Reprint: Letter to the Editor: More Than a Poet by T. Inglis Moore

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Sir. -- Since Bernard O'Dowd died a few weeks ago, may I, as a memorial tribute, supplement Dr. Todd's interesting lecture on O'Dowd by touching on a few aspects of the poet which he expressly excluded from his formal survey.  

O'Dowd was more than a fine poet. He was a significant figure who has historical importance in two ways. He was the first Australian poet to be an intellectualist and thus founded the tradition of an Australian poetry of ideas which was continued by Brennan, Baylebridge and FitzGerald. He was also the prophetic spokesman of his age, the era we call "the nineties." He expressed passionately its faith in democracy, social justice, and the Utopian dream of a great Australia in the future. Speaking for his contemporaries, Professor Walter Murdoch praises O'Dowd's "songs of democracy that stirred us like trumpets in the opening years of the century." O'Dowd was one of the foremost creators of a national tradition that his influenced Australian thought and literature ever since.  

Certain weaknesses of O'Dowd's earlier poetry, such as rhetoric and a limited verse form were justly pointed out by Dr Todd. There defects were, of course, recognised by critics of O'Dowd's day and discussed in my own study of O'Dowd. It is fair to add, however, that the tendency to generalise shown by O'Dowd is the same as that shown by English poets of the eighteenth century. So, too O'Dowd had, like Pope, a gift of expressing abstract ideas in striking epigram. He had none of Pope's technical perfection but was a more original thinker. Poetry or not, in both cases this epigrammatic expression is excellent writing in its genre. In O'Dowd's work it showed acute intellect at work and an unusual breadth of thought.  

It is starting the wrong hare of course, to discuss whether O'Dowd was a "great poet," since no reputable critic -- and least of all, the modest and unaffected poet himself -- ever claimed such a title for him. "Great poets" are rare. They do not grow on gooseberry bushes. There have been none in Australia, and in England during this contury there have been possibly only two - Yeats and Eliot. O'Dowd at his best -- and a poet must be judged by his best work, not his lapses -- was a fine poet. That is enough. This assessment is accepted generally in Australian literature.

Indeed, it goes wider, since some of the strongest tributes to O'Dowd came from the American critic, Hartley C. Grattan, who praised O'Dowd as one of the four outstanding literary representatives of his epoch, a significant figure in Australia, and the creator of "powerful poetry." In his later work O'Dowd sang with a true lyrical impulse. Instead of rhetoric, he used simple language, varied verse forms, and flexible rhythms. The best parts of "The Bush," the sonnets, and "Alma Venus," like the earlier "Young Democracy," are excellent poetry by the strictest standards.

The fiery personality of Bernard O'Dowd, the idealist and the crusader, made itself felt in his earlier days. When I knew him in his later years I was struck by his mellow wisdom, tolerance, and lovable charm. Above all, one felt in him the sincere nobility of mind expressed so forcibly in his poetry. We have been honoured in having such a fine spirit as one of the makers of the Australian tradition.

First published in The Canberra Times, 7 October 1953

[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 November 9, 2011 6:59 AM.

Australian Bookcovers #281 - Johnno by David Malouf was the previous entry in this blog.

Great Australian Authors #53 - Bernard O'Dowd is the next entry in this blog.

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