The other day, as I was reading an article about Keats, I thought suddenly of A.D. Hope. I started imagining a time when young writers would lose interest in the romance of a vivid English youth extinguished by early death. Instead, they would learn to admire the less gifted but longer-lived Australian who ultimately wrote great poetry by dint of sheer persistence. In this improbable future, pitiless teachers would urge prospective poets to travel the world, master foreign languages, and teach mathematics in trade school as young Alec Hope did.
Little known in the United States, A.D. Hope has been a tireless enemy of literary hokum all his life. In the 1940’s, when Australian literati were all atwitter over surrealism, Hope’s friends James MacAuley and Harold Stewart gulled a well-known editor into believing he had discovered a great new poet, Ern Malley, whose work the hoaxers had salted
with a mish-mash of all the then popular avant garde theories of poetry, surrealist vomit, Marxist propaganda, free verse techniques, multiple meaningless references to irrelevant objects, pictures, ideas and what have you.
The Ern Malley hoax gained its perpetrators worldwide publicity, but it failed to cleanse minds poisoned by conflict and ideology. Hope’s ferocious satire, Dunciad Minor, made no difference either, and his 1960 essay, “Free Verse: A Post Mortem,” proved an exercise in wishful thinking. Only now, at the turn of the century and near the end of Hope’s long life, does the free-verse establishment finally seem troubled by the reek of its own decay. Some of its former stalwarts are writing quasi-formal poems; others are issuing defensive manifestos; but many have begun to suspect why their public has fled, holding its collective nose.
Future critics may see Hope chiefly as a satirist sluicing the gutters of academia, but I hope they won’t overlook his more serious work. When he put aside literary politics to let his mind range freely through art and science, myth and history, Hope wrote some of the most profound and numinous poems of this century. En route to the achievements of his maturity, he worked patiently to develop a personal style, absorbing and transmuting various influences until he mastered them all.
Alec Derwent Hope was born in 1907 at Cooma, New South Wales. His father, a Presbyterian minister, was soon posted to a congregation in Tasmania. There, Alec was homeschooled in the classics of English literature until age 14, when his parents sent him to the mainland. An outstanding student, he later won a scholarship to Oxford, where he felt lonesome, poor, and ill prepared. He brought home an undistinguished third class degree in 1931. With no prospects and no money, he knocked around Australia during the Depression years, eventually landing a post at the Sydney Teachers College, and later a lectureship at Melbourne University. In 1951, he became the first professor of English at the newly founded Canberra University, a post he held for 16 years. He knew very well that no poet, even a surrealist, could expect to earn a living from his craft in Australia. Academia was a recourse he grudgingly accepted. Yet he was, by all accounts, a fine teacher who inspired students with his own love of learning.
Much of Hope’s early work was destroyed by a fire soon after he moved to Canberra. The manuscript of his first collection survived, and it was published in 1955. The Wandering Islands proved a controversial debut. Hope had already made many enemies with the savage reviews he had penned for literary magazines. His own poems were also distressing to some of his countrymen. Though he omitted the troublesome “Australia” from the book, Hope had circulated it privately, and he included it in subsequent collections. In “Australia,” Hope calls his continent “A Nation of trees, drab green and desolate gray / In the field uniform of modern wars.” Four stanzas later, he assails “her five cities, like five teeming sores, / Each drains her: a vast parasite robber state / Where secondhand Europeans pullulate / Timidly on the edge of alien shores.” As alarming as Hope’s crypto-libertarianism was his explicit and sometimes violent eroticism, which he often coupled with peculiar interpretations of biblical themes. Yet Hope was also an unabashed formalist, working in the tradition of Spenser, Milton, and the Romantic poets he had read as a boy. The combination seemed puzzling and improbable: something to displease everyone.
Unperturbed by his many critics, Hope produced ten more volumes of poetry over the ensuing 36 years. Six of these consisted entirely of new work; the rest were collections or selections from his growing corpus. The pace actually increased after Hope’s retirement in 1967. This would be a remarkable output for a young man; as the monument of an old one, it is virtually unparalleled. Volume by volume, Hope’s voice grew clearer and more powerful until it acquired the hieratic authority of an Outback prophet.
