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Pop up shop of poetic pollie horrors


Matthias Corrman and Joe Hockey smoke cigars

When I was in Year 10, I was punished for some trivial misdemeanour the precise nature of which I have long since forgotten, by having to write out Byron’s poem ‘The Ocean’ twenty times. 

Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean, roll!
Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain
Man marks the earth with ruin; his control/Stops with the shore …

I’m not bothering to check those lines as I type them but I bet they’re right, because if there’s one lonely virtue to be had from copying a poem twenty times it is that it becomes cauterised into some part of your brain and neither age nor vicissitude nor shock nor carelessness nor a concerted act of will can ever obscure or compromise it.

Byron’s salute to the briny, brought back to me yet again while walking this morning on the beach, is of course not the only rhyme stuck irremovably in the labyrinths of my subconscious. Far from it. We all have these abruptly resurfacing images, tunes, memories and references. Mine happen often to be poems or quotations or brief lines that pop up unannounced and unsummoned because I have spent a great deal of my working and casual life involved in some way or another with the written word. 

For example, Treasurer Joe Hockey’s musings on the difference between the poor, who don’t drive very far – ‘O scathful harme, condition of povertie’ (Chaucer) – and the rich, who are ‘lifters’, had me invaded mentally by Yeats’s ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’: ‘Surely among a rich man's flowering lawns/Amid the rustle of his planted hills/Life overflows without ambitious pains.’ Without pain and with cigars and feet up on desks and smirks of self-congratulation. Surely!

Every now and then, however, these otherwise random intrusions into one’s mental and imaginative world take on a kind of unwanted or certainly unorganised coherence; a theme emerges despite your efforts to concentrate on something quite different. 

So, suddenly, towards the end of last year, I found myself recalling fragments of that scene (Act 4, scene iii) in Macbeth where Macduff and Malcolm (!) bemoan Scotland’s descent into disorder. Their ‘poor country … weeps, it bleeds; and each new day a gash/Is added to her wounds’. Their long discussion is about leadership and, among Macbeth’s other shortcomings, his dangerous unpredictability. Yet to make a move, to oppose and attempt to overthrow him, is a fearful proposition fraught with imponderable ramifications and possibilities. 

And so, vaguely pestered by these hauntings, I arrived along with the rest of the nation, at Australia Day. Our head of State, the Governor-General, abandoned his country’s special day to mourn in Saudi Arabia – a place of public beheadings, ritual stonings and discrimination against women. For his part, the Prime Minister produced his own coup de théatre, which, for just a moment, transported me to yet another world of the imagination familiar because of its unhinged refusal to accept the realities and mundanities of everyday life. 

‘In a village of La Mancha [lived a gentleman] … age bordering on fifty … of a hardy habit, spare, gaunt-featured, a very early riser and a great sportsman … [one day] he hit upon the strangest notion that ever madman in this world hit upon, and that was that he fancied it was right and requisite, as well for the support of his own honour as for the service of his country, that he should make a Knight …’

Well, that’s all I could remember until I looked it up, but you’ll readily see how such an image should have assembled itself in even less fevered brains than mine when, on the morning of Australia Day, our Prime Minister metaphorically strapped on his ‘doublet of fine cloth and velvet breeches and shoes to match for holidays’ and, like Don Quixote of La Mancha with his demented commitment to chivalric romance, transported us back to another age, long past, and created a new Knight for our land. 

It was a grand moment, awkwardly dwarfing other honours bestowed that same day. Like the hero of La Mancha, our new Knight will be required – in common with all his dubbed colleagues – to engage in ‘righteous warfare’ because on the horizon the huge, looming silhouettes of the windmill army await only a sharp zephyr to set their sails flailing. As he charges the stolid monsters – against the advice of his loyal, bemused acolyte, Sancho Panza, and in honour of his equally uncomprehending beloved, Dulcinea – Don Quixote proclaims,  using language eerily predictive of Prime Minister Abbott’s three hundred years later, ‘It is God's good service to sweep so evil a breed from off the face of the earth.’

