Books: The Revolt of the Pendulum — The Measure of A. D. Hope |
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The Measure of A. D. Hope

The first collection of poems by A. D. Hope, The Wandering Islands, belatedly appeared in 1955, and consolidated the position he had already established as the leading Australian poet of his time. The book had to appear belatedly (Hope was already 48) because if it had appeared much earlier its author might have been prosecuted. Australia was still a censored country and several of Hope’s poems dared to mention the particularities of sexual intercourse. Without his air of authority, Hope might never have got his book into the shops before old age supervened. But an air of authority was what he had. He spoke from on high. His vocabulary was of the present, but it had the past in it, transparent a long way down. And it was all sent forward like a wave by his magisterial sense of rhythm.

There is the land-locked valley and the river,
The Western Tiers make distance an emotion,
The gum trees roar in the gale, the poplars shiver
At twilight, the church pines imitate an ocean.

The Western Tiers were in his home state, Tasmania: but you didn’t have to know that. In fact you didn’t have to know that the poems had been written in Australia at all. Most of them sounded as if they could have been written anywhere in the international English-speaking world that had two-way communications with Olympus, which was probably why even those of us in the younger generation who were making a point of not reading much avowedly Australian poetry still felt it permissible to read Hope’s. A few people even argued that he had missed a trick by not sounding Australian enough. What nobody argued was that he ever sounded anything less than oracular. His opening stanzas brought his readers to attention like a general walking unannounced into a barracks. I can still remember reading the opening quatrain of “The Death of the Bird” for the first time.

For every bird there is this last migration:
Once more the cooling year kindles her heart;
With a warm passage to the summer station
Love pricks the course in lights across the chart.

Whatever else you might have conceivably planned to be doing in the next few minutes, going on to the next stanza was what you did, and then to the next, until, in the last stanza, “the great earth... Receives the tiny burden of her death.” The diction was unashamedly grandiloquent — born on the border where the grandiose couples with the eloquent — but the narrative drive made it compulsory to keep reading. And everybody concerned with poetry felt the same imperative. There were other accomplished Australian poets in Hope’s generation but they were obliged to acknowledge his primacy even when they weren’t glad about it. He was the governor, and after half a century he still is. Though there are questions to be asked about what happened to his poetry after that first amazing volume, nobody worth hearing from has ever seriously tried to attack him. There is an awkward possibility, however, that if he is short of detractors to take him down, he has admirers who might do the same job.

Burdened with the simultaneously vaulting and diffident subtitle “A Study of the Selected Notebooks of A. D. Hope”, Ann McCulloch’s Dance of the Mind achieves the rare feat of making you fear for its sleeping subject’s repose before the book is even opened. I should hasten to say that much of the fear turns out to be unjustified. Dr McCulloch, although unusually prone to cultstud jargon for the pupil of a man who hated the whole idea of a specialised academic vocabulary, is on the whole a good and faithful servant to her master’s memory, and does not deserve to be executed along with her publisher. The publisher is, or are, Pandanus Books, billed as part of the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University. For purposes of capital punishment, let us call this organization “the publishers”. The publishers need to be told, before they are led out to face the firing squad, the following things, lest they rise from the dead and publish something else without ever realising what all the noise was about.

Hope’s notebooks are not very extensive anyway, and this selection is quite short. (Why it has to be a selection, embedded thinly in a mass of unnecessary commentary, and can’t be a complete transcription with a suitable but more proportionate scholarly apparatus, we are not told — or rather we are, but not in a way that is easy to understand.) No book with so little in it needs to be this big and awkward. You should be able to carry it in a pocket. You couldn’t carry it in a saddle-bag. The format is huge. The paper is good enough for a glossy magazine: i.e., needlessly heavy. The bulk of the book is set in a sans serif body type. Nobody outside an advertising agency can read more than a page or two of sans serif type without contracting conjunctivitis. There would be no need to put the word “page”, even if it were capitalised, beside the page number on every page even of a pamphlet, let alone of a book 366 pages long. Hope was a master of economy, and here is his acolyte in charge of a book that uses the word “page” 366 unnecessary times.

