The loss of Hope

The later po­etry of A. D. Hope did not live up to the sparkling prom­ise of his youth, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Richard King

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)

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