C.H. Sisson

C.H. Sisson most recent books are Selected Poems and English Poetry 1900-1950: An Assessment. A former civil servant, he is the author of The Spirit of British Administration.

Another candidate for recollection Is Charles Worlock, surely from my mother’s family, For they farmed in Gloucestershire since who knows when – Perhaps since Saxon times there on the marches – And he embarked under the shining arches Of North Star and Plough, 22, fair, 5 ft 10, No further away than Bristol, to where he would see The blaze instead of southern constellations.


A Poetry of Opposites

C.H. Sisson, 9 July 1992

Whatever may now be the state of the market for A Shropshire Lad, the poetry of A.E. Housman has certainly been among the most read of the 20th century. Or in the 20th century, for the earlier poems belong to the end of the nineteenth. When A Shropshire Lad was published in 1896, it was at the author’s own expense; presumably it did not then look like work that would attract the public. It was not in the drift of the times: Housman was not the man to be a ‘companion of the Cheshire Cheese’. It was not quite the thing for the Yellow Book. Housman was six years older than Yeats and eight years older than Lionel Johnson, but they were much more dependent than he was on the work of the Victorian era, and it was the novelty of his tone which set him apart. The moment of the break-up of existing verse-forms, with Pound and his associates, still lay ahead. Housman was not that kind of innovator; he felt rather for the relatively straightforward rhythms of Heine and the Border Ballads, but he imported into them an entirely individual content.


C.H. Sisson, 27 September 1990

What sort of a poet is Donald Davie? The factual answer, as with all poets, is to be found only in a volume such as the Collected Poems which he now lays before the public, but Davie himself appears to have worried more than most practitioners about what kind of poetry he was writing and – if one can put it that way – about the politics of style. He first came to notice as one of the Movement poets of the Fifties, which marks him as originally associated with, among others, Thom Gunn, Elizabeth Jennings and Philip Larkin. No less than they, he has gone his own way and no purpose is served by hanging this historical label round his neck now. Even in its time it contributed more to publicity than to enlightenment. Robert Conquest, as editor of the group’s anthology New Lines (1956), claimed that what the members had in common was a ‘negative determination to avoid bad principles’. What bad principles? It fell to Davie to define as well as to denounce these evils, or at any rate to be specific as to the good works proposed as an alternative. He has described his first book of criticism, Purity of Diction in English Verse (1952), as ‘a thinly-disguised manifesto’, and Articulate Energy, which followed in 1955, as having grown ‘quite immediately out of’ it. Yet, though the later book may have been conceived as polemical, it turned out to have a more valuable function as a work of exploration. It was nothing less than ‘An Inquiry into the Syntax of English Poetry’. English poetry? There was some confusion in the Movement about a ‘return to Hardy’, and twenty years later Davie himself was asserting that the work of Carlos Williams had ‘nothing to do with an inquiry into English poetry’, thus endorsing the popular – and, as I think, mistaken – view that there could be an American poetry which had severed ‘all ties with English poetry’.’

Poem: ‘Turf’

C.H. Sisson, 10 May 1990

What fever is Burning under the shrunk turf of our days? The sky is dark with winter, but what rises Smokily from the heap distinctly says: Here is fire: and yet a thousand ways

Promises chill. A vast uneasiness shifts in the air. No one can name it, and whatever ill It brings forebodingly cannot declare Itself. Is then nothing but nothing there?

Nothing perhaps Is what it is. Evil walks up...

Man of God

C.H. Sisson, 22 March 1990

It cannot be easy to be Archbishop of Canterbury. The holder is open to all the confusions of public life, yet has to follow threads which are invisible to many of those who do business with him or question him as to the meaning of his pronouncements. As the successor of St Augustine, he has to look back on two thousand years and more of history; as the butt of politicians and journalists, he has to justify himself to a world in which the language of Christianity has become merely vestigial. The complexities of the situation are endless.


