You are on page 1of 12

SOUTHERLY

Poetry and Light*


ROSEMARY DOBSON

T EXPECT that most people experience at some time that


moment of satisfaction or illumination when various matters
on which their thoughts have been dwelling suddenly come
together, and in coming together take on a deeper meaning
severally. It is something akin to that stage of writing a poem
when the elements that are to compose the poem begin to cry-
stallize and one begins to see, however tentatively, the relation
they will bear to each other when the poem is completed.
For quite some time I have been recognizing in my reading
various elements of light. I mean not light or illumination in the
sense of increased knowledge, but light as used creatively and
interpreted variously by various writers. This began perhaps after
the death of David Campbell when another poet, writing in a
letter, described Campbell as "the poet of light". And then Leonie
Kramer entitled her Blaiklock lecture of November 1980 "The
Surreal Landscape of David Campbell" and in so doing gave a
new direction to criticism of his poetry. Professor Kramer spoke
about David Campbell's interest in physics and his enquiry into
matter and light in his latest poems. She read, and so shall I,
his poem of cosmic light and life, "Lizard and Stone", from his
last book, The Man in the Honeysuckle:
Lizard and Stone
A bronze lizard
Is wrapped around a river stone
The lizard is half awake
The stone is not yet woken
Each preserves an outward stillness
Within the stone
A dance of atoms
W a r m s the basking lizard
The warmth of the lizard
Quickens the atoms
About the stone and lizard
Where they lie like lovers
The cosmos dances.

*A lecture given at the Festival of Poetry at Perth on 28 February, 1981.

[164]
SOUTHERLY

This is a splendid p o e m with which to open. I do not feel, how-


ever, that I want to go any further n o w in examination of David
Campbell's poetry though I a m sure that an enquiry into the
interpretation and use of light through his poetry from first to
last would prove to be of compelling interest. Perhaps it will be
undertaken.
For years David Campbell and I worked together on a project
for making versions, or imitations, of Russian poems in English,
and some of these, I a m glad to say,firstappeared in Westerly.
W e concentrated on the poetry of Osip Mandelstam, attempting
in all, I should think, about 80 to 100 of his poems. I feel I can
therefore claim a tested knowledge of the work of this great
Russian writer. H e lived from 1891 to 1938.
I was struck by Mandelstam's image of the "black sun". Both
his poetry and his prose contain references to the story of
Phaedra who, in Greek mythology, was wife to Theseus and
stepmother to Hippolytus, w h o m she loved. Bearing this burden
of a guilty love she indirectly brought about Hippolytus's death,
and she took her o w n life. Racine's play, Phedre, was very
much in Mandelstam's mind, and also the actress Rachel, w h o
played Phedre, and w h o m Mandelstam identified with the
Russian poet A n n a Akhmatova. Mandelstam's biographer,
Clarence Brown, writes:
It was a kind of compression that led Mandelstam to fuse the
notions of light, heat, passion, on the one hand, and cold, dark,
shame on the other, into the single image of the black sun. Again
the phrase is a replica not of any single verbal original in Racine
but of the central moral conflict of the play. It is to be sure, m u c h
more than that, for the image of the black sun is very widespread
and ancient in literature and must surely derive from man's original
terror at the sight of the solar eclipse.
N o doubt some of the references to dark or black suns in
other literatures were in Mandelstam's mind. H e was, for ex-
ample, familiar with Gerard de Nerval's poetry, and therefore
must have known his p o e m "El Desdichado" in which the phrase
"soleil noir" appears.
"With m y black love I have besmirched the sun" cries Mandel-
stam's Phaedra in a dramatic fragment from his early collection,
Tristia, and he writes:
A n d for the enamoured mother
A black sun will rise . . .
Phaedra burns with a black flame
in broad daylight.

[165]
SOUTHERLY

and again
A n d with our funeral song
as w e follow the dead home,
w e shall cool the black sun
of a wild, unsleeping passion.

