Thursday, July 10, 2014

this by others is descried

The first line of Hill's first published book (unless I've got this wrong) was, “Against the burly air I strode,” Genesis (1959), going on into more combat: “tough pig-headed salmon,” “triggered claw,” “fierce and unregenerate clay” “to ravage and redeem the world,” an atmosphere of struggle that almost does not exist in this Anthology of Australian Verse edited by Bertram Stevens, where the tone is usually the one in Michael's Personality, the authors easily acquiescing to their own ideas and language easily acquiescing to the authors.

Fair crown of stars of purest ray,
 Hung aloft on Mapau tree,
What floral beauties ye display,
 Stars of snowy purity.

(from The Clematis, by Alexander Bathgate)

Bathgate was a New Zealander. Stevens has decided to include poets from New Zealand for reasons that he doesn't explain. Proximity and small population seems to have connected them in his mind. “Australia was first settled by the British a little more than a century ago, so that we are still a young community. The present population, including that of New Zealand, is a little under five millions.” The Clematis exists in opposition to the spirit of Hill, who says, “I do feel that everything that I write is a kind of battle won—or lost—against silence and incoherence. And I think there is something naturally incoherent in me, just as I think there is probably something, at some level, anarchic, because the kind of obsessive concern I have with order in the early work is one that somebody has who feels all the time how endangered order is, and what a potential threat to order he is” (from an interview with the Paris Review.)

But Bathgate feels close to his opinion of the clematis flower, not incoherent or battling, he uses words for beauty, “fair,” “purest,” “snowy purity,” “stars,” without contradicting himself; the only opposition in the poem comes from the darkness of the mapau tree versus the brightness of the petals, “'mid sombre leaves.” Then he tells you that the deep colour of the tree is an asset for the little flower because it describes strength.

His strength, thy beauty, both unite
And form a picture to delight.

Next Bathgate reveals that he has been thinking of another union all along, and the perceptible union of the flower and the tree was a visible sign indicating the existence of other compatibilities, ones that can only be intuited; the minor troubles the clematis has faced (“weak stem“) were all temporary and solvable; each indicator of disunity was a false flag.

Fair flower, methinks thou dost afford
 Emblem of a perfect wife,
Whose work is hidden from the world,
 Till, perchance, her husband's life
Is by her influence beautified,
And this by others is descried.

What Bathgate sees is ultimately coherence and the poem moves into that coherence, it is coherent in its language, it does not contradict its own author, there is not “something naturally incoherent in me,” and order is not endangered – order exists in nature. It is there in the trees. “'It is not nature's way to be distraught.” (Hill, Expostulations on the Volcano (2012)) On the other hand “Words | Render us callous the fuller they ring” (ditto). Bathgate assumes that his words are full.


  1. Alexander Bathgate was born in a different time, and his poetry is in concordance with the aesthetics and beliefs of his time. Not that I think his poetry is better than Hill's, but it seems wrong-headed to compare such dissimilar worldviews.

    1. I think that comparisons between extreme dissimilarities can be useful. You're shining a brasher light and seeing more powerful shadows. But I could have made myself clearer by pointing out that doubt was a tool that Bathgate might have picked up and used if it had suited him. Browning was doubtful and Bathgate (1845) was born more than thirty years after Browning (1812). Ruskin was born in 1819, and his books struggle against doubt. Emily Dickinson, born in 1830, had her own version of incoherence. Bathgate wasn't able to write the way Hill writes, modernism not being available to him in the 1800s -- Hill refers to himself as a high modernist -- but the sensations that the living poet is describing in the interview were not alien to English-language writing when he was alive. I might make that my next post.