C.H. Sisson, 22 February 1990

C.S. Lewis was born in 1898, the son of a Belfast solicitor. He was educated first at home, then in England at a preparatory school, at Malvern (for one term only), and by a private tutor. So to Oxford. It was 1917. Lewis had volunteered, and he was in effect an officer cadet, soon in ‘barracks’ at Keble. He returned to Oxford after a brief spell on the Western front, where he was wounded, and at Oxford he stayed until 1954 when he was appointed to a chair in Cambridge. He seems hardly to have set foot on the European mainland, after his wartime excursion, and indeed to have seen remarkably little of England. He died in 1963.

Our Hero

C.H. Sisson, 25 January 1990

Charles Doyle’s biography of Richard Aldington opens so readily at the 24 excellent photographs with which the book is illustrated that the temptation to look at them, before one gets involved with the text, is irresistible. The series starts with a rather determined-looking boy with cap and striped jersey, holding a football. This is our hero at the age of 13. The next shows him at 19, with a beard which helps him to look older. This is followed by one, in 1914, with ‘a group of fellow poets visiting Wilfred Scawen Blunt’ and another in 1918, as an Army officer with a moustache, which remains, possibly in reduced format, in the portraits of the Twenties which include one ‘taken for a Harrods window display’. No 17 shows him, in Montpellier in 1955, as having put on a lot of weight, and in No 22 he is ‘broadcasting in Russia’. It would be too complicated to introduce the ladies in the picture gallery.


C.H. Sisson, 9 November 1989

‘The greatest men grow so long as they live.’ There is a touch of bravado about this assertion. Rickword was in his middle twenties when he made it, and he may have thought differently before his death at the age of 84. Be that as it may, he would almost certainly have stood by the reflection with which he concluded his sentence: ‘no one,’ he said, ‘has ever changed the fibres of his character.’ Through all the ups and downs of fortune recounted in Charles Hobday’s biography, the essential stuff of the man remains the same.

Angry Waves

C.H. Sisson, 18 December 1986

The writing of verse is a disease to which too little attention has been paid by the public health authorities. The number of more or less unavoidable cases is small, but the contagion is everywhere. The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai shows clearly, even through the medium of translation, that its author is among the small number in whom the disease was, if not congenital, at any rate not to be avoided by any reasonable precautions. From his earliest years he undoubtedly had, as he says,


C.H. Sisson, 6 February 1986

Whether one regards the honours system as a comedy, or a scandal, or merely as a perfectly ordinary bit of government machinery – like other bits not always as sensibly managed as it might be – is a question about which it hardly seems necessary to get excited. The system can hardly avoid being all these things, and anyone who has watched its operations, even intermittently, over a number of years is likely to accept it more or less as he accepts the rest of our constitutional arrangements. Of course there are people – like Willie Hamilton – to whom the constitution itself is a scandal. Their disapproval of the honours system must be taken for granted. John Walker is presumably more open-minded, and willing to speak as he finds, though what exactly an enquirer finds must depend on his general perspectives. ‘This book started,’ we are told, ‘as an article for Labour Research.’ Walker spent five years in the Labour Research Department, which he has now left for work in local government, where, his publisher tells us, he is ‘25 years away from an MBE’. We wish him luck.’

With the Woolwich

C.H. Sisson, 18 July 1985

Roy Fuller was born in 1912, under what conjunction of planets I do not know, but the place of his birth was somewhere between Manchester and Oldham. His next stop was Blackpool, where he attended the High School until the age of 16. He might even in those distant days have been expected to go on at the age of 17 or 18 to a university, but, whether through parental or his own native caution or some other cause, he was instead articled to a local solicitor and was admitted in 1934. His real career began in 1938 when he was appointed Assistant Solicitor to the Woolwich and Equitable Building Society, a post to which he returned after serving in the Navy from 1941 to 46. In 1958 he became Solicitor to the Society, and in 1969 a director, as he apparently still is. Respectable as this career is in itself, his public distinction has come from another source. In 1968 his employers, as he has himself recorded, ‘understandingly’ consented to his being nominated for the Chair of Poetry at Oxford; it was on his election that he relinquished his full-time employment and became a member of the board. Other marks of favour followed: a CBE and the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1970; in 1972 he became a Governor of the BBC, and in 1976 a Member of the Arts Council. Might one not assume, of such a man, that he never gave anyone in authority a moment’s uneasiness? His record at the Arts Council shows that it is not as simple as that.


