The occasional essay is a medium which is not much cultivated in Australia, probably because of lack of opportunity. Still, we can quote some good examples. For example, the gift has been exhibited by the late Sir Archibald Strong, Professor Murdoch, Mr. F. C. Phillips, and others of whom by no means the least is Mr. S. Elliott Napier. Mr. Napier is the author of several pleasant books of which we cherish grateful memories. But many will think that in this one he is at his best. The art of the occasional essay consists in taking any peg upon which to hang a light disquisition; sometimes merely humorous, sometimes with series implications. Here we have "the hansom cab" of literature so employed.
There is a range of reading and a happy allusiveness which reconcile one to Mr. Elliott Napier, even in apparent inconsistencies. Brains, he says, will always conquer brawn in the long run. School sport is in danger of being overdone. Travel, rather than school or sport, is the most educative influence. But he allows that it is not for all to travel, and that cricket, in which he would no doubt include other forms of sport, has played a great part in establishing and maintaining the ties of Empire. "For in this respect every 'test' team is a more efficient band of ambassadors than any that the chancelleries have known." Collecting antique allusions to the game of cricket, Mr. Elliott Napier has discovered that in its infancy a serf was pressed into the office of wicket-keeper, "a position which one would have thought to be eminently suitable for a knight, considering the advantages of his customary defensive armour plate." That is true, but in those days there were no appeals.
In his essay, "The Loveliest Lyric in the Language," Mr. Elliott Napier enters difficult country, and traverses it with signal success. In the conventional view, even of the British themselves, the British are a heavy, cloddish people, insusceptible to the spiritual claims of beauty. Yet even in the very materialistic ages the ability to turn a graceful lyric was part of the normal equipment of anyone who aspired to be someone. It was the better equivalent of the modern after-dinner orations. Jacobean profligates composed dainty and delicious verse. But these were agreeable play-things. Mr. Elliott Napier, rightly in our opinion, puts his money on Keats. He places his favourites in the following order:
(1) "Ode to a Nightingale."
(2) "Grecian Urn."
Had we been the judges, we should have bracketed (1) and (2) as a dead heat, and placed "Autumn" third. But it is difficult to decide.
Quite one of the best things in the book is a parody on Macaulay's criticism of the poems of Robert Montgomery. In this case, Shakespeare is the target, and the travesty is admirably sustained. Shakespeare, an uncouth yokel, coming from nowhere, presumes to write plays for the stage. They are stuffed with colloquialisms, ungrammaticisms, solecisms, plagiarisms, anachronisms, verbosities, and neologisms. One queen might have said, "I am not amused." Another, her ancestor, might have said, "I was." These essays renew our hopes for the Australian essay. (Angus and Robertson; price 6/.)First published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 29 October 1932
[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]