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This article is taken from PN Review 39, Volume 11 Number 1, July - August 1984.

A Mine of Mind C.B. McCully

C. H. Sisson's 'In Insula Avalonia' is that most critically-beguiling thing, a difficult long poem. Its difficulty rests on a series of paradoxes: the poem seems to be a departure, a disenchantment with plainness, (see D. Davie, The Listener, 9 May 1974), and yet its themes are foreshadowed by many of Sisson's earlier poems; the poem seems to offer a kind of syllogism, yet it is not ratiocinative; it seems to be composed for the most part of a 'metre', yet on inspection what is found is not so much a metre as a series of rhythms - rhythms of mind.

These paradoxes make usual critical procedure a nonsense. The literature of metrical analysis offers little, faced with 'Avalonia'; the gay analogue-spotting so beloved of critics offers little except the conviction that the parts are even queerer than the whole; talk of historical models and Christian symbolism only betrays the critic into his dunce's corner; the 'poet's life' reveals that Whitehall is a different kind of uncountry from this Avalon.

In what follows, partial though it must be, I shall argue that 'Avalonia' can only be approached on Sisson's own terms. Primarily, this means approaching the poem through its rhythms, but it also means placing 'Avalonia' in what John Pilling has called Sisson's 'self-consistent and self-sustaining output' ('The strict temperature of classicism', Critical Quarterly, Spring 1979). Approached in this way, 'Avalonia' may be seen to be less of a departure and more of a piece ...


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