In a Dry Place

Nicolas Tredell

  • On the Look-Out: A Partial Autobiography by C.H. Sisson
    Carcanet, 234 pp, £14.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 85635 758 8
  • In Two Minds: Guesses at Other Writers by C.H. Sisson
    Carcanet, 296 pp, £18.95, September 1990, ISBN 0 85635 877 0

Autobiography is an art of reticence as well as revelation. But the 20th century, reacting against supposed Victorian prudery, takes its cues from Rousseau and Freud to urge ‘frankness as never before’: autobiography should be the scene of revelation, a public confessional, an equivalent, in book form, of the newspaper exposé that ‘tells all’. But all can never be told: one can never escape one’s life, one’s language, one’s cultural situation to give a full report. As the poem at the end of C.H. Sisson’s ‘partial autobiography’ says:

To be on the outside and yet to speak
Is not a thing the mind of man can compass.

All autobiographies are partial, both because they cannot utter everything and because they cannot stand wholly outside their subject. Sisson’s poem puts it this way:

inside I am inside something else
Than the completed life and cannot break
The circle of it to see it as it is.

This might seem to sanction a solipsistic self-absorption. But only if one assumes that to be inside one’s life is to be inside an essential self. In recent years, the demand for autobiographical frankness has been complicated by the dissemination of the view that no such self really exists, that it is a chimera born of the troubled marriage of language and libido. Sisson would hardly descend to such discourse but, from the standpoint of a modern classicism informed by Eliot and Hulme, he is sceptical of the existence of the ‘self’ in any vulgar sense. At the start of On the Look-Out, he observes that he has ‘the greatest difficulty in believing in the existence of human personality’, and that this ‘puts some difficulties in the way of an autobiography’. But critics and theorists of autobiography are not now likely to see the genre as the expression, in some relatively simple way, of a ‘personality’, but rather as a mode in which a self or selves are created or – today’s preferred term – constructed. Sisson – whose plainness, in poetry and prose, has always been a complex matter – has produced, in On the Look-Out, a complex autobiography, the very form of which makes the ‘self’ a dubious entity.

Sisson’s Preface frankly acknowledges that the autobiography is built up mainly from two manuscripts, both largely written long ago. One, which forms the middle part of this book, gives an account of the two and a half years he spent in India during the war: it was his first piece of writing after leaving the Army in 1945. The other manuscript, which forms the first and third parts of the book, tells of his life from 1964 to 1914 – that way round. So the narrative is hardly straightforward: Parts One and Three run roughly backwards. This ‘backward march of events’ is the same technique that is used in Sisson’s remarkable novel, Christopher Homm. Part Two does move forward, but, like a novel, uses the third person, and dialogue, to evoke the Indian experiences of a BOR – a British Other Rank – called Pearce. Poems written at the time of Sisson’s passage to India are interleaved into chapters of Part Two, and each chapter of the other parts ends with lines which, as Sisson puts it, ‘might not have existed if I had not lived through the time in question’.

The effect of the reverse chronology is complex. The usual forward movement of an autobiography or biography, even when we know or can predict the story, gives a sense of progressive development, of movement towards a goal. Though that sense may still start to grow in individual episodes, to run the tape backwards is to check it, to arrest the leap of the heart as it bounds up. We are given a stronger sense of inevitability, of moments which, open when they were lived, are now frozen in time: each scene approaches an iconic stasis. But the reversal has another, contradictory effect. Sisson’s Preface proffers a theme for the whole work: ‘On the Look-Out is the story of a man who, after some resistance, had to admit to being a poet.’ In that perspective, the autobiography is a real-life Künstlerroman, and it would be possible to read it as a tale of literary triumph, of laurels wrung from a lifetime’s obscure labours. Today’s Sisson – poet, novelist, translator, essayist, polemicist, political writer – was, three decades ago, almost unknown. Sartre was fascinated and fazed by the way in which the achievement of literary, or any other, success or notoriety confers a retrospective order on contingency, and, to a certain extent, we cannot help but read Sisson’s past in the light of the successful literary man who opens and closes the book, who is indeed, as it begins, important enough to be the subject of a film – though, as he notes, there is irony, for a poet, in such celluloid confirmation. But if the reverse chronology strengthens the sense of inevitability in respect of specific moments in the past, it increases the sense of contingency with regard to final success. We do not move towards that success but away from it, and we glimpse how this life might have looked without literary recognition. Sisson remarks: ‘It is difficult to see the point of this recital of my life; but as it has often been like that in the living, as well as in the telling, perhaps that is not necessarily a bad sign.’ The reverse chronology, partly releasing the episodes from the gravitational pull of a goal, contributes to that sense of pointlessness, of, in Larkin’s words, ‘what happened to happen’.