In his memoir, Chance Encounters, Hope admits that a principal influence on his youthful poetry was the brilliant but decadent Swinburne, a Victorian whose elegant empty verses helped provoke the modernist revolt of Pound and Eliot. None of Hope’s boyish imitations survived the fortuitous fire in Canberra. The earliest extant poems date from the time of his return from Oxford, and even those were much revised before he finally published them. Though the metaphysical and Romantic poets were background presences in Hope’s work, the most prominent influence at mid-century was W.H. Auden, whose style Hope imitates unmistakably in The Wandering Islands. What could be more Audenesque than this: “The committee of atolls inspires in them no devotion / And the earthquake belt no special attitude”? But Hope turns Auden’s diction and quirky phrasing to his own purposes. He did not share Auden’s leftist politics, and he has never been evasive about sex. For puritanical Australia, poems like “Conquistador” were slaps in the face of censorship, which was still very much in force during the 50’s. Here the language is Audenesque, composed in a breezy ballad stanza like that of “Miss Gee,” but the theme is pure Hope at his most hopeless:
Adventure opened wide its grisly jaws;
Henry looked in and knew the Hero’s doom.
The huge white girl drank on without a pause
And, just at closing time, she asked him home.
Poor Henry wound up a footrug in the giantess’s bedroom.
For Hope, woman was a delight, a danger, and an embodied sacrament. Accordingly, his tone in sexual poems ranges from bawdy to prurient to reverential, depending on his purpose. In “Lot And His Daughters,” all three notes are struck for a shocking meditation on biblical incest. In the sardonic “Imperial Adam,” the first act of procreation is lovingly celebrated among the innocent beasts: Eve is midwifed by “the gravid elephant, the calving hind,” then, as the proud but helpless father stands by, he sees “Between her legs a pygmy face appear, / And the first murderer lay upon the earth.” A later poem, “The Coast of Cerigo,” recounts in lurid detail the myth of the Labra, a fatal mermaid who clutched and crushed bewitched fishermen. Such themes earned Hope a reputation for misogyny, but his accusers must reckon with “Clover Honey,” a playful tale with a persuasive and charming female narrator, not to mention “The Western Elegies,” a poignant farewell to his wife of 51 years, Penelope, who died in 1988. Only the most callous and simpleminded critic could sustain a claim of woman-hatred against the author of such a moving work.
Forgetting Hope’s own comment in “Australia,” the simpleminded have also assailed him as a “second-hand European.” During his formative decades, the 30’s and 40’s, Australian writers were attempting to create an indigenous literature. In his survey of Hope’s work, American scholar Robert Darling reflects on literary context:
From the beginning, white Australians have taken two different approaches regarding their country. One is to embrace its newness and proclaim their independence. . . . The other at its most extreme is an attempt to maintain their customs as if the old country had never been left.
Hope was sometimes portrayed by indigenists as an unregenerate Europhile, but his homeland is ever present in his imagination and his poetry. Sometimes he depicts it as a grim yet potentially nourishing desert (“Australia”); sometimes it is the setting for cosmological or philosophical reflections (“The Drifting Continent”); sometimes it is an invisible backdrop, the blank page on which he dares to reinterpret literature and religion. As a young man, Hope tramped the countryside and often camped for weeks on remote shores. He knew Australia’s geology and geography, its flora and fauna, its natural and human history at least as well as the ridiculous Jindyworobaks, a literary movement whose members’ cultivation of idiom wound up sounding merely provincial, even to fellow Australians.
Like Americans, Australians straining against the English leash have often lurched into populism and parochialism. Hope’s education—and the curiosity which has kept him broadening it all his life—puts him at odds with the know-nothing impulse among his countrymen, whom he has often satirized. Yet he is equally brusque with the faddish preoccupations of self-appointed intellectuals, whose blind anti-colonialism tempts them to denigrate the very tradition which permits, even supports, their critique. Did dissidents win literary prizes from the Soviets? Would aboriginal elders applaud adolescents who rejected their culture? Such questions don’t trouble Australian academicians any more than they do American ones. Hope’s erudition, his fluency in foreign languages, his agnosticism and shameless eroticism have made him an object of suspicion to populists and intellectuals alike. As Ruth Morse observes in her introduction to Hope’s Selected Poems, “hostility to education is a feature of many of the mass democracies, where it is identified with the colonial experience and the rule of the Empire.”