C.H. Sisson, 18 April 1985

Among the attractions of diaries are the glimpses they give of the minutiae of daily life which – as is particularly the case in the 20th century – all the time undergo changes that accumulate to set a marked distance between ourselves and our predecessors. Sixty years is long enough even for those who were alive at the time to look back with some astonishment on the ordinary arrangements of the day. Consider W.J. Turner – admittedly a new and uncertain driver – driving to Warminster in second gear and not unnaturally ‘arriving with the engine red-hot’, which did not prevent his loyal wife asserting that ‘Walter is a splendid driver already.’ Consider Sassoon himself, at the time only slightly instructed in the art of managing his new car, colliding with ‘a dog-cart going at full speed’ and immediately recording that ‘increasing confidence makes me genuinely enjoy the car’; and being equally unperturbed the following day when he ‘knocked a bicyclist on to the pavement in Maidenhead but didn’t damage him at all’. Even after some experience he ‘failed to slow down on a steep hill and ran into a flock of sheep, killing one and knocking the shepherd over. He was a lanky, red-haired barbarian with a weak face and watery blue eyes.’ The shepherd must have been weak, for he apparently accepted £2.10s. without further demur. Carefree days? Perhaps not, but days at any rate in which drivers’ relationships with the rest of the world and with their vehicles – not to say the vehicles themselves – were somewhat different. Unless one is knowledgeable about such technological history, one may be surprised, too, to find that Sassoon’s car did 50 miles to the gallon. Of somewhat wider historical interest is the fact – which everyone knows in general but which it is more difficult to imagine concretely – that one could then quite unremarkably drive from door to door in Central London and park one’s car outside one’s club.’

Bouvard and Pécuchet

C.H. Sisson, 6 December 1984

We now have the sixth and final volume of the Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters. George Lyttelton died on 1 May 1962, thus ending a correspondence which had begun in 1955; the first of the volumes edited by the survivor was published in 1978, the rest have appeared at intervals since. ‘For beginners’, as Rupert Hart-Davis puts it, mindful of those who have had to pick up the thread at some intermediate stage of the correspondence, the editor ‘had been taught by George at Eton, where he was an outstanding teacher and house-master’. This was in 1926. The origin of the correspondence ‘was a dinner party in 1955 during which George’ – by this time retired and living in Suffolk – ‘complained that no one wrote to him’ and Hart-Davis ‘accepted his challenge’. Thereafter the letters were regular – or unrelenting. When they started Lyttelton was 71 and Hart-Davis 48.

Beddoes’ Best Thing

C.H. Sisson, 20 September 1984

‘This is,’ as Professor Ricks says, in his rather baroque manner, ‘a gathering of essays, not a march of chapters’; each essay ‘attends to an aspect, feature, or resource of the language manifested in poetry’. The book is true to this prospectus insofar as the subject of most of the essays is some point to which the critic wishes to ‘give salience’, rather than the poet whose name appears in the title. The poets are Gower, Marvell, Milton, Johnson, Wordsworth and Beddoes, together with a handful of 20th-century poets from A.E. Housman to Geoffrey Hill. In Wordsworth we are to attend particularly to line-endings and to prepositions, in Marvell to ‘a particular figure of speech’, in Gower to ‘diction and formulae’. The sophistication of the critic is to be given its full range but the ‘force of poetry’ is to be restricted, in principle at least, to what can be achieved by the rhetorical peculiarities specified. This is perhaps something less than what Johnson had in mind in that passage from the Rambler from which Ricks takes the title of his volume. Johnson speaks of ‘that force which calls new powers into being, which embodies sentiment, and animates matter’.