The first part of On the Look-Out runs from 1964 to 1945. The opening sections evoke an ordered but quietly odd life. Sisson, then an Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Labour, is a kind of double agent, loyal both to the Crown and to literature. ‘Organised as a dichotomy’, he moves between the corridors of power and the demi-monde of poets’ pubs. Like the Eliot he admires and the Wallace Stevens he deplores, you wouldn’t think he was a poet, to look at him: ‘When I am deposited at my desk I become, as nearly as may be, purely functional.’ But his office is in St James’s Square, and a seductive symbol can be seen from the window: the London Library. At lunchtime, he takes to the streets: his ‘natural tropism’ is ‘towards the second-hand bookshops of the Charing Cross Road’. Occasionally, the day’s work done, he goes to pubs and meets poets: David Wright, ‘a literary instrument of precision’, and a long-time friend and supporter; Patrick Kavanagh, who was to be approached ‘with a large whisky in one’s outstretched hand’; George Barker, first seen ‘wearing a check suit and cap, all very new, as if in the course of an attempt to prove that he was not a poet but a bookmaker’. But here too, he feels, as a poet, barely visible: the visible poets speak well of his work, but he reflects that ‘already on the declining side of forty-five, I had not then published a volume of verse.’ His poems, essays and reviews had, however, appeared in print, in now-vanished magazines which he discusses interestingly – certainly future cultural historians should consult his remarks on X, Catacomb, and the New English Weekly edited by Philip Mairet, a man of integrity and enthusiasm whom Sisson affectionately evokes: ‘his eyes would light up as visibly as the bulbs on a pin-table, as the ideas rattled round.’ The bohemian world of poets, painters and little magazines, the ‘natural antithesis’ of his own, intrigues him and he greatly admires its ‘economic nonchalance’. But, like Larkin, he does not shout: ‘Stuff your pension!’ To an important extent, the first part of this autobiography is the story of a middle-aged man inching his way, awkwardly and sometimes painfully, toward public confirmation of a covert, provisional identity: that of poet.

It is also the story of a middle-aged man publicly confirming his identity as a Christian. Sisson compares joining the Church of England to giving oneself up to the police. ‘I had committed the crime – if it is one – of yielding to the persuasions of the Creed, some time before, gradually, I am not sure when.’ While acknowledging that there ‘is a modern mind which finds it impossible to justify joining the Church’, he suggests that to do so is not to deny any of the facts of the world: ‘one was merely removing a prejudice which concealed the miraculous nature of the creation.’ Sisson’s austere, reticent style is especially effective in this chapter; he partly follows Wittgenstein’s injunction to be silent about that whereof we cannot speak, but of course he is not wholly silent, and his restraint is a kind of eloquence. He suggests that, while in one sense he cannot say how he came to join the Church, in another sense the whole book does so. In this perspective, the chapter could be seen as the crux of the narrative, which gives another meaning to the paradoxical effects of inevitability and contingency produced by the chronological reversals. Both are redeemed in a spiritual autobiography which is also a pattern of timeless moments. On the Look-Out, seen thus, is the story of a man who, after some resistance, had to admit to being a Christian.

A further Sisson who emerges from these pages is the student, as well as the practitioner, of public administration. He looks into its practice in France, visiting the Ecole Normale d’Administration and staying at provincial prefectures – in particular, a splendid one at Nevers, like a setting in a Balzac novel, where the dining-room walls dazzle with mirrors and Sisson sleeps in incomparable velvet hangings. He goes to the Germany he has not visited since the Thirties, the reconstructed post-war West Germany, and receives an odd impression in Bonn: ‘Either there had not been a war at all, or the Germans had been on our side.’ He also visits Vienna, Madrid, Stockholm. Prior to these European excursions, he goes north, to an English city, with a university whose Department of Government has granted him a research fellowship, but he finds the city uncongenial, to put it mildly: ‘Manchester is one of those disgraces by which the human race advertises the squalor and turpitude of its mind.’ Theme for an imaginary dialogue: C.H. Sisson, poet, civil servant and student of government, meets Michel Butor, French novelist, passing time in Bleston, his Manchester of the mind.

