When I began my undergraduate degree at Canberra’s Australian National University in 1974 the poet Alec Derwent Hope occupied a suite on the northern side of the A.D. Hope building. He had held the professorship in English since 1955 and had retired in 1968 to become the university’s first library fellow. He was Spoken of in hushed,reverent tones when i was but a young student in the English Department, but I, too gormless and probably a tad preoccuppied with being young, did not study him. Much. Hope is regarded as one of Australia’s foremost poets. He is in good company with others such as James Mc Cauley, Patrick White, Judith Wright and Gwen Harwood whose poetry reflects the development of an Australian thought derived from our European heritage but increasingly responsive to local place and history. And for me a rediscovery. The sensuous nature of the poem, The Double Looking Glass, a reverie upon the rape of Susannah and the Elders has remained with me. His poem Imperial Adam – ending with ‘the first murderer lay upon the earth’ – is raw in its description of events in the Garden of Eden.
Hope had the potential to conquer the world, Clive James wrote in 2006, but he fell short. James suggests three reasons for this. Perhaps his use of myth was too passe – people are not educated in the classics these days. It is cumbersome to have to look up the classical figures Hope uses. Second: ‘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’, James wrote. ‘By and large, he left himself out of it, when his range of subject matter could have benefited mightily had he brought himself in unprepared to relinquish his use of could never quite leave the cloister of the university even as he explored the deepest conflicts of the mind in his poetry’. And finally, James says, the discipline of his writing went haywire.
Alec Derwent Hope was born in Cooma in New South Wales in 1907. His father, Percival, was a Presbyterian clergyman who subsequently served as a Padre in the Great War. During his childhood the family moved between Tasmania and country New South Wales. His poetry, one memoirist, Peter Ryan wrote, is not Australian in the sense of references to boomerangs and gum trees but is filled with experiences of nature: how a bird lines its nest or visually, an image of a pond lying ‘limpid in the arms of its enfolding rocks’.(Ryan 1992). His attended various state schools before being enrolled in Sydney’s Fort Street High School and then the University of Sydney. He gave up orthodox religion in his teens even as his religious upbringing wove their way through his poetry. Hope wanted to study medicine but failed to gain entry to the course. In 1924, aged 17 he was awarded a scholarship to study arts at Sydney University and graduated with first-class honours in English in 1928. He also studied Japanese and psychology encountering Professor John Anderson whose interest in the human mind had a lasting effect on him and, briefly, the poet, Christopher Brennan. There followed a period at Oxford – and a third class honors degree – and a number of jobs: college tutor, high school teacher, vocational psychologist before gaining a post at Sydney Teachers College. He also had a part as ‘Anthony Inkwell’ on the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s program for young people “The Argonauts”- encouraging them to submit their work for reading on air.
I have taken my readings from the small volume of Hope’s work published in 1973. The poems, selected by himself are not, as such his favourites. In his introduction to this volume Hope wrote: ‘It has taken me half a century to learn that there is a sense in which poems must be allowed, indeed helped, to write themselves, just as there is another sense in which they must be controlled, disciplined and forced to meet the inexorable demands if the medium, if they are to achieve the possibilities latent in their mysterious intention’( Hope 1973, v).
Hope wrenches experience into words,revealing the interplay between love, hate, anxiety and uncertainty. His in-your-face discussion of sexual desire and orgasm sits alongside alienation,disappointment and failure, His writing is, at times angry and profoundly bitter He can be funny, and sometimes savage in his indictments. For the intelligentsia of the 60s and 70s, perhaps into the 80s he was, first and foremost a satirist. The critic Maurice Dunlevy, author of a number of astute reviews for the Canberra Times wrote of him in 1966 as ‘one of the representative voices of our age’. Dunlevy compared Hope with Irish satirist, Jonathan Swift.
‘We feel his gaze fixed upon us, ready to wither up our follies in bright shafts of satire or to cast ridicule on our pretensions.He speaks as the only sane voice in a world dominated by commerce, science, technocracy and propaganda. From the heights of his intellectual and moral tower he sees through the transparencies of the Age of Plastic.From the beginning he has tried to reject its synthetic allurements; he has revealed the absurdity of its values and exposed the quackery of its tribal psychologists, who have shown man’s soul as a bottled abortion’. (Canberra Times 19 March 1966).
