Thursday, August 21, 2014

choose, fair ones, to rove

Daniel Deniehy the “graceful singer” admired the work of Charles Harpur (1813 - 1868), an early Australian poet who, like Fowler, gave J. Sheridan Moore a stab in the guts. “I was further induced to take the course I have followed, in consequence of the recent reproduction, in an obscure sectional weekly newspaper, of an illiberal criticism, by Mr. CHARLES HARPUR, on one of my poems, a criticism which I hope that gentleman will yet have the honesty and manliness to modify, and which, I am sure, the public will never endorse.” So he published Spring-Life. Where's that criticism now? I can't find it anywhere but Spring-Life has been uploaded as a .pdf by the University of Sydney. Left there like a sort of dropping deposited by the criticism.

He seems to have been easy to stab, Moore, a reactive and critical person, one who wanted standards applied, and hence his involvement with the Month, a literary journal that was supposed to set a nice tone in the colony, bringing him up against the will of Charles Harpur. "Moore was esteemed by some but condemned as a charlatan by the native-born members who distrusted him and F. E. T. Fowler because of their snobbish emigré valuation of literature propounded in the Month" (from The Austraian Dictionary of Biography).

Bertram Stevens puts him in a group with Deniehy and a few other poets. “D. H. Deniehy, Henry Halloran, J. Sheridan Moore and Richard Rowe contributed fairly good verse to the newspapers.” Bad praise but he added him to the Anthology anyway.

O the Night, the Night, the solemn Night,
 When Earth is bound with her silent zone,
And the spangled sky seems a temple wide,
 Where the star-tribes kneel at the Godhead's throne;
O the Night, the Night, the wizard Night,
 When the garish reign of day is o'er,
And the myriad barques of the dream-elves come
 In a brightsome fleet from Slumber's shore!
      O the Night for me,
      When blithe and free,
Go the zephyr-hounds on their airy chase;
      When the moon is high
      In the dewy sky,
And the air is sweet as a bride's embrace!

(from A Song for the Night)

Four verses Deniehy spends messing around like that before he gets to the punchline.

      Wide is your flight,
      O spirits of Night,
By strath, and stream, and grove,
      But most in the gloom
      Of the Poet's room
Ye choose, fair ones, to rove.

In between you have a dying baby and “heaps of slain” “on the battle plain,” which, if you take the poem seriously, should be disquieting, this poet bouncing past corpses so that he can climax with imaginary spirits in his room. They “rove,” they fly, they pass, they do nothing concrete; they are flâneurs but not interesting flâneurs since they see nothing with their own eyes; they are an atmosphere and Song for the Night is a prose atmosphere. The deaths are there because he has already mentioned lovers, “Love in their eyes, | Love in their sighs,” and the key to Night is metamorphosis, “sacred Night,” “charming Night,” “wizard Night.” There is love, then there is death; it is a dramatic contrast. The purpose of this poem is to make you wait while it goes past; it is like a piece of music with “night” as a motif. There are no lovers, there are no babies, the writer and the reader have to tacitly agree that none of these things exist, they are not even honestly suggested to have existed, they are nothing but a passing impression of flavour or smell; they are a bit of coloured dye in clear water. The words are supposed to sing, not mean and the challenge for the author is a strange kind of pure aesthetic challenge: can he detain a piece of your time for virtually no reason; can he demote or muffle boredom?


  1. I just spent a little while on JSTOR, and it looks like Harper and Deniehy were primarily political enemies, not literary ones. So their attacks on one another in the press may have actually had little to do with poetry. Harper was a radical, Deniehy was a republican. I don't know what those labels meant to Australian politics in the mid-18th century.

    I like the rhythm of that last quoted bit, and all the "o" sounds.

    1. You looked them up!

      I wasn't very clear there. It was Moore he mortified with his illiberal criticism, not Harpur. "Republican" meant that Deniehy wanted Australia to cut ties to the British crown and become a republic. He and Harpur were on the same side. H. wrote poems about it.

      "With alien hearts to frame our laws
      And cheat us as of old,
      In vain our soil is rich, in vain
      'Tis seamed with virgin gold:
      But the present only yields us nought,
      The future only lours
      Till we dare to be a people
      In this Southern Land of Ours."

      ... and so on. Moore seems to have been more conservative. "Moore criticized the poetry of Henry Parkes and Charles Harpur not only for its inferior literary quality but also for its self-conscious nationalism," says the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

  2. I did a good job finding scholarly articles about them, but did a poor job skimming through and understanding what I read. And spelling "Harpur."

    There's a large body of Australian literature nobody in America seems to have heard of. If I ask my friends about Australian writing, they'll all say Peter Carey and assume that about wraps it up. Colleen McCulloch. James Clavell. A year ago I never thought about Australian literature.

    1. You could say that about most nations though. How many South African authors do people who are not South African usually know? J.M. Coetzee, and, um.