Miserable Creatures

C.H. Sisson, 2 August 1984

The fourth volume of the Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy opens with a recommendation for Mr Harry Pouncy, ‘Lecturer and Entertainer’, of Dorchester, apparently with a view to his extending his fascinations to a wider public. There follows a note to Desmond MacCarthy suggesting – surely with the firm touch of a provincial or a Victorian survivor – that it would be better if the New Quarterly were called instead the Quarterly Herald or Quarterly Clarion, ‘or some such’. The first of these letters occupies five lines of print, the second three. Hardy was not the man to give away copy unnecessarily. In January 1909, at the age of 68, he had his last novel, Jude the Obscure, 12 years behind him and his first volume of verse, Wessex Poems, no more than ten years. He had just finished The Dynasts and was preparing Time’s Laughing-Stocks for the press. He was not only a well-known novelist but an incipient Great Figure; in 1910 he was awarded the OM. He was a clubman and at this stage still took a flat in London for a few weeks at the right time of year; one has the impression that all this was to advance his career rather than for any pleasure such things might give him. At home in Dorchester he was as guarded as ever: ‘Although I can influence a London public to a slight extent by press letters, I can influence nobody down here.’ He even seems to take a certain satisfaction in telling people what he is not willing or able to do. He is a curmudgeonly old man and no mistake, and as a correspondent he acts on the best security principles, telling no one more than he or she needs to know for the business in hand. Such a habit of mind can hardly make the most gracious of letter-writers, and Hardy is not one of those whose communications one reads for their own sakes, as one does the letters of Madame de Sevigné, Madame du Deffand, Edward Fitzgerald – or indeed of William Cowper, the new edition of whose Letters and Prose Writings has just reached its fourth volume. Yet Hardy’s letters are admirable in their way, laconic and to the point, written with his eye on the spirit-level, as becomes the son of a small builder.–

Modest House in the Judengasse

C.H. Sisson, 5 July 1984

It is delightful and unexpected to open a book by a public Eminence to find the blue wings of Morpho cypris spread out before one. Then a few pages later there is the green and orange of Ornithoptera paradisea. This is, however, not a work of lepidopterology, except in the sense that it records that the author was ‘born into a family in which lepidopterology was a ruling passion’. Other illustrations suggest other interests: there is a black-and-white drawing of the fuse of an underwater sabotage bomb and a coloured ‘hydrodynamic model of gambling in Britain’ which can only be described as a trifle baroque. Then there are representations, in various genres, of members of the Rothschild family beginning with Gutle who was born in 1753, the daughter of Baruch Schnapper, a Frankfurt tradesman. A glance at the contents shows an even greater variety of subject-matters, in chunks varying from seven or eight lines to 50 pages. One might say this is not the sort of miscellany that every publisher would think of publishing and no doubt the fame of the author makes a special licence possible.

MacDiarmid’s Sticks

C.H. Sisson, 5 April 1984

Was Hugh MacDiarmid a great poet? Was he, as John MacQueen asserts in his Foreword to Catherine Kerrigan’s study, one of ‘the three greatest poets to use English in the 20th century’, the other two being Yeats and Eliot? One can understand MacQueen putting the matter that way, but perhaps it is not the most helpful way when the reputations of Eliot and Yeats are shaking down, in the ordinary process of time, following their immense acclaim. Perhaps there is too much talk of ‘great’ poets altogether, so far as the 20th century is concerned. If there is a useful critical question to be answered about MacDiarmid at this stage, it is perhaps not so much how great he was but what sort of poet he was.

Defender of the Faith

C.H. Sisson, 16 February 1984

‘Very occasionally it is worth noticing a bad book at some length’ – we have it on Evelyn Waugh’s own authority – ‘if only to give reputable publishers a reminder that they must not be insolent in what they try and put over on a public already stupefied by literary overproduction.’ The present case is not quite of the kind Waugh had in mind. After all, his own production ended nearly twenty years ago, and included some quite readable if not profoundly illuminating novels, and what we have here is a reprint of his journalism, a collection which is ‘complete’, the editor says, ‘in the sense that it is as comprehensive as the realities of publishing allow, and in that it seeks to include within one set of covers everything that any serious reader of Waugh might hope to find … everything notably funny, elegant, beautiful, profound or self-revealing, and everything that seems to define Waugh’s own aims.’ The ‘overproduction’ could in the nature of the case not be stopped, at this time of day, even by the least ‘insolent’ publisher; if there is a charge against Methuen it could only be of over-publication. For surely nobody really needs 650 pages of this stuff?–

Did my father do it?

