The Sonnet in Australasia


By Louis Lavater


A book of sonnets! Here are letters taken
From life's illuminated alphabet;
Some in a grey ground, some in scarlet set;
Some in a dust of starry spangles shaken
From midnight skies. Others there be that waken
To a strange life of their own (and so forget
The hand's cunning that made them) stranger yet
Than any lived since Eden was forsaken.
Here is a crystal, here a star, a flower,
And here a voice like a great organ-tone,
That shapes itself, that shines, unveils a face
Fair as a face in dreams, that in its hour
Makes wondrous music; each living its own
Life, perfect, with inimitable grace.

Louis Lavater


But thou hast read how Cleopatra went
To Antony, her lustrous eyes a-shine,
Through mazy webs of love fit to entwine
A simple conqueror palaced in a tent;
And how her pearl, a monnrch's ransom, blent
Its iridescence with the sharp white wine
To pleasure her, as with an air divine
She quaffed it to the Roman's dazzlement.
In such wise make, and take, a sonnet. Throw
Into the wine emotion, the pure pearl
Of artistry, and while 'tis yet a-swirl
And beading bravely, snare with subtile craft
A gleam of golden light upon it--so!
Then, breathless, drain it at a single draught!

Louis Lavater


In the introduction to this anthology when it was first published I drew attention to a reference by Arthur H. Adams, based on his experience as literary editor of the Sydney Bulletin, to the sonnet as a verse form in which Australians had shown themselves singularly adept. If this was true, as I believed it to be, it seemed strange that, whereas Great Britain, the United States, Canada, and even South Africa, had their sonnet-treasuries or anthologies, Australia had no similar record. My collection was an attempt to supply, in some sort, the omission.

The remarkable spate of sonnets in the magazines during the first quarter of this century marked the decline of balladry and the rise of a more sophisticated verse, but the years that followed showed a comparable decline in the public appreciation of verse in general. The weekly and monthly magazines which had formerly maintained a "Poetry Section" gradually dispossessed verse contributions of their time-honoured status and scattered the small quota of acceptances inconspicuously. Indeed verse almost disappeared from their pages. It was even argued, in a broadcast discussion in which I took part, that, as we were now living in a scientific age, poetry was an out-moded and decaying art, and would soon be practically extinct. I resisted this view with the opinion that as long as words remain the universal means of communication between man and man there will be poets, using words as material from which to fashion containers for their communications. Actually this was then being confirmed by current developments in poetry--the invention of new stanzaic designs; substitution of assonance or dissonance for rhyme; scansion by stress ("speech rhythm") rather than by syllabic metre; preponderance of intellectual over emotional content; and a more involved mode of expression. These circumstances nevertheless made the search for present-day sonnets more difficult than on the earlier occasion. However, the art has not been lost, about fifty being added to the previous two hundred and twenty-five.

The student of Australian poetry, looking for the first sonnet, will find it in the following specimen, which is among verses by Barron Field added to the second edition of his First Fruits of Australian Poetry, published in 1825. Its poetic merit not being sufficient to recommend it to anthologists, it lives a shadowy life in notes and appendixes:


Here fix the tablet. This must be the place
Where our Columbus of the South did land.
He saw the Indian village on that sand
And on this rock first met the simple race
Of Austral Indians who presumed to face
With lance and spear his musket. Close at hand
Is the clear stream from which his vent'rous band
Refreshed their ship; and thence a little space
Lies Sutherland, their shipmate; for the sound
Of Christian burial better did proclaim
Possession than the flag, in England's name.
These were the commelinae Banks first found;
But where's the tree, with the ship's wood-carved fame?
Fix, then, the Ephesian brass--'tis classic ground!

Barron Field

The first practising sonneteer, however, was Sir Henry Parkes, who issued a book of verses in 1842 and continued for many years thus to punctuate his long and useful life. Often prosaic in diction, yet his thoughts were just and kindly, and some of his work still appeals to us. Charles Harpur, two years younger [two years older?] than Parkes by birth and three years by publication, was our first Australian-born maker of sonnets. His best work is embodied in longer poems; but the sonnets alone proclaim him the foremost Australian poet of his day, with an instinct for beauty of expression which was denied to his versatile contemporary.