The result of all these researches was Sisson’s book The Spirit of British Administration. When this finally came out, in 1959, he felt that any future book he produced would have to be on administrative topics. In ‘the last despairing gesture of a failed literary man’, he decided to print a pamphlet of poems at his own expense. It was this pamphlet that drew the attention of Tony Cronin and David Wright on the magazine X. Wright has always felt, as he has said elsewhere, ‘that the “discovery” of Chas S. was one of its main achievements’ (see Letters to an Editor, edited by Mark Fisher). It certainly helped to suggest that the senior servant of the Crown might also be an honourable servant of the Muse.

In the Second World War, Sisson served the Crown not as a civil servant but as a common soldier. He tells this soldier’s tale in the persona of Pearce, who need not be wholly identified with Sisson. Pearce’s passage to India is not E.M. Forster’s: the troubled tolerance of a privileged liberal is replaced by a tighter consciousness. A sense of cultural superiority at times surges up strongly: ‘he felt the oppression of a tradition backed up by centuries not of Christianity and respect for the human person but superstition, torture, even (not so far away) self-immolation and human sacrifice.’ But Pearce also perceives and pities suffering, and acknowledges injustice (not least that which he, in a relatively minor way, perpetrates). He is savage at the stupidity and selfishness of the sahibs and memsahibs, epitomised, comically and painfully, in a magazine called the Onlooker, which even runs to verse:

Most things are expensive,
And soaring every day;
Coolies are offensive,
Demanding double pay.

Pearce reflects: ‘The British out here were ripe for a kick in the seat of the pants. And of the knickers.’ It is the last decade of the British Raj, the twilight of Empire. But his experiences are not all negative: there are moments of strange exaltation – on a pony ride, for example: ‘Pearce was on fire with ecstasy from crown to stirrup. He rode on almost in blindness.’ Pearce is a man of some culture – he reads Dante and Shakespeare, thinks of Odysseus as he travels home – but the lineaments of his experiences may be typical of those ‘BOR’s’ who served in the colonies during the war. And his lack of liberal sympathy may have one merit: for it is perhaps a further refinement and extension of Imperialism to seek, in sub-Forsterian fashion, to appropriate a colonised culture as a romantic alternative to, and critique of, one’s own. For Pearce, the alien culture remains other, and not as an image of mystical inaccessibility. His passage to India confirms his identity as an Englishman.

The third part of On the Look-Out moves backwards through Sisson’s enlistment in the Army; his recruitment to, and early days in, the Civil Service; his travels as a young man in a Europe heading towards war; his student days at the University of Bristol; his schooling and infanthood; and his birth in a room which he tells us, as if to offset any Eliotic mysticism of ‘in my beginning is my end,’ is now the Bristol Rovers Supporters Club. Two important, interwoven themes are the growth of a poetics and a politics. In the Thirties, he feels excluded from, and averse to, ‘the Oxford-public school world which seemed, in my particular perspective, to hold the keys alike of politics and letters’. The great moderns form him. At 14, he reads Drinkwater, at 15, Brooke and Flecker; in the Sixth Form, he has ‘a passionate affair with Dante Gabriel Rossetti’, who becomes ‘an obsession’. But he asks for Eliot’s Poems 1909-25 as his school leaving prize in 1931. At university, he ‘was taught literature by the light of Bradley and Saintsbury but learned it by the light of Eliot and Pound’. They provide the ‘books from which ... one did not recover’.

His political formation is furthered in foreign parts. In Paris in 1935, as the Italians advance on Addis Ababa, he reads the Action Française and devours Maurras, though not uncritically: ‘I could see even in those days that, although clever, he was not clever enough.’ In 1934 in Germany, he sees the Nazis at first hand, glimpsing Hitler and Goering, and being present at a lecture by Theodore Haecker in Munich that is silenced by the stamping of stormtroopers. In the University of Berlin, the corridors of learning ‘clattered with the jackboots of stormtroopers. If one ate in the canteen one hardly had the impression of being among the most cultivated part of the population. Whatever forces might be supposed to guide it, the Nazi movement was certainly a revolution of the lower orders.’ Nazism, for Sisson, is republican populism run riot. Earlier, at university, a crucial text in his political and poetic formation, another book from which he never recovered, was T.E. Hulme’s Speculations, with the Complete Poetical Works appended. ‘It was the perfect antidote to liberalism and romanticism.’

Sisson has remained hostile to liberalism and romanticism, but On the Look-Out demonstrates that his conservatism should not be confused with conformity. He confesses to ‘the ineluctable and persistent habit of doing what was supposed to be my duty’, but he has the qualities he attributes to Swift in an admiring essay in In Two Minds: he is an ‘awkward customer’, who is ‘of a nature to keep a certain distance between himself and the authorities’.