As for the copy editing, the publishers should have been reminded that it is traditional to give the author some help if she can’t herself spell or read her own writing, and especially when she can’t read the writing of the man she is supposed to be a student of. Just confining ourselves to the mistakes she inadvertently wishes on Hope through not being able to transcribe what he must have written, we are faced with a steady barrage of misplaced creativity. The man who wrote the words for Mozart was Da Ponte, not Da Pente. Apparently not having realised that Hope is referring to Lucretius, Ms McCulloch conveys the impression that her author thought there was a poem written by Alexander Pope called De Renum Natura, which sounds like it might have been a versified medical treatise on the proper functioning of the kidneys. What Hope meant was undoubtedly De Rerum Natura.

Hope almost certainly did not write the following: “Teaching university students I have found that if Keats were writing the Ode to a Nightingale today he could not rely on his readers knowing what was meant by Bacchus and his bards...” Nor could Hope, alas, rely on his star pupil knowing that Keats was talking about Bacchus and his pards. That’s pards, not bards: only a little letter, but if it was Dr McCulloch, and not the printer, who mistook it, then one would have thought that her spontaneity of response was in no danger of being inhibited by her erudition.

Dr McCulloch mentions in her introduction the difficulties of Hope’s handwriting, but doesn’t seem to realise that a guess is inappropriate when it comes to a proper name. Thus she saddles Hope with the responsibility of calling Michael Ayrton Michael Ayston (twice on the one page, making it obvious that she has never heard of him). The authority that Hope quoted on Ariosto was Croce, not Groce. Benedetto Croce was an Italian philosopher. DeJuan Groce is an NFL footballer with the St Louis Rams. Least impressively of all, Dr McCulloch has Hope quoting Horace as saying Eheu fugaces, Postune, Postune. Whoever the mysterious friend was that Horace addressed in the vocative, his name was Postumus, not Postunus. Unless Hope himself managed to scramble one of the most famous lines in classical literature, Postume, Postume must have been what he wrote down. What made Dr McCulloch think that she could guess at Latin?

Thus proving every few pages that she is a bit light on the general culture her leaned subject has in such abundance, Dr McCulloch cracks on with the task of bringing out his profundity as a writer of speculative prose. She does a surprisingly good job of it, which argues well for the potency of his sane influence. He must have been quite a teacher, if he could have transmitted the virtue of general cultivation in the arts to someone who knows so little, and the value of common sense to someone whose whole instinct is to reach for a literary theory as a preliminary to thinking about literature at all. Hope was a great believer in the merits of what Keats (he of the Bacchic bards) called negative capability. Following his example, Dr McCulloch is a great believer in it too, and proves that she is by advancing a theory in its support.

This theory is a theory of something called the rhizome, which, on her account, was first dreamed up by two sparks called Deleuze and Guattari, in their book A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. As far as I can tell from her expounding of it, the rhizome allows a principle of organization which to the eye of an earthling looks pretty much like a random arrangement of themes. Since Hope’s notebook entries amount to a random arrangement (i.e. no arrangement) of themes, the rhizome can be said to fit, and Dr McCulloch is encouraged to proceed with the self-imposed task of bringing, “in a Deleuzian sense”, order out of chaos. The tolerant reader will go with her, perhaps occasionally muttering to himself that a Deleuzian sense sounds as if it could turn delusional after a few drinks, and that the word “rhizome” has an affinitive similarity to the word “rissole”, the classic Australian term, drawn from the culinary arts, for something being reduced to a wreck. (Used as a noun, the word “rissole” denotes a kind of proto-hamburger, but used as a verb — as in “Strewth, we’ve rissoled the Holden” — the same word means that the machinery has ceased to work.)