So – we have the Knight of the Ready Gaffe. And now step forward: Sancho Pyne, or Sancho Hockey, or Sancho Brandis or Sancho Morrison. And Dulcinea Bishop. Then again, perhaps we should chuck the lot of them, heavy armour and all, into ‘the unplumbed, salt, estranging sea’ (Matthew Arnold). 

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, literature, poetry, Byron, Chaucer, Years, Joe Hockey, Australian politics



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Existing comments

Wonderful words, aptly drawn comparisons, a joy to read. It brought me many smiles. Thank you Brian.

Anne | 30 January 2015  

Delightful, whimsical, pointed and a stimulating reminder to this former literature teacher that the pen still remains mightier than the sword.

Gerard Rummery | 30 January 2015  

A delightful piece, Brian. Thankyou. I'm tempted by your Yeats quotations to try to write a parody set in Kirribilli House. But you really hit a nerve with your 'poor country' reference to Macbeth. 'Each new day a gash is added to her wounds' catches the pain and the hopelessness I've felt at each of Abbott's attempts to destroy the Australia of justice and compassion I have treasured lifelong. He's reported to have said, back in his Sydney Uni days, that he wanted to devote himself to the destruction of Gough's reforms. I have felt, since his election, and more sharply since the last budget, that 'each new day a gash has been added to [the] wounds' of an Australia that he is willing to destroy for his ideology and his electoral ambitions. I'm reminded of Clarence's pain in Richart lll - 'I have spent a miserable [year] / So full of fearful dreams and ugly sights .../So full of dismal terror was the time.'

Joe Castley | 30 January 2015  

The sad part about the whole knighthood affair is the amount of national media space it has drawn away from Rose Batty and domestic violence issues. so much talk about Tony and Phillip in the national media we seem to have forgotten already the pain and suffering of those who suffer from DV. what a wasted opportunity to highlight her work rather than the forlorn and dismal vision of an out of touch politician

Lawrence Wray | 30 January 2015  

It is such a delight to enjoy beautiful, poetic, evocative words that it is nearly enough to make you remain human and composed in the face of TA.

Eveline Goy | 31 January 2015  

Thank you Professor Matthews for such gentle good sense. In the era to which we have been returned unwillingly it was the custom of a gentleman who publicly blotted his copybook to take himself and his father's service revolver to the library... To misquote another rhyme imprinted on my brain from reading to children: Anthony J Abbott will you please go now/ The time has come.? The time is now.
I know it is not original, and with much apology to Dr Seuss, but this farce must end soon.

Stephen Skinner | 01 February 2015  

There is inherent folly in Honours because the list does not show those who had the self respect to refuse them. To accept an Honour by a nation that spends a billion dollars annually on bombing poor Iraqis for their own good is more of a concern regarding Australia, as a Nation, than is the awarding of any Honour to a foreign Prince or attending the funeral of a foreign King.

John Fitzpatrick | 01 February 2015  

I just loved Brian Matthews 'flowing with him' into the 'illusionary and epically imaginative world' our leader has created. Where knights and dames bewitch our land and fill our minds with magic. Where nothing is, but seems to be, and common sense has 'went'. Where dreams and fables rule our days from wheeled wisdom spoken and bicycles and swimming trunks and rolling hips be-knight us. Come all of us on carpet flight above the realms of reason, where dopey flights of fancy reign and knights and dames invite us. Reality has left our realm - and we are left to ponder - who leadeth us? and where we ask? Where is this magic oft he tells of Knights and Dames and dragons, who vie to steal our hope and dreams and of our future lieth? What mighty words be speaketh out 'mongst writers all a gathered - where promises and platitudes bedazzle and bewilder - of 'shoes and ships and bicycles and cabbages and Kings and how the sea is boiling hot and whether pigs have wings?" And all will bow in humble grace before a mighty Prince who speaks to none who listen and wears an unknown face - for magic 's in the telling and truth has lost the race.

Margaret Gambold | 02 February 2015  

BTW research is telling us that handwriting supports memory retention more than keyboarding!

Rob O'Brien | 02 February 2015  

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