A new period began with the discovery of gold in 1851. The excitement which followed this event had an unmistakable influence upon such restless spirits as Richard Hengist Home, famous for having sold his epic, "Orion", at a farthing a copy; and Adam Lindsay Gordon, destined to become the most widely known of Australian poets. Somewhat earlier came Alfred Domett to New Zealand; rather later Brunton Stephens to Queensland. Domett's "Ranolf and Amoia", published when he was over sixty years of age, was the first great poem of the Dominion, and may be described as a series of related poems rather than as a continuous work. Brunton Stephens's "Convict Once" is perhaps the best sustained composition we have yet produced, and in its austere elevation provides a remarkable contrast with the farcical humour which caught the popular ear in "The Black Gin" and "My Chinee Cook". Gordon's place in literature is unique. The British race has produced many fine sportsmen who were no poets, and not a few great poets who knew a little of sport; but Adam Lindsay Gordon combined the two qualities in more nearly equal proportions than any other. It may be that the sportsman outweighed the poet; it may be, also, that "The Rhyme of Joyous Garde" will hold its place among our longer poems. His masterpiece is, I think, "The Swimmer". None of these writers, it will be noted, cultivated the sonnet. This was reserved for the Australian-born Henry Clarence Kendall, the legitimate successor of Harpur, having similar qualities, but in more generous measure, and supplemented by a glamour all his own. In Compton Rickett's History of English Literature (1918), Kendall is described as "of richer and intenser imagination than his contemporary (Gordon)"; and he is the only Australian poet represented in The Oxford Book of English Verse (1921) compiled by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch.

With the advent of Federation in 1901, the popularity of galloping rhythms began to weaken, and the Harpur-Kendall tradition to manifest renewed vitality. The Bulletin offered a prize for the best sonnet on Australia, and Bernard O'Dowd won it. Prize poems are not always long-lived, but this one seems destined, on its intrinsic merit, to become a classic. Whether competition stimulated production, or was itself a product, it is hard to say; certain it is that there now followed one of those ardours which the sonnet always inspires in a new field. During 1913 another series of competitions was instituted for the best sonnets on the months of the Australian year. Some excellent work was submitted and commented on month by month, notably the "February" of Nina Murdoch and Gladys Kernot's "October". Concurrent with this was a competition for sonnets in the vernacular, of which I quote a specimen:


This month is just the moral uv a tart
That kim up to the station I wus at;
A boshter tabby, not too thin ner fat,
En watto fer a hottie--ut the start.
She didn't kid yer long--'er bloomin' dart
Ud git yer goin' till yer 'ad a rat,
En then she'd sane yer wif-"Ring orf o' that;
Yer ain't got Buckley's fur me 'and en 'eart!"
That's March's way; it gets the break uv 'eat
Like kliner's kisses w'en yer 'oldin' on
Erbout the finish uv a smoodgin'-meet;
Then, 'fore it's over, w'ere the sunbjlaze shone
Down Hughie pours, en Summer's limp en beat
Un takes the offis straight it mus' be gone.

L. J. Villiers

[Glossary: Moral = likeness; boshter = superlatively fine (variants, bosker and bonzer); kid = mislead; dart = plan; Buckley's (chance) = no chance at all (compare Hobson's choice); Hughie and Horace = Ormuzd and Ahriman; offis = hint.]

The third period dates from the establishment of that remarkable weekly, the Bulletin, in 1880. It deprecated the use in Australian poetry of a terminology derived from overseas, as if we were sojourners in our own knd instead of products of it. The characteristic verse of Andrew Barton Paterson and Henry Lawson may owe something to Gordon, but more to J. F. Archibald, the Bulletin's first editor, so much greater in moulding others than in expressing himself, or rather, such was his mode of self-expression. Lawson's prose is the very essence of life in the bush and of classic importance; his verse, though considerable, is less noteworthy. Paterson seems to have become the representative bush-poet of Australia. It is probable that, like Burns, he elaborated many of his songs from germs contained in doggerel ballads sung in drovers' camps and shearing sheds; at least, they have the genuine flavour of these performances. Jessie Mackay is a New Zealand contemporary of this group, but not dominated by its influence. If we compare her exquisite stanzas "I Came to Your Town", "My Love", with Paterson's "Waltzing Matilda", it will be seen that the former, though expressly titled Folk-Song, is unmistakably literary in style, whilst Paterson's thumping lines are such as we might expect to hear at any time in the back country.

