W. A. Suchting (essay date 1962)
SOURCE: Suchting, W. A. “The Poetry of A. D. Hope: A Frame of Reference.” Meanjin Quarterly 89, no. 21 (1962): 154-63.
[In the following essay, Suchting delineates the “frame of reference” in Hope's verse.]
Every significant artist has a fundamental axis about which his work revolves, a basic perspective from which, in which, he sees the world and himself. (This is true even—perhaps especially—when the central attitude is composed of different, and maybe opposing elements.)
The aim of the following essay is to attempt to demarcate this ‘frame of reference’ in the poetry of A. D. Hope, as far as it has been published in The Wandering Islands (1955) and Poems (1960), and to discuss some of the implications of such a position.
The poem which gives its title to Hope's first collection expresses this basic perspective with simple directness: human isolation. ‘Wandering islands’ are by no means without points of possible, and sometimes even actual contact, but the meetings are in principle external, temporary only: for the ship-wrecked sailor there is no hope of rescue. (Compare here the island image in ‘Ascent into Hell’, and also the penultimate stanza of ‘X-ray Photograph’.)
Because of its awkwardly yoked images, roughnesses of rhythm, because of its mode of statement which is at once too abstract and too explicit, this poem expresses only imperfectly the central attitude of isolation. The latter emerges in a clearer and poetically much more satisfying manner in what is doubtless one of Hope's finest poems, ‘The Death of the Bird’. The bird is a natural creature, a motif in its own right, and its destiny—its lostness and final death—natural to it. At the same time it may be seen as a concrete image of Hope's view of the ‘human condition’:
A vanishing speck in those inane dominions, Single and frail, uncertain of her place, Alone in the bright host of her companions, Lost in the blue unfriendliness of space. …
Try as she will, the trackless world delivers No way, the wilderness of light no sign, The immense and complex map of hills and rivers Mocks her small wisdom with its vast design.
And darkness rises from the eastern valleys, And the winds buffet her with their hungry breath, And the great earth, with neither grief nor malice, Receives the tiny burden of her death.
The theme of isolation which appears in the above poem in a general form (though expressed in specific, concrete images) is particularized in numerous others.
It is seen in an estrangement from his own country, his image of which (in ‘Australia’) is not the traditional one of a young land of promise, but an immensely aged land, lacking any real future, its cities and people depleted and unoriginal, clinging to an alien soil.
He is estranged also from much of contemporary life, to various aspects of which he has devoted a number of satirical pieces: the husband-hunting female, and especially the mild and virtuous variety (‘The Brides’, ‘The Explorers’), ‘successful’ men and ‘Technocratic man’ (‘Toast for a Golden Age’, ‘The Kings’), vicarious emotions (‘Sportsfield’), TV and advertising (‘A Commination’), religion (‘Easter Hymn’, ‘The House of God’, ‘Lambkin: A Fable’), levelling (‘The Age of Innocence’), and even contemporary complaints about contemporary life (‘Standardization’). There is no heroism in the poems included in The Wandering Islands under the rubric ‘Sagas of the Heroes’. The ‘Hero of our Time’ (in ‘Conquistador’) who may
With any luck, one day, be you or me
is an insignificant suburbanite who attains immortality by being made into a mat
Tanned on both sides and neatly edged with fur
after an accident with a ‘white girl of uncommon size’ with whom he went to bed in a sudden break with his ordinary life.
The personal connection presented most frequently and in most detail by Hope is that centring in the relationship of woman to man. But it is precisely here, in this most intimate of interpersonal relationships, that the central isolation is present and is felt most intensely. In ‘The Dream’, for example, the relation between the man and the woman is depicted as a refuge from a harsh alien world:
Unable to speak, he touched her with his hand, Fingering the witnesses of cheek and breast. The bloody anguish breeding in the bone Told its long exile, told of all the lands Where the unresting heart, seeking its rest, Finds always that its language is unknown.
