AN AUSTRALIAN POET OF TO-DAY.
Otago Witness , Issue 2678, 12 July 1905, Page 69
AN AUSTRALIAN POET OF TO-DAY.
By Jessie Mackat.
in. Mr O'Do'wd's philosophy so entirely dominates his work that criticism of his art would almost seem intrusive. Yet there are those who hail him as the first great poet of Australia. Mr A. G. Stephens, while frankly confessing Mr O'Dowd's lack of the lyrical faculty and his bold dissonances, says with much truth, "Technical shortcomings detract little from, the value of his verse, considered philosophically. Widely read, he has unusual command of bold and recondite imagery ; and some of his epigrammatic lines hold the terse strength of proverbs. When his enthusiasm cry&tailises in a noble phrase, he moves one no less than Emerson or Goethe. No other Australian verse writer has breathed such a flame of social aspiration ; none has compassed an utterance of such intellectual aspiration." In "A Keynote" the poet nobly reveals his attitude towards Art — for him no grooves of ease and) dalliance, no laurel nor rose chaplet, but the desert, the world, and the. rough coat of the prophet : — Evading Loves that beckon me To gardened Muses' bourn, I take allotted task I see To help, to scourge, to warn. My ears attuned (God grant deceived!) To secret keys- of Fate; From Future's silences upheaved Hear flqtsam, W.oes that wait. And' he who though God's warnings waft, Yet knows He loves us still, Resigns desire for ma&tercraft To- tell th© Penman's will. To sliaiae from Art while men lack food His brothers of the brain; - T-he- serf! his brother of the blood, To manhood lead again. The bard for lowly service meant Fa.wns on the great to-day; From Art the cancer of content Eata nerve and blood away.
To a singer crowned by choice in a tomb, like tlie religions- whose cloistered: life begins with coffin-rite and earth-strewn hair, content is sin and! joy is blasphemy. To the «yo of the ascetic hunranitarian the legend of the old sundial, "I only count the bunny hours" — a brave and beartsome motto on the sunward side — shows only its reverse reading of luxury's wilful blindness.
I sing no nitric lays of truth, But filigree the mildewed past With eerie fay-lore, verve of youth, Romance and burgeoury of caste-; I strive that Glory's charnel room No gentle nostril overpowers ; Tho' grief a million days may gloom,
"I only count the sunny hours."
This, in my opinion, is poetry. Pegasus has gallopped away with the philosopher. Alas ! the very next verse shows Pegasus bitted and bridled, dragging a cart full of road metal! The sky may warn, in cirrus scroll, Of cataclysmic change ahead; Insistent stratus layer with dole Horizon's spacious Hope had spread; Weird wrongs may mass their cumuli,
Or, lurid, belch from nimbus' towers f These weary Joy. I pass them by, And "only count the sunny hours."
And yet, in forswearing art, he is not simple r though terse to a degree. One of the crying faults of Australian verse is its defiant brand-newness, its aggressive, selfcentred insularity. It is, one may say, the parvenu of literature, a boundary, whose boast it is to- have neither parent nor tradition. From this fault Mr O'Dowd is singularly free; his parallels and similes are dirawn far and freely, so that, against his will, he writes for that culture he despises. This, in "Hate," for example, is hard reading foi the rank and file:
When Liberty salaams to Fata I fling her gorging foes Gold apples labelled "Foi 1 the Great,'' Till Ehivy mui-der grows. From malted wrongs I brew revolt, I numb the nerves of Doubt; Astride Revenge's thunderbolt I charge Corruption's rout. When Freedom's legions, wearied, uocJ, Relentless on I push, Although my sister, Love, is God, I am tlxe burning bush. And I wlio choke with seeding band The pasturage of Wrong, Demand a niche in Freedom's fane, A verse in Freedom's soaig.