It would seem therefore that the fourth period should open with the present century; but I am still in doubt whether or not a fifth should date from the year of the Great War, which shook so many into song, and alas! silenced so many more. The difficulty is to separate these singers from their elders who are still writing. For this reason, and also because poets are multiplying greatly among us, I confine subsequent comments to a few of those who have written sonnets with success, regardless of their general standing. Of the work of Arthur Adams in verse, I have a personal preference for "London Streets"; but the sonnets are shapely, individual, cynical, clear, seldom emotional. In that entitled "Lovers", however, we find the tenderness lacking elsewhere, and are reconciled. A. A. D. Bayldon is not so consistent. Fond of sounding words and picturesque phrases, his best work is like a royal procession. Zora Cross has a rich, glowing style, and great fertility of fancy; but most of her sonnets are stanzas in a continuous poem, incomplete or unsymmetrical in presentation of their content; not in outward form, for, though often careless, she is never stiff or awkward. With a strong compulsion toward concentration and artistic restraint, she would be a sonneteer of the first rank. William Gay's reputation rests almost entirely upon his work in this genre. Not strikingly original, it charms by genuine feeling and classic grace of utterance. John Bernard O'Hara and Bernard Patrick O'Dowd may be coupled for the sake of the interesting contrast thereby afforded; the former gentle, refined, musical, finished in technical details, lacking in strength; the latter fiery, original, failing often in melody because he packs into every line as much as it can possibly hold, not of syllables, but of thoughts or illustrations of thoughts. His sonnets do not always read easily, but are always worth reading. The most remarkable work he has yet published is "The Bush", which some hold to be the finest of our longer poems. Archibald T. Strong is a scholarly writer whose most successful essay in verse is a translation of the ballades of de Banville. His sonnets are excellent whenever he has waited for the impulse that comes unbidden; but when, as in some of the Empire Sonnets, he has attempted to force his muse into compliance, an occasional stiffness of utterance betrays the fact. The sonnets of E. J. Rupert Atkinson are chiefly concerned with the meaning of life and his own place in it. Energy of expression is a constant feature. Concerning William Blocksidge less is known than his work merits. In 1910 and subsequently, he issued several books without imprint save "In (such-and-such a) year of the Commonwealth", and my first selections were made, perforce, without his permission. Since then I have been fortunate enough to establish communication and obtain the desired authority. His early work was sometimes bold and arresting, sometimes homely or quaint, always sincere. Later, writing under the name of William Baylebridge, he acquired a more sustained elevation of style. Austere, dignified, somewhat slow-moving, the force behind it--the "fundamental brain-work" of which Rossetti speaks--gives it warmth and life. Frederick S. Burnell has a style velvet-soft and of a high finish. The best examples of Michael J. Tully are frank and interesting. Leon Gellert is the most striking of our war-poets. His sonnets are often irregular, and the earlier examples have rather a hard brilliance, but one or two compel an answering emotion. R. H. Long wrote several good sonnets, the outstanding quahty of which is transparency. Mary E. Fullerton's work has also something of this quality, though more consciously attained. The sonnets of Robert Crawford exhale a breath of mysticism, of medieval charm; whilst Arthur Maquarie expresses a more up-to-date though genial cynicism, which supplies a piquant contrast. It is more difficult to estimate Frank Morton's work. The output is large and varied, and considering that much of it was produced rapidly under journalistic pressure, its sustained vitality is amazing. Marie E. J. Pitt's characteristics are a beating rhythm and a spirit of social revolt. Furnley Maurice exhibits more restraint in his sonnets than in most of his, on the whole, diffuse poetry.

