Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2997
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...
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- 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 critics to accuse him variously of academism, obscurity, misogyny, and even anti-Australian sentiments. Certainly, “Australia” would not have pleased the nationalistic poets of the Jindyworobak movement, at whose expense Hope had on occasion been mercilessly critical in his reviews. In this outwardly bitter poem, Hope sees his homeland as “without songs, architecture, history.” Despite the fact that Hope later characterizes himself as one who turns “gladly home/ From the lush jungle of modern thought” to a country that has not yet been overwhelmed by “the chatter of cultured apes,” the poem gave his early critics an abundant supply of ammunition with which to attack him.
In the book’s title poem, Hope also delineates another constant theme of his work: the attractions and disappointment of love. For Hope, “the wandering islands” are the isolations of individual sexual identities, which are always, like the sundered beast in Plato’s analogy of the two sexes, frustrated in their attempts at complete union:
An instant of fury, a bursting mountain of spray,They rush together, their promontories lockAn instant the castaway hails the castaway,But the sounds perish in that earthquake shock.
In these brief seconds of orgasmic loss of self lies “all that one mind ever knows of another,/ Or breaks the long isolation of the heart.”
Commenting on Hope’s recurrent motifs in a review of The Wandering Islands, S. L. Goldberg notes that “the attitude from which his themes arise is Dionysian or tragic, disturbed, romantic, existentialist at least in its premises; on the other hand, the sense of tradition and order implicit in his art . . . is decidedly Apollonian or classical, and intellectual rather than freely organic.” In this sense, Hope seems closest to the tradition of the English Metaphysical poets, John Donne in particular, who saw no divorce between passion and intellect, the “dissociated sensibility,” to borrow Eliot’s phrase.
A significant number of Hope’s best poems deal with the sexual theme, by turns satirically and seriously. In “Conquistador,” he sings “of the decline of Henry Clay/ . . . a small man in a little way,” who is mashed flat in a sexual encounter with a “girl of uncommon size,” who uses “him thereafter as a bedside mat.” The poem, which is not without its darker side, bears comparison with Auden’s “Ballad of Miss Gee.” In “The Brides,” Hope, in an impressive piece of social satire, works an extended conceit, for the smartest model in the sexual showroom is lured to the altar by promises of
every comfort: the full setOf gadgets; knobs that answer to the touchFor light or music; a place for his cigarette;Room for his knees; a honey of a clutch.
That the majority of contemporary marriages last not much longer than a new car’s extended warranty period is at least implicit in this witty poem.
In other poems, Hope expands the sexual theme to include larger observations of nature and human history. “Imperial Adam,” one of his most widely reprinted poems, retells the story of the Fall as a sexual fable. Having partaken of the “delicious pulp of the forbidden fruit,” Adam and Eve immediately experience the awakening of sexual desire:
Sly as the snake she loosed her sinuous thighs.And waking, smiled up at him from the grass;Her breasts rose softly and he heard her sigh—From all the beasts whose pleasant task it wasIn Eden to increase and multiply Adam had learned the jolly deed of kind:He took her in his arms and there and then,Like the clean beasts, embracing from behindBegan in joy to found the breed of men.
In lines that are reminiscent of William Butler Yeats’s “A shudder in the loins engenders there/ The broken wall, the burning roof and tower . . . ,” Hope foreshadows the whole violent future of humanity in the “sexual lightning stroke” of the first embrace. The poem closes with Adam witnessing the consequences of his act:
Adam watching tooSaw how her dumb breasts at their ripening wept,The great pod of her belly swelled and grew,And saw its water break, and saw, in fear,Its quaking muscles in the act of birth,Between her legs a pigmy face appear,And the first murderer lay upon the earth.
It is significant that Hope, in a later poem titled “The Planctus,” offers “another version of the Fall” in which Eve escapes the Garden and is provided with another helpmate, “While Adam, whose fellow God had not replaced,/ Lived on immortal, young, with virtue crowned,/ Sterile and impotent and justified.” In Hope’s view, a purely hermetic retreat from the moral perplexities of life is equivalent to a living death.
One other early poem comments, at first satirically, on those who see the “standardization” of the modern age as somehow unnatural, in particular the typical “Nature Poet” who “from his vegetable Sunday School/ Emerges with the neatly maudlin phrase” to protest the “endless duplication of lives and objects” that the American poet Theodore Roethke decried in “Dolor.” Against this romantic assumption, Hope weighs the evidence of Earth herself, whose procreative fecundity “gathers and repeats/ The cast of a face, a million butterfly wings.” Hope argues persuasively that such “standardization” is, in fact, the essence of the reproductive forces that rule nature and human life. As he says, it is love that “still pours into its ancient mould/ The lashing seed that grows to a man again.”
