Even in his first solo book, The Wandering Islands (1955), the Australian poet A. D. Hope was writing great poems. (He had previously privately printed a two-volume collaborative effort with Garry Lyle and Harry Hooton, Poems, in 1943 and 1944, in the midst of World War II.) Not that all Hope's early poems were great; many of them were and still are obsessive and quirky. His encompassing subjects from first to last are sex and religion. As the son of a Tasmanian preacher Hope without doubt fought the battle ministers' sons always fight between what they think their fathers wish them to think and be, and what they themselves desire to be, think, and do. (I speak not only from observation, but from experience as well.) By the time he was twenty-seven years of age the struggle between the internal "puritan" and the "free thinker," as the dust jacket of his Collected Poems 1930-1965 (1966) has it, had produced a longish poem, "The Damnation of Byron," which has all the elements to be found in his internationally acknowledged masterpiece, "Imperial Adam." Indeed, it is entirely typical, both prosodically and thematically, of the entire range of his best work over the years.
The elements of the Hope style are, first and at root, an absolute sense of technique and a wonderful ear for meter. Nearly all of his poems are written in rhymed iambic pentameter or tetrameter verse, yet his meters have a great deal of counterpoint. Hope has written that the poet's traditional job is to "harmonize" prose rhythms and verse meters [my emphasis]. In an essay, "Free Verse: A Post Mortem," which was published in his book The Cave and the Spring (1970), Hope wrote that many of us confuse the terms "rhythm" and "metre." He points out that "verse employs another set of rhythmic devices in addition to...natural [my emphasis] rhythms.... We call this metre, or measure."
Thus, the essential difference between prose and verse is that prose is unmeasured language, and verse is measured language. If one is counting syllables or stresses, or both, one is writing in verse; if one is not, one is writing in prose. If one breaks prose into lines according to phrasing or punctuation or one of the other "natural" kinds of rhythm, then one is writing in prose still, even if one wishes to justify such writing according to the tradition in English culture that poetry (a genre) is written in verse (one of the two modes) by calling it "free verse," which is clearly a contradiction in terms. If language is "measured" in verse, it is not "free" as prose is (though it may be "variable"). "The essence of metre," Hope says, "is that it is an organization of rhythm on a basis of recurrence of expectation."
In his poems A. D. Hope always practiced what he preached; he "harmonized" the "natural rhythms" of prose with the "metres" of verse. His lines read as easily as well-written prose. Here is the beginning of "The Damnation of Byron" written out as prose: "When the great hero, adding to the charms of genius and his scandals, left the light stamped with the irresistible trade of arms, the Hell of Women received him as their right."
That sentence is beautifully designed as the opening of a story. Reading it as prose one is as likely as not to miss the rhymes and meters which become apparent if the sentence is written out in verse:
"When the great hero, adding to the charms
Of genius and his scandals, left the light
Stamped with the irresistible trade of arms,
The Hell of Women received him as their right."
Each of these lines scans as iambic pentameter verse, but Hope leaves himself leeway to counterpoint the metres with variations of various kinds. The first line contains exactly ten syllables, and it begins with what Harvey Gross calls a "double iamb," (∪∪’’) which substitutes for two iambic feet (using Tolkien's system, it would be called the "long rise"):
1. ∪∪’’ ∪’ ∪. ∪’
The only other substitution in the line is a secondary stress, through promotion (because there would otherwise be three unstressed syllables in a row, which English does not like), in the fourth foot.
Line two also has ten syllables, and it is regular except for a promotion in the second foot:
2. ∪′ ∪. ∪′ ∪′ ∪′
The third line is hendecasyllabic (eleven syllables long), and there are two substitutions, of a trochee in the first foot and an anapest in the fourth foot, the latter accounting for the extra unstressed syllable:
3. ′∪ ∪ ′ ∪′ ∪∪′ ∪′
The last line of the first quatrain (the entire poem contains thirty-two of them) is also hendecasyllabic. Here there is one substitution — of an anapest in the third foot — and one promotion in the fourth foot:
4. ∪′ ∪′ ∪′ ∪. ∪ ′
The rhyme scheme is abab; Hope used true rhymes usually, but on occasion allowed himself a consonance, as in "float"/"out" in stanza eight or in "divinities"/"rise" in fourteen. This practice allows Hope to write verse which sounds conversational, on a moderately intellectual level of diction, but to tighten up and become oratorical when he wishes to do so (generally when he wants to be satirical or arch), or lyrical in passages; or he can combine all of these. Hope's sonics, therefore, are full and varied.
The sensory aspect of hope's poetry is equally adept. Even his descriptions, let alone his similes or metaphors, are striking and imaginative in this early poem. Here is all of stanza three, plus the first line of stanza four, describing the Hell of Women:
It is the landscape of erotic dreams:
The dim, brown plains, the country without air
Or tenderness of trees by hidden streams,
But cactus or euphorbia here and there
Thrusts up its monstrous phallus at the sky.
