Introduction to A.D. Hope

Introduction to A.D. Hope: Selected Poems (1992)

A.D. Hope is a poet of striking contrasts and apparent paradoxes, a traditionalistic libertine, a radical in conservative clothing. John Hollander has called him ‘one of the great poets of heterosexual eroticism of any time’, and his formalism, his mastery of the iambic pentameter is such that he might also be called this century’s finest eighteenth-century poet. He is a trenchant opponent of free verse and experimentalism in poetry, yet within his conservative forms and metres he discusses some of the most advanced ideas of contemporary philosophy, science and mathematics, claiming that the essential prerequisite of the poet is ‘negative capability’, an ability to co-exist with, almost to revel in, a state of not knowing. Reading such poems as ‘Pseudodoxia Epidemica’, ‘The Cetaceans’ or ‘On an Engraving by Casserius’, for example, one can be struck by the thought that he had read the Structuralists, and even some of the post-Structuralists, before their work had appeared in English – even (again paradoxically) before it had appeared at all. But even this receptiveness, it seems, must be reconciled with a belief that all that we may yet discover has long since been prefigured in ancient myths.

A writer of bawdy and what can seem almost obsessively sexual verse, moreover, Hope might appear the most chauvinistic and patriarchal of poets, but any such impression must withstand the conflicting evidence of such pieces as ‘Advice to Young Ladies’ or ‘Botany Bay and the Rights of Woman’. For all his apparent patriarchality, Hope was intrigued by women’s poetry and poetics well before thee became a major focus of critical attention, and has long planned a book on the subject.[1] In poem after poem, too (‘Soledades of the Sun and the Moon’, ‘The Waters’, ‘Jupiter on Juno’), he has compared his own way of seeing with the feminine, and rarely without significant self-irony. While this may border upon the use of woman as metaphor – and there is a great deal of this in his poetry – it touches also upon aspects of gender theory and establishes, as does so much else in his writing, his proximity and openness to the various ‘Others’ of the Western mind.

There is, too, the vexed question of Australianity. One of the least Australian of Australian poets in subject matter – one looks in vain (almost) in the poetry of his early or mid-career for Australian flora, fauna, place names or preoccupations – Hope nonetheless instituted, with Tom Inglis Moore, the study of Australian literature as a full subject at university level, has been one of Australian literature’s most significant critics, and in recent decades has written such powerful and undeniably ‘Australian’ poems as ‘Beyond Khancoban’, ‘Tasmanian Magpies’, ‘Country Places’, and ‘The Drifting Continent’. And this is perhaps to speak of Australianness in only its most evident and public form. If Australia is also something other than a matter of set scenes and subjects – if (as he hints to us in ‘A Letter from Rome’) it is also a cast of mind, an attitude toward inherited thought, or a predisposition toward what may not yet have entered thought – then Hope may be, and have always been, far more Australian than has so far been acknowledged.

Even his notorious non-commitment nurses an irony. Seemingly unengaged politically, or publicly to such causes as the conservation, anti-nuclear or, earlier, anti-Vietnam-War movements, he is, on the one hand, so profoundly committed to poetry itself that he can sometimes present it as the apotheosis of human endeavour, a kind of mystical river running down through the ages, more important than any of the particular places or periods it passes through, and, on the other, capable (say) of writing an anti-war poem so powerful and concise that it became almost an anthem of the anti-Vietnam movement anyway:

Linger not, stranger; shed no tear;

Go back to those who sent us here.

We are the young they drafted out

To wars their folly brought about.

Go tell those old men, safe in bed,

We took their orders and are dead.


Yet such apparent ironies, contradictions and paradoxes – and this is hardly an end to them – tend to resolve upon closer consideration. In that sense of a deep and immutable human pattern that one experiences as one tries to reconcile Hope’s belief in the enduring validity of myth with his capacity for the negative, for example, it may be there is a variety of Nietzsche’s, and the Structuralists’, notion that ‘we behold all things through the human head and cannot cut off this head’, and that the head’s deep circuitries must therefore underpin all we conceive. It may be, too, that Hope’s formal conservatism is in inverse proportion to the formlessness of the territories into which the poems so often venture, that it acts as a bulwark against the extreme, and what for many may be the unsettling, range of his speculations. Another possible explanation is that language itself, in the inherited patterns of its poetic usages, represents a cultural memory greater than any individual contributions to it: a sieve, in fact, by means of which those contributions may be sorted and tested.[3] Individual poets may have their own minds and ideas, but these endure only in as much as they are compatible with the mind of poetry itself. And for Hope, poetry’s central, almost sacred function is not served by tinkering with or abandoning its traditions.

Such ideas, as Leonie Kramer intimated in her introduction to Hope’s Collected Poems in 1972, are much in keeping with the eighteenth-century and neo-classical conception of the poet as one who, in seeking persistently to draw the general from the particular, the universal from the specific, measure the ideas and attitudes of one time or place against those that have survived millennia. But it is also not far from more contemporary ideas, and this proliferation of its resonances may help to explain Hope’s surprising modernity. It is not too distant, for example, from the Structuralists’ assertion of language as the system of systems, a deep Logos behind all other thought and understanding. It is not far, either, from the idea of the French symbolistes, and of Mallarmé in particular, of poetry having its own will and directions, and that these are best served by a judicious subordination of the poet’s individual will.

In like manner Time itself can help explain inconsistencies. Though Hope may have been at Oxford, and writing poetry, during the early flourishing of the Auden generation (of which he is an exact contemporary[4]), his first collection did not appear until twenty-six years later. In it, poems that had been written by what some have seen as the enfant terrible of the late 1930s and early 1940s mingled with poems written by the teacher, professor, critic and thinker sobered by recent universal events and personal experience. Doubtless much of the power of this collection (The Wandering Islands, 1955) came from its long preparation, but so, without doubt, did some of the contrasts within it. It is perhaps only when chronology is restored and the poems are read in order of composition that one sees not so much contradiction as development, not so much paradox as a change of gear.

