Reprint: Furnley Maurice: An Interview with a Poet by "Polygon"

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Two men wrapped to one skin sat on the other side of a table in the hotel lounge and talked about poetry. The skin and the dominant personality were those of Mr. Frank Wilmot, manager of the Melbourne University Press. The second personality was Furnley Maurice, who stands to the first rank of Australian poets.

Mr. Wilmot reached Perth last Mon-day on a short holiday visit and left again by boat on Thursday. An interview was sought with him on Australian poets and poetry during his brief visit.

I had known the voice and had tried to know something of the mind of Furnley Maurice for several years, but I knew practically nothing of Mr. Wilmot except that he had been engaged in the book trade for most of his life in Melbourne and that some 30 years ago, rather shyly it would seem, he gave the name of Furnley Maurice to that part of himself that wrote poetry. The link between Mr. Wilmot and the poet has not been a secret for many years, but it is still the name of Furnley Maurice that appears on the title page and the initials F.M. that sign the preface.

Mr. Wilmot, the book trade man, is an agreeable chap to meet. He does not look any more like a poet than Browning, Wordsworth, John Donne or William Shakespeare did in their time. He is a man of about fifty, with nothing strikingly unusual about his appearance. There are some lines of humour on his face, and a quick interest, but with hints of an almost quizzical observation on the ways of the world rather than of fervent enthusiasms. He might be called typically Australian in general appearance and he is typically Australian, too, to his apparent dislike of any thing resembling a literary pose. Momentarily, one guessed, he felt it was a bit funny to sit, down to the lounge of a hotel to the middle of the day and start talking about poetry to a man you had never seen before. His order to the steward was 'proletarian beer.'

Then he talked, and gradually a third person appeared -- or the other two withdrew. This may sound silly to the author himself and his intimates, but my impression is that, to start with, 30 years ago, there were the somewhat romantic Furnley Maurice wanting to write poetry, and the somewhat hesitating, logical and also keenly sensitive Frank Wilmot who was rubbing very closely against the external world. They were put into separate compartments. But to the course of 30 years they worked on each other to make the complete and mature man that is the writer of today. This was the third person who now emerged slowly and did most of the talking, once the way was found to be clear. Now and again the original Mr. Wilmot would pop in a little nervously with some humorous remark; and once or twice, faintly, could be heard the voice of the youthful and romantic Furnley Maurice.

"Literature Must be National."

After preliminaries we got down to the needs of Australian literature. "The first need," he said, "is a clearer and a stronger Australian nationality-- an insight into what Australia is. In spite of what these professors say, I firmly believe that any literature must be national."

He quoted as an outstanding example the Irish national movement to literature, which, he said, succeeded to producing the greatest English-writing poet of modern times and one of the most interesting dramatists-- Yeats and Singe. "Although their ideas were what professors would regard as local, even subsurban, they have produced really great writers. That seems to be the same with the Russians.

'There is an idea I have expressed again and again and nobody seems to have taken any notice of it," he continued with enthusiastic warmth. . . ."

("Most people spend their lives to trying to get one idea understood and they are damn lucky if they do," put in Mr. Wilmot with a nervous chuckle lest his other half should be thought a crank.)

"My idea," continued the poet, "is that all literatures are national and must be national in their origin, but they may become international later and by accident. Every literature belongs first of all to its own time; it may come later and by accident to belong to all time."

Illustrating his point he mentioned Walton's "The Compleat Angler," written for its own period and its proper occasion and later hailed as a classic. Shakespeare, too, wrote not for posterity or the world but for and of his own day.

Writing to a "Recipe."

The second need of Australian literature, he went on, was a genuine critical method. Following up that quite uncontroversial point we talked for a while about "the enormous amount of sheer imitation" to Australian literature and of "a chap he knew" who purposely set out to write according to "the recipe" which other popular novelists had found successful.

"What would you make the young writer do? Read less and live more?" "I would not seek to restrict their reading to any way but when they write I insist that they have to write from their own observation," he answered. "Life is different. It is different in each of the Australian capitals . . . (Here Mr. Wilmot, the business man, interjected with some thing pleasantly diplomatic about how nice Perth seemed) ... It is different to every age. It is different to every coun- try. You have to see it."

Following up his theme he placed Henry Lawson and Tom Collins to a high place as builders of Australian literature, because of their direct observation of life. Vance Palmer and Katherine Susannah Pritchard were quoted as examples of conscientious writers of today.

Eventually the poet was asked to talk about his own work. "Well, first there was 'Unconditioned Songs' " he said, "that is first, except for another little book that is only a bit of a curio now. 'Unconditioned Songs' was written without any attempt to polish the work off. It was a try-out to see if there was anything to the ideas just as they stood."

"Then Came the War."