Peter Ryan also described Hope’s Swiftian poetry – the thundering from the pulpit in ‘A Commination in which he rails against unthinking ‘Progress’ and ‘Technocracy’ – matters as relevant, if not more so these days as when Hope wrote these verses. Then too, the humanities were at risk at the hands of scientism and ‘yes men’. Worth clicking on the link and reading in full. From stanzas 2 and 3:
Drivellers, snivellers, writers of bad verse, /Backbiting bitches, snipers from a pew,/ Small turds from the great arse of self esteem;/ On such as these I would not waste my curse. /God send me soon the enemy or two /Fit for the wrath of God, of whom I dream: /Some Caliban of culture, some absurd /Messiah of the Paranoic State,/Some Educator wallowing in his slime /Some Prophet of the Uncreating Word/ Monsters a Man might reasonably hate, / Masters of Progress, Leaders of our Time;
And yet there is a sad story peering through Hope’s earlier poetry, a traumatized child trying to make himself heard. I am sure Hope would not like to find himself psychoanalysed in print but in his poem ‘Ascent into Hell‘ ( 1943) it is as if Hope is striving to articulate some terror within, some desire to return to the womb – and begin again? In the face of trauma and failure of understanding from parent to child is there nothing left for the child but an armoury of cynicism and scorn? The poet contemplates his life: I, too at a mid-point, in a well-lit wood/ Of second rate purpose and mediocre success,/ Explore in dreams the never-never of childhood/ Groping in daylight for the key of darkness/ Revisit, among the morning archipelagoes,/ Tasmania, my receding childish island….
We follow, gripped by the child’s fear. We listen with him to ‘a crunch of sulky wheels on the distant road’. His panic rises: ‘I hear in my pillow the sobbing of my blood’. He is beaten for a lie, a lie about a lie while his mother tries, ineffectually, to comfort him. He reaches to comfort himself – to his ‘stump of sex’, evocative simultaneously, with childhood and fears of castration. In retaliation – with all his mind and might he invents a solution. How he took off his clothes and ran away/ Slit up his belly with various instruments;/ To brood on this was a deep and abdominal joy/ Still recognised as a feeling at the core/Of love and the last genuine memory/ Is singing “Jesus Loves Me” – Then no more.
It is memoir at its finest.
In ‘The Wandering Islands‘ published in 1943 Hope uses the image of island to mark personhood – or self hood – an essential separateness of being, if not disconnection or failure to connect. Perhaps it is about the failure of relationship between mother and child. His setting is the colonial setting, the world of explorers and mariners, presumably in the western pacific – within Australian consciousness.It is about pride and arrogance… If they were human they are turning away from the child who needs them. These islands are not safe havens, nor the enveloping arms of a mother against the storms of despair and abandonment. Hope’s subject concerns the forces that sustain this disconnectedness. His story is far away from the epic tales of survival and conquest. It is about failure to apprehend and know an other . The sailor/child dreams only of self gratification, not of the work of connecting and sustaining an attachment. Defiance seems to be the solution. Even so the resulting disappointment is real: And yet they are hurt – for the social polyps never/Girdle their bare shores with a moral reef;/ When the icebergs grind them they know both beauty and terror;/ They are not exempt from ordinary grief….
‘You cannot build bridges between the wandering islands’, the poet begins. The mind has no neighbours and the unteachable heart/ Announces its armistice time after time,but spends/Its love to draw them closer and closer apart.
And then there is the poem which started me on this initial exploration of Hope’s work: His 1942 poem: The Return from the Freudian Islands in which he deplores psychoanalytic theory as reductionist and ridiculous. Again, it is an indictment, this time using the image of the colonial that sought to convert the noble savage into something more familiar and ‘civilised’.
.….she swayed/ Her pelvis, Sigmund, so that none should miss / The beauty of the new world he had made,/Explained the Triumph of Analysis; /Pimples and cramps now shed with pelt and thews, /No dreams to fright, no visions to trouble them,/ For, where the death-wish and self knowledge fuse/ They had at last The Human LCM…/ Here the saint paused, looked modestly at the ground/ And waited for their plaudits to begin./ And waited… /
There was nothing! A faint dry sound/ As first a poet buttoned on his skin…
Ryan, Peter. A.D. Hope: A memoir [online]. Quadrant, Vol. 36, No. 7-8, 1992: 30-40. Availability: <http://0-search.informit.com.au.alpha2.latrobe.edu.au/documentSummary;dn=051342078021351;res=IELLCC> ISSN: 0033-5002. [cited 29Apr 13].
A.D. Hope, Selected Poems, Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1973.