Here is Art, shaped hard and 1 hot on the aaavil* But irresistfljlr. there, rises to niiud
the obvious reverse of it, as conveyed in Longfellow's "Men of Nidaroa," which clones the "saga of King Olaf." How soft, bow living, Low haunting is the gaze of conquering Love exchanged for the gaze of Thor:
It is accepted. But not with the weapons Of war that thou we'dest. Cross against corse 1 et, Love against hatred. Peace-cry for war-cry! Patience is powerful. Stronger than steel Is the sword of the Spirit ; Swifter than arrows . The light of the truth is; Greater than anger Is love, and subdueth! Thou art a phantom, A shape of the sea-mist, A shape of the trumal Rain a*id the darkness, Fearful and formless : Day dawns and thou art not!
Perhaps the most valuable" poem in tho collection is "Proletaria." True, it is couched in the same short metallic metre ho uses almost always (changing it as seldom, as Pope changed his). But the though*" is mournfully true, the imagery notable, free, and forcible: — Art's living archives here abound,
Carraras of Despair; And. tliose weird masks of Sight and Sound Tlie Tragic Muses wear. The palace of successful Guilt Is mortared with our shame; On hecatombs of Us are built The soaring towers of Fame. We are the gnomes of Titan works, Whose throbbings never cease; Our unregarded signet lurks
On every masterpiece,
And yet, with all this desperate singleness of purpose, Mr O'Dowd's arrow flics both too high and too low for its mark. His song is not human enough, albeit so terribly sincere. His diatribes against "Greed," "Wealth," "Corruption," hit everyone and no one. How much more telling is Kmgsley's arraigning of the Squire and fcho game laws in tho homely plaint of "The Poacher's Widow" ! How much more searching the wailing fragment, "Airly Beacon" ! One reason why his artistic effects fail fJo haunt is the cast-iron matre ; another undoubtedly is the wearisome excess of personification, which first envelopes his thought in an ethierous abstraction, and then suggests the mechanical working of an old mortality play. He is not Nature's painter, but Nature's anatomist ; anatomist, moreover, who cannot rid himself of the monkish — nay, the Buddhistic — conception of the hatefulness of matter: a man who fathoms tbe scope of the universal love-principle thus : — So that If live — the Germ! the Germ! — It matters not to me tlf sheep or tiger, man or worm, Earth's victor-captain be.
This man will never more write an earthly love song. He may sing of things above and beyond the stars ; but to save his soul, he could not Avrite another "Annie Laurie."
Yet Mr O'Dowd is never less than powerful and seldom other than lucid. It goes without saying that be totally lacks the. vmiely human faculty of laughing, which lack, to say the truth, is too often the dangerous fault of the poetic temperament. What keen pleasure his art might have given, had hie not sworn himself wholly to prophetic denunciation of the present, we may iudigie by the fine poem "God in His tory."
Tho' Greece- in light the old world laved
(By tidal' Homer's song Love-linked) and Europe's pastures saved Prom Xerxes' locust throng.; Tha' Greater- G-reecs- in majesty From Graul to Ganges swayed, Tlieir age-long vice and tyranny With age-long bonds were- paid.
Then to such, tint as "Verres bled The flesh of Sicily Paled fatted Rome- when Etzel fed
His Hiumisli chivalry.
In the last verse Mi O'Dowd allows himself unwonted latitude in melody and grace, and I cannot conclude this notioe of the democratic laureate's work more fitly than by quoting it: To-day Oblivion's mask. Decay, Bemoans their old renown ; The mermaids of the Silent Bay .Have dragged those sailors down.
Mr O'Dowrl's work must claim equal attention from literary critics and '-©formers. On either side there is so much to respect, so much tt admire in this volcanic passion for humanity, that it seems almost ungracious to invoke upon it the cold, clear light of the ever-recurring Dawn, which brings us nearer to th© perfect day. Yet, if there his work be seen self-circuniscribpd, eccentric in c-lio literal sense, rather a rotatory storm than a constant trade »vind to blow mariners home, ought not the truth to be said? The times are evil; the need is crying ; but the friends of humanity cannot wholly heal its wounds with powder and politics.