Nationalist Discourse

It is in this highly specific context that poetry, like any discourse, locates itself, both passively and actively. If it might be said of twentieth-century Western poetry in general that its project is to come to terms with the historical phenomenon of modernity, that is, technology, then the same is true in Australia. But with the difference that more local-historical issues, fundamentally those of belonging or identity-formation, come into play as well. Thus where nineteenth-century poetry in Australia takes the successive forms of discourses of contact (say in Barron Field) and of appropriation (in Charles Harpur), twentieth-century poetry comes into being alongside varieties of discourses of nationalism. Celebrated by diversely patriotic bards such as James Brunton Stephens, George Essex Evans and Bernard O'Dowd, the federation of the Australian colonies into a single independent nation became fact on 1 January 1901. What I term 'nationalist discourse' is not necessarily explicitly so. Rather, I have in mind a culture of self-assertion, of triumphalist confidence, especially in its identity which, however, contains unexamined contradictions, since what is generally asserted is identity within the further identity of empire: empire nationalism.

What Australians want to celebrate at the turn of the century is what bourgeois Europeans also celebrate: the progress of modernization. In Australia this takes the specific frontier form of celebrating the transformation and adaptation of a continent to Europeans — and vice versa. Poetic voices variously approach this nexus. Henry Lawson and A. B. Paterson do so by recourse to an en plein air ballad tradition and in apparently different ways. Lawson, now better known for his prose writing, praises the stoic suffering of the country poor; Paterson, with a more middle-class background, the achievement. Yet both write as natives, taking their place in Australia for granted, like their contemporaries, Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton (implicit nationalists in landscape painting) or the early film-makers who, in the first decade of the century, stress country settings and the bushranger motif. At the same time the local note is inevitably sounded in a borrowed key, adapted for the purpose: Pater-son echoing Kipling, and Lawson the European realist tradition. Nor did Lawson's local patriotism or his socialism prevent him from producing jingoistic verse during the First World War ('The Song of the Dardanelles').

Lawson and Paterson wrote much of their best verse before 1900, though both wrote well into the new century (Paterson's 1921 Collected Verse set the seal on his reputation). Mary Gilmore and O'Dowd, both patriotic socialists (the first finally rec onciling this with a DBE), belong to the new century but express nineteenth-century optimisms, in particular about Australia. O'Dowd, now regarded as an unreadable autodidact, was influential in his day, proposing politicized poetry in Poetry Militant (1909) and utopian humanism in the antipodes from Dawnward? (1903) to The Bush (1912). He corresponded with Whitman and had this in common with Australian and empire patriots of the left and right, that he felt a distinctive national identity had come into being. Perhaps no one expressed this identity with more influential naïveté than Dorothea Mackellar, who could eulogize the 'wide brown land' in her 1908 'My Country' while elsewhere writing of England as Mother, Priestess, Nurse and Queen.

To assert native identity in the most explicit terms and to have the luxury of ignoring it altogether must be seen as two sides of the same discursive coin. No poet in the bulk of the nineteenth century could have written credibly without reference to place; Christopher Brennan, whose Poems 1913 represented a large poetic task undertaken in the 1890s, could do so. 1914 and its backward-looking inspiration made Brennan's text irrelevant, but it is one of the most ambitious recent poetic works written in the West and has been much commented upon in the last fifty years. Poems 1913 is a livre composé which aims at a coherent philosophic and aesthetic statement. As a well-read academic (who corresponded with Mallarmé at a time when Symbolism was little known) familiar with the classics, French and English Romanticism and theological and hermetic traditions, Brennan could modulate from the lyricism of 'Towards the Source' (with its Symbolist evocation of 'silence after bells') to the dense Aestheticism of 'The Forest of Night' to, finally, the God-is-dead, Arnoldian-in-tone synthesis of 'The Wanderer'. Others who likewise appealed to explicitly European inspiration were antipodean representatives of the Celtic Twilight like Victor Daley and Roderic Quinn (whose painting contemporary, Sydney Long, filled Art Nouveau eucalypt glades with nymphs and satyrs). Once more, however, place-identity, the reality of the Australian environment, asserts itself unambiguously. John Shaw Neilson, with Brennan the most interesting poetic figure of the time, wrote subtle fin de siècle lyrics with open-air naturalness in the tough Mallee district of western Victoria. His muse had to be natural. Though he has been called a Symbolist, he had little education and worked all his life as a poverty-dogged bush worker. His lyrics — visionary, engrossed in the cycles of plant and animal life, the seasons, the fundamentals of love and death — combine without apparent tension effete beauty and the harshest of environmental and existential realities, European and Australian fact. That this combination is possible in Australia signals precisely the easy identification, on the face of it unproblematical, of twin identities.

Perhaps Aestheticism, which in Europe both challenges industrial bourgeois capitalism and, in its apoliticism, supports it; which in its focus on the immediacy of sensation equally collaborates with bourgeois secular empiricism, serves, in Australia, the function of further Europeanizing the raw data of frontier experience. In this way it helps to forge the Janus-faced nationalism of Federation. Nationalist discourse in Australia generates poetry that either knows itself as distinctly Australian or glosses over this knowledge, in each case ^problematically, confidently. This is so in its second phase, into the 1920s and 1930s.

