Robert D(avid) FitzGerald Judith Wright - Essay

Judith Wright

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 have half expected the writer of those lines in 'Moonlight...

(The entire section is 2103 words.)