If the achievement of Bernard O'Dowd in the development of Australia's literary life was to reconcile what I have had to call the belltopper and the moleskin, there have been other poets, slightly more recent in their activities, whose achievement it has been to take such a reconciliation for granted. As writers, both the hesitating colonial gentleman and the robustly crude bushman were to be followed by those who were neither childish, like the first, not adolescent, like the second, but adult. Australia, to a writer in this modern vein, does not seem, as America to Henry James, a meaningless and dreary place of exile. It is not a colony to exploit but a home and he grows up in it naturally and critically.
Consider in this light William Baylebridge, a writer so typical, such a symbol, that we should have to invent him, though we should hardly be clever enough. Like O'Dowd, this poet is conspicuous for a certain dignity and austerity, but these of a type all his own, differing from O'Dowd's more and more as you penetrate the stately avenue of words. His important book of 123 sonnets, "Love Redeemed," has just been published and made accessible in the ordinary way. One mentions this matter of publication because for more than 20 years this writer has been apt to appear in limited editions, privately printed, subtly circulated, very remote -- more remote even than the usual poetry in a "practical" community like ours. One further point is that when Baylebridge began to write -- his first book of poems appeared, I think, in 1912 -- and for long afterwards, he used the name of William Blocksidge. Those who read Baylebridge and therefore want more of him should not make the mistake of passing by a book with Blocksidge on the title page.
An Individual Type
William Baylebridge presents throughout a peculiarly unswerving literary type. Whether writing in the strict sonnet or the most untrammelled of free verse, whether making verse or prose, he is always himself, a composite, an amalgam from his personal heritage and experiences, but above all, and at great distances of time, a unity. In diction he shows an eclectic archaism liable to be fused, very thoroughly with a racy modern slang, as in the prose of Shakespearian soldiery. His sensuous images, when concerned with landscape, are sometimes general, as if taken from a common poetic treasury, but taken with this poet's own strongly conceived purposes and rhythm ever in mind:The wind, that sedulous shepherd of the sky
Has driven his flocks to their Hesperian fold
To water them where pools how lucent lie!
And wash their purple fleece in lakes of gold.
Sometimes again his images spring from an individual vision which his style endows with a universality. In another of the new sonnets there is a characteristic passage where the very name of the wind, having a slight extra syllable, shakes the line: -Oft lo! on some veiled hint, the southerly woke
And stirred the silence.
Baylebridge's ideas and sometimes his verse forms are heavily tinged with German literary influences which he experienced in his youth; influences of the more epigrammatic and lyrical sort. Some of his brief early lyrics in "Moreton Miles" were surely influenced by Heine. As for his prose style, at least in fiction, I have an admission to make. There is only one man whose work, from its style and subject-matter, I was once inclined to ascribe to Baylebridge. That was Mr. A. W. Wheen, whose "Two Masters," an unforgettable short story of the war, appeared perhaps 10 years ago in the London "Mercury" and has often been reprinted in anthologies and as a small chapbook. The man who found he could not serve two masters was a soldier in the Australian forces, who, on account of his intimate knowledge of German, was detailed as a spy. Behind the German lines he involuntarily makes the most intimate friendship of his life, the two men leading and thinking together in excitement and joy. When the hour strikes for the work he has come to do, the spy cannot bring himself to complete it, but walks out into a barrage on No Man's Land. This story, with its dignity and fullness was not, after all, by Baylebridge author of "An Anzac Muster," with its chain of stories. Mr. Arthur Wheen, also an Australian, is an author in his own right, and as a translator has been responsible for perhaps the most famous of all German war-books. The resemblance in style between the two writers is remarkable, to judge from "Two Masters." Striking, too, was the coincidence that two Australians should be so closely intimate with German literary expression.
Epigram and Essay
For the rest, Baylebridge's prose style in epigram and essay is his own. In a curious book of related fragments, called "National Notes," he set down part of his credo some years ago. If I have called him the examiner perhaps some of these notes will go far to explain why, though the same questioning -- not wistful, like O'Dowd's, but rather an assured challenge -- pervades his poems, too.
The time has arrived for a judicious examination of our convictions, our principles, our dreams.
Leave the past and live in the present; in the mind of the present even must the past be conceived. Let not the present live at the cost of future.
We would fling large gifts, fling gifts with both hands into the abyss of the future.
Baylebridge very early evolved for himself a diction that seems always competent to express his particular view of life -- vigorous yet subtle; a diction nobody else could use. With the sweep of Elizabethan rhetoric, yet with the vision of a new country always before his eyes, he can use old, robust words and make them his own: some of them being rather Latin words that peered into English, centuries ago, and then withdrew, words we could have done with very well. "The utile canons," he writes in one sonnet, and then --Who lifted man from earth ignores his fuss,
His queasy coils of overconsciousness,
Strong Nature, working out of sight in us,
Compels us, without choice, to her redress
Upon this flesh Nature descends and thrills it,
Thrills it with godlike impulse, makes it one
With the energy that quickens heaven and fills it:
Through this, through love, the will of God is done.
The lover through and through then touches being,
Explores the abyss of self, stands in amaze --
The affined one too. And both, in that deep seeing,
A thousand years beyond each other gaze --
And gather into a moment, goal of goals,
The myriad dreams of their prenatal souls.
I have been led on to transcribe the whole sonnet! It is for the reader to see how the man who uses half-forgotten, yet vivid, words, such as "queasy coils" and "affined," can somehow handle, in verse, a prosy word such as "fuss" and make it work hard and well. If may be said, indeed, that Baylebridge wears neither the Victorian's belltopper nor the bushman's moleskins. His costume, worn as naturally as a bird wears its feathers, has something of the Elizabethan about it, a hint of inconspicuous Australian khaki, yet the general contour of modern man. If he has suffered as well as gained by being an Australian, it is in this way, that to be a writer in this country is to be a disregarded person engaged in a freak occupation, and there may creep into the words of even the boldest and least apologetic of poets a slight note of isolation, a take-it-or-leave it obscurity of phrase. Past any such obscurities, however, comes flooding Baylebridge's strong assurance that we can share in the whole of life; that we are not, as the phrase goes, cut-off and isolated, but here, and ready for the future.
First published in The Argus, 2 March 1935
[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]