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...
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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.∗
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[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,...
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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.
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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 important."… He contrasts the approach of the poet to the approaches of the scientist, the philosopher, the theologian, and the man of common sense—each of whom has from time to time entertained the possibility that the material world may be illusory…. Against [the] various arguments for the illusoriness of the material world, "it is a function of poetry", FitzGerald claims, "to show that in one special sense, anyway, it is not illusory at all"….
The attitudes of Science, Philosophy, Religion and Common sense are each in their own way correct; but poetry is less concerned with their findings or assumptions than with the things themselves on which these findings or assumptions are based. And I don't mean the...
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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 philosophical nature, yet because of the dense texture of the verse these meanings constantly evade ready formulation.
Such poems can be easily distinguished from much of the other earlier work, where FitzGerald self-consciously explores a range of … stances—the poet as wanderer, lover, bohemian, outcast, knight-errant, spiritual adventurer. Similarly, although later narrative poems like "Heemskerck Shoals", "Fifth Day", Between Two Tides and "The Wind at Your Door" sometimes make use of philosophical generalization, they are not primarily speculative poems: the philosophical substance is less the subject of the poems than something given, a priori, in terms of which the poet can provide dramatic...
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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 their most fitting cadences, and consequently, unlike the 'Essay on Memory', there is none of the feeling of competing systems of verse form and syntax in the poem. The diction is spare, but it has a fluency unusual for FitzGerald. The poem is a powerful and immediate experience, but once the reader begins to reflect on the meaning behind its sudden, brutal imagery and its terse diction, some of the immediacy dissolves in the struggle with abstract and difficult ideas. But … I believe it is the best example of FitzGerald's meditative powers. (p. 71)
'The Face of the Waters' is about the moment in time when from an undifferentiated multiplicity of futures one is made actual. The creation of this universe is the same kind of...
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