But in this case the machinery does work, because the randomness was never chaos. Hope was merely making notes, in his shapely, clear, pregnant prose, and as long as Dr McCulloch contents herself with isolating and highlighting his themes, she is on ground so sure that not even the spectre of the lurking rhizome can rissole her argument. Hope’s wide general culture extended to science as well: he had an Empsonian feeling for the poetry of the factual world. Armed with that, he was able to see immediately that Arthur Koestler’s attempt to co-opt particle physics as supporting evidence for the paranormal involved a category mistake. Of Koestler’s restlessly mutating faddism, Hope, either echoing P. B. Medawar or (more likely) simply arriving at the same conclusion independently, devastatingly said “once a journalist, always a journalist.” Dr McCulloch might have taken Hope’s underlying point further here: Hope was warning against scientism, as if foreseeing a day when pseudo-scientific theory would invade every field, including, disastrously, the humanities. She might have divested herself of her reliance on imported mental snake-oil; but, alas, once a theorist, always a theorist. Still, at least she realises that he was right in that case.

She is commendably ready to concede that he was right, or at least reasonable, in almost every case: a nice instance of negative capability on her part, and a testament to her fundamental generosity, a quality which can’t always have been easy to apply to so awkward, and sometimes plain provocative, a subject. Hope’s celebrated, and eventually notorious, anti-feminism was mainly superficial. You could even say that he conceded women the power, and was always in awe of Eve, as if she carried Delilah’s scissors. His “Advice to Young Ladies” of 1965, celebrating the courage of a vestal virgin who faced the death penalty for being witty, is one of the most effective hymns to female individuality ever written by a male. Feminist critics, however, from the late 1960s onward, found Hope’s poetry a field rich in opportunities to burn him in effigy. The males in Hope’s poems were aroused by the beauty of the females, were they not? Well, then.

Since radical orthodoxies of every kind have established themselves in the Australian academic world’s main discussion — or, as the academics themselves would be more likely to say, in its “discourse” — with a solidity and inflexibility that an outsider would find it hard to credit, Dr McCulloch is actually being quite brave in backing him up. Although she finds some of Hope’s more overtly sexy poetry insensitive, she nevertheless thinks that he was always on to something in writing as if the sexual impulse might have a mind of its own, and that women, also, might occasionally be mastered by desire. Her complaint about “the fact that sexual attraction is often left out of feminist discourse” only sounds trite. In the Australian context it verges on the daring. Similarly, she is going quite a long way towards dangerous independence when she defends Hope’s reactionary opinions about modern poetry.

Strangely enough, Dr McCulloch goes further in this direction than she needs to. Hope’s reactionary views were attractive when he wanted to warn against pointless innovation and keep faith with the past. (He was dead right, for example, about the cultural impoverishment that would inevitably ensue from Australia’s adoption of metrical distance measures. By now it’s as if the Australian version of the English language had been taken over by an inspectorate from Brussels: give them 2.54 centimetres and they’ll take 1.60934 kilometres.) But he overdid it when he preached against modern poetry, by which he meant anything that wasn’t clear in meaning and sustained by an ascertainable structure. According to Hope, there was nothing in English poetry after Yeats, because Yeats, according to him, was the last to write intelligibly, and in forms you could see. This left the way open for Hope himself, who wrote in forms too, but it closed off his attention to whole swathes of achievement, including even Eliot, whom Hope managed to find prosaic. By this shared measure of cranky obscurantism, Hope and Robert Graves should have been soul-mates. Hope admired Graves’s hieratic, muse-wooing attitude to the sacred art they shared. But Hope also found Graves insufficiently respectful of Yeats, lauded in The Wandering Islands as the only touchstone in modern times.

To have found at last that noble, candid speech
In which all things worth saying may be said...

It was a sad joke when Hope boycotted a visit to Australia by Graves, on the grounds that Graves, in his Oxford lectures, had been rude about Yeats: the two eccentrics might have had a fine time agreeing that Auden was overrated. As things happened, nothing happened. Hope demonstrated his feelings by not showing up. It is easier to demonstrate your feelings when you are present. With good reason, Hope was a proud man. But he was also a shy one, and shy pride is easily interpreted as arrogance.