"Then came the war." He grinned slowly. The next thing rose out of what you might call an anti-war attitude. That was 'Eyes of Vigilance.'''

In a casual way, smiling and occasionally chuckling over the recollection he told of the circumstances of the publishing of what has been described as one of the most notable Australian literary works the Great War produced -- a volume containing that sequence of verses called: 'To God: From the Warring Nations," which, if only they knew them or could hear them read would be greeted with endorsing cheers by the hosts of youth today.

It was otherwise when they appeared. "It was rather funny," said the writer. 'The publisher showed it to two people. One was Chris Brennan (the late Professor C. J. Brennan) and the other was Walter Murdoch. It was very interesting to read their opinions. I have the two letters still and I always keep them to gether. Professor Murdoch readily accepted it as a genuine expression of a certain feeling. He was very friendly. But the other man was terrifically hostile. There were four pages -- he wrote a beautiful, neat hand with close lines-- four pages of beautifully-written savagery, attacking it from the point of view of poetry and technique and what not, but all the time trying to justify the militaristic attitude against the pacifist one"' The poet laughed. "Mind you," he added more seriously, "Brennan was quite earnest to his dislike of it."

He suddenly laughed again, quite happily and without bitterness, at another recollection. "Professor Archie Strong, of Adelaide, described it as the 'pathetic out-pourings of a professional pacifist' or something like that," he said and recounted how Professor Sinclaire (at one time lecturer to English to the University of Western Australia) took up the coun- ter-attack to characteristic fashion.

And these 'pathetic outpourings' contained the sonnet beginning "The sparrow has gone home into the tree"; and such a couplet as:

   "How can we hate for ever, having proved
    All men are bright and brave and some where loved?"

Asked about the state of mind to which he wrote it, the poet said: "I thought it was only common sense. I remember when I was writing that, my only feeling was that it was taking a fair while to write, although it was written very hurriedly, and that after all it might not be much use because everyone else would be thinking the same things before it came out I thought that they would have had enough of this brutality and would be eager for a return to humanity."

The Poet and Social Wrongs.

After further conversation about the war volume we switched on to the question of how far literature should concern itself with public affairs. (Unfortunately that meant that we did not proceed to discuss his best volume, "The Gully.")

"What attention should the poet give to social problems?" he was asked. "Any reader could gather that there are some things to this world that make you yourself very indignant."

The poet chuckled again. "Have you noticed that?" For a moment there was a chance that we might have heard more about it from the Furnley Maurice side of him, but Mr. Wilmot decided that the discussion should be kept on a literary level.

We began by making the distinction between literature and propaganda. "I hardly think that propaganda as such is likely to inspire any great literature," he said. "It is the ideas behind writing that are of importance." Although we had made no direct reference to it up to that point, we both apparently had to mind his latest book, "Melbourne Odes." The poet started to discuss some of its themes, and particularly that biting third ode, "Upon a row of old boots and shoes to a pawnbroker's window"-- a composition filled with the cry of human distress and the mingled pity, anger, and bitterness of a man who finds it unbearably wrong that such things should be, an ode that echoes the cry that was to the war poems.

'"Old Boots' is not propaganda," the   poet said. "It is stating some sort of a case. It depends on some sort of observation."

"I have always been interested to the backwashes of life," he added later. He recounted a scene he saw going home from work one night down a lane. "I had just turned down a lane after having a drink at a pub," the story commenced. Then he saw a crowd of hungry men scrambling and wrestling around a tray of scraps that had been put outside the back door of an eating house. It was hunger. "It sets you thinking, and it does not matter a damn what your politics may be," he said; and his manner showed that it is pity, not theory, that is behind whatever he may say about social wrong.

''A record made of observations is to the realms of literature," he insisted; "and, to any case, I think a writer is quite justified in sacrificing his aesthetic sensibility if it is necessary to do so with the object of expressing some idea and correcting what he considers to be some great wrong."

After a diversion to Shelley, Zola, and Tolstoy, tested as propagandists, we came back to the "Melbourne Odes."

"The function of a poet is to create a state of mind that makes the acceptance of ideas possible," he said. "Lead your country into a deeper sense of the importance of life. The poet also helps to reveal the life that people are living to themselves. People are patient and complaisant, and it takes imaginative penetration to get the real meaning of a lot of things that people have been considering to be common-place."

Time called the limit to our talk. I may have come away a little uncertain whether I had talked with the author of "The Gully" or of such lines from "Plunder" as --

   From the drowned gardens where slow water-gales
   Wash unknown jungles and world weary hulls.

But there was a very definite knowledge of having come into a vital contact with the writer of "Melbourne Odes"-- a romantic who faces reality, an idealist who looks around him.

First published in The West Australian, 15 February 1936

[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 9, 2011 7:20 AM.

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