At one time or another, Hope studied Latin, Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Old Norse, German, Icelandic, Anglo-Saxon, Russian, and Arabic. In his book-length essay on poetics, The New Cratylus, Hope describes his acquisitions in aggressive, almost imperialistic terms, doubtlessly knowing he would scandalize his critics: “I explored and plundered other languages, mostly by my own efforts, with a few helping lessons from professional teachers.” Hope excuses his greed by explaining, “if we go straight to the poetry in learning another language, we get to the pure essence.” Armed with his looted knowledge, he draws upon a range of allusion far beyond English literature. Few critics are competent to comment. F’or the record, I have some Latin and a smattering of French. I’m not equipped to judge Hope’s translation of Anna Akhmatova. I do know English versification well enough to realize that any decoder of Hope’s work needs the prosodic equivalent of a rock-climber’s tool kit. Not only could Hope manage the most difficult stanzas, like the effortless Byronic ottava rima of “A Letter From Rome,” but he even tried his hand at classical Latin hexameter, which he carried off brilliantly in English, a feat with little precedent. Yet Hope’s omnivorous mind has been by no means content to gorge itself only on languages and poetry. He is also a keen observer of the natural world who has read widely in the sciences, seeking the meanings and interrelationships of everything he sees.
To illustrate, let me quote an early poem in full, “The Pleasure of Princes” from Selected Poems:
What pleasures have great princes?
These: to know
Themselves reputed mad with
pride or power;
To speak few words—few words
and short bring low
This ancient house, that city with
To make old men, their fathers’
Drunk on the vintage of the former
To have great painters show their
Naked to the succeeding time;
The cunning of able, treacherous
To serve, despite themselves, the
cause they hate.
And leave a prosperous kingdom to
Nursed by the caterpillars of the
To keep their spies in good men’s
hearts; to read
The malice of the wise and act
To hear the Grand Remonstrances
Led by the pure; to cheat justice of
To beget worthless sons and, being
By starlight climb the battlements,
The pacing sentry hugs himself
Keep vigil like a lover, muse and
And think, to see from the grim
The midnight city below rejoice
“There my great demon grumbles
in his sleep
And dreams of his destruction, and
What can we say of Hope as a political thinker, based on this poem? First and foremost, he has read his Machiavelli (in Italian, of course). Second, we can see at once his kinship with Auden, and also his differences. In this early poem, he employs Auden’s complex syntax along with Audenesque phrases like “the caterpillars of the state” and “Grand Remonstrances.” He shares Auden’s distaste for the prerogatives of aristocracy, which the Englishman had expressed in such poems as “Embassy” and “Song.” Is Hope’s poetry scented with a whiff of envy, like Auden’s, or is Hope obliquely indicating, in this Italianate context, his contempt for the British class system which so dismayed him at Oxford? Given Hope’s humble upbringing in rural Tasmania, I would suspect the latter. And he adds a liberal dose of his own political agnosticism. Where he accounts one of the ruler’s pleasures “to cheat justice of her crimes,” I detect a sly, almost conspiratorial sympathy with the prince. Hope seems to be hinting that Plato’s philosopher king is beyond human reach. The wily, self-serving prince is the best ruler any state could expect. Only the prince would suborn the clever, intoxicate the tyrannous with “vintage of the former age,” and tranquilize the populace with prosperity.
Auden never used the word justice flippantly, only sincerely or ironically. A frustrated idealist, he never wholly abandoned his faith in the idea of secular perfection, even if he seemed to concede its achievement was beyond human reach. One of his favorite poetic strategies was to juxtapose comfortable and complacent characters with the wretched of the earth, as though wealth were the cause of poverty. In this respect, he had an instinctive affinity for so-called liberation theology. We should remember that Auden, troubled by a sense of individual and collective sin, returned to the Church in his later years. Hope, on the other hand, has scant expectation of justice, either human or divine. He knows the mob can call a lynching “justice” without batting its eyelids, and he doesn’t place much trust in judges, either—they are too easily corrupted. In “The Pleasure of Princes,” Hope holds with Machiavelli that the best government keeps armed watch while wearing a velvet glove. The 20th century has demonstrated the peril of Auden’s ideal; it remains to be seen whether the 21st will prove that humanity should also dispense with the guard, the glove, and the prince.
In 1984, when he was 77, Hope finished a new book of poetry, The Age of Reason. The text consisted of 11 large poems, all in heroic couplets, a form widely used by 18th-century poets and subsequently retired as over-simple and overdone. Hope made no attempt to duplicate the diction of the time: This would have resulted in mere parody. Instead, as he explains in a short preface, his couplets were written in a style “modified to accept the rhythms of contemporary English and avoiding all conventional poetic devices apart from those of metre.” Several of the poems are epistolary. Others invent dialogue for historical figures. Together, they constitute an extraordinary evocation of that era, as well as an implicit rebuke to our own for the ideologies which obscure our understanding of the past.
