'Magnificent Anachronism': Sisson in the Seventeenth Century

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Part of C.H. Sisson’s relative neglect among scholars of twentieth-century poetry seems to stem from a sense of his writing as anachronism: ‘For about a year (circa 1932) I must have been contemporary,’ he famously said, self-identifying with a moment awkwardly positioned at the tail-end of high modernism’s first wave. In the autobiographical essay ‘Natural History’ Sisson goes on to explain how this early sense of being out of his time drove him back to the poetry of the seventeenth century, ‘looking for strange creatures’ as well as those more canonical figures ‘who had earned a mention in the works of my [modernist] masters.’ So along with John Donne (beloved of T.S. Eliot), Sisson seeks out the less well-known writing of Henry Vaughan; the ambiguities of Andrew Marvell (still ironically commemorated foremost as ‘the former member for Hull’ in Eliot’s essay for Marvell’s tercentenary in 1921) attract him as much as those of Hamlet. In a poem elucidating Hamlet’s dark sketch of mankind’s better qualities, which he himself is unable to appreciate through a veil of melancholy, Sisson appears to identify with this feeling of being detached from one’s own moment: ‘The man of quality if not quite what he was | In the days when that was a technical term,’ he writes (‘What a Piece of Work is Man’). This chapter asks what it means for Sisson to engage with the literary moment of the seventeenth century and, more importantly, with the ‘strange creatures’ who seemed anachronistic even to that earlier moment. Why is Sisson so invested in the idea of being a literary anachronism? How does this relate to the formal difficulties of Sisson’s verse? And how has his own self-investment in a sense of anachronism shaped Sisson’s critical reception?
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationC.H. Sisson Reconsidered
EditorsVictoria Moul, John Talbot
Place of PublicationCham, Switzerland
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
ISBN (Electronic)9783031148286
ISBN (Print)9783031148309, 9783031148279
Publication statusPublished - 2 Jan 2023

Publication series

NameThe New Antiquity


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