Against modernism and for classicism; against the bloodlessly refined and for the sensuously robust; backing the past against the present and both against the technological future; and yet with all this, backing the undernourished and perhaps crippled Australian culture against a European civilization run to seed: there were all these reasons, as well as the sheer quality of his poetic performance, that A. D. Hope should emerge as the most distinctive poetic voice in Australia since Slessor stopped writing. With as much going for him as Slessor ever had — imagination, authority, touch — and a greater range than Brennan, Hope is by now established as the poet who matters most in all of the largest island’s short but variegated cultural history.
Yet Hope doesn’t fit into that history any better than Brennan did. His alignments against, his contests with, a tradition, are all against or with a European tradition. The regional emphases don’t really matter much. It’s far more pertinent
to ask why he approves of Swift’s rage (and why he approves of that rage as reasonable) than to ask about his precise attitude to current Australian society, for although that society might be the immediate stimulus of his opposition it is a whole modern era he objects to. In making this objection he writes two main kinds of poetry, one a choleric railing against all dunces in which the powder flies off his wig, the other a bitter and desperate taking of solace either in the contemplation of past greatness (Swift, Yeats, and notably in this volume Baudelaire) or in the embrace of unnamed ladies who emerge from his heroic imagery as tending to be on the strapping side.
Both strains in his work long ago became predictable. But neither strain has ever become predictable as to the actual handling of it, and each continues to throw up a remarkable number of excellent poems. For anybody who first owned the beautiful Edwards and Shaw edition of The Wandering Islands, and later slipped the Collected Poems into the shelf beside it, and now must add this latest volume (New Poems), it is the combination of bulk and solidity that impresses. There have been plenty of Australian poets who have had bulk, in the same way that a trailer-load of sponge-rubber has bulk. Similarly there have been more than a few Australian poets responsible for a handful of intense, solid performances. But Hope has managed to add density to density, and already, with a lot of writing left in him, he has established the kind of presence we associate only with truly formidable talents.
It’s ironic that he should have won his way through to the European poetic tradition by the sheer cogency and power of his contesting almost every one of its manifestations in the modern age, and also won his way through to a pre-eminence in Australian cultural history while never once going in search of an heroic Australian past, as James McAuley did, or getting himself identified with the soil, as Judith Wright did. It shows just how hard it is to get the individual talent taped, when the talent is there.
Hope’s twelve ‘Sonnets to Baudelaire’ are at the physical and thematic centre of the new book. Baudelaire is addressed as an equal, which takes nerve:
For we are fellow travellers in a land
Where few around us know they walk in hell.
Where what they take for the creating Word
Is a blind wind sowing the sand with sand.
Brother, it is our task of love to tell
Men they are damned, and damned in being absurd.
As in his earlier alliances with Swift, Blake and Yeats, Hope has here found a way of ducking back into the past in order to recruit reinforcements for an attack on his own present. Baudelaire’s position vis-Ã-vis his critics becomes, by adoption (presumption?), Hope’s own:
He warms my heart, your Monsieur Monselet;
— Such culture addicts, such genteel amateurs
As scold us for ‘abominable verse’
While, savage with joy, we let them have their say —
Poor fellow, I see him scan your lines, his eyes
Moist with fine feeling, till they meet the words
About the hanged man’s belly tipped by birds:
‘His dangling bowels dribbled down his thighs!’
‘What else could I do?’ Hope has Baudelaire say: ‘A poem is not a game; the image I chose/Was what my theme required.’ The implication, in part justified, is that Hope himself has had to say some superficially horrible things in order to penetrate to hidden truth. But to write, as Baudelaire indeed did, ‘Les intestins pesants lui coulaient sur les cuisses’, is one thing: he was out to show that Cytherea was a trifle disappointing. To write, as he also wrote, ‘LÃ, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté/Luxe, calme et volupté’, was definitely another. When Baudelaire mixed these two thematic worlds it was by force of circumstance — because the facts said so. Les Petites Vieilles, for example, gets its huge force because the pitiable facts batter through all such cheap defences as superiority, disdain, even art: it’s a compassionate poem. But with Hope these worlds are scrambled into one from the start, and that one world is acutely, narrowly personal. He sees the skull beneath the skin right enough, but his trouble — and it’s his limitation as a poet — is that he expects us to fall down in astonishment on being told that life is made up of bones, blood, gristle, guts, and unpalatable, rank juices. He can’t leave it alone. He’s really much more like Swift than like Baudelaire: the thing that gets him is that Celia shits. And the answer to that one is still Lawrence’s: how much worse it would be if she didn’t. Finally Hope overcomes his repugnance and utters ‘the heart’s unhesitating: Yes!’ to life. But his contemptuous objection to this life, the one we are trying to lead now, is that we are all busy trying to deny the harsh facts. Hence the condescension of tone, and the regression in time, of almost everything he writes. The only consolations offered are fatalistic, and then you see that the fatalism is private too.
In my early days, when reviewing A. D. Hope, I would quarrel with him in detail and leave my high regard for him half-stated. Later on, thankfully, I was less inclined to make such a blunder. Esteem, if one feels it, should be stated at the outset. It would also have been a better tribute to’ Hope’s stature if I had combed my piece for unintentional echoes: the word ‘sheer’ is repeated not for effect but out of carelessness, a blemish that always suggests the writer isn’t reading his own stuff. But what the piece really needed was a critique of its own conclusion. Convicting Hope of a restricted attitude to life was worse than impertinent, it was pointless, because it is from his attitude that he makes his art. As we have seen recently in the case of Larkin, to say that there is something wrong with how an artist sees the world makes for easy punditry, but glaringly begs the question of how his art came to our attention in the first place. Such amateur psychologizing is a perennial habit: no doubt there were pundits at the time who said that Michelangelo’s range might have been less cramped if he had settled down and raised a family. The critic, however, should always be ready to face the contrary possibility that an artist, in order to stay creative, might cherish his wounds or even invent them. Hope’s misanthropy, for instance, a striking component of his artistic persona, is undetectable in his real-life behaviour, as were Larkin’s supposed racism and misogyny.