Our sonneteers exhibit a distinct tendency to write sequences, either of two or three sonnets, or, when the impulse is stronger, until it exhausts itself in twenty, fifty, or even a hundred or more, as in Baylebridge's Love Redeemed. Despite famous examples to the contrary, however, I believe that the genius of the form always, in the end, will seek concentration and independence. Most of the great sequences are formed from the sortings of many years, whilst the writer has often been at much pains to find a thread of connection. Love is the subject most often chosen. Patrick Moloney is still remembered for his Sonnets Ad Innuptam. Zora Cross has two long sequences, Love Sonnets and Sonnets of Motherhood, besides a short one, Sonnets of the South, in which occurs "The Beauty of Life", generally considered her best. Frederick T. Macartney in Earthern Vessels, worked out a theme in sonnets with relentless logic and high metrical finish. Harold Pudney's sequences are social and religious, and Bernard O'Dowd wrote fourteen sonnets in pairs upon the Seven Deadly Sins; the former poet is serious and personal, and latter earnest and impersonal, being in turn both accuser and defender. David McKee Wright achieved a difficult feat in his Crown Of Sonnets, each successive stanza of which begins with the last line of the previous one, to the number of fourteen; and the fifteenth, or Master-sonnet, is made up entirely of the first lines of the antecedent fourteen. It is certainly a remarkable performance, and I have derived much pleasure from the contemplation of its ingenuity, but the pleasure afforded is of a different nature from that with which I dwell upon the record, irrevocable and complete, of a single creative impulse. In 1913, Arthur Adams announced his quittance of "the pleasant, twisting by-paths of poetry for the dustier, though broader and more direct, highway of prose". Nevertheless, five years later, the Bulletin Red Page contained a sequence of his, entitled Sonnets of Civilization, from which I have quoted.

Some of these names, which appeared in the original edition, are still in evidence. Among the newcomers, C. Elliott Perryman is prominent for work having the specific type of imagination which we recognize as "poetic", but the increasing note of cynicism is represented in sonnets such as Walter Powell's "Onions and Roses", Edgar Holt's "To (any) Soul", and A. D. Jones's bitter "Demagogues", while Walter Turner's "Concentration" shows the tendency towards over-sophistication.

For the purposes of this book, I have read an uncounted but certainly very large number of books and pamphlets, dating from the earliest publications to the moment of writing. Nevertheless it is likely that specimens well worthy of inclusion, especially during the latter part of the period covered, have been missed.

Besides the known certainties, it was a comparatively easy matter to discover sonnets of considerable merit which were not so well known, or not known to all; but after the first inevitable choice, one had to adopt some principle of selection. I therefore read some hundreds of them again, and found that they fell naturally into two categories. Firstly, those which were formally excellent, though breathing but faintly the breath of life. The weakness here is radical, and therefore incurable. Secondly, those with a stronger vitality, but more or less flawed in presentation. A jangling inner rhyme or assonance, an inept word, a careless line, an inconsistency of thought or statement, a printer's error; any one of these may prove fatal to the effect of a sonnet as long as it remains uncorrected; but, on the other hand, a slight touch may be all that is necessary for success. From the outset my sympathies were strongly in favour of the latter class; and after some hesitation, I wrote to the authors suggesting revision, leaving it to them to decide whether my action was prompted by self-sufficiency or genuine interest. It is pleasant to record that the experiment was successful, many welcoming the opportunity with alacrity, and some of the best sonnets in this book resulted therefrom.

These remarks suggest the need to consider variations of the sonnet form occurring in Australia as well as elsewhere. The subject of a sonnet cannot be prescribed. It may be anything in earth or heaven, but, whatever it be it must fit the prepared receptacle. If this be pulled out, or pushed in, or tinkered with in any way, the result will be a blotched sonnet. I remember, as a small boy, watching a factory worker fill boxes by hand. At each dip he picked up just enough material to fill a box--neither too much nor too little--with the astonishing certainty of long practice; and the memory recurs whenever I read a sonnet critically...