So Mandelstam's imagery is transferred—guilt is black, an offence


against light; guilty love soils the sun. H e opposes day, red, light
and love, with night, black, dark and guilt. This is a gradual
breeding of one image out of another by a process of associa-
tion, the association being of all possible kinds. Henry Gifford,
writing of Mandelstam in the review, Russian and Slavic Litera-
ture (1976) said: "The characteristic p o e m he writes is station-
ary in space, but it gathers volume, it solidifies with the weight
of association" ( m y emphasis). In exploring Mandelstam's
poetry one leams to follow some of these associations, and his
leaps in thought. W h a t gives his work a special resonance, as
images are transformed and enriched by association, is the clas-
sical background to which m u c h of his work bears evidence.
H e was early familiar with Greek mythology and religion, with
Jewish tradition, the Bible, and with medieval Russian literature
and painting.
I have a strong personal conviction that poetry isrichest,and
its texture most durable when it is added to by association with
images from a shared cultural heritage, and never more so than
now, when poetry is more often than before transferred from one
language to another, from one civilization to another. B u t — a n d
this is very important—this heritage must be made new in each
generation. In an essay called "The W o r d and Culture" Mandel-
stam wrote: "One often hears: that might be good, but it belongs
to yesterday. But I say, yesterday hasn't been born yet. It has
not yet really c o m e to pass." A n d again he says: "Poetry is the
plough that turns up time so that the deep layers of time, the
black soil, appears on top." I do think that something of the
fear of early peoples, troubled and trembling before a solar
eclipse, enters by association into the image of the black sun as
w e read of it. A n d the story of Phaedra and her lineage (she
was descended from a sun-god later identified with Apollo)
which the image recalls, all add to the resonance of Mandel-
stam's lines in the p o e m from which I quoted earlier.
If I needed to convince further then I think I would cite m y
o w n experience (which others will perhaps feel they have shared)

[166]
SOUTHERLY

on the Citadel at Mycenae in Greece. I have never felt anywhere


else a more smiting and blazing sun. Yet Mycenae's sun is also
black. For inevitably one thinks of the House of Atreus and the
terrible acts of darkness done there, at the Citadel, culminating
in the murder of A g a m e m n o n by Clytemnestra. There, if any-
where, I too have felt the force of the black sun, the darkness of
daylight. Imagine then h o w keen was m y sense of recognition
when I read the following passage in the foreword to the work
of a Greek poet. It is written by the translator:
I myself remember a m o m e n t under the blazing sun on a bare
Cycladic hill when Ifirstunderstood what the Panic hour really is
— a m o m e n t infinitely more terrifying and minatory than childhood's
dark nights.
This quotation brings m e directly to the poet whose work
seems to have pervaded the past year for m e . H e is George
Seferis (1900-71) and it is his poems grouped under the title of
Three Secret Poems (in fact each of the three is sub-divided into
shorter poems)—it is these that I propose to look at more closely
now. The poems were first published in 1966, and in 1969
Harvard Press published them translated into English by Walter
Kaiser. Kaiser wrote the foreword from which I have just quoted.
The sun is dominant in these poems as the source of universal
light, but it is also the Greek sun specifically, with its great
clarity and intensity, and its particular terrors.
It might perhaps be hard for a reader in a northern country
to enter immediately and without effort into this poetry, but w e
in Australia whose sunlight is similarly of great clarity and in-
tensity should not feel so impeded. W e must, perhaps, m a k e
imaginative leaps to appreciate the ancient terrors of light, and
w e must accept and be enriched by the classical allusions, for
Seferis's poetry is as allusive to a heritage of mythology as is
Mandelstam's. A n d it is as well to r e m e m b e r — a n d I quote from
Schelling's words: "All myths are true. They are not fabrications
about what does not exist but revelations of what always exists".
The whole of the series Three Secret Poems, and indeed m u c h
of Seferis's other work, has at its heart the sense of renewal and
transfiguration, a turning to the light. In the conclusion to his
very mysterious poem, "Thrush", Seferis writes of Antigone,
daughter of Oedipus, transformed:
Light, angelic and black,
laughter of waves on the sea's highways.
tear-stained laughter,

