the market for A Shropshire Lad, the poetry of A.E. Housman has certainly been among the most read of the 20th century. Or in the 20th century, for the earlier poems belong to the end of the nineteenth. When A Shropshire Lad was published in 1896, it was at the author’s own expense; presumably it did not then look like work that would attract the public. It was not in the drift of the times: Housman was not the man to be a ‘companion of the Cheshire Cheese’. It was not quite the thing for the Yellow Book. Housman was six years older than Yeats and eight years older than Lionel Johnson, but they were much more dependent than he was on the work of the Victorian era, and it was the novelty of his tone which set him apart. The moment of the break-up of existing verse-forms, with Pound and his associates, still lay ahead. Housman was not that kind of innovator; he felt rather for the relatively straightforward rhythms of Heine and the Border Ballads, but he imported into them an entirely individual content.


C.H. Sisson, 27 September 1990

What sort of a poet is Donald Davie? The factual answer, as with all poets, is to be found only in a volume such as the Collected Poems which he now lays before the public, but Davie himself appears to have worried more than most practitioners about what kind of poetry he was writing and – if one can put it that way – about the politics of style. He first came to notice as one of the Movement poets of the Fifties, which marks him as originally associated with, among others, Thom Gunn, Elizabeth Jennings and Philip Larkin. No less than they, he has gone his own way and no purpose is served by hanging this historical label round his neck now. Even in its time it contributed more to publicity than to enlightenment. Robert Conquest, as editor of the group’s anthology New Lines (1956), claimed that what the members had in common was a ‘negative determination to avoid bad principles’. What bad principles? It fell to Davie to define as well as to denounce these evils, or at any rate to be specific as to the good works proposed as an alternative. He has described his first book of criticism, Purity of Diction in English Verse (1952), as ‘a thinly-disguised manifesto’, and Articulate Energy, which followed in 1955, as having grown ‘quite immediately out of’ it. Yet, though the later book may have been conceived as polemical, it turned out to have a more valuable function as a work of exploration. It was nothing less than ‘An Inquiry into the Syntax of English Poetry’. English poetry? There was some confusion in the Movement about a ‘return to Hardy’, and twenty years later Davie himself was asserting that the work of Carlos Williams had ‘nothing to do with an inquiry into English poetry’, thus endorsing the popular – and, as I think, mistaken – view that there could be an American poetry which had severed ‘all ties with English poetry’.’

Poem: ‘Turf’

C.H. Sisson, 10 May 1990

What fever is Burning under the shrunk turf of our days? The sky is dark with winter, but what rises Smokily from the heap distinctly says: Here is fire: and yet a thousand ways

Promises chill. A vast uneasiness shifts in the air. No one can name it, and whatever ill It brings forebodingly cannot declare Itself. Is then nothing but nothing there?

Nothing perhaps Is what it is. Evil walks up...

Man of God

C.H. Sisson, 22 March 1990

It cannot be easy to be Archbishop of Canterbury. The holder is open to all the confusions of public life, yet has to follow threads which are invisible to many of those who do business with him or question him as to the meaning of his pronouncements. As the successor of St Augustine, he has to look back on two thousand years and more of history; as the butt of politicians and journalists, he has to justify himself to a world in which the language of Christianity has become merely vestigial. The complexities of the situation are endless.

Ancient Orthodoxies

C.K. Stead, 23 May 1991

‘Aller Moor’, the first poem in Antidotes, begins And now the distance seems to grow Between myself and that I know: It is from a strange land I speak And a far stranger that I...

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In a Dry Place

Nicolas Tredell, 11 October 1990

Autobiography is an art of reticence as well as revelation. But the 20th century, reacting against supposed Victorian prudery, takes its cues from Rousseau and Freud to urge ‘frankness as...

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Other Poems and Other Poets

Donald Davie, 20 September 1984

Landor wrote: ‘Many, although they believe they discover in a contemporary the qualities which elevate him above the rest, yet hesitate to acknowledge it; part, because they are fearful of...

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D.A.N. Jones, 5 April 1984

There is a church in Fleet Street, almost opposite El Vino, where Richard Baxter used to preach in 1660. Baxter’s reconciling, ecumenical attitude toward churches and public worship is...

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Dear Lad

Penelope Fitzgerald, 19 March 1981

Charles Ashbee – C.R.A., as he asked to be called – must be counted as a successful man. He was an architect whose houses stood up, a designer whose work has always been appreciated,...

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Men at forty

Derek Mahon, 21 August 1980

The first poem by Donald Justice I ever read was the much anthologised sestina, ‘Here in Katmandu’: We have climbed the mountain, There’s nothing more to do ... It seemed to...

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