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

Sisson and the Acerb Florentine Dick Davis

Reading through C. H. Sisson's Collected Essays you do not suspect that he could be a translator of The Divine Comedy: '. . . there is probably something in the nature of poetry which makes it necessary to avoid conscious premeditation . . . one does not know what one wants to discover . . . the poet literally feels his way forward', and elsewhere he writes disparagingly of those who know what their poem will look like before they have written it. I cannot imagine Shakespeare writing his poems as Sisson seems to recommend: he must have known by the time he got to the end of the second line of, say, 'How like a winter hath my absence been' - if not by the caesura of the first line - that he was writing a sonnet and have immediately begun the premeditation that such a process inevitably entails. And writing a sonnet means that quite early on in the process you know in broad outline, if not in detail, how your poem will look - unless it turns into something other than a sonnet, which is always possible. Nor would it be a more 'natural' process to write a sonnet in the sixteenth century than in the twentieth; more fashionable perhaps, but not more natural. No one speaks, or has ever spoken, in rhymed iambic pentameters, which were as artificial - as necessarily premeditated - a mode of discourse under the first Elizabeth as under the second. ...


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