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

A Kind of Civil Service David J. Levy

In 1965 Methuen published a collection of essays by C. H. Sisson under the title Art and Action. The theme running through the volume was, as the blurb described it, 'the relationship between the man who produces literature and the man who struggles in a political and social environment'. The subjects discussed in the essays were major writers, each more than casually involved with the political conflicts of his time: Marvell, Eliot, Pound, Heine, Péguy and Maurras. Sisson's choice of authors testified to his conviction that, contrary to a certain escapist aesthetics, the man of letters and the man of politics are not two separate or even separable beings but one person - a creature of time and place engaged, in literature as in politics, with the reality of the world as it had been formed by his fellows over history. The writers he discussed were men in whose work the double engagement with word and world was especially clear. Each exemplified, in some way, the tension which this engagement - unchosen and unavoidable - imposes upon the writer who takes it as a conscious theme to be explored.

It is because Sisson too is such a writer that his essays, in Art and Action and elsewhere, have such particular value. They evince a frankness, an unsentimental integrity, which is rare in a field more often marked by the prevalance of undisciplined sentiments and ideological evasions. Like the authors he considers, Sisson does not take his politics ...


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