[167]
SOUTHERLY

the old suppliant looks at you


as he's about to cross the invisible fields—
light mirrored in his blood . . .
Sing little Antigone, sing, oh sing . . .
I'm not speaking to you about things past, I'm speaking
about love:
decorate your hair with the sun's thorn,
dark girl;
the heart of the Scorpion has set,
the tyrant within m a n has gone,
and all the daughters of the sea, Nereids, Graiae,
hurry to the radiance of the rising goddess:
whoever has never loved will love,
in the light.
The first of the Three Secret Poems begins with the absence of
sun, the wintriness of despair, and there is an evocation of
no-colour:
The white seaweed is burned:
Graiae rising up without eyelids,
shapes that in another time danced.
flames become marble.
S n o w covered the world.
The poet recalls a promise which reassured him:
But that day which began
is perhaps not yet extinguished,
withfirein a ravine like a rose
and a weightless sea at the feet of god.
He rejects contemporary life and strains for a new vision. He
longs for his true element, the light, and at the end of the first
series of poems this is glimpsed. It is a "tiller-thrust of lightning".
T h e second group of poems is perhaps the most difficult, and
the summary of it which follows is in part mine, and in part a
paraphrase of the translator's elucidation.
The longed-for sun, when it comes at the beginning of the
second poem, is complex and ominous. T h e poet imagines him-
self in the ruins of an ancient amphitheatre and engages in un-
spoken dialogue with the protagonist w h o identifies herself with
the sea. But the sea has become desolated and infected. Seferis
writes of wars, destruction, exile. Then he introduces one of his
dominant themes; poetic creation and the ultimate value of poetry
for m a n :
W h e n will you speak again?
They are children of m a n y m e n , our words.
They are sown and brought forth like infants;
They take root and are nourished with blood.

[168]
SOUTHERLY

As pines
keep the shape of the wind
even when the wind hasfledand is no longer there,
so words
guard the shape of m a n
even when m a n hasfledand is no longer there.
The third poem begins with the eve of the longest day. An
initial vision of the world as threshing-floor gives way to a
sequence of nightmares of the sterility of modern life (one is
reminded that Seferis was a contemporary and friend of T. S.
Eliot)—"The land is ceaselessly desiccated—an earthen jar".
A s he stands in his small garden in Athens the poet asks the
question—how to write in such a ruined time? H e finds that
answer in an acceptance of self and acceptance of his country's
stony ground:
Accept w h o you are.
the poem,
do not cast it d o w n under the thick plane trees;
nourish it with the earth and rock you have.
For better things—
dig the same ground to find them.
The last section of the third poem brings us to the full noon of
the s u m m e r solstice, for the Greeks the Feast of St John
Lambrophoros, "bringer of light". I would like to read from the
two concluding poems. F r o m the first:
The ghosts of d a w n
blew through the dry shells;
the bird sang out thrice and thrice only:
the lizard on the white stone
sits motionless,
watching the scorched grass
there where an adder glides.
A black wing drags a deep cut
high across the d o m e of blue s k y —
watch: it will open
Birth pang of resurrection.

And the last poem in entirety:


Now,
with the molten lead of divination,
with the shimmering of the s u m m e r sea.
the nakedness of the whole of life;
and the passing and the stopping.
the bending and the darting.
the lips, the caressed skin—
everything wants to burn

[169]
SOUTHERLY

A s the pine tree at high noon,


overcome with resin,
hurries to give birth to flames
and endures the pangs no longer—
call the children to gather the ashes
and sow them.
W h a t is gone is rightly gone.
And whatever is not yet gone
must be burned
in this noon when the sun is nailed
to the heart of the centifoliate rose.