But by the end of the poem even this proves to be no refuge from human exile:
Unable to speak, he rose and left her there; Unable to meet her eyes that gazed with such Anguish and horror, went out into the night, Burning, burning, burning in her despair And kindling hurt and ruin at his touch.
This isolation of man and woman is expressed, from a slightly different point of view, in the absence of presentations of fully-rounded love-relationships. Hope is rather a poet of eroticism. Indeed even eroticism tends to be reduced to its sexual aspect, the latter being abstracted from specifically human relations, personal feelings and attitudes, and considered in its physical directness, the other participant in the sexual act appearing rather as a source of sensations only, than as a genuine partner. From this point of view sex becomes
A refuge only for the ship-wrecked sailor; He sits on the shore and sullenly masturbates,
‘The Wandering Islands’
In ‘The Damnation of Byron’ the dead poet is depicted in the afterworld, surrounded by desirous women and enjoying them vigorously.
And yet he is alone. At first he feels nothing above the tumult of his blood, while through his veins like the slow pox there steals the deep significance of his solitude.
The Hell to which he is condemned, in which he suffers, is just the contradiction between his obsessive eroticism, his inescapable desire for contact in the form of sexual relations, and his utter inability to make such contact in a way that penetrates to his inwardness. The result is an isolation and sense of nothingness that is constantly reproduced and intensified by his efforts to escape it, efforts that are condemned to futility.
Yet always to this nausea he returns from his own mind—the emptiness within. …
But merely to establish, descriptively, the centrality of the idea and experience of isolation in Hope's poetry does not take us very far. If such a characterization is to be of any real significance in the criticism of his work, it must decisively assist us in the comprehension and evaluation of it in detail. Furthermore, the bare generalization in itself does not suffice to distinguish the poetry of Hope from the literary production of a practically indefinitely large number of writers over roughly the last hundred years, since isolation has been the central experience underlying the bulk of the serious literature of that period. However, a brief discussion of the general problematic of isolation will put us in a better position to apply the idea specifically to the poetry of Hope.
The loss of self-identification of men with a social whole—a loss that may be experienced with feelings ranging from indifference to active opposition—and the accompanying sense that life offers no objective guides for thought, feeling and action, which is at once a cause and an effect of isolation, has a dual—and contradictory—set of consequences. On the one hand, the individual experiences this state in ‘dread’, ‘anguish’, ‘anxiety’, inconsolable ‘abandonment’. On the other hand, he feels an intoxicating sense of absolute freedom, of being thrown back entirely on himself for the norms of his being and action. Such a choice he must make, for he is ‘condemned’ to do so through the very fact of being a human being with the inalienable freedom that this implies. To choose to have no norms—to be a ‘nihilist’, or to commit suicide—is still to choose.
The attempt by the isolated subjectivity to find a firm principle in the sensible side of his nature alone is a vain one. The cycle of frantic search after sensation for its own sake, satiety, boredom, is an indefinitely repeated one, and offers no solid ground. The concentration on sensation and feeling, which is at once the most intense expression of isolation and one of the ostensibly fixed points of reference in a world with no objective axiological structure, leads to a dissolution of the contours of the personality, to inner chaos.
Alternatively, then, an attempt is made to find the Archimedean point in some purely rational factors, some set of abstract, formal norms to which the self may submit unconditionally and, as a result, gain an at least prima facie order, security, orientation. The norms may be derived quite literally from without, for example, from a Leader, an institution (Church, Party, etc.). Or the mind may be, in the absence of genuine extra-personal organizing forms, itself called upon to supply a principle of order. It thus differentiates itself, as it were, into two parts, the one clearly and explicitly subjective, the other prescribing norms for the first. What is gained thereby is, however, only a pseudo-objective principle of order, because it is objective only in the sense of being other than that aspect of the subjectivity which is clearly recognized as such; the relation of externality, which is one aspect of the idea of objectivity, is here located within the subject. An example of such a norm is the ideal of practising or enjoying art for its own sake...
(The entire section is 4099 words.)