We see him at odds with the left-Oxbridge ethos of the Thirties, with (in the person of Pearce) the OC Troops who tries to censor a letter which shows the OC in an unflattering light, and, most dramatically, with the Civil Service mandarinate. This last clash results in the denial of his promised promotion and leads him to ‘set the seal’ on his ‘disgrace by publishing in the Spectator three knowledgeable articles about the management of the Civil Service, which was then reaching a pitch of folly under the late Sir William (afterwards Lord) Armstrong’. On the Look-Out is also, it should be said, often very funny, with touches of dry, sometimes self-mocking humour that can almost escape notice. This, for instance, is how he describes his resignation, under a cloud, from the Civil Service: ‘So I withdrew to Langport as De Gaulle had done to Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, but with the difference that for me there was no possibility of staging a come back.’ His reticence is often eloquence, as when he says, in his account of his return home on a month’s leave that turned into his demobilisation: ‘I went to the outskirts of Reading where my wife and a daughter I had not seen were awaiting me. I shall say nothing more about that evening, or the following morning when a child of mine climbed on my bed for the first time.’ Sisson’s restraint throughout the book serves to enhance its moments of sensuous and spiritual exaltation.

A short autobiographical essay, ‘Natural History’, which provides a useful, and chronologically conventional, complement to On the Look-Out, is one of the elements in his latest collection, In Two Minds. The volume also includes an updated version of Horace’s Ars Poetica, and introductions, essays and reviews. In the essay ‘The Comedy of Criticism’, Sisson remarks that being in two minds is ‘surely the minimum number for any reflection of any interest’, and the phrase functions especially, in the context of this collection, as an image of one’s condition as one reads, and in particular translates, another writer. One is in fact aware throughout this book of three minds that Sisson is in: those of Eliot, Pound and Hulme. Its underlying critical (and political) ideology confirms Sisson’s acknowledgment in On the Look-Out of the formative impact of these writers. Thus Sisson’s attack, in ‘Poetry and Myth’, on Larkin’s rejection of ‘the myth-kitty’ makes us realise how radical, at one time, that rejection could seem – while also implying, probably rightly, that, in the long perspective of time, Larkin’s rebellion was really too small an affair. Sisson’s placing comments, in ‘The Comedy of Criticism’, on Leavis – another admitted, though supposedly lesser influence – are amusing and apposite: but he himself slips into the objectionable Leavisian mode that seeks to drive home a negative judgment by aspersing a writer’s virility. Taking issue with Pater’s characterisation of Joachim du Bellay, he alludes to the author of The Renaissance as ‘the don who fell on his knees to present Oscar Wilde with a lily’. The ritual castrations of this father performed earlier in the 20th century, which may attest to an anxiety of influence that belies the smear of impotence, are surely unnecessary today.

It is interesting to hear Sisson on American poetry – he admires William Carlos Williams, Frost, Ransom, Tate and H.D., but finds Whitman a ‘lout of the Western Protestant decadence’, and regards Wallace Stevens as ‘pernicious’: he ‘writes like a man determined to be subtle, a pseudo-Mallarmé, sometimes a decorator like that other inventor of gewgaws, Edith Sitwell’. The deployment of the signifier ‘Edith Sitwell’ to obtain a stock response of disapprobation is another Leavisian automatism. Throughout this collection there recur appeals to ideological reflexes that belong largely to a past era. Sisson, who would not deny his historical situatedness, is, in a way, a last survivor of the second generation of Modernists.

In Two Minds is at its most energetic and engaging in its enthusiasms: for Swift, for William Barnes, for Crabbe, for Christina Rossetti, for H.D. These pieces are good incentives to read or reread their work. The exploration of the processes of translation, in the essay ‘The Poet and the Translator’, and the pieces on work Sisson has translated – Horace, Virgil, Lucretius, Dante, Catullus – are of considerable interest, both with regard to a general model of translation and in respect of the specific authors. The updated version of Ars Poetica, with an introduction and extensive notes, which begins the volume, is the meeting-place of Sisson’s interests as poet, translator and critic. This collection needs to be taken not only as it stands, but in relation to Sisson’s poems and his poetry translations. Like Eliot’s essays and reviews, Sisson’s are part of his private poetry workshop, to which we are fortunate to have access; and, as with Eliot, his exclusions and endorsements should be judged both for what they are in themselves and in relation to their enabling function for his poetry. The austerities of both In Two Minds and On the Look-Out clear the ground for poetry. To adapt Coleridge’s remarks on Swift, cited in On the Look-Out, Sisson is habitans in sicco – dwelling in a dry place. But there, trees may flower, and springs flow.