I would like now to read, without emendation, the concluding


paragraph of Walter Kaiser's introduction to these poems, be-
cause it sums up very pertinently the concerns of Seferis's poetry:
Along with everything else he has written, these Three Secret Poems
form part of Seferis's life-long quest for self-discovery. A s the cele-
brated injunction that once stood over the portals at Delphi suggests,
that quest is a peculiarly Greek endeavour. This too, in some mys-
terious, ineffable way, is the challenge of the Greek landscape, which
every traveller there has felt; its demands that you c o m e to terms
not only with its past but with your own. T o k n o w and accept w h o
one really is, to understand one's place in history, to create poetry
out of tragic times, to learn the meaning of love, to persist in the
long journey—these are the perpetual concerns of Seferis's work.
A n d his great themes are the eternal themes of poetry: love and
war, voyage and exile, death and rebirth, sea and sun. "I am," he
once wrote, "a monotonous and obstinate sort of m a n w h o . .. has
gone on saying the same things over and over again."
I take peculiar pleasure in those phrases, for, through Seferis,
Kaiser identifies in terms I can wholly accept the crucial concerns
of poetry:
T o k n o w and accept w h o one really is, to understand one's place in
history to create poetry out of tragic themes, to learn the meaning of
love, to persist in the long journey.

We must all be aware of those strangers who, on landfall in


Australia, express surprise at the quality of the light: its clarity
and its brilliance. Indeed I think that comparison is often m a d e
with the brilliance of the light in Greece. Suppose Australia had
been discovered and colonized by the Greeks! A s it was, our
founding fathers had a very large adjustment to make. A n d from
the very beginning our painters have been preoccupied with the
problems to be overcome in the depiction of a landscape in light.
O u r art until comparatively recently was surely predominantly a

[170]
SOUTHERLY

history of landscape painting. T h e definition of our painting as


specifically Australian painting coincided with the influence here
of European Impressionism which sought to reproduce purely
visual impressions. F r o m this influence stemmed the Heidelberg
plein air painters, and the Australian Impressionists.
In his excellent book Place Taste and Tradition (first published
in 1945) Bernard Smith set out the problems for the artist con-
fronting the Australian landscape in light:
. . . the multitudinous problems associated with (the depiction of
light) the rendering of transparent and colourful shadow, the atmos-
pheric effects of heat-haze, the subtle colour variations that force our
horizon-line to recede into the painting, the colour modifications of
foliage under conditions of blinding sunlight—these . . . have re-
mained the dominant and dominating tradition in Australian lands-
scape painting today.
W h e n I k n e w I should be coming to Perth I determined to
leam what I should look for particularly in the collections here.
There are, I understand, some fine impressionist paintings of
landscape and light in the Gallery of Western Australia—paint-
ings by Streeton, David Davies, and Frederick McCubbin, to-
gether with later landscape paintings by Nolan, Drysdale, Arthur
Boyd and Lloyd Rees. These, however, are not paintings of
Western Australia and its brilliant light. I looked for other ex-
amples. A n article by A n n e Gray in Art and Australia for Winter
1979 gave m e a clue to the effect that this landscape and this
light might have upon the work of a painter trained in another
country. A n n e Gray does not m a k e extravagant claims for James
Linton but her examination of the change in his work is interest-
ing. I hope to see his paintings for myself. Linton arrived in
Australia at the age of twenty-seven in 1896 after training as an
artist in England. I quote:
It is easy to imagine the visual shock that Linton would have ex-
perienced on first arriving in Western Australia. T h e landscape of
Tasmania, of Southern Victoria and coastal N e w South Wales,
where so m a n y of the English trained artists had settled previously,
is far more akin to the English landscape than the dry, harsh, sun-
drenched landscape of Western Australia. However, it is this, the
startling presence of a landscape flooded by light that sharpens
images and heightens colours, which became the source of Linton's
achievement.
A n d A n n e Gray makes another significant comment:
. . . when removed from an English environment Linton's absorption
of the European tradition can be seen to be an essential and sig-
nificant quality a strength, of his work.

