Robert D(avid) FitzGerald Essay - Critical Essays

FitzGerald, Robert D(avid)


FitzGerald, Robert D(avid) 1902–

FitzGerald is an award-winning Australian poet and editor whose homeland figures prominently in his poetry. His verse is noted for its precision, simplicity, and intense seriousness. FitzGerald is best known for his Essay on Memory. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

The Times Literary Supplement

Mr. FitzGerald is a quiet poet whose real distinction, both of thought and expression, may not always come immediately home to the reader. His best poems are fine-meshed intellectual structures that yield their meaning only gradually after several readings…. [The poems in This Night's Orbit] reveal a depth of experience rare in contemporary Australian poetry.

It is surely a further sign of maturity that few of them deal with specifically "Australian" themes: there is no frantic quest for distinctive local colour. On the other hand, the long narrative poem "Heemskerck Shoals," while it deals with events before colonization even began, is also a powerful oblique statement about Australia's future….

For all their achievement, however, Mr. FitzGerald's poems do not quite solve the thorny problem of appropriate diction. It is one which every modern poet must face, but the conflict is perhaps sharper in a still young country, where, side by side with a colourful and fast evolving spoken idiom, one finds a suspicion amounting to hostility towards the least affectation of a "literary" style. One result is that even the best of Australian poets—and New Zealand and Canadian for that matter—sometimes show uncertainty, insensitivity, a loss of ear, in their choice of words. False archaisms intrude …, and sometimes uncertainty slips into plain inaccuracy—as when Mr. FitzGerald uses "catchpenny" when he really means "skinflint." Admittedly, the problem is not one that it would be fair to expect any single poet, however gifted, to solve. What one can say is that by patient dedication to his craft Mr. FitzGerald has drawn as near to the ideal solution as any living Australian poet.

"An Australian Poet," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1954; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 2751, October 22, 1954, p. 674.

The Times Literary Supplement

[Mr. FitzGerald] is distinctly metaphysical. He is more concerned, as he always has been, to apprehend a permanent spirit of the universe amid time passing than to set down any specifically Australian manifestation of time present. Sparing of words, yet lacking the gregariousness of his countrymen, he feels himself akin to the wise man of Anglo-Saxon poetry, sitting apart in thought…. At times his language is too tightly held, the expression stripped down to basic thought; and though he unrolls the long, complex verse sentence with sureness, it is not always easy to follow the turn within turn of his thought. But of course he is not a poet to be read lightly or quickly. The measured, meditative manner is rock-based. It probes down through the strata of time's evidences and mankind's memory, not with "logic's rope" but with mind's sharp "knife-edge at the throat of darkness". In these latest poems [in Southmost Twelve] his apprehension of the cold approaches of age and death intensifies his affirmation of the undying spirit of life.

"The Australian Idiom," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1964; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3257, July 30, 1964, p. 670.∗

Douglas Stewart

[How curious] are the different ways in which poems find their way to the light!… As for 'The Face of the Waters', one day I met FitzGerald and he said that he thought his verse was getting too 'tight' and he felt he was going to write something quite free and irregular in form. The next thing was this beautiful poem which, though strictly enough controlled, varies in line-length and music like one of Wordsworth's odes. FitzGerald had sensed the music in his mind before he knew what he was going to write about. Most curious; the whole poem must have been there, somewhere, at the back of his mind. (pp. 334-35)

I think it is true that, after his early love-poems in To Meet the Sun, and after Moonlight Acre, there has been a hardening, a loss of lyrical quality in his poetry; and this, perhaps, we could attribute in part to the discipline of his profession [as a surveyor]; to mathematics. His verse is never rigid or mechanical, for there is a great deal more than mathematics in FitzGerald's composition. It is always alive, individual, full of energy. But it is disciplined. He likes to get straight to the point, in hard, clear thought. And he is not greatly concerned with the charm of nature: he is more interested in his ideas about trees or flowers or wagtails or cicadas than in the things themselves. (pp. 335-36)

But if these are the limitations which come from a practical and mathematical turn of mind, they are also, simultaneously, virtues. There is nothing wrong with clarity. There is nothing wrong with hardness. There is no weakness in FitzGerald's poetry; there are no holes in it; there is no lushness. It is firm. It is economical. You can throw any stones you like at it, and you won't knock chips off it. (p. 336)

[Technical] matters, like mathematics, are a cold subject. What interests me in the profession of surveying in relation to FitzGerald's poetry is not only that it is a mathematical and constructive profession but also that it is adventurous. It takes the surveyor away from his desk and out into the open air. And, in fact, a great many of FitzGerald's landscape poems have come from his surveying excursions. (p. 337)

Between Two Tides [FitzGerald's most ambitious poem] is...

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Judith Wright

Faced with the question of the justification of man's existence, and of his appropriation of the means for that existence, in a world without God, [FitzGerald] replies in effect that man is his own justification; for FitzGerald, the line of progress is still upwards and onwards. The virtues he extols are those of courage, endurance, and moral stoicism, rather than the Dionysian gaiety recommended by the Lindsayans. He is the poet of progress, of conscious or unconscious tasks, of objective work and achievement; there is about him an air of masculinity and sinew, his poetry, at its worst head-masterly, is at its best noble. (p. 155)

FitzGerald … has always been, when the circumstances of his life permitted it, a steadily productive writer. Though his poetry for a time tended to increase in argumentative and narrative content, and to decrease in verbal and imagic interest, over the years, he has sometimes suddenly achieved (as in the poem 'The Face of the Waters') a remarkable depth of insight and exactness of expression.