Hugh McCrae's lyrics, beginning with Satyrs and Sunlight (1909), have been seen as Art Nouveau, but comparison with Neilson suggests a different assessment. Neilson, in classics like 'The Orange Tree' or 'Love's Coming', treads very softly, whereas McCrae's nymphs and centaurs have a rollicking testosterone muscularity about them. Violence and sex and rape-in-Arcady coexist with a forced assertiveness. Using the term broadly to indicate a between-the-wars phenomenon, I want to call this 'Deco poetry'. Where the fin de siècle, following Pater, focused on the fine point of sense, this is a poetry of the body in a more sculptural, indeed quasi-fascist mood. Its context is a complex of ideas not restricted to Italy or Germany at the time and noted in Australia when Lawrence visited the place to write Kangaroo (1922). The list might run as follows: a cult of bodily health and of unthinking action; an optimism akin to that of the Futurists; a Nietzschean celebration of will, achievement; a tendency to racism connected with notions of evolution (anti-semitism, White Australia, the belief that Aborigines are dying out); a radical conservatism, anti-modernity but itself modern. All this may be summed up by the term Vitalism, which I read here as a nationalism gone to seed. Vitalism represents a form of modernism. Its major Australian impulse came from Norman Lindsay and his circle in the twenties, its manifesto being Lindsay's Creative Effort (1920) and its organ the journal Vision. The Lind-sayites were avowedly anti-nationalist but proudly provincial, believing in a southern renaissance. They were anti-modernist but of their time. Their Aestheticism took the Deco form of Lindsay's pictures: adolescently male, historically fantastic, brashly optimistic, anti-puritan, politically reactionary.

It was a smug cultural note evident in the music of Percy Grainger and the films of Charles Chauvel, sometimes more, sometimes less explicitly of the right. Its local message was one of confident belonging to a white (British-race) continent now in the process of final transformation, wilderness not merely into pastoral run but into National Park, possessed in the symbolic social act of hiking. McCrae's lyrics vacuously exalt precisely this final-phase nationalism in which nationalism and Australia need never be mentioned, as they were in the verse of the left-nationalists. Triumphalist assertion could occupy itself fully with poetic equivalents of Lindsay's jolly erotica, classical, renaissance or medieval, as in McCrae's 'Ambuscade' or the more complex, ultimately self-deconstructing early poems of Kenneth Slessor, or the earlier verse of Kenneth Mackenzie — overtly right-wing philosophical Vitalism occurring at the same time in the unwieldy poetry of William Baylebridge.

Only escapist nostalgia can explain the protracted Australian fascination for Vitalist themes, often directly referrable to the influence of Lindsay. Or perhaps political conservatism. The list of offenders is practically the post-twenties canon of Australian poetry. In addition to Slessor, who never entirely outgrew Lindsay and whose own influence came from his editing of Southerly (1956—61), there were, among others, Robert FitzGerald, Douglas Stewart, A. D. Hope and, more recently, Les Murray and

Geoffrey Lehmann. Stewart edited the literary page of the Sydney Bulletin (originally a vehicle for radical publication) from 1939 to 1961, thus fostering generations of poets; Hope dominated his university environment for some time. FitzGerald's rugged ruminations on the historical process led him to explicit concern with place; his most highly regarded work being Moonlight Acre (1938), which contains 'The Hidden Bole' and 'Essay on Memory', and Heemskerck Shoals (1944). Stewart, currently as eclipsed as FitzGerald, is thought to have done his best work in Rutherford (1962). Hope, still writing under the spell of the original aesthetic in the 1980s, though with a mellower muse, has been a politically conservative critic of modernist forms since the thirties and this to the point of absurdity. His anachronistic style, fluent and urbane, has, however, assured him an international audience. More than anyone else he elaborated, in late-forties, early-fifties verse such as 'Pyramis' and 'Imperial Adam' and in the 1959 'An Epistle: Edward Sackville to Venetia Digby' and the 1962 'Conversation with Calliope', a manifesto of Vitalist assumptions. More crassly in the earlier poems, more lyrically and reflectively in the later, Hope writes of the (female) life-force and the sex-drive which builds pyramids of the will. In this mythology, the male/female pair (day to night, lamp to jar) function to promote evolutionary progress, the one — as artist — making, the other inspiring. At its least offensive this story is told in 'On an Engraving by Casserius' and 'Vivaldi, Bird and Angel'.

Hope embodies some of the major contradictions of the Lindsayites: local, yet antinationalist inspiration; provincial scorn of modernism coupled with internationalism; anti-feminist obsession with the, ultimately mothering, female. Mother earth which is not Heimat, however, but that ambivalent presence evoked in 'Australia' (1939). In Murray the mix is more radical, though still radically conservative: populist, promoting the clean air of the country and country values (idealized) as against the rot of city intellectual life; stubbornly local but willing to adopt experimental modes; apparently pro-Aboriginal but only (Pauline Hanson logic) if poor country whites count as Aborigines. What makes Murray a true Vitalist, however, as I have argued elsewhere, is his fast pace, the whoosh of fast-talking. Compared to this Lehmann's mannered, articulate pieces about ancient Romans, straight from a Lindsay etching, look rather thin. Interestingly, a strain of unease — to the point of incipient despair — is evident in many of the Vitalists, from Slessor to Murray, like a surfacing awareness of the trajectory from élan vital to Götterdämmerung.

The Australian right dominated between-the-wars poetry as the left dominated the novel. The famous city-ballad doggerel-versifier of the period, C. J. Dennis, best known for The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke (1915) which became a fine Raymond Longford film, charted the process of embourgeoisement and respectability for his larrikin hero. The Jindyworobak poets, Adelaide-based and led by Rex Ingamells, sought to localize their inspiration by appeal to Aboriginal themes. Even this well-meant movement could not avoid reproducing the hollow vigour of a Deco nationalism, in this case explicit and not, as with the Vitalists, generally implicit and obscured.

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