[171]
SOUTHERLY

Linton is perhaps a minor exemplar of landscape painting in


Western Australia. H e was also a silversmith and a dedicated
teacher. The article on his work was interesting and thought-
provoking, but I feel the need of seeing also quite contemporary
interpretations of the Western Australian landscape and light, for
example the brilliant works of Robert Juniper who, in that same
issue of Art and Australia spoke of his aim to express the land-
scape's "haunting remoteness", its timelessness and agelessness.
I should return to m y proper theme but I feel daunted. T o
look for significant writing about light in Australian poetry seems
at once too large and too simple a task. H o w should one be
selective? Christopher Wallace-Crabbe quotes Yeats and calls
his anthology of Australian poetry The Golden Apples of the
Sun. Perhaps, I thought, I should abandon m y efforts and simply
read—for it is included in that anthology—Shaw Neilson's poem
"The Orange-Tree" about the illumination of the imagination,
which gives such an extraordinary impression of saying every-
thing, and leaving everything unsaid.
But I do believe that the best writing about the light in our
country is probably to be found in the journals of the early ex-
plorers, and then in the poems that have been written about
those explorers—by Francis W e b b perhaps—as in prose I should
say in Patrick White's Voss.
I decided to take two examples from the poetry of Francis
W e b b — o n e from his p o e m about the explorer Eyre, "Eyre All
Alone", and the second a p o e m called "The Sea". Both poems
present dramatic moments of revelation, arrival, the opening out
to sea and light. The extract from the long work is totally, sym-
bolically Australian and embodies a reference to the occupancv
and culture of the aborigines. The other poem, from which I
shall read only a short extract, is based on Xenophon's Anabasis.
the story of the Expedition of Cyrus, B o o k IV, and yet it t o o —
or so it seems to me—describes a totally Australian experience in
terms of Greek history.
Section 10 of "Eyre All Alone" is a crucial passage in the
account of Eyre's journey. Twenty-two lines are beautifully
balanced between metaphor and narrative, question and answer.
Eyre, w h o has been trekking with Wylie his aboriginal com-
panion through desert country bordering on the Great Australian
Bight, sees a banksia-tree in flower and recognizes it as a sign
of arrival at King George's Sound:

[172]
SOUTHERLY

Wylie, what can you see?


I see a flower.
Turn the horses loose. Out of earth a power:
Banksia, honeysuckle, forked-lightning-fruit of pain.
But these words are at the climax of the poem, the arrival. T h e
p o e m begins with W e b b looking to the past, to history, linking
history with the present:
History, wasted and decadent pack-horse
Munching a handful of chaff, dry old national motives,
Shambles skinny and bony into thefinalpush,
Picking up, putting d o w n his heavy tuneless hooves
Girt with rusted iron, so tenderly.
This stanza is followed by question and answer, a device which
dramatizes the narrative and provides a balance on which the
p o e m is poised.
Wylie, can you hear the Sound?
I hear large agnostic ribaldries of an ocean.

The next passage is the most difficult to hold in one's mind.


James Tulip in a commentary upon it published in the Francis
W e b b Commemorative Issue of Poetry Australia writes that "the
overwhelming power of the sun invades the inside and the out-
side of the story". Question and answer follow and the last
stanza presents the m o m e n t of revelation into which the poet
himself enters:
Banksia, carryfire,like the thurifer
Over m y sandy tongue-tied ground.
It is time n o w to read Section 10, "Banksia", wholly.
History, wasted and decadent pack-horse
Munching a handful of chaff, dry old national motives.
Shambles skinny and bony into thefinalpush,
Picking up, putting d o w n his heavy tuneless hooves
Girt with rusted iron, so tenderly.
Baxter is dead. Wylie, can you hear the Sound?
I hear large agnostic ribaldries of an ocean.
Evening in muffler creeps toward epic adventure
T o lull the blazing colossi of a blindness.
But seas will rock in m y sleep, maul the moth-eaten pockets
Of m e m o r y for a few counterfeit coppers
T o thump on the counters of stalls in a looted market.
Wylie. what can you see?
I see a flower.

