The Avoidance of Literature

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

C. H. Sisson’s The Avoidance of Literature gives the educated, considerate reader much to consider. The point of view of the essays is conservative amid the growth of twentieth century British liberalism. The work of a poet, it touches the heart of twentieth century poetry (including the work of Pound, Eliot, and Yeats). It probes the thoughts and growth of Sisson the poet, finding some poetic truths while documenting a nonacademic rhetorical stance markedly consistent in its development. Editor Michael Schmidt presents readers with an interestingly mixed collection of C. H. Sisson’s works, obviously hoping to expose the British poet-critic-essayist’s varied concerns. Consequently, more than forty years of reviews, essays, editorials, and introductions comprise the volume (which excludes Sisson’s poetry and fiction). Arranged chronologically with a few exceptions, these writings assess twentieth century life and literature from an interesting perspective through some of the century’s most turbulent years. While Sisson’s views are decidedly British, those of a conservative Tory, they are, if anything, sharp identifications of what has pricked the conscience of modern Britain. Throughout the volume, Sisson calls for a firm order, one based in long-established traditions, one mindful of the immense Anglican heritage, and one including the monarchy, strong state-church relationships, and a bountiful literature.

To this literature, Sisson, being a poet, often turns for an essay subject. He especially reveres Ezra Pound, and he borrows heavily from Pound’s intellect. In Sisson’s development, T. S. Eliot also figures prominently, as do Ford Madox Ford and Wyndham Lewis. Schmidt goes so far as to say that these four “define the tradition in which Sisson writes.” Readers will find Sisson astute in examining this formidable tradition because he is precise in extracting key concepts to synthesize.

Sisson’s critical method is to reveal an author’s background to place his work in historical and social perspective. Sisson knows that literature cannot be separated from the world of the producer and the world of the reader, and he knows that his approach enriches our understanding; but he avoids ironclad proclamations about sources and influences. Rather, he approaches each work with commonsense questions about where the author was, whom he had encountered, how these encounters might have led to certain effects in the literature, and what implications those effects hold for later readers. He thus reveals something of the prejudices of the writer, something about how the mind was likely to assimilate and embellish particular events or influences. In the cases of Eliot and Pound, where literary debts and influences become badges of accomplishment and textual notes are a matter of course, Sisson’s approach takes us a long way toward understanding subtleties in the works. A poet himself, Sisson sensitively penetrates the maze of influences and personal bits of detail. Avoiding overindulgence in fact-finding and extra detail for its own sake, he instead clarifies literary allusions by establishing their contexts.

The sensitive approach becomes a sensible approach, revealing the developing trends in an author’s work. Of Pound, for example, Sisson says, “his crucial didactic works are essential for anyone who wants to understand the aims of his poetry and the nature of his contribution to the poetry of the century.” Pound, after all, was the most eclectic of readers and exerted immense influence on his contemporaries. (Sisson notes the revisions in Eliot’s The Waste Land and Yeats’s debts in his later works as evidence.) Pound, furthermore, read with vision and was able to give his own and others’ verse the occasional infusion that would change poetry’s direction in the twentieth century. Sisson says, for example, that Pound’s work with Chinese and Japanese translations provided an “aid to concentration of language,” an idea central to Pound’s poetic formulations and what was to be called the Imagist movement. This concentration had far-reaching effects and surely appears in Yeats’s work after the period Yeats and Pound spent together, when Pound, working on Ernest Fenollosa’s notes, enthralled Yeats with the Japanese Noh theater.

Whatever the effect Pound’s reading had on others, it remains clear that delving into obscure texts was his passion. Also clear are his severe standards and sharp reactions. The “great merit of Pound’s work,” according to Sisson, is “that he declares unashamedly what does not interest him and searches out, sometimes in unlikely corners, work which is capable of contributing to the pleasure and the poetics of his own time.” To an extent, Sisson shares this great merit and bluntly states his own preferences.

At one point, for example, in “Some Reflections on American Poetry,” Sisson almost echoes Pound when he says, “I have never been an academic and happily have not had to read very far in poets who do not interest me.” Generally uncomplimentary to all nineteenth century American poetry, he does commend a few poems by Edgar Allan Poe for their incomparable effects, but toward Whitman he is scathing. Whitman appears to him an untidy lout, “a...

(The entire section is 2161 words.)