Though the force of contemporary preference has made him into a poet capable of compression and lyric shape, he has seldom been in fact a lyricist. His gift has been rather expository and narrative; and where he does (as he can) bring off a true lyric poem, it is often so compressed in thought and expression as to seem cramped into the briefer form as into a Procrustes' bed.

FitzGerald's first books, The Greater Apollo (1926) and To Meet the Sun (1929) were notable for their directness and good sense as well as for their thoughtfulness, but it was not obvious that the writer was a poet of stamina…. (pp. 155-56)

In Moonlight Acre, particularly in the first series, the influence of [Christopher] Brennan's 'Wanderer' poems is evident. There is, in fact, a certain reminiscence of Brennan's sentence-line even in the later poems; the length and involvement of clause after clause, the run-on lines and even the run-on verses, which make the argument seem even more strenuous than it is; so that at the final clause the reader feels he has been led at a long muscular striding pace through a complex climbing zig-zag of thought. A paraphrase of précis of the sentence, however, can often simplify it surprisingly—and it is characteristic of FitzGerald, though not often of Brennan, that a paraphrase of whole poems is not only possible, but sometimes even enlightening.

This is perhaps a serious criticism. Poetry, above all, is justly thought to consist in economy and exactitude of phrasing—the best words in the best order; moreover, even the attempt to paraphrase a poem of the order, say, of Yeats's 'Byzantium', or even one of Milton's lesser sonnets, ends and must end in bathos. The poem ought to subsist in an order of its own. FitzGerald's poems sometimes seem almost wilfully complicated and knotted …; it is a touchstone, in his poetry, by which we may distinguish the really good from the expository poems. (pp. 156-57)

FitzGerald's is the message, not of a prophet of disaster and rebirth, but of a less apocalyptic writer—one who can console himself with the thought that, though the search of the poet is difficult, it ends where it began, in human communication. (p. 158)

[FitzGerald's] blunt-mindedness—which, to do FitzGerald justice, seems to stem rather from an uncritical enthusiasm for action as such, than from lack of sympathy for slaves and underdogs—is allied to that quality in him which links him with the bush balladists and the tough-masculine strain in Australian development. He is, as it were, the poetic apotheosis of the balladists. Though he does not write in a vein that looks at all like the ballad, his longer narrative poems 'Heemskerck Shoals' … and 'Between Two Tides' … seem like a philosophical translation and restatement of the attitude behind, say, 'The Man from Snowy River', with its glorification of sheer action and undaunted courage…. (pp. 159-60)

FitzGerald has also devoted thought to the moral problem of the man of action, the man who forms part of the continually interwoven chain of living and doing, which he sees as more important than the individual who is its growing-point, as it were. In 'Fifth Day', he meditates on the fact that 'what's done goes on for ever as consequence', and therefore

          it concerns all men that what they do
          remains significant unbroken thread
          of the fabric of our living …
          Attitude matters; bearing …
          … dignity and distinctness that attach
          to the inmost being of us each.

In the poem 'The Wind at your Door', he treats of another moral problem which lies somewhere at the back of the Australian consciousness—the conflict between the claims of heartless authority and of its victims; a conflict that was introduced to Australian soil with the First Fleet. One might...

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G. A. Wilkes

R. D. FitzGerald's verse is so strenuous and athletic as to daunt any mind which is not fully alert: to read him when fatigued, or in ill-health, is apt to confirm any suspicion of one's personal inadequacies. For over forty years FitzGerald has been using poetry to test and clarify his experience to himself, to arrive at the truth of it—and there is an intellectual pressure behind his writing that is rarely relaxed. (p. 243)

In the chapter on "Poetry's Approach to Reality" in The Elements of Poetry (1963), FitzGerald has insisted that poetry deals with "tangibles and actualities", and that "for the purposes of poetry the study of things, the love of things for their own sake, is...

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T. L. Sturm

[FitzGerald's best early works, such as The Greater Apollo, "The Hidden Bole", "Essay on Memory", "Return", "Tide's Will", "Copernicus", and "The Face of the Waters",] are distinguished particularly by their unusual stylistic features. There is a curious mixture of rhetorical and meditative tones, of rhythmically smooth, almost lyrical, cadences, and lines in which the rhythm is abrupt, halting or awkward. The texture of the verse contains what appears to be a peculiarly uncompromising blend of discursive generalization and a dense, tangled undergrowth of metaphor and imagery that often turns out, on close inspection, to be operating in paradoxical ways. The poems appear to be offering meanings primarily of a...

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Julian Croft

In the six years between the publication of the 'Essay on Memory' (1938) and 'The Face of the Waters' (1944) much of the optimism expressed in [FitzGerald's] earlier poems seems to have leaked away. Perhaps it was the war, or an older man writing, for, despite the optimistic ending of the poem, the main impression left in the mind of the reader is one of terror and incomprehension at the temporal system in which man is prisoner. It seems that FitzGerald's reading on causation and his predisposition toward determinism led him to the terrible vision which opens the poem…. Happily in this poem FitzGerald did not try to contain the argument in a strict form, but allowed his thoughts to find in irregular line lengths...

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