No 6 - 1976
The Politics of an English Poet
ONE REASON for thinking that C.H. Sisson is a very powerful presence in present-day English poetry — though not the most accomplished, let alone the most actually or potentially influential — is that he alone among his peers has a politics. A politics, I mean, on a par with, and indeed related to, a poetics; in other words, something much more substantial and respectable than the class-determined or vocationally determined prejudices which pass muster as the politics of the rest of us. At the end of his essay on ‘The Politics of Wyndham Lewis’ (Agenda, VIII, 1, AutumnWinter 1969—70, p. 116), Sisson speculates: ‘If he had re-written his political writings at the end, Lewis would, I think, have escaped from Manicheeism and from the indifference to the affairs of power which lay so uneasily upon him. He would have been driven from a politics designed to defend “the intellectual” (that abstraction of liberal democracy) to one of profounder attachments.’
Profounder attachments. . . . There are of course those who think that an allegiance to ‘class’, in particular to the labouring and exploited poor, is an attachment more profound than any allegiance to ‘the free spirit of enquiry’ or ‘the free play of mind’. But the whole drift of Sisson’s writings proves that this is the last thing he has in mind. And in fact nothing so vindicates one’s sense that Sisson — despite the relative slenderness of his poetry to date — is one in the line of the great modernists (Eliot, Pound, Yeats, yes indeed Wyndham Lewis), as the fact that he, like every one of them, even as his mind reaches forward through time that is to come, at the same time and by that very token reaches improbably far back through time that has been. With him, as with each of them, we have to recognize that ‘modernist’ and ‘traditionalist’, so far from being opposed, are alternate faces of the one coin. Mr Sisson’s politics are far in advance of us to just the extent that he reaches back to, and seeks to revitalize, principles so far behind us in historical time that mostly we have abandoned them to the antiquarian. In short, Mr Sisson is a monarchist.
Before we fling out into confidently dismissing this as the cloak-and-dagger rodomontade of an uncommitted man of letters, we should note that Sisson, unlike any other poet of his or of immediately preceding and succeeding generations (Charles Olson is the nearest American analogue), has behind him twenty years experience of just what political administration means, year by year, day in and day out. It was an Under Secretary at the Ministry of Labour, responsible for the organization and staffing of a Ministry numbering some twenty thousand people (including the employment exchanges), who declared, in The Spirit of British Administration (1959, pp. 150-1):
The singularity of British government, in these days, rests as much in the conception of the Crown as in the conception of Parliament. The Mother of Parliaments basks in her reputation as a progenitor and model, and because democracy is what people now generally talk of, when they talk of government, no one seeks to deny her a certain importance. It is otherwise with the Crown. The monarch enjoys a world-wide publicity, but no one claims to copy us in the matter of the monarchy. Many pity us, and some of us even pity ourselves, for having retained this merely residual thing. For so the monarchy is generally regarded. Yet no student of government, or even of public administration, can afford to pass lightly over the notion of the Crown, nor to take it too readily for granted that the smooth-worn phrase, that Civil Servants are servants of the Crown, has no meaning that has any practical significance.
Again, it was no literary dilettante, but a senior and seasoned civil servant, who remarked (ibid. pp. 156-7):
The maxim that the Queen’s service must be carried on means, among other things, that it is of greatly more importance that there should be a government in Britain than that its complexion should be that of one or another party. It is of the nature of party politics to exaggerate and exacerbate differences and to represent policies, which are merely an aspect of things, as the thing itself. The thing itself is the great res publica whose continuance the Queen wills. She wills, all the time, all those laws which, by and with the advice of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and the Commons, she or her predecessors have enacted and have not repealed. She wills the continuance of all those rights she has protected without enactment. While she broods over this body of laws and institutions, and her servants daily perform the acts which constitute the life and continuance of that corpus, the party managers come along with their medicines and their scalpels to purge or trim some corner of it. The activity of the most fevered session of the House amounts to no more than that. Much is made of these adjustments, and much ought to be made; but more ought always to be made of the great work of time which is the subject of these meddlesome but necessary treatments.
And yet it is after all a poet who says this, no less a poet (rather more, indeed) for being a professional administrator. For that phrase, ‘the great work of time’, sends us, and is meant to send us, to Andrew Marvell’s ‘Horatian Ode on Cromwell’s Return from Ireland’, that pregnantly and designedly ambivalent tribute to Cromwell, the individual who ‘Did by industrious Valour climbe / To ruin the great Work of Time.’ The evidence, if it be needed, is in two essays in Sisson’s Art and Action (1965): ‘Reflections on Marvell’s Ode’; and ‘Second Thoughts on Marvell’. But why should we need this corroboration? To what should a devoted and thoughtful monarchist direct us at this time, if not to the classic confrontation in English literature with the one and only regicide in English history, the execution of Charles the First in 1649?
But this is, to the present-day Englishman, unthinkable! That an Under Secretary at the Ministry of Labour should, within the last twenty years, have thought Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha better politics than the treatises of Locke or the Discourses of Algernon Sidney — it is past belief! It happened, however; and C.H. Sisson’s writings in verse and prose are there to prove it.
Moreover, to make the point once more these outlandish convictions are grounded not in any high-flying theory or fantasy but in the actuality of what it means to be a public administrator in Britain:
For a man who is trying to make a trade agreement, or doing certain sorts of work in relation to foreign affairs or finance, there may be certain parliamentary points to watch but, on the whole, his attention will be fixed on the foreign competitor, on the potential enemy, or on mere figures. The game for him may be the classic game of Richelieu or Machiavelli, though played in the context so different from theirs. It is the game in which the basic assumption is the existence of the realm as a separate entity, and the official is bent above all on keeping it afloat among its neighbours. This, however, is the ultimate assumption too of the administrator whose work is more closely tied to parliamentary affairs. The parliamentary endgame is not an end-game after all, but is important only because it is the index of forces on whose balance the coherence of the realm depends. The administrator, whatever his immediate task, is playing for the survival of the realm. [op. cit. pp. 152-3.]