[173]
SOUTHERLY

Turn the horses loose. Out of earth a power:


Banksia, honeysuckle, forked-lightning-fruit of pain.
Motive pierces the cloud-scrub once again.
Swimming oversea, underfoot, the brawny light
Sings savour of this unique approaching night
Stolid elation of a single star.
Banksia, carryfire,like the thurifer
Over m y sandy tongue-tied barren ground
Wylie, what do you hear?
I hear the Sound.

Now I would like to refer briefly to Webb's poem, "The Sea",


which again celebrates the m o m e n t of revelation, the climax of a
journey, the opening out upon sea. In fact, the m o m e n t which
could be said to belong as m u c h to the experience of an early
explorer as to a contemporary traveller from inland to coast, or
from East to West. This experience, so totally Australian, is
paradoxically presented by W e b b in a p o e m based on Xeno-
phon's Expedition of Cyrus, B o o k IV. This is called Anabasis,
"Upcountry March". Ten thousand Greeks went to Persia to seek
their fortune—this was about 400 B C — a n d m a d e a famous re-
treat through Armenia and Kurdistan north up the Tigris to the
Black Sea in order to reach the Greek colony of Trapezus
(Trebizond). F r o m the top of a high mountain to which they
were led, suddenly they could see the sea. Here are brief ex-
tracts from Xenophon's account (he refers to himself by his
name):
N o w as soon as the vanguard got to the top of the mountain, a
great shout went up ... as the shout kept getting louder and nearer,
as the successive ranks that came up all began to run at full speed
toward the ranks ahead that were one after another joining in the
shout, and as the shout kept growing far louder as the number of
m e n grew steadily greater, it became quite clear to Xenophon that
here was something of unusual importance; so he mounted a horse,
took with him Lycius and the cavalry, and pushed ahead to lend aid;
and in a m o m e n t they heard the soldiers shouting, "The Sea! The
Sea!" and passing the word along. Then all the troops of the rear-
guard likewise broke into a run, and the pack animals began racing
ahead and the horses. A n d when all had reached the summit, then
indeed they fell to embracing one another, and generals and captains
as well, with tears in their eyes. A n d on a sudden, at the bidding of
some one or other, the soldiers began to bring stones and to build a
great cairn.
Here are Francis Webb's lines from his p o e m "The Sea":
Chorus, tempest, O canting heavy cruse of oil . . .
The sea! A n d this bay, a carved golden gymnasium

[174]
SOUTHERLY

With alarums of the coastal birds that dip and wheel:


Famous, jockeying, muscular, the waves come
Putting their silver weights
Of spray so vehemently. Genesis of lights!
Odysseus begs and prays his passage through the gates.
W e call, we fall on our knees, and w e embrace.

I mean to conclude where I now firmly stand, in Western


Australia. H o w to bring together m y various themes: Mandel-
stam's black sun, his yesterdays made new today; Seferis's sun,
angelic and black, his concern with love and war, voyage and
exile, death and rebirth, sea and sun; landscape and light in
Australia; Francis Webb's sure handling of myth and history to
interpret his o w n country, his o w n time; light as arrival, climax,
and revelation.
I have a sense of powerful making going on here, in Western
Australia both in literature and art. The 150th Anniversary
celebrations in 1979 provided the opportunity for taking stock,
raising a cairn, to which the Sesquicentenary Series of Books
contributed notably. The energetic and innovative Fremantle Arts
Centre Press has provided opportunities for print-makers and
illustrators. It has published the work of young, new, and estab-
lished poets. I take it as a pleasurable sign, a token, that two of
the new books of poems, by W e n d y Jenkins and Alan Alexander
respectively, are called Out of Water into Light and In the
Sun's Eye.

1175]

Related Interests