The loss of Hope
The later poetry of A. D. Hope did not live up to the sparkling promise of his youth, writes
THAT the 100th anniversary of A. D. Hope’s birth arrives just seven years after his death makes the task of re- evaluation a more delicate one than usual. W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, both of whom share his centenary year, have been dead for more than 30 years and 40 years respectively.
If the argument really begins in the obituaries, then the argument about Hope has only just begun. Add in that his first collection didn’t appear until 1955 ( 1928 and 1929 are the equivalent dates for Auden and MacNeice) and any thorough reassessment is bound to look like jumping the gun.
Hope’s first poems, which began to appear in literary magazines in the 1920s, displayed formal skill and an encouraging determination to take on existential themes. One of those themes was the possibility of spiritual transcendence in a godless universe. One of the paths to transcendence seemed to be through sexual intercourse, the often unsparing depictions of which meant that most of the poetry- reading public remained Hopeless until The Wandering Islands was published in 1955. No doubt they thought it worth the wait.
Some of the poems go straight into memory. Note how, in the following lines from Three Romances — I , the exalted language (‘‘ a hundred raptures’’) gives way to the bathetic image of the worm, as good a description of le petit mort as one is likely to get in two couplets: Down through a hundred raptures I Slide weakly out of her and lie Like a wet worm upon the boards, And nobody at all applauds.
Thus the victims of Telemachus are brought, if not precisely to life, at least into grimly physical being.
Clearly, these early poems were evidence of a significant poetic gift.
It is all the more remarkable, then, that Hope not only didn’t develop but seemed, as early as the ’ 60s, to suffer a partial haemorrhaging of his powers. Take, for example, the lengthy poem The Double Looking Glass ( 1963), in which he retells the apocryphal story of Susannah and the lecherous elders.
It wasn’t only the sexually constipated who found this kind of thing distasteful. As a result of poems such as Imperial Adam, in which Eve is described as ‘‘ this plump gourd’’ and taken from behind by Adam, ‘‘ Phallic Alec’’ also attracted the unpainted eye of feminism. The problem was not that his women were sexualised. The problem was that his sexual candour was not matched by psychological realism.
This left him open to the charge of pornography, of the sexual objectification of women, a charge that has proven extremely tenacious, even among sympathetic critics. Poet Vincent Buckley, for example, wrote of Hope’s ‘‘ bitter carnality, even a kind of bestiality’’.
Bestiality was hard to avoid, given that one of Hope’s obsessions was classical mythology, in which sexual encounters between man and beast ( or woman and beast) are not uncommon. Hope, indeed, was a veritable tomb raider when it came to the myths and legends of yore, such that a decent mythological dictionary is an essential tool when reading him. These lines are from The End of a Journey : Or consider these wonderful lines from The Cheek , the poetic precision of ‘‘ knees/ Nuzzle’’, the delectable plumpness of ‘‘ amplitude’’: The feet at their remote antipodes Twine their smooth roots; at Capricorn the knees Nuzzle together; intershafted lies The amplitude of firm and polished thighs A farm- cart by the doorway dripped and stank, Piled with the victims of his mighty bow. Each with her broken neck, each with a blank, Small, strangled face, the dead girls in a row Swung as the cold airs moved them to and fro . . .
Although there are flashes of the early brilliance — the ‘‘ dragonfly dim- darting in the stream’’ that ‘‘ Follows and watches with enormous eyes/ His blue narcissus glitter in the air’’ — the corny imagery and synthetic emotion combine to undercut the whole: For now his craft has passed the straits and now Into my shoreless sea he drives alone. Islands of spice await his happy prow And fabulous deeps support and bear him on.
Even the explicitly Australian emphasis in poems such as Hay Fever and Beyond Khancoban could not force out the archaic register, with its pleonasms and syntactical inversions. Moreover, a certain laziness set in. In the opening stanza of Moschus Moschiferus , the final line fairly limps to its conclusion.
If Hope’s poetry was looking a little slack from the early ’ 60s on, his critical position was adamantine. Always a fearsome and a fearless reviewer ( his verdict on Patrick White’s The Tree of Man — ‘‘ pretentious and illiterate verbal sludge’’ — has passed into Australian literary folklore), Hope was also a big- picture thinker whose comments on the ‘‘ classicromantic quarrel’’ and laments for the demise of shaping forms such as the ode, the epistle and the verse tragedy give us a clue as to how and why he wrote himself into a poetic corner.
Intellectually, Hope was a classicist who thought that romantic self- expression had killed off the discursive modes and that ‘‘ poetry, at the nadir of this search for its essence, became the formless babble and vomit of the poet’s subconscious mind’’.
This wasn’t just a losing battle, it was a nonbattle: a phony war. ( It was also a gift to the literary critters, who set about tying themselves in knots over a poet whose Apollonian formalism was tantalisingly at odds with his Dionysian subject matter.) Nevertheless, Hope seemed to believe it, and his stance soon began to shape the poetry, which became progressively less emotional and more ( and fatally) intellectual.
One of the things good poetry does is give definite expression to indefinite feelings. Hope, by contrast, wanted poetry to give definite expression to definite thoughts, and only such feelings as could be netted, pinned to the board and analysed. Always adept at thinking in verse ( especially in his rhyming couplets, a sure sign of his Augustan proclivities), he came to distrust that emotional intelligence without which poetry ceases to live. Poems need a personality. Hope hid his, and his poetry suffered.
Possibly he ran out of inspiration and so set about trying to convince himself that inspiration wasn’t important. Whatever the truth, he became an anomaly: a sporadically excellent poet, yes, but an eccentric and rather marginal one, and certainly not the poetic force, at once traditional and revolutionary, augured by the early poems. Fortunately, we have those early poems to remind us what we never had.
Richard King is Perth- based literary critic. In the high jungle where Assam meets Tibet The small Kastura, most archaic of deer, Were driven in herds to cram the hunters’ net And slaughtered for the musk- pods which they bear
Eccentric and sporadically excellent: Jenni Mitchell’s Portrait of Alec Hope ( 1989)