C.H. Sisson, 20 October 1983

There is something to be said for the view that the subject of a biography should be dead. Death does not guarantee the truth, nor the disinterestedness of the biographer, but life surely puts some additional difficulties in his way. Certain kinds of evidence will be wilfully denied him, certain other kinds may be offered too profusely or inaccurately. The exact nature of these difficulties will vary with the biographer and with the subject. Why is a particular biography written? Is the pop star or the footballer being promoted by an advertising man or denigrated by a rival or his agent? Is the author anxious merely to sell a lot of copies of his book? Is he seriously concerned about football or pop music, and if so from what point of view? Why, if he is, does he think that a book on the player’s life will help? All these questions, or appropriate equivalents, arise in the case of a biography of a reigning monarch. The market is there – several markets indeed, and the name of Lady Longford is an indication that we are concerned with the upper end. She is not Crawfie – not so well informed on some matters perhaps, but better informed on many more. Moreover, she has come to us with the guarantees afforded by a biography of Queen Victoria, as well as a row of other studies from Jameson’s Raid to Eminent Victorian Women. She has met the Queen ‘on many occasions over the last thirty years’, so has a closer view than one who has merely been among the rabble at Garden Parties or has had to be content with what is to be seen on television. She is the daughter of a Harley Street surgeon and married to an earl, which gives a certain range of social perspectives, and both she and her husband have been active in public life, which no doubt gives others. She is a Roman Catholic, which has a number of consequences for her view of the monarchy.–

Henson’s Choice

C.H. Sisson, 1 September 1983

Anyone confused by the goings-on in the Church of England in the last few years might turn with relief to the biography of a prelate born in 1863, who retired from his diocese of Durham in 1938 to spend the marginal years of old age brooding over a long career, and made his final exit in 1947. Retrospect of an Unimportant Life is what Henson called the memoir over which he spent so much time in those years, and no man in his right mind is likely to claim much more for himself at an age when all ambitions should have receded. There was a flicker of what might have been a glorious sunset, in 1940, when Churchill recalled Henson to a canonry at Westminster, but when he arrived at the Abbey it was to find ‘that he could hardly read the lessons properly, even with a magnifying glass as well as spectacles; that his sermons were to tiny congregations and in the blackened church he could hardly see his notes.’ Before the end of the month he had resigned, ‘realising that it was time to go back to his quiet corner and wait for the release of death.’

Houses at the end of their tether

C.H. Sisson, 17 March 1983

When one opens a diary there are two things one wants to know. The first is the date of the entries; the second is the age of the author. James Lees-Milne was 36, rising 37, when he started this record on 1 January 1946. He had, however, kept a diary before, during the years of the war, and abandoned it only three months earlier, so he starts here with a practised hand. The wartime diaries have already been published, as Ancestral Voices and Prophesying Peace, and time will show whether this is a conclusion or merely an episode in a continuing labour. Why people keep diaries is a mystery, or if not a mystery a matter of temperament and disposition, which comes to the same thing. A preliminary note in this volume directs the reader to 6 January – if readers ‘get so far’, the author says in what must be a sally of politeness, for it would be a faint-hearted reader who did not get to the second page. ‘An explanation is now called for. Why do I resume this diary which three months ago I brought to an end?’ He says there is ‘no explanation’: but the question itself tells us something. James Lees-Milne is no Pepys, writing secretly. He foresees a reader and, it is to be assumed, publication. ‘Being a bad Catholic,’ he says, ‘I used, when I went to confession, to skate lightly over sins I had a mind to while emphasising those I was less inclined to … So too, being cowardly, I treated, and shall continue to treat, my diary like an intimate friend who mustn’t know everything.’ That is a kind of frankness, but an imperfect kind, with one eye on a public, like most of the ‘frankness’ of the 20th century.

