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This article is taken from PN Review 217, Volume 40 Number 5, May - June 2014.

The Hard Mind of C.H. Sisson
: Reading ‘A Letter to John Donne’
Tara Bergin
I

I first came across C.H. Sisson’s work while writing my PhD thesis on Ted Hughes and translation. I wanted to compare a specific line in Hughes’s version of Racine’s Phèdre with the same line in Sisson’s. The line is from Act I, Scene II, and in the original reads: ‘Dans le fond des forêts votre image me suit’ (in the depths of the forest, your image pursues me). It was of particular interest to me at the time because it was used by Sylvia Plath as the epigraph to her poem ‘Pursuit’ – famously written for Hughes, two days after they first met – and I wondered if I could find a hidden link between Plath’s choice of this line from Phèdre and Hughes’s translation of it. First, I needed to see if there was anything noteworthy in Hughes’s decision to render the line as: ‘Everywhere in the woods your image hunts me’ (the ‘hunts’ being possibly significant), and it was necessary therefore to check his version against those made by other English-speaking poets. I started with C.H. Sisson, but when I came to look up this line in his translation, I couldn’t find it: it just wasn’t there. I immediately discarded the Sisson without another thought, and moved on to the next English versions on my list (Lowell, Harrison etc.). It was only when coming to read Sisson’s work properly that I thought again about his omission, and began to ask myself why he left out this beautiful, powerful line. Perhaps it was due to reasons of rhythm, ...


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