Even in those poems that seem purely lyrical, Hope resists the romantic temptation to find in love any easy solutions. In one of his finest short poems, “As Well as They Can,” he combines the twin demands of art and love in lines that ironically echo the conceit of Donne’s “The Bait”:
As well as he can, the poet, blind, betrayedDistracted by the groaning mill, amongThe jostle of slaves, the clatter, the lash of trade, Taps the pure source of song.As well as I can, my heart in this bleak air,The empty days, the waste nights since you went,Recalls your warmth, your smile, the grace and stir That were its element.
Dialectics and history
Hope’s poetry is founded on dialectical premises—between the sexes, between assertion and counterargument, between art and life, even between the living poet and his predecessors. In “Moschus Moschiferus,” which is on first glance conventional in its subtitle, “A Song for St Cecilia’s Day,” he contrasts “the pure, bright drops of sound” of Tibetan hunters’ flute music with the ends to which it is put, ensnaring the hapless mouse-deer of the title, hunted almost into extinction for their precious musk glands. As a footnote to the twentieth century that has seen, in Nazi Germany to cite only one example, the powers of music set to evil uses, Hope can offer the saint little more than a sardonic gift:
Divine Cecilia, there is no more to say!Of all who praised the power of music, fewKnew of these things. In honor of your dayAccept this song I too have made for you.
Similarly, in carrying on a continuing debate with the writers and literature of the past, Hope takes a revisionist view of personalities and characters that must now be seen from a contemporary perspective. In “Man Friday,” he writes a sequel to Daniel Defoe’s The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner, Written by Himself (1719; commonly known as Robinson Crusoe) in which Friday, having had his fill of life in a country where
More dreadful than ten thousands savages,In their strange clothes and monstrous mats of hair,The pale-eyed English swarm to joke and stare,With endless questions round him crowd and press Curious to see and touch his loneliness
makes his escape home by a last, suicidal swim. “Faustus,” informed by the devil that “Hell is more up-to-date than men suppose” and that his soul has long since been in hell, “reorganized on the hire-purchase plan,” avoids living further in his purely material world by killing both Helen and himself. Lord Byron, who boasted of thousands of seductions, in “The Damnation of Byron” is condemned to a “Hell of Women” where, at last satiated by endless “wet kisses and voluptuous legs agape// He longs for the companionship of men, their sexless friendliness.”
In all these poems, as well as in many others from A Book of Answers and The Age of Reason, Hope’s collection of verse epistles and narratives concerning leading figures, both historical and fictional from the Augustan Age, one is always aware of an intellect passionately involved in a dialogue with the past.
When Hope’s wife died, his dialogue with the past took final form as a five-part conversation with her shade. These “Western Elegies” immediately follow the title poem in Hope’s last collection of verse, Orpheus. They are written in classical hexameter, a measure rarely used to good effect in English verse. They climax in a vast meditation on language and time, “The Tongues,” in which Hope celebrates the flowering of Indo-European languages, then reviews his personal acquaintance and love for tongues as diverse as Latin, Norse, and Russian:
The man who has only one tongue lives forever alone on an islandShut in on himself by conventions he is only dimly aware of,Like a beast whose mind is fenced by the narrow extent of its instincts.
At the end of “The Tongues,” Hope anticipates his own imminent translation, in the other sense of that word:
How shall I tell her the world is simpler than men imagine,For those set apart by God speak a tongue used only by angels;That the distance from East to West is no more than its word for “I love you”?And perpetual pentecost springs and renews itself in that message,Which blesses the gifts of tongues and crowns, the venture of Babel.
Even though Hope has stressed, perhaps ingenuously, that his own poems are “hardly ever ’confessions’ and [are] usually written in a spirit of ’as if’ highly misleading to any unwary commentator or putative biographer,” it would be a mistake to assume that his poetry is impersonal in any sense. Eliot, who said that poetry should be “an escape from personality,” went on to add that one must first have a personality to be able to escape from it. In “Hay Fever,” a late poem that is one of the few clearly autobiographical works in Hope’s oeuvre, the gentle memory of an Edwardian summer spent mowing hay in rural Tasmania moves the mature poet to speculate on the abundant harvest of a life’s work:
It is good for a man when he comes to the endof his courseIn the barn of his brain to be able to romplike a boy in the heap . . .To lie still in well-cured hay . . . to driftinto sleep.
A. D. Hope’s voice, so distinctive in its ability to match the orchestra’s full range, is truly remarkable.