Alec Derwent Hope is best known as an internationally recognized poet whose poetry has a strong, almost neoclassical sense of form and precision of language. However, some critics find his prose style more flexible, persuasive, and charming, and although his prose collections are all on literary topics, he has a well-earned reputation as a critical essayist. Hope centers his prose writing on a traditional defense of poetry in a contemporary context. As a reviewer, his uncompromising, often caustic criticism has given rise to more than one literary contretemps, the most famous being his criticism of Patrick White’s The Tree of Man as self-consciously provincial and the prose style as “pretentious and illiterate verbal sludge,” although in general the review had some praise for the novel. Published under the title “The Bunyip Stages a Comeback” in the Sydney Morning Herald (16 June 1956), the review is said to have initiated White’s lasting contempt of most Australian academics, and his satiric portrait (with allusions to Hope) of the academic Professor Sword in the play Night on Bald Mountain (1962). Hope republished the review in Native Companions (1974), repeating a belief unshaken by the realities of the modern novel that “The novelist needs a plain style, a clear easy stride, a good open texture of language to carry him to the end of his path.”
Hope’s essays take a generally prescriptive but well-reasoned stance on literary issues, including subject matter, genre, and the motives for writing; the influence of T.S.Eliot is often apparent. A typical essay from The Cave and the Spring (1965), a collection of essays on poetry, is “The Discursive Mode: Reflections on the Ecology of Poetry” (revised for The New Cratylus  as “Ecology”), in which Hope draws analogies between natural and human ecology and finds that “The evil and incoherence and folly in society are also connected.” This essay advocates the “middle form of poetry,” the discursive mode, which does not depend, like most of the admired poetry of today, on a profusion of startling images, but on the plain resources of ordinary English used with inimitable aptness and animated by meter and rhythm. In “The Activists” (1965) Hope deplores what he calls “activism in literature” which “requires the writer to write in such a way that he promotes something” and tells him that “he has a duty to society beyond the duty of merely being a good writer.” He defends the great satirists in prose and poetry, whose work is great “precisely because they are great as satires. And to say that they are satires is to say that they have a social purpose.”
Nevertheless, Hope’s criticism also reveals a strong sympathy with the ideals of Romanticism, especially those implicit in the work of Keats, for example, and he frequently expounds the vatic and celebratory roles of poetry.
The most notable contributions to Australian letters made by Hope’s essays are their style and their persistent advocacy of balance and control in literature and criticism, including the poetic use of rhythm, rhyme, and traditional forms. Graceful, fluent, authoritative, clear, and balanced, his essays use the minimum of critical jargon. Even when Hope’s ideas seem insupportable, the prose makes them worth reading. Several essays remain a record of a good critic’s errors, as in the attack on T.S.Eliot’s prosody and poetic style in “Free Verse: A Post-Mortem” (1965). In the mid-century, when Australian literature found its place in university curricula, Hope maintained a vigilance against critical tendencies to approach Australian writing with less than rigorous standards, and he deplored motives of patriotism in the encouragement of local writers.
He also warned against constructing canons of Australian literature that “prize those elements in Australian writing which were distinctively Australian and…underestimate anything which was not.”
Hope had no patience with the self-consciously Australian school of Jindyworobak poets in the 1930s and 1940s, whose attempts to find primal ties with the country and its indigenous people seemed to him too strained or fictitious; he described them as “the Boy Scout School of Poetry,” with “the same boyish enthusiasm for playing at being primitive.” Later he acknowledged that he always had “an uneasy feeling that I had missed something important in what they were trying to say.”
In the 1950s Hope was well known on ABC radio as Anthony Inkwell, giving advice to aspiring young writers in the long-running children’s series The Argonauts. He also appeared as a regular reviewer and participant on many other series, on television as well as radio. Chance Encounters (1992), published in Hope’s 85th year, is a comfortable collection of personal reminiscence and anecdotes which demonstrate his prose style at its most relaxed and graceful, the essays forming a brief account of his life, work, travels, and meetings in Australia and abroad with literary and other famous figures.
Alec Derwent Hope. Born 21 July 1907 in Cooma, New South Wales. Studied at the University of Sydney, 1925–28, B.A., 1928; University College, Oxford University, 1928–30, B.A., 1931; Sydney Teachers’ College, 1932. Teacher and vocational psychologist, Commonwealth Public Service, New South Wales, 1932–36. Married Penelope Robinson (died, 1988), 1937: one daughter (died) and two sons. Taught English at Sydney Teachers’ College, 1937–44, University of Melbourne, 1945–50, Canberra University College (now Australian National University), 1951–68 (then emeritus), and Sweet Briar College, Virginia, 1970–71 (visiting). Founding member, Australian Academy of the Humanities; president, Australian Society of Authors, 1966–67; deputy chair, Australia Council for the Arts Literary Board, 1973–74.
Awards: several, including the Grace Leven Prize, 1956; Britannica-Australia Award, 1965; Volkswagen Award, 1965; Myer Award, 1967; Australian Literature Society Award, 1968; Poetry magazine Levinson Prize, 1968; Ingram Merrill Foundation Award, 1969; Robert Frost Award,
1976; honorary degrees from four universities; Officer, Order of the British Empire (OBE), 1972; Companion, Order of Australia, 1981.
Essays and Related Prose
The Structure of Verse and Prose, 1943
Australian Literature, 1950–1962, 1963
The Cave and the Spring: Essays on Poetry, 1965
The Literary Influence of Academies, 1970
Henry Kendall: A Dialogue with the Past, 1971
Native Companions: Essays and Comments on Australian Literature, 1936–1966, 1974
The Pack of Autolycus, 1978
The New Cratylus: Notes on the Craft of Poetry, 1979
Poetry and the Art of Archery, 1980
Directions in Australian Poetry, 1984
Chance Encounters, 1992
Other writings: 12 collections of poetry, a study of Dunbar’s The Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo (A Midsummer Eve’s Dream, 1970), a study of the poet Judith Wright (1975), and the play Ladies from the Sea (1987).
Hergenhan, Laurie, and Martin Duwell, editors, The ALS Guide to Australian Writers: A Bibliography 1963–1990, St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1992
Hooton, Joy, A.D.Hope, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1979
O’Brien, Patricia, A.D.Hope: A Bibliography, Adelaide: Libraries Board of Southern Australia, 1968
Phoenix Review issue on Hope includes bibliography (Winter 1987)
Hart, Kevin, A.D.Hope, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1991
Kramer, Leonie, A.D.Hope, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1979
Phoenix Review issue on Hope (Winter 1987)
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