Reprint: Poetry Made to Order

Many Australians from all the States, remembering his Anzac prose epic, are keenly gratified to learn that John Masefield has been persuaded by the Melbourne Centenary Committee to become one of their notable guests at the forthcoming Victorian celebrations. Never before has a Poet Laureate of England visited the Greater Britain overseas. His Victorian hosts, of course, do not expect the King's poet to bring a Centenary ode in his pocket, for like his predecessor, Robert Bridges, Masefield has never written verses to order. Everyone recalls how an American journalist, piqued at Bridges' refusal to be interviewed on his arrival at New York, referred to his years of silence in the piquant phrase, "The King's Canary refuses to twitter." But if Robert Bridges' successor to the royal butt of madeira or its equivalent will not arrive in Australia on the wings of song, the Melbourne Centenary authorities have already discovered with no small perplexity that the Commonwealth has an abundance of native poets. "We were a nest of singing birds," said Dr. Johnson with a laugh, when referring to his Pembroke days at Oxford. The Victorian Centenary Committee has proved that Australia is a nest of singing birds. They offered five prizes of ten guineas each for the five best poems suitable for setting to music with the object of obtaining a Centenary anthem, and 279 entries were received. It is true that the judges were not satisfied with any of the poems, and made no award; but they found out at least how many people in Australia are ready to make poetry to order. It almost amounts to mass-production - this Centenary ode making. Had a score of poets hymned the praises of Melbourne as no mean city nobody would have been surprised. But what are we to make of that number multiplied fourteen times? Verse-making on such a scale is an industry rather than an art. The Centenary adjudicators, however, have not given up hope of securing a masterpiece by competition, though they have improved their method of attaining it. They have decided to commission five capable poets to write a worthy Centenary poem at a fee of 10 guineas each. They then propose to give a prize of 50 guineas for the best musical setting to the best commemoration ode.

Can poetry be made to order? is the question raised by such poetical contests. The Romans, a prosy race on the whole, used to say that a poet was born, not made; but Tennyson altered this proverb to the epigram that a poet is both born and made. The Greeks, a poetical race if ever there was one, were continually holding verse contests in their palmy Periclean days. Their great dramatists,Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, sometimes won and sometimes missed winning the tragic prize at the famous Dionysiac festivals at Athens. Pindar wrote his Olympian odes to the order of any victor who would pay for them.There is a story to the effect that Simonides, employed by a stingy Greek princeling to celebrate a chariot race which the latter had won with mules, sang the praises of these half-asses to the great indignation of his patron. Only when the fee was doubled did these mules become the progeny of fiery steeds. Even Herodotus, the father of history, recited part of his nine books at a Greek eisteddfod for a substantial reward. Though his readings approached more nearly to a recital by Dickens they were chosen as the result of a competition. One might trace such poetic contests down the centuries, among the troubadours and the minnesingers of mediaeval France and Germany, while the bards and minstrels of Wales and the Borderland chanted their lays in honour of their lords, and not seldom at their command. As for the English laureates, some of the best bad English poetry is to be found among the Georgian birthday odes of Colley Cibber and Pye. Only with the arrival of Wordsworth were these obligatory odes dropped. Southey's "Vision of Judgment" was the last birthday performance, for after Byron's brilliant satire they died a violent death. Yet Tennyson, of his own free will, so far as a poet sensitive to public expectation may be called free, practically wrote to order his magnificent "Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington," his resonant welcome to Alexandra -"Sea King's daughter from over the sea," his "Ode sung at the opening of the International Exhibition," his noble "Dedication" of the "Idylls of the King," and at the request of the Prince of Wales the first great imperial poem at the opening of the Indian and Colonial Exhibition-"Britons hold your own!" Command poetry may be great poetry: it depends upon who is commanded.

The Melbourne Centenary Committee is following numerous Australian precedents in its effort to secure a fine poem as the permanent memorial of its October celebrations. In the old Macquarie days Michael Massey Robinson, a compulsory immigrant, used to recite an annual ode on the royal birthday, and had for reward neither cask of sherry nor keg of rum, but two cows from the Sydney cow pastures - milk for milk and-water odes. Everybody knows that it was the winning of a prize Australian poem that induced Kendall to start on his disastrous sojourn in Melbourne, the poet who was at his happiest in quiet sylvan places like Mooni and Araluen. The advent of the Commonwealth brought its crop of competing poets, though not one of them was peer with our James Brunton Stephens, whose "Forecast" of 1877 will ever shine as a bright morning star in the firmament of Australian poetry. It was another Queensland poet, George Essex Evans, who won a prize for an ode on the inauguration of the Commonwealth - a stately piece of rhetorical declamation. Yet with all these precedents to support the rights of poetry made to order it must be admitted that in these modern days prize poetry, like prize novels, has usually something forced and strained about it. It is, of course, the democratic way of settling who shall celebrate our national occasions in the absence of an Australian laureate, and it would be mere snobbery to hold that poets are indifferent to the stimulus of guineas. But what a crowd of poetasters vainly urge their Pegasus to soar with a golden spur! Assuredly the poet's cloth-of-gold cannot be bought or sold by the yard.

Not here, O Apollo,
Are paints meet for thee.

First published in The Courier-Mail, 14 April 1934

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

[Note: you can read an account of John Masefield's visit to C.J. Dennis's house later in 1934.]

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on July 17, 2009 8:44 AM.

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