Boeotian Masters

Donald Davie

  • The Paperbark Tree: Selected Prose by Les Murray
    Carcanet, 360 pp, £18.95, September 1992, ISBN 0 85635 976 9

I don’t know when I was so baffled by a book, or by my response to a book. Up to past the half-way mark I was delighted, finding in Murray’s prose repeatedly the dash and decisiveness that have won me over in many of his poems; after that, I was more and more turned off, left with a bad taste in my mouth, until in the end I was finding him unreadable. Partly this must have to do with the movement through the book from newspaper reviews in the Seventies to what Murray himself describes as ‘the commissioned article, the lecture and the speculative essay’. As he became famous, he got above himself, became portentous. But although this may be true, the crucial change is simply in the quality of the writing. Murray the reviewer had dash and decisiveness, and also generosity. He wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1975 a review of Auden’s Thank you, Fog which is also an obituary. After quoting stanzas in which Auden salutes Horace and Goethe, Murray wrote:

A lot of us have worked through all these influences and more in less than a lifetime – but how many of us have profited so much from them, or surpassed so many of them and remained capable of gratitude? Of course he is cheating a bit, to leave out Lord Byron, whom he once called ‘master of the airy manner’. Byron’s lightness and grace echo in Auden’s own later work, and help to make him the absolute master of airy, civilised verse in our own day. In a time of high if often strident solemnity, Auden’s dancing seriousness, with more warmth in it than Byron ever managed, may be the thing that we’ll miss most about him.

That is not just handsome: it also points crisply and surely to what surely is irreplaceable in the ageing Auden. But if as the years went by Murray remained ‘capable of gratitude’ to Horace, or for that matter to Byron and Auden, his later prose gives no hint of it; and indeed those later writings, with their diatribes against ‘the Empires’ – Roman, Athenian and British – seem to preclude the possibility. By the same token, whereas after 1980 Murray could still at times be ‘airy’ in verse, the airiness that he once could manage in prose rather rapidly leaked away. The moral is not in the least that Murray was ‘a journalist at best’, ‘only a reviewer’; on the contrary, reviewing for a respectable newspaper (and in those days the Sydney Morning Herald must have been rather distinguished) imposes a discipline that expansive essayists need and often don’t get.

It’s not that Murray the reviewer couldn’t go wrong. Three months before the Auden piece he had written a wholly dismissive review of Pound’s Pisan Cantos, something that I found, even at first reading, shockingly obtuse. But then, I told myself, Pound is notoriously a difficult case; Murray is wrong about him, but at least his attitude is clear and forthright, ‘up front’. So I could go on to put enthusiastic ticks in the margin against some splendidly judicious sentences about Isaac Rosenberg: ‘If he is sometimes praised nowadays rather in the spirit of the process theory of poetry, the poem as a mimesis of disorder rather than a wrestling with it to discover deeper order, I think that is anachronistic and rather corrupt, an attempt to recruit him to modernist, revolutionary purposes he never espoused and probably never heard of. It is probable that, if he had survived, he would have become a very important poet indeed ... but it is also likely that his unsureness and lack of an instinctive sense of poetic design would have plagued him for many more years’. The fierceness of ‘rather corrupt’ sounds a note that we hear too seldom from reviewers, and even less often from critics. And as late as 1988 Murray could come up with stinging aphorisms: ‘All cultural relativism is an act of condescension towards all actual cultures’; ‘A dead end in criticism does not signify the discrediting of literature’; ‘The truest praise is conceded praise, spoken through gritted teeth – but to speak it, the utterer must possess integrity, and politics now exist to silence that.’ It is the sting that compels not just attention but agreement – but only so long as there is generosity too. And it is generosity, I’m afraid, that leaks away from Murray’s later criticism – gradually, and yet fast.

What a difference it would have made, for instance, if, when he valuably gives us Frank MacNamara’s ‘A Convict’s Tour to Hell’ (1839), which he calls ‘the first important poem composed in English in Australia’, Murray had acknowledged that all he claims for MacNamara can be claimed for John Clare in England at the same date. Of MacNamara’s ‘insouciant rhyming’, he says that it ‘can be seen as a proletarian version of Byron’s earlier manner, and it mimes the informality of a free settler’s hut rather than the fitted regularities of a commandant’s house or a Georgian prison barracks’. Fair enough; but as much can be said of Clare, a proletarian no less dispossessed, who attempted both a Childe Harold and a Don Juan, and was destined not for a prison barracks but a madhouse. Where’s the difference? Only that Clare was English; MacNamara, Australian-Irish. Clare’s nationality didn’t, whatever inflamed post-colonialism may pretend, bring him ‘the fitted regularities of a commandant’s house’.

