Two Voices

Seamus Heaney

  • The New Cratylus by A.D. Hope
    Oxford, 179 pp, £12.75, November 1979, ISBN 0 19 550576 X

There is a certain pleasure in listening to people we know rehearsing their prejudices and enjoying our assent to their own enjoyment of themselves. A.D. Hope takes for granted that kind of assent: he comes on in this book as the character we have known in the past, the contrary traditionalist renewing the vows of his poetic faith and pronouncing against old heresies. His position may sound embattled but we know that it is eminent. His aggravations have become his quirks, so that, for example, when he speaks of ‘the mindless sludge of surrealist verse’, we feel it to be less an expression of anger and revulsion than a reminder that in his time he was a bit of an enfant terrible.

Hope is one of the founders of modern Australian poetry, and like any founder in the post-colonial situation he has had to work out a relationship with the parent poetry of England. Instead of deserting and working in the Australian grain, he has perceived himself to be the guardian in the new country of the old country’s original literary virtues: not so much a Lear of the steppes as a Jonson – and Johnson – of the outback. In his best poems, Cavalier eroticism mutates into a kind of sunburned horniness, Augustan commonsense toughens into something recognisably antipodean. When he is not on form, however, the whole thing can go donnish and sedate.

Nearly all poems originate in the pre-literate parts of the mind, yet as they emerge from that promising condition where they are still, in Robert Frost’s words, ‘a lump in the throat, a homesickness, a lovesickness’, they depend for safe passage not only upon instinctive tacts but upon literary awarenesses, upon an ear that is more or less cultivated as well being naturally sensitive. During composition there is a continuous negotiation between the eager proposer and the cunning adjudicator, and in ideal conditions the proposer gets away with effects and discoveries which the adjudicator has not encountered before. A surprise and a gratitude ensue in the writer and reader as that original nervous energy translates itself into phrases and rhythms. A personality reveals itself, the current quickens, the volume of the language amplifies.

That, as Eliot said, is a way of putting it, and everybody who has been visited by a poem will have an interest in assenting or dissenting because, as Hope points out, poetry is an art that delights in questioning its own nature. A New Cratylus is subtitled ‘notes on the craft of poetry’, and although it was originally planned as an academic treatise when the writer was a university teacher, ‘it is presented now as a series of reflections on the craft of poetry which have occurred to me at intervals during half a century of practice, though here and there the professor has contrived to insert some theory.’

There are, therefore, two voices here. One is the habitual tone of the educator, expository, working from first principles, spiced with quotation and anecdote, and the chapters written in this voice feel as if they belong to a book directed at undergraduates with a title like ‘an introduction to poetry’. There is a dutiful covering of old ground – rhythm, for instance: ‘We can hear and feel our own hearts beating; observers have recently discovered how important for our whole emotional life is the nursing in which a baby responds to the heart-beat of its mother ... and our bodies observe hundreds of other rhythms, including those of walking, running, skating and dancing.’ That could be from the first lecture of the year before the professor has hit his stride. But the parts of these chapters on metre, rhythm and language that show what a very good teacher A.D. Hope must have been are those parts where he swoops upon a quotation and worries and tosses it for his own sport, engaging in that kind of skilful showing-off which can be such an enjoyable part of the successful lesson. To illustrate what Coleridge called ‘the inter-inanimation of words’, Hope rewrites Coleridge’s lines:

The Sun’s rim dips; the stars rush out:
At one stride comes the dark.

First like this:

The Sun’s edge touches; stars leap forth:
In one jump night arrives.

And then like this:

The rim of the sun dips,
Out rush the stars,
The dark
Comes at one stride.

The first rewrite is discussed in order to show the vivid superiority of the Coleridge lines, how the overtones of the words and the suppleness of the rhythm manage to support each other there. The second is to show that without metre, the interanimation is greatly reduced. All well and good, swiftly and deftly done. But he gallops away from the scene of his triumph on a hobby-horse: ‘This should be a last nail in the coffin of free verse, since it demonstrates one important function of metre in making words combine so that their overtones link and reverberate.’ Could we not equally and perversely put D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Bat’ into iambic quatrains and claim that we had thereby put the nail in the coffin of metrical form?

Then there is the chapter on ‘How Poems Grow’, which begins with a polemical discussion of the ways Giorgio Melchiori and T.R. Henn went about treating Yeats’s ‘Leda and the Swan’ – ‘a farrago of sources, symbols and cross-reference’ that views the poem as a digest of material and pays no attention to the accidents and energies of the imagination, or indeed to Yeats’s own account of the poem’s composition. Here, too, there is a feeling of battles long ago, of stalking paper-tigers in the academy, and even when Hope goes on to parody the sources and symbol-hunting method by giving us a Hennish misreading of his own rich poem ‘The School of Night’, the thing does not catch fire.

The beginning and end of the book, however, are another story. The first chapter is an unpretentious and moving account of how his experience of words and rhymes as a child led into his discovery of the need to write: the personal testimony of the opening pages is without designs upon us. His memories of reading Latin poetry in his teens revived in me my own half-conscious pleasure in the crepuscular hexameters of Virgil, read as a set text with a teacher who pleaded with us to hear them properly by repeating a couple of lines and adding simply and pathetically: ‘Ach, boys!’

The second chapter considers language as an activity, a means of perception and discovery. It is theoretical but not abstract, personally secured and optimistic about language as a binding force in the human community. And so is the final chapter, which gains its force by being directed, not, as the blurb suggests, at other practitioners and literary theorists, but at himself.

Australian poetry is stronger now than it has ever been, and talking to Australian poets one gets an impression of renewed confidence in their separate, even separatist, enterprise. The respect they accord to A.D. Hope as a fortifying presence comes naturally to them, even those whose numbers stumble out in ‘the dreary shuffle’ of free verse. At times in this book, that historical figure exercises his prerogative and lays down the law, and, one feels, more power to him. At other times, when he is following the invitations of what he calls ‘the dream-work’, more power to us.