A Whale of a War

C.H. Sisson, 3 March 1983

It is hardly an odd notion for a man approaching 80, who has held office as Minister of Education, President of the Board of Trade and Paymaster-General, to look back to the beginnings of his public career and to see what he can make of it, at a distance of forty years or more. And nothing could be more natural for any man, after the death of a wife to whom he had been married for 50 years, to turn out a heap of old letters which had been exchanged between them long ago. It must be highly unusual, however, for these two retrospects to come together to the extent that they have done for David Eccles, who now publishes both sides of his correspondence with his wife in 1939-42, which was the epoch of his first start in public life, at the age of 35. My Who’s Who is silent as to what Eccles was doing before the war, but we learn from one of the introductory pages he has written for this book that since 1932 he had been chairman of a company which had built, and was operating, the Santander-Mediterraneo Railway in northern Spain, with its main station in Franco’s old headquarters, Burgos. Hardly surprising, then, that he should be listed as someone whose knowledge of Spain, where, as he says, ‘Franco was winning the Civil War,’ might come in handy. We are told that early in 1939 the Foreign Office asked Eccles to ‘transfer from the reserve of officers to the skeleton staff of the Ministry of Economic Warfare’ – a department for which he entertained some contempt while adoring the Foreign Office where his Winchester contemporary Roger Makins had already made a name for himself.

Priests’ Lib

C.H. Sisson, 2 December 1982

‘Few people,’ said the Mothers’ Union Journal, speaking of Harry Williams, ‘can make being human more thrilling, more worthwhile, and more fun.’ It is something to live down. It might be thought that a former lecturer in theology, now a member of a religious order, would have a better chance than most of doing so. The matter hangs in the balance, however, when one opens this autobiography at random to find that one is in that delicate territory in which saints have fun. The vicar of St Barnabas, Pimlico, here characterised as one of that exalted order, had it – loved it, in fact. When one learns that this vicar, on his birthday, ‘used to give us all a lavish dinner at Kettner’s’, one may, without being a great connoisseur of the clergy, think that one begins to have some clue as to the sort of priest he was. It was in this parish that Williams elected to serve his first curacy. Open the book again, however, and one finds: ‘I believe that the Religious (monastic) Life can be lived fruitfully only if those who enter it are constantly aware that they have done so, not because they are more spiritual than others, but because they are less so.’ Perhaps the Mothers’ Union Journal has not got the whole story. At any rate, one would have to read the book to find out.

The Great Percy

C.H. Sisson, 18 November 1982

It is perhaps unkind to disturb the ashes of C. P. Snow. They have so recently been placed in the Fellows’ Garden at Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he is commemorated beside John Milton. There is occasion to take a look at them, nonetheless, for we now have this account of the man by his brother, Philip Snow. ‘Brothers seldom write about each other,’ as the publisher says, and one may think that in general they are wise not to do so. C. P. Snow, however, knew that Philip would write this book ‘and welcomed it; his only stipulation was that it should not be published in his lifetime.’ There was ten years’ difference between the two men. C.P., who died in 1980, was born in 1905: Philip, who is still with us, in 1915. The portraitist says, rather oddly, that he cannot be said to have known his brother until he was about seven and his subject 17; as they were both living in the same house, with stable parents, he must mean that such knowledge could begin only with the age of reason. From then on, ‘the only prolonged period of separation was the war and its immediate aftermath.’ For those years he has drawn largely on correspondence, which makes this part of the book among the most illuminating. Philip regards C.P. as ‘the main influence’ in his life, and the admirer is as much in evidence as the brother.

