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

The Poems on Nature Bill Coyle
C.H. Sisson’s final volume of poetry was 1994’s What and Who, a title that speaks to the poet’s constant preoccupation with the question of what, if anything, distinguishes persons from things. And nearly at the book’s heart is a fifteen-line poem, ‘The Levels’,1 which begins: ‘Summer has come, with no comfort / Except the cattle munching as they think, / And green being green where they bow their heads.’

Do cattle think?

Personally, I don’t doubt it. Neither did David Hume, a thinker on whom Sisson wrote a book-length study. ‘[N]o truth appears to me more evident,’ Hume wrote, ‘than that beasts are endow’d with thought and reason as well as men. The arguments are in this case so obvious, that they never escape the most stupid and ignorant.’2 Sisson would seem to agree: ‘[T]he mallard fly / Thoughtfully’, he writes in ‘Frost’,3 and in ‘The Hare’, ‘I saw a hare jump across a ditch: / It came to the edge, thought, and then went over’.4

I did pause at the word ‘think’, though. The obvious alternative is ruminate, but Sisson must have rejected it, in part as too obvious a pun, but also because it makes no distinction between ‘munching’ and ‘thinking’. Now, in the two years prior to What and Who, Sisson published two prose collections, English Perspectives: Essays on Liberty and Government5 and Is There a Church of England?,6 and in each book he included a series of short essays on the subject of the human self and its relation to the world, and to God. ...

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