And it is this hard-nosed awareness of what day-to-day administration is, that produces such unpalatable but (so far as I can see) constitutionally irrefutable apophthegms as (p.159): ‘Elections, and an elected House of Commons, do not produce a government. They merely modify it . . .;’ and (p. 158): ‘It would be perfectly possible to govern England without Parliament or elections though it would certainly not be possible to govern it in this way for long with any efficiency.’
Those who are affronted or outraged by these sentiments, if they cannot disprove them, will know how to deal with them. Noting that their author has written in verse and prose admiringly or at least sympathetically of the French royalist Charles Maurras, they will begin to gobble of ‘private armies’, of ‘crypto-fascism’, of ‘the reactionary right’. Others will note that from where Sisson stands the British political right is if anything more culpable than the left. Walter Bagehot for instance, the Victorian publicist and constitutional theorist, is nowadays more of a hero for the Tories than for the Labour party; yet when Sisson comes to deal with him (The Case of Walter Bagehot, 1972), Bagehot, because he placed the apex of the British Constitution in Parliament rather than in the Crown, deserves and gets no mercy. Accordingly, Sisson is unfair to Bagehot’s 1864 essay on ‘The Pure, the Ornate and the Grotesque’. And when Bagehot says in a love-letter, ‘I have always had an indistinct feeling that my inner life has been too harsh and vacant to give me an abiding hold of some parts of religion’, this is surely touching; Sisson’s comment, that it suggests ‘that not truth but a suitable frame of mind is what is in question’, seems to be both illegitimate and unfeeling. Nor are these the only places in the polemic against Bagehot where Sisson seems to lose his sense of proportion. We need not quarrel with him when he says, ‘No doubt the question of the civil rights of Roman Catholics in England is not one that could be tactfully broached again in Bagehot’s day, any more than it could be in our own, but it is not a matter for astonishment that it was once thought important.’ However, when he goes on, ‘Indeed, it is a question so deeply implicated in our history that it does not die and has not become insignificant, merely changed its form,’ the italics, and the astonishment, are mine. After all even Maurras conceded, at whatever cost in consistency, that the Royalist Huguenots of l’association Sully might be French patriots. And British nonconformists, whether they look to Rome or to Geneva, may choose to remember with some pride that it was Richard Baxter, the patriarch of English Dissent, who told the Lord Protector Cromwell ‘that we took our ancient monarchy to be a blessing, and not an evil, to the land; and humbly craved his patience that I might ask him how England had ever forfeited that blessing, and to whom that forfeiture was made.’ An Englishman does not have to be a member of the Established Church, in order to be either a patriot or a royalist.
Does the point even have to be argued? After all, all of us English are monarchists, are we not, with the possible exception of Mr William Hamilton, M.P.? If we are, presumably we must go along with Sisson when he writes (The Case of Walter Bagehot, pp. 129-30):
Any political unit worth maintaining, or which is anyway to be maintained at all, must contain a principle of foresight and continuity which goes beyond the next series of trade figures, and it will be the foresight of care rather than of calculation. An unreasoning love on the part of its inhabitants is the best safeguard for any country — superior even to that love of private gain in which Adam Smith and Bagehot . . . put such trust.
More disconcerting, because it goes along with T.S. Eliot in Notes Towards the Definition of Culture in elevating, over ‘social consciousness’, one sort of social unconsciousness, is something else that Sisson says (ibid. pp. 127-8):
The final point in the State must rest on a certain incomprehension, and incomprehension is the beginning of theology. Few people now would imagine that they knew what was meant by the Divine Right of Kings, but any one might reach the point of mystification as to the coherence and persistence of national entities, which the hereditary monarchy so well expresses.
Yet must we not, if we are monarchists (and even perhaps if we are not), agree with that too? What is it saying, if not that nationhood is a poetic matter, something that mechanical or rationalist diagrams (‘checks and balances’, ‘division of powers’) must always falsify? My own guess is that even today this is what the bulk of the British nation believes, though mostly it is unaware of believing it.
At any rate these are matters which, through several centuries, the students of English literature were used to having raised for them by that literature, in just these or very similar terms. In our day C.H. Sisson is, if not the only writer, certainly the only poet, to raise them. And this, if nothing else, would make him a powerful presence amongst us. There are still, it must be hoped, those who, when in The Times and elsewhere they see a plea for national unity and the national interest translated immediately into a proposal for coalition government, will think instead of stanzas from Sisson’s noble adaptation of Horace’s ‘Carmen Saeculare’ (from In the Trojan Ditch, Carcanet Press, 1974):
We have been through it all, victory on land and sea,
These things were necessary for your assurance.
The King of France. Once there was even India.
Can you remember the expression ‘Honour’?
There was, at one time, even Modesty.
Nothing is so dead it does not come back.
There is God. There are no Muses without him.
He it is who raises the drug-laden limbs
Which were too heavy until he stood at Saint Martin’s.
It is he who holds London from Wapping to Richmond,
May he hold it a little longer, Saint George’s flag
Flap strenuously in the wind from the west country.
Have you heard the phrase: ‘the only ruler of princes’?
Along the Thames, in the Tower, there is the crown.
I only wish God may hear my children’s prayers.
He bends now over Trafalgar Square.
If there should be a whisper he would hear it.
Are not these drifting figures the chorus?
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The