States’ Rights

C.H. Sisson, 15 April 1982

It would be an exaggeration to say that when David Hume, at the age of 26, came back to London after his retreat at La Flèche, he had already thought all the thoughts he was going to think. On the other hand, there is a sense in which the famous Hume, who lived among the learned and judicious in Edinburgh so comfortably and, one might say, so smugly in his 18th-century way, was a superfluity. True, he had still to write the Enquiries, the Essays and the History of England, but his crucial thoughts were contained in the Treatise of Human Nature, which fell still-born from the press and was not resuscitated in his lifetime, and that work had been completed at La Flèche. The rest was a gloss, an attempt, at least as successful as such things usually are, to get his novel ideas into the thick heads of his contemporaries. Our heads also being somewhat thick, that is not to say that we can afford to neglect the later works and the many explanations, illustrations and applications they offer. But Hume shared that characteristic which is perhaps even more marked in philosophers and scientists than in the rest of the world, of concentrating his inventions in the early part of his life.

Looking out

C.H. Sisson, 18 February 1982

When, in 1682, the Reverend Mr Busby, headmaster of Westminster School, expelled or suspended John Dryden’s son, the poet wrote him an excellent letter. Busby had already been at Westminster for more than forty years: he was that terrifying thing, a Great Headmaster. Moreover, Dryden had himself been among his pupils and knew well enough what tricks the old autocrat could get up to. Busby had sent a message by the boy, that he ‘desired to see’ the father. Dryden hastened to assure him that his son ‘did the message’, but he did not obey the summons. His letter begins, indeed, by assuring Dr Busby that he would have come, if he could have found in himself ‘a fitting temper’, meaning, no doubt, that he was in no mood to talk to the headmaster as became an old pupil. His fury and his caution in addressing the great man jostle side by side throughout the letter. He admits or pretends that he found ‘something of kindness’ in the message, for Busby sent the boy away, so he said, in order that he ‘might not have occasion to correct him’ – a necessity more obvious, no doubt, to Busby than to the poet. He gives reasons why the boy’s alleged crime was perhaps ‘not so great’ as Busby seemed to think. Then he tells the headmaster that his first impulse was to send for the boy’s things from the college, without a moment’s delay. That he did not do so was partly out of respect for Dr Busby and partly – and this clearly is the point of the sentence – out of ‘tenderness of doeing anything offensive to my Lord Bishop of Rochester, as cheife Governour of the College’. A threat that the matter might not rest with the headmaster and that the chairman of the governors might hear of it. Dryden is concerned that his son’s chance of election to a university place will have been lost by the upset, and stoutly suggests the boy might as well go to Cambridge at once, ‘of his own election’. The letter concludes with the hope that Dryden will be ‘satisfyed with a favourable answer’ from Dr Busby’s ‘goodnesse and moderation’, so that he may continue his ‘obliged humble servant’, as, of course, every father with a boy at the school would wish to be.

Poor Harold

C.H. Sisson, 3 December 1981

In 1930, Harold Nicolson gave a series of broadcasts on ‘The New Spirit in Modern Literature’. The pamphlet which the BBC published to accompany the series gave me my first sight of the work of T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and I believe James Joyce, though I learn from the volume before me that Sir John Reith, reigning at the BBC, forbade Nicolson to mention Ulysses, then banned. Little encounters of that kind were to be expected in those days, and Nicolson seems not to have attempted to reason with the great man on this occasion. Such high matters were outside my sphere. For me, the speaker was one of those benign and knowledgeable spirits sent by an élitist BBC to enlighten such provincials as I. I know now that Nicolson would have been pleased with me as a listener for I learn from James Lees-Milne that, though ‘uneasy and unsympathetic towards the uneducated classes, he nevertheless wanted them to have the opportunities of becoming as educated as he was himself.’ That was generous of him, I suppose one must say, even if not altogether reassuring as to his attitude to himself and to the world at large.

The company he keeps

C.H. Sisson, 6 August 1981

Is it a wise or a foolish man who, after more than seventy years in this hard world, comes before it as an optimist? The handsome head of John Redcliffe-Maud, alias Sir John Maud, GCB, CBE and what else, alias Baron of the City and County of Bristol, looks from the dust-cover with a questioning half-smile. In his Bath robes? Not a bath-robe, anyway, though it would need more than a head-and-shoulders portrait – or closer acquaintance with the official wear of knights and peers – to determine the question with precision. A handsome face, a noble bearing. A fine specimen, without a doubt, of the secondary public man of his epoch – of the race of heads of (the right) colleges, Permanent Secretaries, chairmen of Royal Commissions and the like, who live just below the surface of public events and pop up from time to time to give them momentarily an appearance of old-world respectability.

