Skip to main content
Read page text

introduction xiii work. An English poet first and foremost, he is also one of English poetry’s most European-minded, and his sense of a specifically English (as distinct from British) cultural inheritance is matched by his understanding of the European traditions it partakes of and diverges from. The translator of Virgil, Catullus, Lucretius, Dante, Du Bellay, Racine, La Fontaine in bulk, he also assayed a range of writers including, among others, Ovid, Horace, Petrarch, Labé, Gryphius, Boileau, Heine, Corbière and Valéry. ‘Fishing in other men’s waters’, he called translation, though as a poet, and despite his self-avowed short spell as ‘contemporary’, he fishes almost entirely in his own.

There must have been a time when Sisson was young, and perhaps that was when he was contemporary too. But ‘late style’ came early to him. We are struck, as we read him, by how weathered and disabused Sisson’s writing can be, how ambiguously freighted it is by the past, by history, and by a sense of community that often constrains as much as it enhances us. His preoccupations with the relations between Church and State, literature and national life, his special understanding of conservatism, which is civic and pragmatic as well as something more numinous, are hardly fashionable. His writings on administration and governance are so far from the sort of cultural interventions we are used to seeing from poets that it would be tempting to set them apart from the body of his properly literary work (the term ‘properly literary’ is one Sisson would have rejected). But they are not; they are part of it, part of its informing vision.

Even when Sisson’s conservatism might have been fashionable, it was rendered inaudible by noisier simplifications – notably the amnesiac, historically illiterate conservatism of the 1970s and 1980s, and the softly sentimental attachments to tradition and history that accompanied it, often as ways of distracting from its ravages. Where the easier forms of conservatism look to history and tradition for comfort, Sisson tends to look to them for something harder and more testing. In this he resembles another poet-critic, Donald Davie, and both writers, despite differences, were conscious of their common ground: an attraction to modernism (notably Pound) that often seemed at odds with a specifically British literary and cultural inheritance. And the word ‘inheritance’ seems more apposite than mere ‘tradition’, because one cannot choose one’s inheritance, though traditions can

My Bookmarks


Skip to main content