Editorial: Concerning environmental values [by Rex Ingamells, July 1937]

[Editor: This article by Rex Ingamells was published in Venture: An Australian Literary Quarterly (Adelaide), July 1937.]

The front cover of Venture: An Australian Literary Quarterly (Adelaide), July 1937


Concerning environmental values.

§ 1.

The natural distinctiveness of the Australian continent from other lands of the world is too fundamental to vanish in the period of human history. The massive gum trees along the banks of the Murray, the gums and the mallee and the tea-tree that straggle about this vast continent; the empty spaces of our deserts; and the atonal music of the magpie and the good-natured mockery of the kookaburra — these are things that must remain. They belong to the indestructible spirit of the place about which D. H. Lawrence has written in a superb piece of natural description at the beginning of Kangaroo. But D. H. Lawrence realized that spirit, however intensely, only in small part: he did not feel at home in the bush, although its power gripped him. There are thousands of Australians to-day who, if they have not found eloquent tongue, feel nevertheless, with childlike devotion, the familiar beauty and utter loveliness of the outback environment in many of its moods.

Our pioneers, or the majority of them, were Englishmen who brought to this country the English manners and customs of the moment of their migration. As long as they lived they were strangers in a strange land. Many of them may have become more or less used to their new environment, but they never could become one with it. The background of their minds was made up of other associations. Yet they were isolated from the current movements of fashion and culture in the old country: in this sense they slipped behind the times. The English manners and customs which they inculcated into their children were bound to be considerably out of date by the time those children reached maturity. Thus the word “colonial” was justified, in so far as it signified rawness and lack of sophistication.

Although fresh influences were continually coming in, these were neither sufficient nor strong enough to compete with the isolation and environmental resistance, and could work only superficially. Hence any genuine culture that might develop in Australia, however it might be refreshed and inspired by English influences, would have to represent the birth of a new soul. A fundamental break, that is, with the spirit of English culture, is the prerequisite for the development of an Australian culture. Without the fact of ultimate individuality, separate identity, any general sense of culture in any country must be misty and anaemic. However strong and innumerable, however desirable and inevitable, however traditional our cultural ties with Europe may be, it is not in these ties that we must as a people seek our individuality. Its quintessence must lie in the realization of whatever things are distinctive in our environment and their sublimation in art and idea, in culture.

Australian culture is at present in a nebulous stage, because our writers have not come clearly to any such realization. I do not wish to be misunderstood. Some of the greatest Australian literature yet to be may have no local colour at all. Its settings may be in China or Mars. Our best poetry must deal with universal themes; and whether or not the Australian environment forms a background is a matter for individual poets. But all this does not affect the essence of my argument. The real test of a people’s culture is the way in which they can express themselves in relation to their environment, and the loftiness and universality of their artistic conceptions raised on that basis. When, for example, someone begins a novel and sets the scene in Australia, he cannot hope to produce great art unless he has a true conception of environmental values. When our writers understand these, they will look at most of what they have written to date and say, “That is the way not to write about Australia.”

The biggest curse and handicap upon our literature is the incongruous use of metaphors, similes and adjectives. It is usual to find Australian writers describing the bush with much the same terminology as English writers apply to a countryside of oaks and elms and yews and weeping willows, and of skylarks, cuckoos, and nightingales. We find that dewdrops are spoken of as jewels sparkling on the foliage of gum trees. Jewels ? Not amid the stark, contorted, shaggy informality of the Australian bushland. Nothing could be more incongruous. Jewels. I see the pageantry of the Old World, and of the march of history from the time when the Norman ladies came to England to the present day, when glittering cosmopolitan crowds mingle in the casinos of Monte Carlo and the ornate ballrooms of Venice; I see the royal courts of England, and those of France and Spain now forgotten; and I see, if you like, a vice-regal gathering or a theatrical party in Adelaide — but I do not, cannot, see jewels metaphored off on gum trees, which are so far removed from all the things with which jewels are traditionally associated. I cannot deplore too vehemently the dangerous habit of using figures of speech with regard to essentially Australian things which call up such a flood of Old World associations as to gloze over all distinctiveness. It has been a piteous custom to write of Australian things with the English idiom, an idiom which can achieve exactness in England but not here.

§ 2.

We look to poetry for the keenest perception and expression of aesthetic values; so that, if we want to find how the Australian natural environment has been appreciated by the British stock which has become acclimatized here, we cannot do better than to study the appropriate section of its poetry. It soon becomes obvious that the very achievements of English poetry have been the fetters of Australian. When will our poets realize that by writing variations upon Australian themes in the wide and established range of verse vocabulary which tradition has built up in England, they are dodging the issue and compromising their intelligence? Individuality can only discover itself where there is an independent spirit; and the individuality of nearly every Australian poet so far has been subservient — subservient to the spirit and idiom of English poetry.