This is racism, isn’t it? I’m afraid it is, but it is Les Murray’s, not mine. He warns in his Preface: ‘Throughout this book, readers will encounter the debris and discarded maps of wars I have been conscripted to fight in, now along-side, now in distant parallel with, mainly black and Celtic allies. These are the wars against Culture, and against the Athenian, Roman and British empires, by all of which I mean the Metropolis. In some respects, this war has now been won’. It’s the triumphalist last sentence that is most menacing. But meanwhile the unmistakable racist note is surely struck in the word ‘Celtic’, by which Murray means, as the context makes clear, the Scots, Irish and Welsh. This means that when he speaks of the British Empire, we should read ‘English’. His own Murray forebears, being however far back Gaelic-speaking Scots, are largely if not entirely exempt from blame for what has happened to the Aborigines. (These latter, of course, are the black allies he speaks of, tenderly, always and apparently with some learning, though they represent – as he awkwardly acknowledges – a cultural asset continually dwindling.) But can there be any respectable, non-racist, justification for designating the modern Irish, Scots and Welsh ‘Celtic’? To be sure, a cultural allegiance is distinct from genetic inheritance: but when Murray finds a Celt in, of all Irish poets, Richard Murphy, he has ignored all the evidence of miscegenation, literal and metaphoric, through the centuries – evidence scrupulously marshalled in Murphy’s own poems. If ‘this war has now been won’, it is a victory for Unreason.

Murray’s war is waged, not just on behalf of Australia against the outside world, but inside Australia too. So far as he’s concerned, educated Australians from or in Sydney and Melbourne represent the hated metropolis more hatefully even than the insufferable English. For what they have embraced, if they are literary or artistic people, is ‘modernism’. And looking back from this point of vantage we are compelled to see that Murray’s 1974 diatribe against the Pisan Cantos is not after all a regrettable aberration, nor a forgivable and temporary failure of ear, but a main plank in his ideological platform. It is focused in resentment at his own university years:

Remember urbanity, by which our time meant
allusion to little-known Names in a special accent?

But what does this amount to, except that the Sixties happened in Australia as well as elsewhere, and engendered dreams of ‘liberation’ which proved as fraudulent there as everywhere else? It is interesting to have the disillusionment recorded in an Antipodean accent: but it doesn’t advance by one jot our understanding of what went wrong, not politically but far more broadly, in the Sixties. And I am not the first to notice that, in the light of such goings on, Pound’s testimony from half a century back shows up rather better than when Murray could confidently dismiss it in 1974. Pound was wrong – yes, we can all think so. But just where was he wrong? That’s a question that none of us seems able to answer. Certainly Les Murray can’t, who boils down Pound’s testimony to nothing more than obsessive anti-semitism. Modernism in the manner of Pound was on the wrong tack, a disastrously wrong move, as much in Australasia as in Europe and the USA – OK, but whatever was, or is, the alternative? The alternative that Murray offers isn’t viable just because it’s so peculiarly and proudly Australian (at the same time as it offends many Australians, not to speak of New Zealanders). This alternative he calls ‘Boeotian’, enlisting among Boeotian masters Hesiod and Pindar, also the Virgil of the Georgics and even (because of his Virgilianism and his espousal of the vernacular) Dante. Such romps through the centuries can’t be argued with, being so sweeping. For instance, ‘excessive satire’, Murray tells us (forgetting Virgil), is ‘Rome’s only distinctive contribution to literature’ – and there’s no way to respond to that, except by reflecting: ‘So much for Horace!’ It’s good for a horse-laugh that all this machinery, of Boeotian v. Athenian/Roman, serves only to assert the values of Bunyah, New South Wales against Sydney.

There is only one reason for worrying about this. Murray has been called ‘one of the finest poets writing in English, one of a superleague that includes Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott and Joseph Brodsky’. This is astonishingly vulgar, and I suppress the author’s name to spare his blushes. But if we reject the notion that poets can be ranked internationally like sprinters or discus-throwers, still we must take note that this is how Les Murray is rated by the makers of reputations. Accordingly his views are likely to be influential and sedulously promoted. And so his Roman Catholic populism needs to be seen for what it unashamedly is: profoundly regressive and philistine. He has written good poems, however.