Friday, September 04, 2015

`Important People Think It Funny'

“It is in these poems that we become acquainted, not with a mere literary performer—though Du Bellay was a skilful one—but with the mind of a man who survives the differences of centuries and speaks to us directly. This is the real test of literature, and the reason why the fashions and reputations of particular ages, including our own, do not count for much.”

In anything I have read by C.H. Sisson, even an introduction to a translation aimed at a general, non-academic audience, I finally hear the distinctive Sisson note – confident, learned and with adversaries lurking in the underbrush. The passage above is from his 1984 translation of The Regrets (Carcanet) by Joachim Du Bellay (1522-1560). Sisson might be describing Du Bellay’s younger contemporary, Montaigne (1533-1592). Both were defined by headstrong waywardness, recognition of tradition coupled with an inability to be other than themselves. Obviously, that also applies to Sisson, who distinguishes Les Regrets from Du Bellay’s other work by describing the sonnets as “more weighty, if still casually voiced, reflections.” A retired civil servant by the time he was translating Du Bellay, Sisson felt kinship with Du Bellay, who in 1553 went to Rome to work as secretary to his cousin, a cardinal and diplomat (Sonnet 39: “I love liberty, but I am a servant, / I don’t like servile manners, but must have them.”). Like Montaigne, both were men of affairs who knew the obligations of public service. None inhabited the garret. Here is Sisson’s translation of the eleventh sonnet in the sequence:

“Although people at large have nothing to do with poetry,
Although it is not a way of getting rich,
Although soldiers need not carry it with their kit
And to the ambitious it is merely silly:
Although important people think it funny
And those who are clever keep away from it,
Although Du Bellay is sufficient witness
To prove it not a skill that is valued highly:
Though writing for nothing seems idiotic to courtiers,
Though workmen don’t expect payment from sonneteers,
And although following the Muse is the way to be poor,
Yet I don’t feel tempted to give up
Because writing poems is my only comfort
And the Muse has given me six years writing and more.”

In 1965, Sisson published an essay on the Dorset poet William Barnes (1801-1886), who was energetically prolific and often wrote in the Dorset dialect.  Sisson says Barnes was “not a local poet except by accident,” one who “exploited the natural speech of his boyhood.” He writes:

“His use of dialect probably enabled him to maintain his liberty of feeling amidst the uncomprehending pressures he must have faced from his social superiors. Barnes is not there to encourage a factitious oddity, but on the contrary to demonstrate that the poet has to develop in a straight line from his origins, and that the avoidance of literature is indispensable for the man who wants to tell the truth.”

When Carcanet published his collected essays in 1978, including the piece on Barnes, Sisson titled the volume The Avoidance of Literature.

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