Here are the first two stanzas of George Essex Evans’s poem, On the Plain, which is dealing with an Australian scene; but there is not a hint of Australian individuality in the whole fourteen lines, because they are simply webbed about by the spider of northern verse idiom:

“Half-lost in film of faintest lawn,
A single star in armour white
Upon the dreamy heights of dawn
Guards the dim frontier of the night,
Till plumed ray
And golden spray
Have washed its trembling light away.

“The sun has peeped above the blue;
His level lances as they pass
Have shot the dew-drops thro’ and thro’,
And dashed with rubies all the grass,
And silver sound
Of horse-bells round
Floats softly o’er the jewelled ground.”

“Armour white,” “frontiers of the night,” and “jewelled ground” are inexcusable.

An English poet, A. E. Housman, writes very beautifully and appropriately:

“…. when the light in lances
Across the mead was laid,”

but “lances” cannot be associated with the Australian landscape, which is primitive, and has no European mediaeval associations. “Spears” is obviously the right word. Metrically, of course, it would require the revision of the whole line, and it would not even occur to a writer whose mind is still subservient to the language of the English countryside.

All our poets show this fault. Gordon writes:

“Hark! the bells of distant cattle
Waft across the range
Through the golden-tufted wattle,
Music low and strange;
Like the marriage peal of fairies
Comes the tinkling sound. …”

It is all very well for Australian children to be told Old World fairy tales — which demand more make-believe from them than they do from English children — but our poets are creating false associations which they try to fit fairies of the “Midsummer Night’s Dream” tradition into the mood of the bush. Picaninnies and Gumnut Babies are at least more appropriate.

When will our writers achieve a sense of the fitness of things? Kendall wrote:

“On the tops of the hills, on the turreted cones,
Chief temples of thunder,
The gale like a ghost in the middle watch moans.
Gliding over and under. …”

That is false to the very roots of its inspiration, and therefore not poetry, but plain doggerel. The Australian hills were in Kendall’s mind, but they might as well have been the Alps surrounded on all sides by civilizations centuries old. The atmosphere of the bush, the brooding solitude of ages of time passing over the sombre, stark beauty of twisted trees was intrinsically lost on him. Kendall is practically valueless as an Australian poet.

It is so easy, considering the dearth of good Australian writing, for a person who has any knowledge of the literature of England to think of the bushland grass and trees as “jewelled” on a summer dawn; and it is easy, in the same way, to think of the hills as appearing like the turrets of Norman castles or being “crowned” with stars. This last image spoils these otherwise perfect lines from Evans’s Australian Symphony:

“The grey gums by the lonely creek,
The star-crowned height,
The wind-swept plain, the dim blue peak,
The cold white light.”

Such imagery does not convey one atom of the individuality of the Australian landscape. People of other countries can gain no real conception of this land by reading such trash.

If we cannot apply typically Old World imagery to the Australian landscape, what can we substitute? Obviously, only such imagery as is truly Australian. This limits the field! Any writer’s field at any time should be defined and limited by his subject.

Here is a modern instance, taken from Roderick Quinn, of the type of inaccuracy against which culture in this country must fight:

“Out in the dark where the night-winds hurry
And dead leaves carpet the silent bush. …”

The word “carpet” makes the bush seem like a drawing-room or, at best, like Epping Forest or Sherwood. Inexpressibly beautiful as these forests may be, it is an insult both to their own individuality and to that of our own bush to write in that way.

How much more vivid is it to read such lines as these from Evans’s On the Plain, from which I quoted earlier! Although even here we note unsuitable exotieisms in such expressions as “motley,” “vanguard,” “monarch.” and “satrapies,” the fundamental impression is one of inspired observation, in which the spirit of the place lives:

“Afar I mark the emu’s run;
The bustard slow, in motley clad;
And, basking in his bath of sun,
The brown snake on the cattle-pad;
And the reddish-black
Of a dingo’s back,
As he loit’ring slinks on my horse’s track.

“And now I watch, with slackened rein,
The scattered cattle, hundreds strong,
As, slowly feeding home again,
The lazy vanguard feeds along
To the waters cool
Of the tree-fringed pool
In the distant creek when the noon is full.

“Slip girth and let the old horse graze;
The noon grows heavy on the air;
Kindle the tiny campfire’s blaze,
And, ’neath the shade, as monarch there,
Take thou thine ease:
For hours like these
A king had bartered satrapies.”

