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 Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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-

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