Reprint: Review. A Poetry of Exiles and Other Poems by Douglas B. W. Sladen

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This volume is the legacy which Mr. Sladen has left behind him upon his departure for Europe. It may be accepted as a convincing proof of the sincerity of his attachment to Australia that he informs us in the preface that he makes no attempt "to pose as an Australian." Just now attention has been drawn in some of the leading English papers to Australian poetry, especially to Gordon's works. It is eminently desirable that no such opinion should gain ground as that the author of the little book before us is accepted as a satisfactory representative of the native Australian school of poetry. It was, we believe, Sydney Smith who first reviewed at home a volume of poems from this part of the world. That volume contained a couplet borrowed from Bishop Hall's account of himself --

   I first adventure, follow me who list,
   And be the second Austral harmonist.

Since then, in addition to a very few in Australia who have written good verses and two or three who have earned a reputation for poetic genius, poetasters and rhymesters, good, bad, and indifferent, have rushed into print. They have saturated magazines and newspapers with bad rhymes and halting measures. They have taken the pains to manifest in public their lack of thought and their ignorance of rhythm. They have had nothing to say, and they have said it in sentences, more or less ungrammatical, which, being printed in Iines with capital initial letters, they have styled poems. Sometimes the "verse" has been blank -- very blank, but in other cases doggerel has been the rule. It is hard to decide which of these forms of poetical insanity is the worse, but the former sometimes enjoys the advantage of being easily translated into common sense. Of all such offenders as we have been describing Mr. Sladen is perhaps the worst, as he may be reckoned the most conspicuous. One can excuse half-educated people who want to lisp in numbers, for it is a small matter to them that the numbers are wanting. They have not had the advantage of an intimate acquaintance with the great Greek or even the great English masters. It is simply through vanity or ignorance of their incapacity that they rush in where angels fear to tread. But what shall we say of a man who has had a University education, who comes from one of the most classical schools of English thought, who can muster a whole army of letters after his name, who has occupied a position on the professorial staff of a University, and who may for all these reasons be assumed to have some acquaintance with the best that is known and thought in the world-- what shall we say of him when, with but slight claim to the poetic gift and with no special message to speak, he pours out from an apparently inexhaustible treasury volume after volume of inane jingle which has neither the soul nor the semblance of poetry? Mr. Sladen has no excuse for inflicting so much trash upon a long-suffering public. Here and there may be found evidence that if he took sufficient trouble he might produce verses which could be read without causing mental and physical distress to the reader; but such indications are rare. Judged by the great mass of his compositions in the volume before us he may well be taken as the exemplar of the pseudo-Australian school of pseudo-Australian poetry which must do so much -- if its efforts have any fruit at all -- to imperil the reputation of colonists for taste, common sense -- nay, even for sanity. We are, unfortunately, unable to say which of the many pieces in the volume before us would be in Mr. Sladen's opinion a good specimen of his powers, but we can hardly be wrong if we take the title-poem as a fair example. Here are some lines. It will be noticed that this is not a rhymed measure ; neither is it blank verse :--  

   A poetry of exiles -- we are exiles
   From the heirlooms and cradle of our race,
   Its hallowed scenes of trials and of triumphs,
   Its battlefields, its castles, and its graves.
   We cannot go to some thatch-roofed farmhouse
   Or garret in a ruin overhanging
   The high street of a mediaeval town,
   And say, "'Twas here that first his eyes saw light
   Who won the famous victory," or pause,
   With head uncovered, by the battered tomb
   Of one who gave a nation liberty.

Now, what is there in this that could not have been said just as well in prose? What is there that might not just as well have been left unsaid? The metrical system has not yet been discovered which will enable the reader to scan these lines with any degree ot comfort to himself. Walt Whitman has written a poem which contains verses wholly composed of the names of towns strung together without connectives. We now acknowledge that he might have inflicted upon us something still more unmusical. Here are some expressions and lines taken at random as we turn over the leaves. What does Mr. Sladen mean when he says--

               See the leagues of corn
   From Adelaide's broad bosom to honest labour born? 