Much of the early Hope, for example, is marked by the kind of violence of image, even grotesquerie, that one finds in ‘The Dinner’, or in the second stanza of ‘The End of a Journey’ (1930-60):

But with the dawn he rose and stepped outside.
A farm-cart by the doorway dripped and stank,
Piled with the victims of his mighty bow.
Each with her broken neck, each with a blank,
Small, strangled face, the dead girls in a row
Swung as the cold airs moved them to and fro,
Full-breasted, delicate-waisted, heavy-thighed.

This kind of imagery has never entirely disappeared from Hope’s poetry; indeed it has always been a significant part of his poetic arsenal; but it has become increasingly contextualised, reserved for particular places and uses. Initially, however, it is almost a dominant characteristic, its prevalence and unreserved giving to the work that sense of ‘exposing to the public his private fantasies, frustrations and anxieties’ (Kramer) and so to the reader that sense ‘that Hope’s main subject was himself.’ The apparent intimacy and extremity of such subject matter may be one of the reasons why, in later years, Hope the professor, public intellectual and family man came to criticise ‘personism’ and insist upon the poet’s independence from his work. But this was also a time of a new international formalism and austerity in poetry in reaction to the horrors of the Second World War, a feeling that the excesses and experimentalism between the wars had done nothing to prevent the eruptions that then occurred. It may be that Hope’s apparent reaction against himself is a part of something larger.

There may also be something else here, no less in keeping with this wider movement. It is as if the poet has turned, faced squarely, and come almost to terms with something that had hitherto driven and even tormented him. An Unknown, an Other that, unconfronted, had brought a gothic dimension to his poetry is now harnessed, sublimated, made the actual subject of the work. The poetry has not so much changed as begun the better to understand itself and direct its own energies. The vagina dentata of ‘The Damnation of Byron’, ‘Conquistador’, ‘The Dinner’ or ‘Fafnir’ becomes thus the extraordinary mystery and vision of ‘On an Engraving by Casserius’, at last the conceptual mastery and ease of ‘The Cetaceans’ or ‘The Tongues’.

In this selection I have tried to represent as many such sides of Hope’s poetry as possible. Predictably, there has been an embarrassment of riches and I have not been able to include all I might have liked or thought necessary. I regret particularly the absence of ‘The Bamboo Flute’, ‘The Isle of Aves’ or ‘Sir William Herschel’s Long Year’ from The Age of Reason, each of which would have enabled me the better to represent an aspect of Hope’s work that has not yet received its due attention. Hope is a great storyteller, with an irrepressible humour and an imagination that can remind as readily of Hans Christian Andersen as of more contemporary fabulists. Although ‘Man Friday’ and other earlier pieces may have given us notice, and although a narrative gift had long been evident in his rehearsals of biblical stories and classical myths, nothing at the time of his first Selected Poems (1973) could quite have prepared readers for the narrative felicity of the eleven long pieces in The Age of Reason (1985). As an editor I have not been able to resist including at least one long poem from that book, or the strangely speculative character of ‘The People of the Pale’ from Antechinus (1981), the collection which preceded it.  

Another distinctive characteristic of Hope’s poetry is its eclecticism. As perhaps befits a would-have-been linguist, one can find traces in it of his reading in a daunting number of languages and literary traditions. There is reason to think, however, that after the English tradition itself if is the French that has been most significant to Hope’s writing, and this too has seemed to require some emphasis. As his ‘Sonnets to Baudelaire’ indicate, that poet’s example was influential in Hope’s early satire, and at least some of the violence of his early imagery may have been under Baudelaire’s aegis:

Poor fellow, I see him scan your lines, his eyes

Moist with fine feeling, till they meet the words

About the hanged man’s belly ripped by birds:

‘His dangling bowels dribbled down his thighs!’

‘Ah, monstrous line!’ You smile and shake your head:

‘Monstrous and perfect! What else could I do!

A poem is not a game; the image I chose

Was what my theme required.

It may be too that the memory of Baudelaire’s albatross, that almost perfect presentation of his Symbol, haunts even ‘The Death of the Bird’, just as later the figure of Mallarmé (of whom Hope published an imitation as early as 1931) stands powerfully behind ‘The Double Looking Glass’, one of Hope’s finest achievements.

And there is also the body, always the body. Whatever else may be said of Hope, and there is far more, there is the persistent preoccupation with the flesh and its desires, at once, of human being, the Achilles’ heel and the loadstone. Few male poets have had so fine and so incisive a sense of its deep and troublesome relation to thought, or been so bold in their presentation of its metaphors. It seems only fitting that the selection should almost end with ‘Teaser Rams’, a tall story in a classic Australian mode, but also, in its openness, its exuberance, a sprezzatura and, rich with plunder, a kind of coming home.

[1]     [2021] With the provisional title of Distaff and Lyre, alas never completed, although the files compiled in preparation are in the Hope manuscript collection in the National Library of Australia.

[2]     [2021] ‘Inscription for a War’, first collected in Antechinus (1981) but written (and published) ove a decade earlier..

[3]     [2021] Hope, when talking of such matters, would frequently refer to Michael Oakeshott’s 1962 essay ‘The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind’.

[4]     [2021] He and Auden, for example, were both born in 1907. Auden left Oxford shortly after Hope arrived. Hope and Stephen Spender were at University College together, though I’ve found no evidence that they were friends.