All the Advantages

C.H. Sisson, 3 July 1980

The poet E.E. Cummings was born with what are called all the advantages, or with enough of them. It was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in ‘a huge, three-storied, many-roomed structure with 13 fire-places… not far from Harvard Yard’. His mother was so considerate of her son’s future biographer that she recorded hour by hour the stages of her labour. ‘Miss MacMahon saw child’s hair at 4’ – four o’clock in the afternoon of 14 October 1894, and the boy was born at seven. More important than these details – except perhaps to an astrologer – is the fact that the boy’s father was an assistant professor at Harvard, that Cambridge was still thought of as the home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and James Russell Lowell, both recently deceased, and that across the river was a Boston which still called itself ‘the Athens of America’. Edward Cummings, the father, was a man of modern outlook, if only in certain respects. A sociologist who had been at Toynbee Hall as well as at the universities of Paris and Berlin, he knew about strikes and lock-outs, arbitration, penal codes, and indeed all that a socially aware person of the Nineties could decently be aware of. He was a Unitarian, but in full Puritan righteousness. True to form, he found that ‘sociology is more religious than most theology’; in due course, he became a minister. He gave his son a Unitarian name, Estlin, which is associated also, though indirectly, with the family of Walter Bagehot. Both father and mother were of old New England stock, the mother the ‘better’ of the two, though her father went to prison for a family forgery. Edward Cummings’s grandfather was a tavern-keeper. However, neither the forger nor the tavern-keeper was spoken of in the Cambridge home: only the ghosts were there.

David Craig (Letters, 7 December) makes a fair but not overwhelming point about Edgell Rickword. The lines ‘To the wife of a non-interventionist statesman’ are worth reading, and have a significant place in Rickword’s oeuvre. They have not – in my view – the singular life of the best of the earlier poems: I would go so far as to say that they bear marks of the contracting...

Defender of the Faith

16 February 1984

C.H. Sisson writes: I am sorry if I offended Dr Gallagher. Certainly I intended no innuendo against his editorial attitudes. I was concerned with Waugh, whom he evidently finds more sympathetic than I do. As to Waugh’s silence over the Spanish Civil War, the conclusion that ‘the prudential considerations were indeed the determining ones’ was meant as my own – a different emphasis,...

Political Meaning

6 August 1981

SIR: I wish I could answer satisfactorily Graham Martin’s question about the ‘political meaning’ of the Arts Council (Letters, 3 September). When I used that phrase, it was to make a point about the proper function of a government department in relation to that body. This is a subject in itself, and a legitimate one, but it is not, I gather, what interests Mr Martin. He seems to be...

Ancient Orthodoxies

C.K. Stead, 23 May 1991

‘Aller Moor’, the first poem in Antidotes, begins And now the distance seems to grow Between myself and that I know: It is from a strange land I speak And a far stranger that I...

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In a Dry Place

Nicolas Tredell, 11 October 1990

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...

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Other Poems and Other Poets

Donald Davie, 20 September 1984

Landor wrote: ‘Many, although they believe they discover in a contemporary the qualities which elevate him above the rest, yet hesitate to acknowledge it; part, because they are fearful of...

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D.A.N. Jones, 5 April 1984

There is a church in Fleet Street, almost opposite El Vino, where Richard Baxter used to preach in 1660. Baxter’s reconciling, ecumenical attitude toward churches and public worship is...

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Dear Lad

Penelope Fitzgerald, 19 March 1981

Charles Ashbee – C.R.A., as he asked to be called – must be counted as a successful man. He was an architect whose houses stood up, a designer whose work has always been appreciated,...

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Men at forty

Derek Mahon, 21 August 1980

The first poem by Donald Justice I ever read was the much anthologised sestina, ‘Here in Katmandu’: We have climbed the mountain, There’s nothing more to do ... It seemed to...

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