THERE is a reluctance to refer to "Anglican" poets, though the
description is used, for example, of Simon Jarvis in relation to
his poem "Night Office". But Charles Sisson, born in 1914, was
definitely Anglican in his passionate attachment to his idea of a
Church and of a Prayer Book in a place, and as part of a polity, as
distinct from the actual ecclesiastical institution.
His loyalty was not so much to dogmas as to a national
intellectual and poetic tradition running from Hooker to Coleridge.
His poems evoke landscape with a Virgilian exactitude, especially
the landscape of Somerset, to which he retired after a career as a
senior civil servant. One of his best-known poems is "In Insula
There is a paradox here, because he was not at all a local poet
like Clare or Barnes, but steeped in the classical world of
antiquity, and especially the literature it generated in Italy and
France. Geoffrey Hill, another Anglican poet with an extraordinary
European range, speaks of him as drawing on the intellectual
resources of the radical European Right, which is true, for
example, of his interest in Charles Maurras, though his target is
utilitarianism, the religion of stocks and shares, and thin
idealisms of several political varieties which construe the
deplorable state of the world in their own image. Both Sisson and
Hill admired the qualities of Charles Péguy, who died "face down
among the beetroots", "pour la terre charnelle".
Among the political poets of the inter-war period, Sisson's was
a unique voice, challenging the world as seen through the eyes
(say) of Stephen Spender. He was also unique in his criticism of
administrators and their "uncivil" service. Here we find another
paradox, because this unique and individual voice challenged the
very idea of personal identity, claiming, as is pointed out in the
excellent editorial introduction by Charles Louth and Patrick
McGuiness to A C. H. Sisson Reader (Carcanet
Fyfield Books, £19.95 (£17.95); 978-1-84777-265-7), that
"our speaking is that of a race, a tribe, a time."
This introduction also points to an element of mysticism which
emerges in the poetry but is resolutely resisted in his acute
literary criticism and political commentary. Here his models were
the poet-politician Andrew Marvell, and T. E. Hulme, with his grim
knowledge of the ravages of sin. Like Webster, Sisson was much
concerned with death, standing on this "last promontory" to survey
the landscapes that he loved.
Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the London School of