Sunday, October 09, 2016

`Words That Are As Plain As This'

Kenneth Baker in The Faber Book of Conservatism (1993) includes, along with passages from such prose worthies as Swift, Burke, Newman, Oakeshott and Enoch Powell, a surprisingly substantial selection of good poems. Here you’ll find Dryden, Pope, Tennyson, Kipling, Yeats and Larkin. As a caution or clarification, Baker also gives us “The Past” (Not Waving But Drowning, 1957) by Steve Smith:  

“People who are always praising the past
And especially the times of faith as best
Ought to go and live in the Middle Ages
And be burnt at the stake as witches and sages.”

Perhaps as an implicit gloss on Smith’s poem, Baker’s next entry is a passage from Roger Scruton’s The Meaning of Conservatism (1980), including this: “Naturally, nostalgia for the past is more reasonable than nostalgia for the future; nevertheless it is, like every form of sentimentality, a way of `standing back’, a refusal to engage in the practice of rational life.” After Scruton comes another healthy dose of realism, C.H. Sisson’s “The Commonplace” (Exactions, 1980):

“A commonplace is good for nothing now
Yet that is how the world goes, all the same:
Nothing is what you had when you set out,
And nothing you will have when you go home.”

Sisson makes another appearance in Baker’s anthology: “For Canon Brown, Who Likes Contemporary Speech.” I don’t find this poem in Carcanet’s Collected Poems (1998), and don’t remember having read it before. At twenty-two lines, it’s too long to quote in full. Sisson is Swiftian in his rage. Here are his closing lines:

“While you defile the parish pump
Some of us like our water clean
And like to use words we can mean.
And so did Cranmer, who had to cook
For standing by his common book.
Write me a Book of Common Prayer
That is not made up of hot air
With words that are as plain as this
And, oh boy! That will take the piss
Out of those who wrote Series 3
And (I confess) out of me.”

The ruckus described occurred in England thirty-seven years ago, the same year Margaret Thatcher became prime minister. Here is Baker’s gloss for American readers:

“In the winter of 1979 the debates over the use of the Cranmer liturgy as opposed to the modern English version Series 3 came to a head. A pro-Cranmer petition was signed by 600 well-known people and a Canon Brown from Devizes wrote to the Guardian, saying that such matters should be left to the Church. This so incensed the poet C.H. Sisson that he wrote this poem and travelled to Devizes to pin it, like a latter-day Luther, to the door of Canon Brown’s church. Alas, the organist found it first and took it down. But it should not be lost to posterity.”

This may be the first and only publication of Sisson’s poem.

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