[Editor: This review of Six Australian Poets (by T. Inglis Moore) is from “The Library Table” column, published in The Southern Cross (Adelaide, SA), 20 November 1942. The review incorporates a religious perspective, which may be expected, as The Southern Cross was a publication of the Catholic Church in South Australia.]
Canon of Australian poets.
Six Australian Poets, by T. Inglis Moore. (Robertson & Mullens, Melbourne.)
In order to establish “a canon of Australian poets,” a standard which will be acknowledged first as poetry, and secondly indisputably Australian in character, Inglis Moore subjects to a searching analysis the poems of Hugh McCrae, Shaw Neilson, Bernard O’Dowd, William Baylebridge, Christopher Brennan, and R. D. Fitzgerald.
Inglis Moore has read so much that he appears to be smothering under the weight of his own erudition, but this accumulation of data is no guarantee of the validity of his judgments. In his introductory survey, which is a brilliant piece of literary criticism, although it does contain the ugliest word probably ever written — “Meredithian” — he claims that “Poetry … is mistress of herself in her own right.” He thus considers poetry as an absolute entity, whereas it is relative, both to those who produce it, and to what it comprises. Poetry is an abstraction denoting a branch of literature made up of poems, the results of intellectual activity. The critic’s misconception is fatal to his attempt to establish a standard which, to be permanent, must be grounded on unshakeable principles. He fails to establish such principles because of an inclination to substitute reading for judgment. Thus he accepts without question Benedetto Croce’s definition of intuition, and in commenting on it fails to appreciate the true difference between perception and imagination.
Commending McCrae’s rejection of Christianity as taught by St. Paul, Inglis Moore dishes up some stuff which in the seventeenth century might have been worthy of attention on account of its novelty, but of which nowadays the man of ordinary intelligence has had just about enough. If the author had read the most romantic passage ever penned — Ephesians 5 — instead of accepting blindly out-of-date cliches he might realise what real romance means. Typical of his sentiments is a passage about the “tepid sentimentality and the morbid asceticism through which traditional Christianity has perverted the healthy enjoyment of sex.” If by this he refers to the teaching of the Church regarding the keeping of the sixth commandment he will find no support in Law, Medicine, or Science. In fact, the necessity of temperance in this matter in the case even of those animals better fitted constitutionally than human beings are for the “healthy enjoyment of sex,” is axiomatic even to the compiler of a stud book.
The author has not the independence of outlook necessary to be a philosopher, and his indiscriminate bestowal of the title on others, therefore, carries little weight. He does, however, vaguely realise the absurdity to which O’Dowd’s pantheism may lead, but not that this pantheism vitiates practically all that poet’s output, nor that when in lyric mood, O’Dowd necessarily abandons his pantheism. A comparison of O’Dowd’s “The Cow” with Chesterton’s “The Donkey” shows that the critic understands neither poem.
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The writer is on solid ground in showing Baylebridge’s inconsistency in “Life’s Testament” in “trying to blend purpose with a world he had earlier pictured — or implied — as determinist,” but the concept of creation as the production of being ex nihilo sui et subiecti — out of absolute nothingness — completely escapes him. He apparently approves of Baylebridge’s theories of morality whilst condemning him for his totalitarianism. In this he is as inconsistent as the poet, for the one is a part of the other, and both are consequences of the poet’s pantheistic conceptualism.
Christopher Brennan’s egocentrism he attributes to Celtic influences, including ancestry. He compares Brennan to “Blind Rafferty (ye gods!) wandering the homeless life of the old Erse (WOOF!) bards,” and he quotes the first verse of An Craoibhinn’s translation of “Mise Raiftere an file.” But Raftery, unlike Brennan, was no introvert. Introversion breeds melancholy. Raftery occasionally examined his conscience like any other Christian, but his thoughts were objective, and the virtue of hope was strongly developed in him. No introvert could write as Raftery did:
“Umhlaigh do’n cléir agus géill do’n eaglais
Fuair chumhacht o Dhia na peacaidh mhaitheamh,
Chomhlion an dlighe tá i dteampoll Pheadair,
A’s ni baoghal duit bás acht malrait beatha.” (1)
The real Celtic poets never wail except they have something to wail about. The melancholy tone in translations is due to the character of the English language. The Yeatsified stuff which passes for Irish is not genuine Gaelic. A good dose of Raftery, even in English, would do the Australian poets a world of good.
In the critique of Fitzgerald’s poetry the writer compares the “drily intellectualist” poetry of certain English men, and the “reportorial” of some Americans, and finds the chief defect in both to be the neglect of imagery. The combination of all three he sees in Fitzgerald, which, combined with the “national tang” applied to subjects of universal interest, makes him the most Australian poet of the six. This is sound sense and constructive criticism.
The many good qualities of the book are mainly technical. The critic takes poems to pieces, and lays them down before us like a tool kit.
In the introduction he says he looks forward to an Australian Shakespeare, but he will never find one along the lines he is pursuing. Nobody can equal Shakespeare who rejects Shakespeare’s standards.
Submit to the elergy and yield to the Church
Who received power from God to forgive sin,
Fulfil the law which is in the temple of Peter,
And death to thee, instead of danger, is but a changing of this life for another.
The Southern Cross (Adelaide, SA), 20 November 1942, p. 3