Reprint: The Australian Poets' Poet

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Some years ago the Melbourne "Argus" took a plebiscite of its readers in order to discover was regarded as the greatest poet. The first votes went in order to Adam Lindsay Gordon, Henry Clarence Kendall, and "Banjo" Paterson, while Victor Daley got only 49 votes compared with Gordon's 459. However democratic the method may be, the proper places of our poets on the slopes of our Australian Parnassus can hardly be decided by a referendum. It is just thirty years since Victor Daley died, and in the interval Gordon's bust has been placed in Westminster Abbey. But the lapse of years has not changed the verdict of Bertram Stevens. -- "Though Daley never appealed to so large an audience as the ballad-writers he was the writer best beloved of the writing clan." There is something fine and delicate in the tones and undertones of Victor Daley that has appealed irresistibly to our younger singers. If Edmund Spenser has been called "the poets' poet" in the noble sequence of English song, so in the briefer annals of Australian verse Victor Daley has earned a similar title by virtue of his two slender volumes of exquisite poetry -- "Dawn and Dusk" (1898) and "Wine and Roses" (1911). Daley is a lyrical poet, pure and simple, and though he experimented in "His Mate" with the ballad it was only to discover that he had picked up the wrong instrument. For "His Mate" is not a ballad, after all, but a mystic parable on the text, "I was thirsty and ye gave me drink." Victor Daley did not belong to the school of galloping rhymesters. He belonged to the tribe of Coleridge, Swinburne, Rossetti, and W. B. Yeats. The love of words and the concord of sweet sounds was in his bones. His imagination minted lovely imagery as the poet only can and a versifier never. He has no lesson to teach us unless it be to glimpse the flying skirts of evanescent Beauty and pursue her to her ethereal palaces. No Australian poet before him created so many of those images which only a poet conceives. His verse is woven of rainbows. It proves nothing any more than a strain of sweet music from the horns of Elfland. Daley lived in the realm of pure poetry where everything is transfigured as in a golden sunset. His themes are the joys of youth and sighs for youth's passing.

He sings a convivial song, too,
but with a difference. It has none of the "clinkum -- canikin -- clink" of Shakespeare's tavern ditty, yet it has a fine extravagance of its own.  

   If beings of mythology
      Could live at my commands,
   Briareus I'd choose to be
      Who had a hundred hands;
   And every hand of mine   
   Would hold a pint of wine.

   And of those beakers ninety-nine
      With white wine and with red
   Should brim for dear old friends of mine.
      The living and the dead. 
   By Pluto, there would be
   A noble revelry!

   Then let us unto Bacchus sing
      Evoe! up and down--
   For Bacchus is the wisest King
      Who ever wore a crown;
   His vine-leaves hide from view
   More wit than Plato knew.

Bacchanalian poets have written
in this strain while leading abstemious lives, but Daley lived his poetry too much for that enviable achievement. Although his second book is called "Wine and Roses" Daley is rarely the poet of the pot. When he sings of wine he does it with the pathetic grace of Omar --

   Very often when I'm drinking
      Of the old days I am thinking,
   Of the good old days when living was a joy.
      When I see folks marching dreary
   To the tune of Miserere --
      Then I thank the Lord that still I am a boy.

The poems where we really
savour the quintessential Daley, the gossamer-weaver, are such as this-- "Sunset, a fragment." Who, we ask, can sing of sunset with any freshness? Daley certainly does when he sings --

   Down in the dim sad West the sun
      Is dying like a dying fire.
   The fiercest lances of his light
      Are spent; I watch him drop and die
   Like a great king who falls in fight;
      None dared the duel of his eye
   Living, but, now his eye is dim,
   The eyes of all may stare at him.

And then we have the simple
intensity of "Passion Flower" with the same thought at its root as Leigh Hunt's "Jenny Kissed Me"

   Choose who will the better part,
   I have held her heart to heart;
   And have felt her heart-strings stirred,
   And her soul's still singing heard,
   For one golden haloed hour,
   Of Love's life the passion-flower.
   So the world may roll or rest--
   I have tasted of its best,
   And shall laugh while I have breath
   At thy dart and thee, O Death.

Many of Daley's original meta
phors have a haunting beauty. So he speaks of the insect Homer "singing his Iliad on a blade of grass." The funeral procession of a dead girl winds along "like a black serpent with a snow-white bird held in its fangs." And who can mistake the Celtic glamoury of the simile of the sun sinking "like a peony drowning in wine," which comes from an exquisite poem "A Sunset Fantasy," one of his very best, a poem which surely answers his own description --

   A scented song blown oversea,
      As though from bowers of bloom;
   A wind harp in a lilac tree
      Breathed music and perfume.

We seek in vain in Daley for profundity either of passion or of philosophy. He bears the heart of a boy, kindling to the raptures of youth echoing its sadness and revealing its undying charm. His strange poem "Ponce de Leon" expresses his longing to voyage with that conquistador of the Floridas.

   "Grieved am I, senor, and sorry,"
      Very courteously it said,
   "But I may not take you with me --
      But I only take the Dead.
   These alone may dare the voyage,
      These alone sail on the quest,
   For the fount of Youth Eternal,
      For the Islands of the Blest."

It was Daley's aspiration to write "songs and sonnets carven in fine gold." Of the eight sonnets he preserved the best is ''Anacreon," ending --

   There's honey still and roses on the earth
   And lips to kiss and jugs to drain with mirth,
   And lovers walk in pairs, but she is gone . . .
            Anacreon, Anacreon.

Daley's verse owes little to our Australian scenery beyond its golden sunshine. It seems rather to be an emanation from the Celtic wonderland, the true home of his spirit -- "His best verse," said Strong, "has peculiar grace and distinction, and sometimes achieves an almost Heinesque quality, as when he addresses his soul,"

   Be still and wait, O caged immortal Bird,
      Thou shalt be free;
   Not all in vain hast thou the voices heard
      Of lives to be.
   Be still and wait! No being that draws breath
      Thy bounds can set;
   Though God Himself forget thee, Faithful Death
      Will not forget.

Zora Cross has characterised Daley's verse with the same fine perceptiveness which marks his own laurel tribute for the brow of Kendall--

   Song was his friend and by a lyric thread
   He drew the waggon of Romance this way,
   And tossed her laughing spells about our day,
   That we might know pure Beauty had not fled,
   Old Poesy his wine and Rhyme his bread.
   Much did he find to share with mates born gay
   In blithe Bohemia that heard him play
   Harps of the wind full-stringed by fingers dead;
   A singing dreamer in a singing land,
   His jesting lips gave mirth to Death -- not tears. 

First published in The Courier-Mail, 18 May 1935

[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 April 20, 2012 7:44 AM.

Combined Reviews: Sarah Thornhill by Kate Grenville was the previous entry in this blog.

Poem: The Old Bohemian by Victor J. Daley is the next entry in this blog.

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