Hope was braver in print, where he really was arrogant. Early in his career a victim of one his book-reviews committed suicide. After that, Hope softened up as a reviewer, but he was never slow to dismiss whole modern careers. There are plenty of poets who indulge in blanket condemnation. The price of ploughing a lonely furrow is often to mistake it for the only path across the field. But Hope was also a teacher — as professor of English at the Australian National University in Canberra he was at the head of his profession — and he had no business encouraging students to do more of what they will do naturally unless told otherwise: not read. There might have been an excuse for it if his brilliant start as a formal poet had gone on to further triumph. To that question we can now turn, Hope having enjoyed fifty years of scarcely interrupted endorsement since he made his initial impact. Indeed the advent of Dr McCulloch’s misconceived opus might well mark the point when endorsement, having decayed into hagiography, needs as much interruption as it can get.

To her, then, we can now say farewell, with a final “well done” for defending an important artist whose achievement exemplifies everything that Australian ideologists would like to bury about a superseded world of racist, imperialist, sexist culture in plain language, that last property somehow confirming it as the height of elitism. The farewell is made easier to say by the physical discrepancy between Hope’s elegant initial book (bound in green and gold by Edwards & Shaw, The Wandering Islands was a lovely thing to behold at a time when most Australian books smelled of glue) and a lumbering compendium that drains the spirit even when seen edge-on in the shelf. And I just heard the shelf creak. No, Dance of the Nomad will have to go. Hope, who clearly had a personal regard for the author — he wrote a poem to her, which she quotes complete — would have taken one look at it and changed his own name to Despair.

Luckily he never lived to see the day, although he came close. Hope died in 2,000, at the age of 93. His stature was never in question and still isn’t, but those of us with a regard for his abilities can legitimately ask ourselves why he didn’t conquer the world. Nothing could have stopped him doing so except himself. His poems were instantly intelligible wherever English was spoken. Unencumbered with specifically Australian references, populated with an international cast-list of biblical and classical mythology, they could be appreciated by anybody susceptible to his lyrical gift and rhythmic force, which meant just about everyone who read English poetry anywhere: people who couldn’t tell an iamb from a trochee could still tell that Hope’s verse did the business.

And for a while, after The Wandering Islands, he got even better. I was at Cambridge in the mid-60s when I happened to see a plush magazine from the University of Texas that carried his long verse letter to Leonie Kramer, “A Letter from Rome”. Its supple mastery of a playful tone suggested that he might have secretly paid pre-war Auden and MacNeice a lot more attention than he had ever let on. The news-reading properties of Letters from Iceland and Autumn Journal were in it, and it had a swing to the handling of the ottava rima that was not shamed by the rhyme royal of “Letter to Lord Byron”, while proving, from stanza to stanza, that Hope had an even better grasp than Auden of how light verse could develop an argument through comic narrative. The overtly satirical poems of The Wandering Islands had usually been called satirical because they weren’t really all that funny, but parts of “A Letter from Rome” were funny, especially about the hard labour of taking in too much art at once.

I’ve contemplated all the types of Venus
Which win the heart or take the soul by storm,
The modest fig-leaf and the shameless penis
In every proper or improper form,
Until the individual in the genus
Is lost and all exceptions in the norm,
And fair and foul and quaint and crass and crude
Dissolve in one vast cliché of the Nude.

On the strength of a tone-control as flexible as that, the way was open for Hope to develop a second line of light verse chronicle that he could have played off against his more overtly serious poetry for the rest of his life, each strand gaining from its interaction with the other. There would have been no one quite like him in the world. But with an open road in front of him, he chose to make camp in a lay-by, and settle in. It could have been that there was no choice. He had to have a job, and the job he got was demanding. He made it more so by turning his professorship into the central point of a whole movement in scholarship that studied and codified the Australian literary past. The results were an unarguable gain for knowledge even if they left the question open of whether the poets at or near Hope’s level in the justly entitled Great Generation were really standing on the shoulders of their Australian predecessors or whether, as seems more likely, they had been goaded into emulation by the contemporary literature of Britain and America.

