Essay by Kerry Greenwood
A. D. Hope is well recognised as one of Australia’s greatest poets, who redefined what it means to be Australian. He was for some time also the best known Australian poet internationally, with his uniquely satirical style. Over the years, his work collected numerous accolades, but here I want to focus on the impact Hope had on me personally.
I have just found my school copy of A.D. Hope’s poetry. I have retained it when many other lesser works and all of my school texts have fallen by the way. I hung on to this poet because his work was a revelation to me.
Imagine me, at fourteen. My father was a wharfie. I lived in an industrial suburb. I was extremely literate. My household contained books of many poets from Shakespeare onward, but they stopped at Tennyson, though there may have been a James Elroy Flecker Golden Road to Samarkand in Grandma’s bookcase. A wedding present, I think. I had read all of them. Often. I loved verse.
But all the clever, ingenious, elegant or even passionate ones were European. Sweet or indignant Shakespearean sonnets, from ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ to ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’ to ‘Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame/ is lust in action’. Biblical verse, swooning with erotic force: ‘Stir not my love nor wake him till he please, he feedeth amongst the lilies’; ‘Thou art fair, my love, thou art fair, thou hast dove’s eyes within thy locks’. Byron’s rueful ‘So we’ll go no more a-roving’. Keats’s ‘Ode to Autumn’. All of the things which poetry can do, encompass experience, ravish the senses, speak to the mind or the heart, all of it not Australian.
The only Australian verse I heard or knew was bush verse. Some of it A.B. Paterson, and good enough in its way. Some of it the rude songs my father’s old shearing mates sang, about the Ryebuck Shearer, which I wasn’t supposed to have heard. And some of it tedious beyond belief, only recited in a sing-song drawl: ‘The love of field and coppice, of green and shaded lanes, of ordered woods and gardens is running in your veins …’, which leads, of course, to poor over-exploited Dorothea Mackellar’s declaration that she loves a sunburnt country. At that age I had a flypaper memory, and I can still recall most of what I read as a child. The whole of ‘The Lady of Shalott’, perhaps; miles of Tennyson; armloads of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury.
But the only other Australian writer I knew was Anon., and I didn’t like his work or his ‘Wild Colonial Boy’. I noticed, as well, that in this Australian verse there were no cities, no love songs, no children, and more attention given to horses than to wives. I had a huge aversion to Australian verse.
So when I was given A.D. Hope and told I had to read it, I sulked and shoved him to the bottom of a school bag for nearly a week. Then I was stuck on a tram all alone, so naturally I reached for a book, found Hope, and didn’t come out of the book until I had arrived at Moonee Ponds Junction, and had to find another tram home. And read them all again on the way.
The first poem I read was ‘The Muse’. I knew about Muses; I had always hoped that one might become interested in me, as I meant to be a novelist. I knew also quite a lot about the classics, because my best friend was Greek, I was an Honorary Wog, and also I had been given Charles Kingsley’s The Heroes as a twelfth birthday present. I had always thought of a Muse as a beautiful woman who doted on the poet and inspired him by breathing kisses into his mouth. And here were three other ways of looking at her.
She is Arachne. Instinct spins the net
Of her ferocious purpose in the night.
So, a dangerous, angry goddess. Then there was another view of the Muse:
She is Ariadne by the shore
Watching a black sail vanish on the sea
So she is also the abandoned woman, left forlorn by Theseus (I always thought that Theseus was a rotter), soon to ‘be tumbled by the drunken god’.
She is Penelope. Nightlong at the loom
She must unravel the promise in her heart,
Subdue the monthly protest of the womb …
No wonder I was fascinated. This was an Australian poet writing about Classical subjects, elegantly, beautifully, and mentioning matters which did not arise in poetry: strong women, angry goddesses, sex, and menstrual periods.
You can imagine how impressed I was. I clawed through the slender volume and came upon the poem upon which every student seizes (forgive me), ‘Imperial Adam’. Unlike Judith Wright’s timid bride (‘Oh, hold me, for I am afraid’), Hope’s First Man is a splendid, slouching innocent, taking his golden fleshed Eve from behind like the ‘clean beasts’ and hearing with his spurt of seed her ‘terrible and triumphant female cry’. And the poem set our adolescent imaginations alight with its strong, lushly erotic tone, to bring us up short like a splash of ice water in the face with the last line, when the fertile, vegetative Eve gives birth to Cain:
And the first murderer lay upon the earth.
And yet the poem is full of the tenderness of the pregnant beasts, who nuzzle and attend Eve as she gives birth. And one is also concerned for Adam, watching, helpless, as this birth takes place, without his will or desire. There is always more than one thing to think about in any poem by A.D. Hope.