The last stanza, of course, which begins with three splendid lines, degenerates into a welter of incongruity. Evans and Gordon were equally unaware of any essential distinction between the poetical language of Australian landscape and that of England. Their best writing, like their worst, was spontaneous; accompanying their spontaneity, they had no such adequate sense of self-criticism as must be the condition of sustained merit.

P. R. Stephensen has very broadly delineated the development of Australian poetry in the following terms:

“From Gordon, the Englishman, writing about Australia in an English way, to Kendall, the Australian, writing about Australia in an English way; thence to Lawson and Paterson, the Australians, writing about Australia in an Australian way….” Stephensen should have said: “… to Lawson and Patterson, the Australians, writing about Australia in a larrikin Australian way; and what we now want is Australians writing about Australia in a literary Australian way.”

Even in Lawson and Paterson we find certain English tricks of thought and expression, incongruous in poetry of the Australian countryside. Thus Lawson writes:

“The cattle-tracks between the trees
Were like long dusky aisles,”

which simile robs the cattle tracks of any vigorous reality or faithful idealism. But such infidelities are exceedingly rare in Lawson and Paterson. We find many whole poems which contain not one unsuitable exoticism. Australians should be prouder of these two writers than they apparently are. They are not great writers; they are very limited in their powers, and too often sing-song and jingoistic, melodramatic and sentimental; but, in their own way, they are faithful to the spirit of the place. Such poems as Outback and Clancy of the Overflow have a significance. Their significance lies in the purity and forcefulness of the vision in them, however circumscribed this may be.

Significant as was the lesson taught by Lawson and Paterson, it has borne very little fruit in those that followed after. Dorothea MacKellar’s poem, My Country, marks an advance; but we must conclude that luck played a part, because elsewhere Dorothea MacKellar falls into the old, happy feeling, deplorably uncritical flow of so-called inspiration. The happy flow of emotion without a keen sense of values and unwavering honesty of criticism is quite incapable of maintaining consistently such a standard of worth as MacKellar’s one poem.

Doctor Johnson wrote: “What we wish to do with ease we must first learn to do with diligence.”

And there is a lesson in that for all Australian writers.

One of A. A. Bayldon’s short poems, The Swamp, has caught as well as anything else I know something of the grotesque side of the Australian place spirit:

“Huddled round leering pools, the haggard trees
Await their doom, the black ooze to their knees.
Sighing together, when, with elfin spite,
A small breeze whispers of a world of light,
They strain crooked limbs toward that bright blue plain.
The dank sweat drips — a stifling hush again.
In goblin gloom maimed weaklings moaning fall
Into the pools ahunger for them all.”

This poem would be perfect were it not for the two epithets, “elfin” and “goblin.” The words “cunning” and “reeking” are the first substitutes that occur to me. The poet at the time of writing, with a little extra critical attention, might have thought of better. I may be thought to be quibbling here, to be running a theory to death. Poetry, it is said, is among the materials of poetry. But I maintain that poetic idiom with a Hans Andersen flavour, while it may be suitable to Europe, is not suitable for an Australian outback scene. Integrity! Integrity!

I trust that it is now plain what I mean by environmental values: the distinctive qualities of an environment which cannot be satisfactorily expressed in the conventional terms that suit other environments, scrupulous care being necessary for the indication of their primal essence.

The whole of the English vocabulary is ours for appropriate use, but we must discriminate. D. H. Lawrence came to Australia from the centres of northern culture, but his description of the bush is appropriate. He was a great writer and instinctively avoided incongruities. The huge electric moon he saw above the bushland scene was the same he knew the world over, symbolical of the old lesson that Art is international, universal, but its expressions specialized and individual.

Rex Ingamells.

Venture: An Australian Literary Quarterly (Adelaide), July 1937 (vol. 1, no. 1), pp. 1-7

Editor’s notes:
There was only one issue of Venture: An Australian Literary Quarterly published. This was confirmed in the “Introduction” article written by Rex Ingamells, in: Rex Ingamells (editor) et al, Jindyworobak Review, 1938-1948, Melbourne: Jindyworobak, 1948, p. 9. However, a similarly-titled publication was later produced, Venture: Jindyworobak Quarterly Pamphlet, although it only ran for a few issues (1939-1940).

[Editor: Changed “thousands of Australian to-day” to “thousands of Australians to-day”; “as to gloze over” to “as to glaze over” (“gloze” means to make excuses for, whilst “glaze” means to overlay or cover; the latter appears to be the correct word in the context of the sentence); “Lawson and Patterson” to “Lawson and Paterson” (changed in four places, re. the correct spelling of Banjo Paterson’s surname); “poems which contains” to “poems which contain”; “Bayldon’s short potems” to “Bayldon’s short poems”.]

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