But there could be no question about the scholarly effort involved. It was taxing. Hope spent a lot of time doing what no poet should ever do: reading uninspired stuff because he had to. As a corollary, there was a lot of inspired stuff that he ignored. His reasons for ignoring it were not as good as he thought, or said he thought. It was true that most poets who wouldn’t write in forms couldn’t really write at all, but some of them could. In Australia, in the long run, the informal poets won out. Les Murray writes almost nothing in regular stanzas. A poet who does — Stephen Edgar is the most accomplished current example — faces the general opinion that an adopted discipline is a restriction on poetic invention, rather than a stimulus to it. Hope’s later achievement was strong enough to ward off that general opinion in his own case, but there should never have been a contest. He should have been powerful enough to settle the argument in his favour before it began. Why wasn’t he?

I can think of three reasons. The first is that his use of traditional mythology was subject to the law of diminishing returns. Pasiphae could present herself to the bull only so often before she had to yield her place to a more obscure temptress with a less fascinating sexual partner. To put it bluntly, Hope was simply bound to use up what Larkin disparagingly called “the myth kitty.” In an early poem like “The Return of Persephone” Hope could count on his readers knowing roughly who Persephone was, or at least knowing where to look to find out: the age had not yet dawned when students would feel discriminated against if asked to pick the difference between a pard and a bard. But by the time of his book-length poem-sequence of 1985, The Age of Reason, he had scraped the barrel down to the level of Ophrys and Andrenus: hand on your heart and say you wouldn’t have to look them up.

The second reason is closely related to the first. Almost certainly, Hope kept talking about mythical figures because he thought it beneath his high calling to talk about contemporary events, a category in which he included his own personal history. By and large, he left himself out of it, when his range of subject matter could have benefited mightily had he brought himself in. As “A Letter from Rome” proved, he had the chief weapon that would have allowed him to do so: humour. He could have been funny about growing old, with all his lusts intact in a body falling apart. It is, after all, a universal subject, and there is even dignity in it, if the narrator can admit his failings. But Hope chose to keep his dignity for himself.

The third reason is out on its own, and probably would have decided the matter even without the other two. His technique went haywire. Readers who start with Selected Poetry and Prose, edited by David Brooks in the year of Hope’s death, will find much to delight them, including a selection from Hope’s notebooks modestly presented with no mention of a rhizome. But there is no mistaking the fact that the poems near the end of the book lack the sure-footedness of the poems near the front. A late poem called “The Cetaceans”, an ottava rima extravaganza with an enchanting cargo of natural science fact, should have been one of his masterpieces, but there are too many awkward lines, and some of them are jaw-breakers. The days when he could substitute lavishly within a line and still hold it together with a conversational rhythmic impulse were gone. By the standards he had long ago set for himself, he was out of control. His air of authority, always his most precious quality, dissipated as his touch became less certain.

A critic who knew a lot about art and nothing about verse technique could say that Hope had developed a “later manner”, like Titian or Michelangelo, and that he was deliberately leaving undone what he knew too well how to do. But Titian, when he left things half painted, hadn’t forgotten how to paint, and Michelangelo, when he left the slaves stuck in the rock, hadn’t forgotten how to set them free. Hope either forgot how to compose a line or else he convinced himself that it no longer mattered. Either way, it’s a mystery. Luckily the comparative clumsiness of his later work didn’t erode the reputation he had already. But it did block off the extra renown he might have earned as a magician transmuting all the experience of his advancing years into poems that became steadily more rich and varied. Nobody can know just how good A. D. Hope was who doesn’t regret that his full greatness never quite arrived. He won plenty of prestige, but you can’t recite that.

(TLS, May 19, 2006)


Every couple of years I read Hopkins again — if his musical influence were not so dangerously magnetic I would read him constantly — and wonder all over again how Hope could have dismissed him. The reason might possibly be that Hope couldn't hear very well beyond the Elizabethan mighty line, which he always set himself to reproduce. Even early on, he would sometimes injure its rhythmic integrity when he put in too many hypermetric syllables, and later on he lost his grip completely. Some of the awkward lines in “The Cetaceans” are too embarrassing to quote. It would be an ill service to show his later work in a bad light when the full measure of his early work has not yet been universally taken.