We grant him "leagues of corn" as the privilege of poets to use loose English, but "Adelaide's broad bosom" is rubbish. We don't grow wheat in our streets, and the expression would be not a bit more poetical were he to say "South Australia's bosom." The climax of absurdity is reached when a sane man, with all his wits about him, can speak about leagues of corn being born from a bosom! Mr. Sladen will, we hope, be duly grateful to us for in some measure aiding him to reach the goal of his ambition. Here are some lines taken from an address "To Longfellow and America:"--    

   I think that the noblest future for an Austral bard would be
   To become to all Australia what thou wast across the sea:
   To have her youth's flower round him in an University; 
   And to have the whole dominion ringing with his poetry.
   Such is my heartfelt ambition, bright and distant as, a star,
   Possible, as God ordaineth all things, yet how far, how far?
   I can but with eye unfalt'ring fixed upon the lofty goal
   Struggle upward, purifying with the very toil my soul. 

We have no hesitation in saying that Mr. Sladen does struggle, and we have every wish to believe that he purifies his soul; but is this the best way to go about it? The last verse of this same piece is refreshing in its generosity-

   Take this tribute that I offer for thy mighty sleeping son;
   Take it freely, for I love thee as if I myself were one
   Of thy sons and his alumni, in the body as in will;
   Would that I could come to lay it where his wearied head lies still.

We have already dwelt more upon "A Poetry of Exiles" than its intrinsic worth warrants. In fact, from the perusal we have given the volume, the only compositions that contain some tolerably good rhymes, linked to a fair amount of common-sense ideas, are "To Australia" and "A Bush Flower." If space were not a consideration we might lay almost every page in the book under contribution for examples of either no thought, pure nonsense, or bad verses. We cannot, however, omit to quote a piece entitled "Adelaide."

   Five miles out from the Semaphore the ship at anchor lies,
   Steam up, about to bid adieu to our dear native skies.
   So far her course has hugged the shore, but when she sails to-night
   She'll stand out for the open sea from the Great Austral Bight.
   It was not until Adelaide was sinking out of view
   That all the lonely bitterness of leaving home we knew,
   But when the last Australian port was fading on our lee,
   Then! not till then, we realized that we were on the sea.
   Adieu, dear native skies, adieu! It will be long ere we
   Meet other skies as mild and bright where'er on earth we be.
   Adieu, dear native land! adieu, home of our childhood's joy,
   And home of freedom, peace, and mirth, without the base alloy
   Of want and sin that poverty and crowded millions bring
   To the beloved and puissant isle from which we boast to spring;
   Our home, where every man may have his cottage or his farm
   And, unconcealed, hold any creed he chooses with- out harm.
   Fare you well, Adelaide, farewell ! Just as we leave your shore
   Hundreds are floating to your quays to share the bounteous store
   You have for every willing hand which breaks your fertile soil,
   A proper palm for honesty and certain crown for toil.

This "poem" scans execrably, and closer inspection shows its absurdity. The reader will notice that it is the ship at anchor which is about to bid Adelaide adieu. In the first verse she is still at anchor; in the next she has started on her voyage. Probably the last two lines of that verse are a mystic way of telling us that the ship was beginning to roll, but how and where does Mr. Sladen expect to '"meet other skies"? What does he mean by --

  And, unconcealed, hold any creed he chooses with out harm?

Does every man in Adelaide hold his creed without harm, or is it his creed that is without harm, or does he choose without harm? And, next, whom might he or it harm -- himself, the creed, or his neighbour? "A proper palm for honesty" is good, but it has no particular meaning. And what about the hand which breaks fertile soil? Touchstone, when criticising Orlando's poetry, said, "I'll rhyme you so eight years together -- dinners and suppers and sleeping-hours excepted; it is the right butter-woman's rank to market.' It may be rather dangerous to say so, but we cannot forbear asserting that there is nothing to prevent anybody from being an "Austral bard," a la Mr. Sladen. Here is a "mere trifle," "an ill- favoured thing, but mine own," which we have much pleasure in offering to Mr. Sladen for the second edition of his book. It might be called "Adelaide's Reply," and would run thus:--

   Fare you well, Sladen, O, farewell! Just as you leave our shore
   Hundreds are praying for your sake that you poetize no more.
   You have a sadly nimble pen, which wounds our gentle heart --
   A silly trick of scribbling which has no regard for art.

First published in The South Australian Register, 17 April 1884

[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 January 13, 2012 7:24 AM.

Combined Reviews: Autumn Laing by Alex Miller was the previous entry in this blog.

Poem: Respectfully Dedicated to Douglas B. W. Sladen, Esq. by W. J. is the next entry in this blog.

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