More, more, I screamed (quietly, I was still on a tram) and found ‘The Return of Persephone’. Hope has the ability to take a story that one knows well, and do something quite unexpected and fascinating with it. I knew about Hades kidnapping Persephone, her father Zeus making a deal with the abductor that she should stay six months in the underworld and that Hermes should come and fetch her to take her back to Ceres, her mother, who has afflicted the world with famine in her grief, so that spring shall come and the human race not starve to death. I had never thought about the people. How did the kidnapped princess feel about Hades, who had taken and confined her? Did she hate him? Did she weep all the time for the sight of the sky? And here is the messenger approaching her:
Gliding through the still air, he made no sound;
Wing-shod and deft, dropped almost at her feet
Persephone steps down from the throne, puts her hand on the brown arm of the messenger, turns to look at Hades, sees his agony and deep despair that she is leaving, and:
For the first time she loved him from her heart.
Hope specialises in last lines which are like a sock to the solar plexus. Dis stares at the living Persephone with ‘ravenous eyes’:
Calm as his marble brow, the marble hand
Slept on his knee.
Hope always finds an unexpected adjective. His perfect scansion makes the poem easy to learn. Easy to speak aloud.
Hope is a sensual writer, proto-feminist, and his verse is full of remarkable women. Read ‘Pasiphae’ for the account of the Queen who received her bull-lover inside a casing made to look like a cow, who later bore the Minotaur: I had never attempted to understand her before, but Hope made me part of that coupling, so unnatural, bestial, and desired.
Then he can write scented and delightful court verse as well as Sir Philip Sidney and in much the same style. Consider the beginning of ‘An Epistle: Edward Sackville to Venetia Digby’. If someone had sent me such a letter, I should have ditched Digby in a heartbeat.
First, last and always dearest, closest, best,
Source of my travail and my rest,
The letter which I shall not send, I write
To cheer my more than arctic night.
Unrequitable love at its most piercing. He manages heartbreaking in ‘The Death of the Bird’, and the best case of existential despair I have ever read in ‘The Wandering Islands’. How my adolescent nihilism throbbed to the beginning:
You cannot build bridges between the wandering islands;
The Mind has no neighbours, and the unteachable heart
Announces its armistice time after time, but spends
Its love to draw them closer and closer apart.
Oh, how I felt that, when I was fourteen and in Footscray, where no one understood me, where no one would ever understand me, and I shivered at the delicious despair of the last line, announcing to the shipwrecked sailor: ‘The Rescue will not take place’.
Hope is as chatty, affable and pointed as Byron in his long ‘A Letter from Rome’, where he remarks:
Australian poets, you recall, prefer
The packhorse and the slip-rail and the spur.
When I later read the Roman satire writer Juvenal, I understood where Hope was getting some of his venom, but most of it is all his own. I had never realised that Australian poetry could be used to slip so many daggers into so many pretensions. Oh, my Alec Derwent, you poked holes in so many of my favourite abuses.
The Muse replies to the poet:
Australian poets, if they ever tried,
Might show at least a rudiment of brain
Hope’s feminism is revealed most clearly in ‘Advice to Young Ladies’, which recounts the fate of Postumia, a Vestal Virgin, who is told to moderate her behaviour or be buried alive. Hope surveys the oppression of Postumia, the dowdy clothes, the lowered gaze, the suppressed speech. Postumia’s spirit is broken. And I had never read a verse like this before:
How many the black maw has swallowed in its time!
Spirited girls who would not know their place;
Talented girls who found that the disgrace
Of being a woman made genius a crime.
I was one of those, a talented girl, a spirited one, and the school careers adviser laughed when I said I wanted to be a lawyer. He had offered me Coles or Woolworths. I have never forgotten the empty, cold feeling of horror I felt when that man laughed at me. I then resolved that no such man would ever stop me from being educated, and none of them ever managed it. There is one of me in every one of your classes.
Hope attributes the fall of empires to the oppression of women.
… Have more states perished, then,
For having shackled the enquiring mind,
Than those who, in their folly not less blind,
Trusted the servile womb to breed free men?
But as a critic he was also a revelation. He was not afraid to say exactly what he meant. He demolishes Patrick White’s The Tree of Man in a beautifully phrased diatribe for which the author never forgave him – and if he’d written it about my work, I wouldn’t have forgiven him, either – but his criticism is so reasoned, sensible, cogent and witty that it is a pleasure to read. Except for the author. It is hard to summarise, because the essay is all of a piece with the theme of the Great Australian Novel and how we are always searching for it, as though it were a mythical beast. I had just been forced to read The Tree of Man and I agreed with every scimitar word.
Hope is a very good poet. He is even, occasionally, delightfully silly, as in ‘A Blason’:
My foundling, my fondling, my frolic first-footer,
My circler, my sidler, shy-sayer yes-and-no,
Live-levin, light-looker, darter and doubter,
Pause of perhaps in my turvey of touch-and-go
Which might have been produced after an overdose of whisky and Gerard Manley Hopkins, but cries out to be read aloud.
A.D. Hope introduced me to new thoughts about the classics, new words, elegant, beautiful, erotic, philosophical verse and intrinsically Australian verse which belonged in my world, not that of Mary Grant Bruce. From his work I received much delight, education, and constant food for thought. I still adore him.
Hope, A.D. Selected Poetry and Prose. Halstead Press: Sydney, 2000.
© Copyright Kerry Greenwood 2014