A. D. Hope Essay - Critical Essays


In his introduction to a selection of his poems in 1963 as part of the Australian Poets series, A. D. Hope stated that “all theories about poetry are inadequate and that good poetry has been written on many assumptions that actually appear to be incompatible with one another.” That claim notwithstanding, Hope did admit to several “comfortable prejudices” that allowed him to ignore poetical practices with which he had no sympathy. “The chief of these,” he said, “is a heresy of our time which holds that by excluding those things which poetry has in common with prose, narrative, argument, description, exhortation and exposition, and that, depending entirely on lyric impulse or the evocative power of massed imagery one can arrive at the pure essence of poetry.” This remark is central to any understanding of Hope’s work, for he consistently lamented the impoverishment of twentieth century poetry when comparing it to the “great variety of forms practised in the past.” The remark also reveals the strong influence of Latin studies on Hope’s work, for his list includes most of the common topics of classical rhetoric. Of those he mentions, narrative and argumentation are important techniques that he consistently employed in his best poems.

Hope’s second complaint was with “the notion that poetry can be improved or its range extended by breaking down the traditional structure of English verse by replacing its rhythms by those of prose.” Hope, who studied at Oxford with C. L. Wrenn, editor of Beowulf, wrote learnedly on the origins of English poetic meter, particularly on the transition from accentual meters to accentual syllabics, which took place in the century after Geoffrey Chaucer’s death (the 1400’s), and on the metrical practices of John Dryden and Pope. Like Robert Frost, Hope credited the tension between meter and sentence rhythm as the key to the successful iambic pentameter line, of which Hope was a master. Given his mastery of meter, Hope had little patience with theories of “open form” or “projective verse” that were forwarded in defense of free verse.

According to Hope, another of the modern “heresies” stemmed from “that irritable personalism which is partly a heritage of the Romantics, the view that poetry is primarily self-expression.” Even though Hope stated his disagreement with the poetical theories of Edgar Allan Poe, he would seem to agree with the primacy of a poem’s effect on its audience: “The poem is not a feeling, it is a structure of words designed, among other things, to arouse a certain state of feeling.” Similarly, Hope seems to have agreed with Eliot (“a poet whose poetry I cannot bring myself to like at all”) in the need for a poet to find “an ’objective correlative’ for the transmission of the poet’s state of heart and mind to his readers.”

It should be apparent from these comments that Hope had little sympathy for the confessionalist tendencies of much modern poetry, which, according to Hope, provide many poets with “an adoring cannibal audience waiting for the next effusion of soul meat.” He added that the emotions in poems should not necessarily be equated with the emotions of poets: “The delight of creation and invention is their proper emotion and this must be in control of all other feelings.”

Finally, Hope’s personal preferences in the language of poetry were that it be “plain, lucid, coherent, logically connected, syntactically exact, and firmly based in current idiom and usage.” To a large degree, Hope remained true to this dictum; his poetry is remarkable for its avoidance of needless obscurity and ambiguity. As he said, “A poem which can be parsed and analysed is not necessarily a good poem, but a poem which cannot is almost certainly bad.” He did, however, allow himself the option of a certain elevation of language, what has been disparaged in recent decades as “poetic diction.” With William Wordsworth, Hope agreed that “a poet should certainly be a man speaking to men in a language common to all,” but that does not mean that the debased vocabulary of conversational speech should be the poet’s sole resource. For Hope, whose learning and therefore vocabulary were far-ranging, the “word-hoard” of the poet should be ample enough to include terms from a great range of interests that, in his own case, included numerous historical and literary references, classical allusions, and scientific terms.

Australian colonial literature

Australian literature, like all colonial literatures, including that of the United States, has been throughout much of its short history in search of an identity. During the nineteenth century, Australian poets fell into two general classes: those who imitated the poetic styles of the English Romantics and Victorians, and those who carried on a lively body of “bush poetry,” largely anonymous balladry derived from the folk traditions of Great Britain. Of the first group, Oscar Wilde, reviewing an 1888 anthology of Australian writing, could find “nothing but echoes without music, reflections without beauty, second-rate magazine verses, arid third-rate verse for Colonial newspapers, . . . artless Nature in her most irritating form.” Hope made two revealing comments regarding the situation of the Australian writer of his generation: The first was that his father’s library, while amply supplied with the classics of English literature, contained no Australian poets; the other was that, as late as the early 1950’s, Hope had to struggle to obtain credit status for the course in native literature that he instituted and taught at Canberra University College. Thus, Australian poets are caught in an uncomfortable dilemma: They may wish to create a truly “national” poetry, but they lack a tradition on which to build it.

Hope himself identified, in Native Companions: Essays and Comments on Australian Literature, 1936-1966 (1974), the three main stages of a colonial literature. In the first, the work of colonial writers is simply part of the literary tradition of the homeland. In the second, writers born in the new land but educated in the tradition of the mother country attempt to create a literature of their own. In the final stage, this self-consciousness disappears, and writers emerge who can influence the whole literary tradition, including that of the mother country. Though Hope believed that Australian literature was in the middle stage, one could argue, with the publication of Judith Wright’s The Moving Image and James McAuley’s Under Aldebaran in 1946, the publication of Hope’s first collection, The Wandering Islands, in 1955, and the novelist Patrick White’s winning of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1973, that Australian writing had moved into its maturity.

The Wandering Islands

Though Hope had been publishing poetry and criticism since the late 1930’s, The Wandering Islands, which appeared when he was forty-eight, was his first full collection. In a cultural climate that was still marked by parochialism and censorship, Hope’s first book was something of a succès de scandale. The sexual explicitness of the title poem, his lightly worn learning, and his unsparing satire caused many...

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