A tremendous load of overtone settles over this waste land disrupted by the vegetation of aridity and sterility, though not of impotence. One senses simultaneously an attraction and repulsion in the poem. Here is the attraction, in stanza five (in stanza four "the bodies of women are seen" everywhere in the landsape):
And at his coming all their beauties stir
Mysterious, like the freshening of a rose
As, the incomparable connoisseur,
Pale and serene across their world he goes,...
But long before stanza twenty-four Byron, this predator upon the feminine, has had his fill; he is repulsed and becomes himself repulsive:
As he exhausts himself in the delights
Of torture, gourmandising in their pain,
Hate eats his features out: it seethes and bites
Like a slow acid. It destroys his brain.
It is, however, the profligate's punishment not to be able to do anything that women do not enjoy in this version of Hell where perversion is the rule, not the exception (stanza twenty-six):
Yet this resource betrays him, even this,
For like tormented demons, they adore
His torment. They revere like savages
The god's ferocity with lascivious awe.
And the "god" retreats (notice the lower-case g), he flees, and he becomes the pursued, for "Whichever way he turns he hears them come." At last he turns at bay, for he has been tracked down by "The Eternal Goddess in whose placid hand / Are all the happy and all the rebellious dead."
Before her now he stands and makes his prayer
For that oblivion the Second Death...
When suddenly those majestic breasts all bare
Riding the tranquil motion of her breath
Reveal the body of her divinity:
The torso spread marmorial, his eyes
Downwards uncover its mighty line and see
Darkness dividing those prodigious thighs.
There is a final, hopeless stanza, but this is the true climax (pun perhaps subliminally intended). The Christian god of Hope's father does not exist, there is only this female Goddess of Fecundity which is the life principle and has no pity, only the force of mindless procreation. In her darkness all are absorbed and out of her all human creatures are forced into undesired consciousness. "And the great hero, mad with the terrible / Madness of souls" turns again to flee, but the plains themselves are the Goddess, and there is nowhere else to go. Byron is doomed to do what he was born to do. He has no choice.
This is Hope's great subject, isolated and given full treatment early in his career. In these latter days critics are sometimes given to seeing "an element of anti-feminism in Hope's work," as one preliminary reader of this essay put it, but the charge is meaningless in the context of this poet's oeuvre. The term did not exist when most of the poems were written, and the vision expressed here can be termed sexist only if the concept of "original sin" is a sexist concept. It was the knowledge of the difference between good and evil that caused mankind to be expelled from Paradise, as the story is told in "Imperial Adam." Hope merely carries the concept a step further: it is the knowledge that mankind is compelled to procreate that causes him and her to live in the Hell nature (or God) has created. Furthermore, a consideration of "Advice to Young Ladies" will refute the charge:
A. U. C. 334: about this date
For a sexual misdemeanour, which she denied,
The vestal virgin Postumia was tried.
Livy records it among affairs of state.
But she was physically examined, evidently, and
They let her off: it seems she was perfectly pure;
The charge arose because some thought her talk
Too witty for a young girl, her eyes, her walk
Too lively, her clothes too smart to be demure.
In other words, some people had judged her by the way she acted, spoke, and dressed. Although she had remained true to her vows, where there is smoke there is likely to be fire; therefore,
The Pontifex Maximus, summing up the case,
Warned her in future to abstain from jokes,
To wear less modish and more pious frocks.
She left the court reprieved, but in disgrace.
The situation will remind us of the case of Anita Hill: history replays itself time and again.
What then? With her the annalist is less
Concerned than what the men achieved that year:
Plots, quarrels, crimes, with oratory to spare!
I see Postumia with her dowdy dress,
Stiff mouth and listless step; I see her strive
To give dull answers. She had to knuckle down.
A vestal virgin who scandalized that town
Had fair trial, then they buried her alive.
Once more, the woman had to shut up while the men strutted around preening and crowing.
Alive, bricked up in suffocating dark,
A ration of bread, a pitcher if she was dry,
Preserved the body they did not wish to die
Until her mind was quenched to the last spark.
How many the black maw has swallowed in its time!
Spirited girls who would not know their place;
Talented girls who found that the disgrace
Of being a woman made genius a crime;
Is this an anti-feminine position? Not at all. Hope asks at last the rhetorical question,
How many others, who would not kiss the rod
Domestic bullying broke or public shame?
Pagan or Christian, it was much the same:
Husbands, St Paul declared, rank next to God.
If that paraphrase is not sarcastic, it is heavy with irony.
Livy and Paul, it may be, never knew
That Rome was doomed; each spoke of her with pride.
Tacitus, writing after both had died,
Showed that whole fabric rotten through and through.
What was the source of this dry rot of the body politic?
Historians spend their lives and lavish ink
Explaining how great commonwealths collapse
From great defects of policy -- perhaps
The cause is sometimes simpler than they think.
Perhaps corruption sets in at that point when any human being, ofwhichever gender, is repressed and forbidden to express his or her views:
It may not seem so grave an act to break
Postumia's spirit as Galileo's, to gag
Hypatia as crush Socrates, or drag
Joan as Giordano Bruno to the stake.
