Reprint: Adam Lindsay Gordon

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Time, which tries most things, is the one sure test of a poet's popularity, and there are indications that the poems of Adam Lindsay Gordon have satisfactorily responded to the test (says a writer in the "Australasian"). When that personal and friendly intimacy which so often mistakes zeal for genius has passed away, when only a few of those who knew Gordon in the days when he wrote and rode remain upon the scene, there is opportunity to view his work in a better perspective. It is pleasant, therefore, for those who hold Gordon's memory in fond regard to find the annual pilgrimage to his grave in Brighton Cemetery exciting wider interest as the years pass on. It is significant as an earnest proof of the admiration which Australians have for his poetry. And the fact that another generation of poets has since arisen has in no way disturbed the high estimate of his work or the sympathetic interest ever associated with his name. But when we come to consider Gordon's place in Australian literature, his influence upon Australian people, it is not as the "Laureate of the Centaurs" that he most impresses us.

Apart from considered criticism, there is always the unconscious test which in relation to the singer we employ with neither will nor intention. Poetry, if it is to satisfy the popular mind, must have music in it as well as thought and fancy. The things that in moments of abstraction go singing through one's head to a music of their own are often Gordon's. Under that test he is still the most widely read, the most popular of all Australian poets. In such a test it is seldom the hoof-beats of the galloping rhymes that come to us unbidden, almost unconsidered. Rather an echo of steel, with the glamour of cavalier days, when knighthood was in flower; from the half-legendary sources where Tennyson drew his inspiration for the Idylls of the King, or, as in Podas Okus, from the romance of the classics. The horse lover in all moods, he would have gloried more in the war horse than in the steeplechaser; had he lived and written to-day, he would have found an epic in deeds of the Anzacs. If there was one thing more than all else that would have appealed to Gordon, it would have been to adventure with Chauvel's horsemen over the plains of Palestine on that long war trail where so many conquerors have ridden, where Crusader and Saracen clashed, and holy writ and history meet. He is the singer of the sword, born out of his generation, some centuries too late for the picturesque times of the Cavaliers, too early by just a lifetime for the war of all time. It is ever his sword songs that go ringing through our minds; examples might be taken from many poems, beginning with the Rhyme of Joyous Guarde, the betrayal of Arthur, the remorse of Launcelot.

   Then a steel-shod rush and a steel-clad ring,
   And a crash of the spear staves splintering,
      And the billowy battle blended.
   Riot of chargers, revel of blows,
   And fierce flush'd faces of fighting foes,
   From croup to bridle that reeled and rose
      In a sparkle of swordplay splendid.

Such are the "ringing major notes" which caught Kendall's ear -- a far finer estimate of the real Gordon than Marcus Clarke's mental summary, "love of horsemanship and a head full of Browning and Shelley." The influence of Shelley and of Swinburne upon the form of his verse is at times obvious enough, but the spirit of it was born long before their day and generation, springing from heredity, rather than iron acquirement. Even in galloping rhymes and racing tips the glory of the soldier still shines through:--

   Did they quail, those steeds of the squadron's light?
      Did they flinch from the battle's roar,
   When they burst on the guns of the Muscovite
      By the echoing Black Sea shore?
   On! on to the cannon's mouth they stride,
      With never a swerve nor a shy,
   On! the minutes of yonder maddening ride
      Long years of pleasure outvie.

Through the "Romance of Britomarte," the "Roll of the Kettledrum," and many a fragment of "Ashtaroth" the same note rings. Will Ogilvie, writing first of "Fair Girls and Grey Horses" in Australia, found back home his deeper life-spring note in the " Border Ballads," and with Gordon the process was reversed. He was the singing cavalier long before he rode steeplechases and wrote galloping rhymes. With him shrine and sword are notably close together. Though a man rode and lived recklessly, who was in some sense fatalist as well as pessimist, a strong religious note permeates much of his verse -- a religion less familiar and assured than that of his Roundheads, but obviously sincere. From one who ended the weary debate with a rifle bullet one hardly expects maxims, yet there are some sound and sure enough to be a rule of life such as only a very numan philosopher could have written:--

   Question not, but live and labour
      Till yon goal be won,
   Helping every feeble neighbour,
      Seeking help from none.
   Life is mostly froth and bubble,
      Two things stand like stone --
   Kindness in another's trouble,
      Courage in your own.

Though Gordon may not have lived up to his own maxim, it was still his con- sidered creed and his poetry. Had destiny been kinder, he would have been a soldier following in the footsteps of his father, and, since sing he must, would have sung arms and the man with a fine swing of old-fashioned chivalry.

Even in the best of his bush notes there is ever the touch of old association:--

   Hark, the bells on distant cattle
      Waft across the range,
   Through the golden-tufted wattle,
      Music low and strange;
   Like the marriage peal of fairies,
      Comes the tinkling sound,
   Or like chimes of sweet St. Mary's
      On far English ground.

It is not for any special or consistent note in Gordon's poetry that people are making pilgrimage to his grave, but because so many find something which they may admire. He has interpreted, idealised the bush note which they know by contact and experience, while keeping them in touch with the glamour of that distant past which is their racial inheritance, which has inspired so much of their romance, their poetry, and their history.

First published in The Queenslander, 6 December 1919

[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 September 16, 2011 7:23 AM.

Australian Literary Monuments #34 - Adam Lindsay Gordon was the previous entry in this blog.

Poem: Adam Lindsay Gordon by Marie E. J. Pitt is the next entry in this blog.

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