Reprint: S.A. Poets and Their Verse by L. H. Rye

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A search extending over the past eight years has revealed more than 120 volumes of verse written by 74 different South Australians.

Five of them -- Alfred T. Chandler, Adam Lindsay Gordon, John Shaw Neilson, Charles Henry Souter, and Agnes L. Storrie -- have done such good work that selections from their verse have been included in the "Oxford Book of Australian Verse."

Included among the others are Henry Arthur, who has published nine volumes (many of which received a flattering reception from the British press); Leon Gellert, who stands at the head of Australia's soldier poets, and deserves a place in any Australian anthology, yet has been unaccountably overlooked; Ruth M. Hawker, whose work deserves to be much better known than it is; and Charles Rischbieth Jury, who is likely to attain a high place in English literature, if his future work fulfils the promise shown in that already published.

Five Great Poems

Only five South Australian poems can with any degree of certainty be said to be worthy to rank with the best or their kind in English literature. Jury's long dramatic poem. "Love and the Virgins," is written in blank verse of high poetic worth that reminds us of the "Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Comus," and it compares very favorably with the exquisite classical plays of Bridges. Gordon's "Rhyme of Joyous Garde" is undoubtedly finer than anything of its kind in Tennyson, and is the only work which shows Gordon to have had what Carlyle considers the most necessary attribute of genius -- "the infinite capacity for taking pains." Neilson's "Petticoat Green" approaches more nearly than any other poem written in Australia to Shelley's ideal of "all high poetry" -- "Veil after veil may be withdrawn, and the inmost naked beauty of the meaning never exposed." Arthur's "Sunflower" is a truly delightful lyric reminiscent of Blake in its sheer simplicity; and Ruth Hawker's "Death the Drover," is a hauntingly melodious lyric woven around a country metaphor applied in a manner that suggests De La Mare's "Nod."

Wide Range Of Subjects

Occasional verse receives a disproportionately large share of attention, and it is needless to say that it constitutes the bulk of ephemeral verse of a very low order. The subjects range from events of world interest, such as are described in Robert Caldwell's "Celestial Glow" (on the explosion of Krakatoa), to events of local importance, like those dealt with by "D.C." in "A Retrospect and a Fore cast" (in which the political history of the day is reviewed). Indeed, the history of the State, including the vagaries of its climate, can be traced with reasonable accuracy in the occasional verse published; the reader, however, cannot but feel that most of it had been much better expressed in prose.

When we turn to the verse of greater worth, we find that the narrative form predominates. The drama has a large number of followers, most of whom, fortunately, have left only fragments; Jury is the only writer to use it with success, and his "Love and the Virgins" is of value not so much for its dramatic as for its lyrical qualities. But it is in the ballad that South Australian writers excel and can lay claim to rank with England's best. Gordon is unsurpassed in the longer ballad; while Souter and Neilson excel in the shorter ballad, such as "Irish Lords'" and "Julie Callaway."

The Poet As Philosopher

No poet can be truly great in every line of a long poem; and the lesser poets achieve greatness only in isolated fragments of their work. This is especially true of the better South Australian writers. Every poet is a thinker and strives to work out for himself, in a more or less definite form, a philosophy of life. The "purple patches" in his work are fragments of his philosophy. South Australian verse is unusually fertile in this fragmentary philosophy; in fact, this and the prevalence of the ballad form are its predominant qualities.

No writer has achieved anything as definite and complete as some of the English poets like Shelley and Browning have: but then no writer has been able to devote his entire life to literature as the greater Englishmen have. Only one South Australian has met with any considerable financial success from the publication of his verse: C. J. Dennis caught the popular fancy with "sentimental"' verse during the war; but it is noteworthy that his best work is contained in the "Backblock Ballads," which is by no means his most popular volume. Gordon's verse, which must have made comparatively large sums of money since his death, brought him only additional financial obligations during his lifetime. Most of the earlier writers published by private subscription; and since Gordon's death writers have seen the necessity of depending on other sources for their living.

Philosophy Of Life

However much Gordon may excel his fellow-countrymen in fame, he lags far behind some of them, especially Cocks, Arthur and Ruth Hawker, in the development of a philosophy of life. Baffled by the incomprehensibility of the riddle of death, Gordon occasionally sees the light and counsels us to "question not" but to concentrate on helping others and bearing with fortitude our own burdens. This is the pinnacle of Gordon's philosophy of life. Shaw Neilson, too, has little philosophy to give us: he is a singer who feels rather than knows, and for him the joy of living and loving is sufficient. Jury is as yet content to be a singer and does not pretend to any great knowledge of life's mysteries. Gellert can think only of the horrors of war: his sensitive imagination sees nothing but blood -- "The scythe of Time runs red" -- and his work contains no satisfactory solution of the problem war has presented to him. Of all those who wrote on religion, Nicholas J. Cocks alone can claim to have produced real poetry; he accepts the Christian philosophy of life. Arthur worships beauty, and arrives at the same fundamental belief that Keats evolved -- that Beauty and Truth are identical and, as the "Ode to a Nightingale" shows, eternal. Ruth Hawker's ideas are gradually crystallised until finally she has a glimpse of that "eternal reality" which for Shelley and Swinburne was the only reality in a world of change and decay. But it is only a glimpse.

Essentials Of Great Poetry

Although South Australian verse contains at least the chief elements of great poetry, in not one instance are they fused into a single poem, or even into the works of any one author. The three chief essentials of great poetry are melody, perfect harmony between thought and rhythm, and the evolution of a more or less complete philosophy of life. By the latter is meant the power to give to others some sense of compensation for life's sorrows, the belief in the eternal reality as an anchor in life's sea of transience.

Melody there is. Gordon achieves it often, usually when he is most like Swinburne. Harmony there is, also: Shaw Neilson and Jury are masters in that, particularly in the entrancing lightness of "Love's Coming" and in the solemn stateliness of the blank verse in parts of "Love and the Virgins." But if, as most of our writers tell us, all things of earth are evanescent, and death is inevitable, we may ask with Neilson, "What of the gates in the distant sky that the elder seers have seen?" Gordon dare not look behind the veil: Neilson "can only dream in a heavy way as a peasant can;" Jury says, "More wisely would I muse; but more I know not." The minor writers alone are sure of themselves; but, with the exception of Ruth Hawker, none has arrived at a satisfying ultimate solution with any degree of conviction. In this respect she towers above all others; but she has written so little of outstanding merit that she cannot claim to be the greatest even of South Australian poets.

In spite of many defects, however, and although South Australia has produced no poet who can, in the sum of his works, rank even with England's second-rate poets, the fact remains that in the brief century of the State's history much has been achieved and a deal of good verse has been written which is worthy to survive.

First published in The Advertiser, 10 March 1934

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

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on March 18, 2011 8:49 AM.

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