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Prayer Book poet

by
06 February 2015

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 Avalonia".

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.

David Martin

Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics

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