The world’s most-read poetry journal is dedicating its latest edition to Australia. Here, Jaya Savige reflects on the monsters, fakes and thefts at work in the nation’s literary scene
The year Keats composed his odes and the birth year of Whitman, 1819, also saw the first printed volume of poetry in Australia: the self-consciously titled First Fruits of Australian Poetry by the London-born barrister Barron Field, a childhood friend of Charles Lamb and Leigh Hunt. The volume’s two poems famously register the riot of the European mind on encountering the “incongruous” flora ( BotanyBay Flowers) and fauna ( The Kangaroo) of New South Wales.
In the latter, Field rummages through his mental database of monsters — sphinx, mermaid, centaur, Pegasus, hippogriff — but each, he concludes, “would scarce be more prodigious” than the iconic Australian marsupial.
The epigraph of The Kangaroo is taken from Virgil’s description of the Cretan Minotaur in Aeneid VI — “mixtumque genus prolesque biformis” — “mongrel breed, hybrid offspring’’. Dryden conflates the two into the economical “doubtful progeny”.
But Field’s volume was itself received as monstrous, a kind of “mongrel breed” or “hybrid offspring”, on account of what, to one reader at least, was deemed a breach of the decorum of poetic allusion: its rampant use of quotation.
Reviewing his friend’s work in Hunt’s Examiner, Lamb lamented that “there is too much matter mixed up in it from the Midsummer Night’s Dream, to please some readers”, and that The thefts are indeed so open and palpable, that we almost recur to our first surmise, that the author must be some unfortunate wight, sent on his travels for plagiarisms of a more serious complexion. But the old matter and the new blend kindly together; and must, we hope, have proved right acceptable to more than one.
Lamb appears to have anticipated his own criticism three years earlier when he scoffed in a letter to Field, “Have you poets among you? Cursed plagiarists, I fancy, if you have any”, and he is relentless in levelling the charge against his friend who, he joked in his review, had been condemned to “administer tedious justice in inauspicious unliterary THIEFLAND”.
One could conceive The Kangaroo, Lamb says, “to have been written by Andrew Marvell, supposing him to have been banished to Botany Bay, as he did, we believe, once meditate a voluntary exile to Bermuda”. Lamb’s concession “the old matter and the new blend kindly to- gether” did not assuage the forlorn Field, who soon after bemoaned his “prosaic, / Unpicturesque, unmusical” and “prose-dull land’’.
To 21st-century eyes, Field’s “thefts” betray a poetics of appropriation and citation that wouldn’t look entirely out of place in a Kenneth Goldsmith class: the volume features three epigraphs in addition to the Virgil (a reworking from the English satirist Joseph Hall, and direct quotes from Lucretius’s De rerum natura and Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor); it is shot through with chunks of quotation — from the occasional phrase, such as “dim spot” or “small deer”, which are in quotations marks but whose sources (Milton’s Comus and Shakespeare’s King Lear respectively) aren’t given — to more than a dozen lines throughout the text that are quoted verbatim from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It contains footnotes, the largest of which cites eight lines of Mercutio’s “Queen Mab” speech; there are also clear reworkings of Aristotle, Juvenal and Pliny the Elder: Join’d by some divine mistake, None but Nature’s hand can make — Nature, in her wisdom’s play, On Creation’s holiday. — From The Kangaroo, 1819
That the kangaroo must have been devised on “Creation’s holiday” is a reference to Pliny’s catalogue of the world’s races in the seventh book of his Natural History, which concludes: In her cleverness nature has created these and other, similar things as playthings for herself, and as miracles for us. Moreover who has the power to list the individual things she creates every day, nay, almost in every hour? The Kangaroo (and thus the volume entire) ends with a footnote explaining two final allu-