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Riding out the Romantic Storm

This first glimpse into the private writings of one of Australia’s great poets reveals a man by turns arrogant and self-questioning, gnostic and dogmatic, original and predictable, voracious and selective. The Notebooks are arranged successfully by subject, emphasising the rush of his passions and the bite of his prejudices.

One life role that A. D. Hope played was that of Augustan gentleman. Whether pose or position, this role as guardian of the classic values ‘in these last years of the Romantic Storm’ tests his readers. It was a pose in so far as he used it to belittle worthy opponents with smart-arse comments and to keep himself above the fray. But it was a position in that it defined his poetics, special philosophy and world view, with consequences sometimes spectacular, sometimes painful.

That an 18th-century man can live in the 20th century is a superfluous question. Hope enjoys making fun of modern educational models and ‘objective tests’ for ability in English. He quotes the remark, ‘We were given a simple exam which consisted of crossing out stupid answers in order to leave the least stupid one.’ Hope saw these now familiar forms of inane examination at first hand when they were being devised at Princeton in 1958, and comments:

The deviser … has to exclude from his mind all other possible ways of looking at the problem than the one he chooses. He has to eliminate imagination, and suppress his more subtle habits of manipulating and recognising the innate ambiguity of language. He has to ignore the difference that “context” makes to a question or a statement and to do this is forced to choose only run-of-the-mill contexts implying his own culture and epoch. In other words, he has to impose dullness on himself in order to frame his tests. (Book XIX, 1977)

Here Hope displays the very 18th-century value of the primacy of intelligence and imagination as the solution to problems. The enemies are just precisely stupidity and dullness. But Hope is more 20th century in his scepticism, even rejection of, systems. He is by turns naughty and gracious about religion, that lost cause of the Enlightenment, while science, the darling that could do no wrong, is a system that he mocks at every turn.

Indeed, ‘context’ and courage to stand by your own ideas animate Hope’s writing. Like Blake, Hope would never be bound to another’s system. True pleasure abounds where Hope expostulates on what he is not. He is not, for example, a Freudian, and has a unique theory for the interpretation of dreams involving a bunch of ‘back-room boys’ he calls ‘the dream team’ who forever upset the apple cart of his mind and send things rolling in all directions.

Negative capability is a term used prolifically to mean something other than what Keats meant, and Hope ingeniously applies it as a test for any area of inquiry. In commenting on lines of Yeats (‘I’m looking for the face I had / Before the world was made’) he says, ‘It is much the same for a poet as for the woman or the actor … a means of looking into a mirror to find something other than oneself, which is to become oneself for the time of creation.’ (Book IX, 1966)

In 1969 he can write, ‘A great deal of the time of my generation has gone into endless discussion of the “true nature” of poetry, the superiority of one technique to another … the obsession with “originality” and novelty to a point where it seemed obvious to many that a new method was necessarily a better method.’ Then concludes, ‘A degree of negative capability in the writer which allows him to enter into all theories and all techniques, to test and taste with no irritable concern with right or wrong, with mine or thine, might be what is badly needed.’

Of poetry there is much ‘endless discussion’. To read Hope is to re-enter Australian English departments of half a century ago, where arguments raged about genius versus talent, and Leavisites had a picnic serving storms in teacups. This was a world antithetical to poets, though Hope makes a strong brew himself. His stance illustrates the rifts in Australian poetry that began mid-century. He opposes all free verse, or ‘elaborate verbalisations’. His own astounding command of the classic forms, in particular the couplet, comes from a lifetime devoted to the improvement of his abilities. Every poem is a literary object of good length and virtuosity, according to Hope, dependent for meaning on the heartfelt groundwork of each poem. Other poets are engaged in ‘a sort of talking to oneself’, or else are ‘the eccentrics, the cranks, the beatniks, the pure expression boys … who have given up and let themselves run loose, but always with a public in view—a kind of exhibitionism: come and watch my pure ego perform!’ (Book XII, 1971)

Modern poetry is ephemeral and occasional. There are ways of responding to Hope’s line. Defence of formal prosody produced Hope’s works: a gift to the reader. Meanwhile, if this defence had remained the stifling dominant paradigm in Australian poetry and editorial we would not have the peacock flourishing of styles, attitudes, and voices that now enjoy such sway. In 1968 he groans, ‘I have more and more often the feeling that I am practising an obsolete art like flint-knapping or water divining. Still it is the only thing I can do and all I really want to do.’ The private lament of many of the ‘pure expression boys’ too, no doubt.

To what extent Hope was at variance with his age is still hard to say; some are happy to accept that he was actually typical of his age. One thing is certain, as Vincent Buckley once put it, ‘Other poets … expressed admiration of his power; his forms intrigued them … they created an utterance, they enforced their central concerns with lateral perceptions.’ The Notebook poems are terrific examples of this, and one of the book’s true pleasures. Take his revealing five-page attack on ‘my enemy Eliot’, which reminds us that anger and contempt are better sources for the satirist than magnanimity and admiration.

On the bare cornice of Hell’s seventh crater
We met a shade who said his name was
After that saint men call the Dubitator.

And so Dante and his guide Virgil question the forlorn figure of Hope’s imagination, finally reacting to one of Eliot’s hard sayings:

The poetry does not matter! The thing was
I thought my master caught his breath in
Of anger or impatience, but instead

He gazed at our poor shade when he had
In wonder and in pity; then began:
‘Was this then verse I heard, so lame, so broken

‘That none could tell its measure or make it scan?
Words obey him alone who leads them dancing,
Not him who works to your drill-sergeant plan.’

‘You cannot hope to call forth their entrancing
Hid music, nor breathe life into their clay
Until the word of metre sets them glancing,

‘Gleaming with light on their celestial way.
Your melancholy half-prose was a venture
Doomed from the start: What more is there to say?’

Ann McCulloch’s editorialising is not intrusive. She champions Hope and lets him do the talking, though ironically her critical remarks employ the very language of theory (post-colonial, feminist, queer) that her subject would have blasted in a satire of perfect pentameters. Also, a final proofread would’ve helped. Hope finds himself a last defender of ‘ivilizations’ and talks physics with ‘Sir John Ecclesix’. Amongst the poets, Dante writes in ‘terja rima’ and Eliot is spelt ‘Eliott’, which is not any Elliott that Eliot would have recognised. 

Dance of the Nomad: A Study of the Selected Notebooks of A. D. Hope,
Ann McCulloch. Pandanus Books, 2005. ISBN 1 740 76168 5, RRP $45

Philip Harvey is the poetry editor of Eureka Street.


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