by Robert Darling
Hope is all-too-little known in this country and taken for granted in Australia. Only a few of his books have been released in the United States, none of which remain in print. Part of the difficulty was that Hope's poetry was first introduced in this country through some Viking editions in the 1960s, a time especially unfriendly to formal verse. And Hope was a master of form, one of the most versatile of craftsmen in English this century. His range of subject matter also dwarfed most of his contemporaries; in an age of miniaturists, Hope worked on a broad canvas.
Hope was also a contrarian spirit, a poet who was not given to fads of the day and a critic who often spoke out savagely against them. A good example of why Hope provoked the literary status quo is in his essay "Free Verse: A Post-Mortem" from 1965:
[Free verse] is a very common cheap and popular substitute for poetry....it did impose its spurious imitation of the living reality on a whole generation of poets and their readers, whose ignorance of the real nature of verse concealed from them the impudence of its claim to be either verse or free.He goes on to say that Whitman would have remained a literary curiosity had he not been taken up by the French and passed back into English poetry, "a process resembling that by which certain parasites, like the tapeworm and the liver fluke, only become dangerous if they are able to carry out their stages of growth in the bodies of several types of animals in succession."
It is this type of no-holds-barred criticism, delicious as it is, that has not contributed to Hope's being embraced by the academy. This is not to say that Hope is not a much-honored poet. He has been widely recognized in Australia with several honorary doctorates and most other Australian literary awards; the English Department at the Australian National University at Canberra is housed in the A.D. Hope Building. In England he has been awarded the OBE and named an Honorary Fellow at both Oxford and Cambridge. Even in America he has been named Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and has won the Chicago Poetry Award and the Ingram-Merrill Foundation Award for Literature. But the awards have been in some ways a bow to something outdated, much as one puts a prize horse out to pasture.
What is forgotten is how radical a presence in many ways Hope was. He boldly explored issues of sexuality in poems that he could not print in Australia until he was in middle age -- his first published book, The Wandering Islands, did not appear until Hope was forty-eight. These poems which encountered problems of censorship when first written now are frequently denounced as misogynistic. Yet Hope was bravely exploring delicate terrain and developed as one of this century's best love poets, while still depicting the predatory war between the sexes in poems such as "Coup de Grâce" in which Little Red Riding Hood confronts the big bad Wolf and...
Stands her ground like a queen,Yet Hope also portrays the delicacies of true love, as in "The Gateway":
Velvet red of the rose
Framing each little milk-tooth,
Pink tongue peeping between.
Then wider than anyone knows,
Opens her minikin mouth
Swallows up Wolf in a trice;
Tail going down gives a flick,
Caught as she closes her jaws.
Bows, all sugar and spice.
O, what a lady-like trick!
O, what a round of applause!
Here I come home: in this expected countryAnd the ambivalence of "Imperial Adam" when Adam, after the innocent love-play with Eve, saw how...
They know my name and speak it with delight.
I am the dream and you my gates of entry,
The means by which I waken into light.
The great pod of her belly swelled and grew,The verse forms may be traditional, but there is nothing second hand about the force of the writing.
And saw its water break, and saw, in fear,
Its quaking muscles in the act of birth,
Between her legs a pigmy face appear,
And the first murderer lay upon the earth.
As a critic, Hope voiced the need for poetry to regain ground it had lost to other genres, particularly the novel, and to move beyond the merely personal lyric. As a poet, Hope embodied such an enlargement, using unfashionable modes such as the dramatic monologue and the verse eclogue and even importing such forms as the soledades. In particular, Hope was a pioneer in the recovery of narrative in poetry. Not only did he write many narratives over the years, but in 1985, in his usual no-compromise manner, he published an entire book of narratives, The Age of Reason, all written in rhyming couplets and dealing with historical events of the Enlightenment. Hope also wrote much satire, especially through mid-career, including a book-length satire of the literary criticism of his day, Dunciad Minor. (Would that he had presented post-structuralists a similar honor!)
All told, A.D. Hope, despite not publishing a book till nearly the age of fifty, is the author of thirty-three books of poetry, criticism, essays and one play. His last poetry collection, Orpheus, published when he was eighty-five, though uneven, contains some wonderful work. He read in about fifteen languages and translated from many. While always striving for clarity in his verse, he possessed a frame of reference beyond most poets and critics.
A.D. Hope was born in 1907, the same year as Auden. His contemporary inheritors are probably the New Formalist and Expansive poets in America; I am not aware of any comparable movement in Australia, and Hope seems not to be much read in Britain, despite the continued availability of his Selected Poems from Carcanet. Yet he is clearly the greatest poet his country has produced and one of the most important poets in English of our time. All poetry lovers should be grateful that Hope produced so much and was graced with such a long life. His publisher does all of us a disservice until his collected works, poetry and prose, are published and made readily available internationally.