The Age of Reason varies in quality from poem to poem, but the two best, “The Isle of Aves” and “The Bamboo Flute,” match the finest work of the 18th century or of our own. Both are epistolary poems. “The Isle of Aves” depicts an exchange between two sea captains, Lemuel Gulliver and William Dampier, who sailed the world’s oceans at the bidding of a young British Empire. “The Bamboo Flute” is the imaginary correspondence of two painters, John Zoffany and Tilly Kettle, who emigrated to India some 50 years later, when the British were just consolidating their control of the subcontinent and the romance of the Raj was seducing them.
In this poem, Hope depicts a meeting of cultures still new and strange to each other as the painter Zoffany queries his colleague Kettle about India. Zoffany is preparing to emigrate after a disgrace at the court, where hi^ royal portrait had been poorly received. Kettle has already spent time in India and returned to make a name for himself with exotic oriental subjects. Hope contrives two letters in which the painters discourse amiably about art while relating respective professional successes and woes. A third letter briefly introduces Zoffany to a colonial official and affords a glimpse of life among these expatriates so far from their homes. But the fourth and longest letter is very different. Now in India for some time, Zoffany has dabbled in its languages, arts, and religion, to which he feels himself increasingly drawn, until one night something very peculiar happens. Zoffany receives a visit from a mysterious artist with a sheaf of Indian paintings. The stranger says he had once called on Kettle, during the latter’s sojourn in India. Kettle had proven unreceptive. Maybe, the stranger suggests, Zoffany would understand better if he heard the folktale which inspired one of these scenes. It was the story of the god Krishna who, enchanted by the sight of three milkmaids bathing in a river, ravished them with the sound of his flute. Here were the Sirens of another culture; yet they were mute, and it was Krishna who sang, with his Orphic (and phallic) instrument. So Hope, through the words of Zoffany’s visitor, takes his readers into an extraordinary meditation on art and poetry as conduits to the divine:
“Now, sir, that is the tale we love
It tells more than the brush itself
But what it does not tell you must
You think it a crude folk-tale now,
Pointless, perhaps, and unbecom-
ing and odd
To all your Western notions of a
But to us Hindoos here, it has an
Beyond itself and meanings which
Up to the heights of man’s philo-
Here is a simple one for you to see:
You are a painter. Let this myth
A parable of the artist and his art
And those who view his work; but
it is true
Of the composer and the poet too.
As the god had to see the milk-
In absolute nakedness, the poet
View nature, see into the heart of
And show them to themselves in
all he sings.
And as the milk-maids danced for
Each poem is a tryst with the un-
Naked we meet him in his naked-
The divine music asks of us no
Till we become the melody with-
Now, if you think this way, you
To see our Indian painting with
He paused and smiled and then, to
Holding me with his gaze, it
seemed he grew
Larger and all his body turned dark
You will scarce credit this, but, sir,
Quite suddenly, he was no longer
And all the sounds of night and
man were mute
Except the faint strains of a distant
The visitor is Krishna himself, vouchsafing the foreigner a glimpse of India’s very essence. So we come the long way back to Keats, whose theory of “negative capability” offered the poet as a passive vessel for insights from some ineffable and indefinable source. Hope proposes quite a different view in The New Cratylus, where he contrasts dreamy works like Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” with the tediously self-conscious artifice of some 17th and 18th-century Pindaric odes. Hope concludes that neither the spontaneity of the dreamer nor the conscious control of the craftsman can produce the finest poetry unaided. Instead, great poetry springs from the complex interplay between a subconscious element he calls “dream work” and the directed effort of craft. Moreover, Hope refines the notion of negative capability to include such impersonal sources as history and science, which can be incorporated by the poetic imagination.
Though Keats was himself a consummate craftsman, his argument for self-negation through immersion in the senses has helped to lure generations of poets away from craft and deeper into the mire of self-absorption. Solipsism among poets and other artists has in turn rendered the 20th century more vulnerable to the totalitarian impulse, which is nothing but selfishness writ large and projected on society (pace Ayn Rand). At century’s end, Hope has afforded us tlie antidote of his thoughtful prose and the living bequest of his poetry.