Sunday, February 16, 2014

`The Point of Literature is Something Different'

Chief among the regrets of a dedicated reader is postponed discovery. A skeptic might counter that a teacher appears only when the student is ready. If so, I’m the perennial slow learner, the late-bloomer in the literary garden. The loss is mine. Exhibit A: C.H. Sisson (1914-2003). I date my first reading of the poet to just four years ago, thanks only to the suggestions of a more industrious friend. Part of the problem is the mid-Atlantic trade barrier. Not every English or American writer travels well; some, hardly at all. We import Duffy and Hughes but little Jennings and Enright. Much of Sisson’s best work, including his Collected Poems (1998), has never been published in the U.S., so I rely on English editions from my university library and a few volumes I’ve ordered from England. 

Not that he was ever a barnburner at home. Sisson possessed the true Tory spirit of independence, metaphorically and as defined by Dr. Johnson: “One who adheres to the ancient constitution of the state, and the apostolic hierarchy of the Church of England.” He was born in Bristol, where he attended the university, and was the son of a clockmaker and optician. He entered the Civil Service in 1936, served in the army during World War II  and retired from the Ministry of Labour in 1972. He was never an academic, hipster or activist. As he writes of the nineteenth-century Dorset poet William Barnes: "He was not what you could call maudit." Sisson published a novel, much poetry and non-fiction, and became one of the supreme translators of the age (Virgil, Catullus, Horace, The Song of Roland, Dante, Racine, La Fontaine, Heine, among others). What follows is a Sisson Sampler drawn from the volumes I’ve read this week. This passage is from “Call no man happy until he is dead,” in English Perspectives: Essays on Liberty and Government (Carcanet, 1992): 

“You cannot be Plato in Bechuanaland or George Herbert in Connecticut. You cannot be in the Italy of the twentieth century a man of the first century A.D. So in fact you are largely directed from the outside, however little you like to think so, and it is not so much a recommendation I am giving you as a short view of the nature of things [Sisson also translated Lucretius].”

From the volume Sisson wrote about his favorite bĂȘte noire, The Case of Walter Bagehot (Faber and Faber, 1972): 

“It is indeed characteristic of Bagehot in his literary essays that he sets up, not man as the measure of all things but the mere man of affairs as the measure of his betters. In a sense he could not help this, for he was himself that mere man of affairs, only endowed with a certain facility of pen which is not to be taken for granted in such people, though the weakness is more common than it was in Bagehot’s day.” 

From “Natural History” in Art and Action (Methuen, 1965): 

“It is an absurdity to try to be original. You might as well try to be beautiful or intelligent.” 

“One imagines that Shakespeare could turn anything to account because his receiving apparatus was as nearly perfect as could be, but most writers can manage only a few scratchings on the limited subject-matters of which, amidst the general obscurity of their lives, they manage to apprehend something more or less concretely.” 

From “Conclusion” in English Poetry 1900-1950: An Assessment (Rupert Hart-Davis, 1971):

“If Dante and Catullus, Horace or Raleigh, or some equivalent figures, are not of actual importance to you, in terms of pleasure and enlightenment to be got from their works here and now, then literature—the designation of the permanent elements in man—is not what you are interested in as you turn to the weeklies and the Sunday supplements. There is always the great, excitable flow of politics and fashion, but the point of literature is something different.” 

And “Up the Arts!” from Collected Poems: 

“Shall we make legends of our silly selves?
The lies invented by the semi-great,
By Yeats for example, cut no ice:
After a few years the truth shows through
And where is folly of invention then?
The folly heightened, the invention fallen,
The bright surface crack, and underneath
The muddy water slinks away to the sea
Or lurks still to be lost below the weeds.
All nature will resume her homely sway;
What grew will grow, what was invented, die.”

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