But perhaps it is. Perhaps there is no difference.
Can we be sure? Have more states perished, then,
For having shackled the enquiring mind,
Than those who, in their folly not less blind,
Trusted the servile womb to breed free men?
Surely, the load of irony falls most heavily upon the last word of the poem, for "men" is here transformed from a synonym for Mankind to become merely a gender signifier. The implicit question is, "If there are no free women, can there truly be free men?" Either all people are free, or none are.
All of Hope's best poems deal with the conditions of mankind, both those situations which are imposed upon men and women by nature, and those that are imposed upon people by themselves. Even such a satirical poem as "Standardization" from the early period, which takes on the contemporary world, is involved with this inverted romance. Here is the first stanza:
When, darkly brooding on this Modern Age,
The journalist with his marketable woes
Fills up once more the inevitable page
Of fatuous, flatulent, Sunday-paper prose;...
But it is again the Eternal Goddess, here named Earth, who is at the center of concern:
I see, stooping among her orchard trees,
The old, sound Earth, gathering her windfalls in,
Broad in the hams and stiffening at the knees,
Pause, and I see her grave malicious grin.
Everything is trite, like the journalist's words, but there is no hope for the creatures of this world. "She does not tire of the pattern of a rose. / Her oldest tricks still catch us with surprise." What has happened happens and will forever happen. "Love, which still pours into its ancient mould / The lashing seed that grows to a man again," has standardized everything. Mankind's "guilt merely repeats Original Sin."
And beauty standing motionless before
Her mirror sees behind her, mile on mile,
A long queue in an unknown corridor,
Anonymous faces plastered with her smile.
Each generation is merely another generation of Adam and Eve. The incidents vary to a degree, but standardization is the name of the game. Nothing is new. Nothing is ever new. Innocence and disillusionment, pain and punishment are what roll off Earth's assembly line. To hear it as succinctly as possible, one need merely go to "The Bed" (1940):
The doctor loves the patient;
The patient loves his bed;
A fine place to be born in,
The best place to be dead.
The doctor loves the patient
Because he means to die;
The patient loves the patient bed
That shares his agony.
The bed adores the doctor,
His cool and skilful touch
Soon brings another patient
Who loves her just as much.
The reader ought to take notice of the gender of the bed in the last stanza. From the beginning of his Collected Poems to the last page Hope was true to his prosodic practice and his themes of sexuality and religion. The last poem in the book is about religion, and it is titled "Ode on the Death of Pius the Twelfth." We have already discussed the penultimate poem, "Advice to Young Ladies," and here is the fifth stanza from the third-to-last poem, "Morning Meditation": "She was a handsome jade, / Black, undauntable eyes, / Snug bottom and well-turned calf; / When Father had stropped his blade, / He would reach between her thighs, / Pluck out a hair and laugh."
Hope's best-known work, however, is "Imperial Adam" which appeared in 1952, and it is the culmination of both of Hope's major themes and his classical versification. Everything in this poem builds to the last astonishing line. Others have written about this great work, and it is widely available, including in the Norton anthology, so there is no need to quote it here, but everyone who loves English poetry should know it and, having once known it, must cherish it. Here are great descriptions, wonderful metaphors, language music seldom equalled and doubtfully surpassed in the twentieth century.
"As Well As They Can," from Hope's book A Late Picking (1975), is as simple and lovely a lyric as has been written since A. E. Housman. Its subject still is the condition of man, of the lover; indeed, of the poet himself:
As well as it can, the hooked fish while it dies,
Gasping for life, threshing in terror and pain,
Its torn mouth parched, grit in its delicate eyes,
Thinks of its pool again.
As well as he can, the poet, blind, betrayed
Distracted by the groaning mill, among
The jostle of slaves, the clatter, the lash of trade,
Taps the pure source of song.
As well as I can, my heart in this bleak air,
The empty days, the waste nights since you went,
Recalls your warmth, your smile, the grace and stir
That were its element.
Hope must eventually be evaluated as one of the magnificent poets of our age. His is at once a complex and rich voice, as clear and deep as a mountain lake.
Hope, A. D., A Late Picking: Poems 1965-1974, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1975.
——, The Cave and the Spring, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.
——, Collected Poems, 1930-1965, New York: Viking, 1966.
——, Poems, with Garry Lyle and Harry Hooton, two volumes, n.p., privately
——, The Wandering Islands, Sydney: Edwards & Shaw, 1955.
This essay was originally published as "Harmonizing Prose and Verse with A. D. Hope" in E.L.F.: Eclectic Literary Review, v:2, Winter 1995, pp. 46-49. Copyright 2007 by Lewis Turco.
Visions and Revisions of American Poetry by Lewis Turco, Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, UArkansasPress 1986. Paperback, $12.95. 1986 Melville Cane Award of the Poetry Society of America. ORDER FROM AMAZON