Reprint: "The Secret Key": George Essex Evans's New Book

| No TrackBacks

Only a few weeks ago the "Queenslander" published one of the most remarkable evidences of the revenue of time that has occured in the literary world of Australia. The late John Farrell had written in unappreciative words of the poems of George Essex Evans, and when it came to the erection of the Farrell memorial the verses selected from Australian work for inscription upon it were those of the Queensland poet. Of the three verses of this poem the second is here given -- given as one of the best things in the way of memorial verse ever penned in our land:

   Build him no mockery of stone,
      Nor shame him with your idle praise;
   He liveth in his work alone
         Through all our days.

   Sleep, heart of gold, 'twas not in vain
      You loved the struggling and the poor
   And taught in sweet yet strenuous strain
         To battte and endure.

Before this John Farrell incident there was a general demand for a new book from Evans, but when the Sydney papers announced the selection of the Queenslander's work for the purpose stated the demand became a clamour, in New South Wales at least. The handsome volume now to hand from Messrs. Angus and Robertson is the result. This book contains about sixty pieces all in the best style of the poet, and of these the Commonwealth Ode (which was awarded the fifty guinea prize by the Commonwealth Government), and about twenty other poems have not hitherto apppeared in book form. This book should determine George Essex Evans's place in Australian literature up to the present time, and though the writer believes that the poet's great work has yet to be done, there is in "The Secret Key and Other Verses" sufficient to enshrine him in the hearts of all lovers of literature, to say nothing of the lovers of Australian literature. Evans would prefer to be judged on the common plane of letters, for letters in the wider sense have no restricting ambit of parish or continent. Before going to the new material which is now put within covers for the world to praise or blaspheme -- and the world will assuredly do both -- the writer has no hesitation in saying that gleaming from out of the two hundred and odd pages, there is one imperishable gem, "The Song of Gracia," written nearly twenty years ago, but evidently written under an inspiration. It has within it the finest elements of thought and poetic beauty, as well as an ineffable delicacy of expression.   Few Australian writers have approached it. It was written when Evans was a very young man, struggling into recognition with his virile, if somewhat crude, songs -- songs which smashed down occasional opposition of the intellect and went straight to the heart. And now to refer to what will to the general mass of readers be new work. "The Secret Key," from which the title of the volume is taken, is a fine bit of constructive thought, with the gorgeousness at times of Marlowe, and yet with a polish which indicates careful inner criticism -- a rather dangerous thing with one whose mission is to create. This poem -- probably it will be extended some day -- we may give as illustrative of the latest of the poet's work:

   There is a magic kingdom of strange powers,
   Thought-hidden, lit by other stars than ours;
   And, when a wanderer through its mazes brings
   Word of things seen, men say: "A poet sings."
   Its gates are guarded in a sterile land ---
   Mountain, and deep morass, and shifting sand;
   Storm-barred are they, and may not opened be
   Save by the hand that finds the secret key.
   That key, some say, lies in the sunset glow,
   Or the white arc of dawn, or where the flow
   Of some lone river stems the shoreward wave
   In shuddering silver on its ocean grave.
   Some say that when the wind wars with the sea,
   In that stern music, one may find the key;
   Or, in green glooms of forests, where the pine
   Uplifts her spear amid great wreaths of vine,
   Or, where the steaming mist's white rollers climb
   The dark ravine and precipice sublime ---
   A filmy sea that twines and intertwines
   Wreathes the low hills, and veils the mighty lines
   Of sovran mountains, crimsoned and aglow
   In crystal pomp, crested with jewelled snow;
   But still, with souls afire, men seek that land,
   And die in deep morass and drifting sand.
   To those alone its iron gates are free,
   Who find, within their hearts, the secret key;
   For Earth, with all the colour of her day,
   Is not their country --- that lies far away.

"That" in the last line is italicised. Another work of much power is "The Sword of Pain." This was written after Evans had gone through a serious opera-tion in the Toowoomba Hospital, but there is nothing sordid in the work; in deed, it glows with magnificent imagery and preaches a sermon of spiritual beauty and eternal confidence. All that is well shown in the concluding lines:

   Behold I saw in purest air afar
      A great light dawn and widen and increase,
   With white flame crested like a perfect star,
      Above the Sword of Pain -- the Crown of Peace!

Again, among the new things is "Cymru," which men of Welsh blood will read for its splendid expression of the history of their land, and all who relish a great flow of sustained energy and brilliant work will revel in, because it gives them these things. Take these three poems, "The Secret Key," "The Sword of Pain," and "Cymru,'' and it will be difficult to find their equal in all that has been done in our land by the poets living or those who are taking their rest. But the things named do not make the volume; there are other things, old friends and new, which appeal to the heart and to the intellect. There are the philosophies of the poet and his simple songs, and his railings at conditions, and sometimes his scoldings, and the bulk of that fine narrative poem, "Loraine." From "Out of the Silence" the first four verses are given:

   Here in the silence cometh unto me
      A song that is not mine,
      With wash of waves along the cold shore line,
   And sob of wind, and rain upon the sea.
   It is the song and message of the dead!
      Around my soul to-night
      I feel the kinship of the Infinite,
   I hear the sound of voices that are fled.
   And as beneath the viewless angel's wing
      Bethesda's pool was stirred.
      My heart is troubled by the mystic word
   Of one who through my soul and lips would sing.
   There is no note of wailing in the strain,
      But resonant and deep,
      Out of the vastness, doth the music sweep,
   Into the silence dieth it again.

The poem is altogether beautiful, and it would be a joy to further quote. Those who enjoy Evans's more earthy key will find him in "The Average Man," "A Commonplace Song," " The Wheels of the System," "Ode to the Philistines," and in other places. The apostrophe to Toowoomba, "The Mountain Queen," is in the style of a laureate, but none the less a good thing. Taking the book by and large, it well deserves the best welcome Australia can give it, and it may be remarked that it comes just at a happy time, at a time when folk are puzzled what to send to friends in or out of Australia. What better Christmas gift could there be from a Queenslander than the fine work of a Queensland poet, work of which every Queenslander and every Australian may be proud of, so filled is it with dignity and with charm.

First published in The Queenslander, 29 December 1906

Note: you can read the full text of The Secret Key and Other Verses by George Essex Evans courtesy of Australian Digital Collections from The University of Sydney.

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

No TrackBacks

TrackBack URL:

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on July 8, 2011 8:57 AM.

Combined Reviews: Glissando by David Musgrave was the previous entry in this blog.

Poem: George Essex Evans by J. Bufton is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Monthly Archives

Powered by Movable Type 4.23-en