Hal Porter’s Pastoral Vision

7 January 2009

Few landscape poets have drawn an Arcadia of the austral zones with as much consolidated detail and convincing substance as Hal Porter does in his garden vision The Hexagon (1956).* In matters of green comfort he provides from memory's storehouse – the granite-bowled, lush South Gippsland of his youth – Botticelli weeds, flesh-deep mosses, Ruben's cornucopiae, soft privet, canna lilies, extensive pasture, wormwood, boxthorn and blackberry. His poems mount a botanical catalogue recalling equally Spencer's Faerie Queen and the excellent Bush Invaders of South-East Australia, a biological control handbook from the Department of Primary Industries.

Porter's is the colonised Australia of acacias and broadleaf weeds. His garden verges on a gumland range of light, loamy claysoil and rose-white thighs where magpies and mynah birds compete. His floral taste is conspicuous, for few Australian poets ever were more extravagant with nature's bloom: ixias, sunflowers, Dolichos peas in arras piled, 'iris, jonquil, fragile, spare, / pricked on silk and champagne air' ('Lalique'); as the calla is unfolded, chrysanthemums leap by the river's green door.

Reflecting on his authorial inclinations, Porter confessed (his favourite affectation is confession): 'I am, as many Australian writers are, regional – more than that, parish-bound, and almost pastoral […] Brought up in the southern Victorian countryside, I love it more than any place on earth; love ensures preoccupation' (Lord: 1980).

But is he pastoral in the literary sense? The existence of a countrified paradise terrestre, an Australian Wessex with which the author admits him or herself enamoured, does not in itself determine a work as pastoral. An author may hope for this association, by christening his or her volume Arcadia, Idylls or Pastorals, or else dubbing some poor shepherd Amyntichos, but there will still be doubt. Even such outrageous signposts as a goatherd piping may not be enough (Porter does find time to drown a shepherd and suicide several farmers). What, then, defines a particular work as pastoral?

It is a riddle with multiple solutions. Much depends on whether we believe pastoral is a form, mode, mood or genre. These are sticky historical questions. Perhaps the true pastoral tradition is deceased. Laurence Lerner, for instance, suggested in 1972 that by the nineteenth century 'pastoral was no longer a living poetic tradition' (228). But let us propose a simple definition of pastoral; after all, the only reason that I proffer these green-tinted spectacles is to point to a way of reading an otherwise difficult and infrequently studied poet.

Pastoral, it seems to me, is essentially this: life in regions that lie beyond large, bustling cities, as sentimentally imagined by urbane, sophisticated, literary poets. Thus Theocritus, the Alexandrian literato, with his oblique technique; Virgil, the Roman flatterer-genius, with his complex of allegories; Milton, the Cambridge-educated heretic, with his mighty ambitions; and Marvell, the diplomat-spy with his love of artifice. 'Urbane' is not urban; such poets needn't be of the city. And 'sentimentally' is not 'sweetly' or 'superficially'; rather it is, I suppose, 'artificially' or 'aesthetically'. What is wanted is an imagined space where deaths, loves and celebrations of the natural world may be staged. Thus the sentimentality of Milton's 'Lycidas', for instance, has nothing to do with the 'sweet pastoral' of Victorian roundelays, the latter being too shallow for a pastoral species – though it may happen that, with birdsongs and sisterly madrigals, these feature in a pastoral.

Certainly, Porter's botanical fecundity sprouts not at random but according to established pastoral order: the shade is by the creek is by the med is by the slope. He does not lack either for pastoral detail (pastoral in the Australian sense of settled countryside employed for pasture and livestock): farms, farmers and their families, cattle and crop, country towns, country houses, country gardens and country streets are all central to his vision, integrated into his Arcadia. (Porter preferred to be known as a regional writer – it appealed to his anti-intellectual pretensions and wonted conservatism.)

But for all that we make of the fundamental connection between Porter's poems and his region – his Bairnsdale – we must also acknowledge a fundamental disconnection. Pastoral, unless utterly suffused with emotion, is a keenly self-aware mode; and self-awareness divides the poet from the place. It is this that allows the inflated language, the stubborn adherence to traditional meter and rhyme and the classical allusions. Pastoral is nothing if not a knowing style. Above all, it is the poet's dislocation that allows – requires – the affected nostalgic mood (a concept I will return to). Porter's memories of a regional place, as in 'Gippsland Town', for instance, are only resources he uses to construct his own place, the poet's own country town, a town of 'clouds shaped like town-things his cloudy hand clings to'.

It is Time as well as place that submits to the aesthetic order. The poet's lament is for Time departed, Time that cannot be re-lived, only re-imagined: nostalgia, elegiac or amatory. In twenty poems from The Hexagon, Time dons his ritual headdress, capital T, and Past, her hennin with its lappet, capital P. This is what was meant by sentimentalism, the sentimentalism that is essential to pastoral; it is a sentimentalism that is itself ordering, transformative, creative. As Capone (1990) comments, 'in the art of memory used by Hal Porter there is a sort of distorting sentimentalism, but there is, above all, a transforming regret, a metamorphic attachment that lies behind the artist's palingenesis and takes on a kind of creative function' (64).

The ordering principle of the aesthetic is not found in any terrestrial region; it is something internal to the poet. In Porter's 'Goddess of the Goulburn', he does not simply lend his voice to the river:

Fatigued by reprint centuries
Goulburn a Lethe lies, a chrism
to lave and lull the wading trees
struck with an August rheumatism.

What does the Goulburn River know of Lethe and Christian cream? Or goddesses with holy ermine hair? This is a fantasy world of withdrawal and fulfilment, of fantastical notions:

to the lamb, cream-pale and sick,
a folded woe nest-set apart,
she feeds with wrinkled hands and quick
the milk of Her unwrinkled heart.

He exploits a simple formula: age looks back on youth. But the re-created garden of Porter's memory is re-built according to a nostalgic sentiment alien to the original garden. The original can never be re-entered: 'Outside locked Eden lies the nettle key / to unlock nowhere save Gethsemane' ('The Wine-Glass Tree'). The re-creation, Porter's re-creation, is a very different garden.

Yet, I also hesitate to associate Porter with Australia's so-called pastoral tradition, which has more to do with verse about or peripheral to Australia's pastoral industry than anything pastoral in the literary sense. That tradition springs, at least in spirit, from our mythic, anonymous pre-Fed bush balladeers and celebrates a folksy, down-to-earth diction, antistrophic to Porter's baroque piling of hyphenated verbs ('she swallow-sweeps in green obliquity'('Four Winds'), hyphenated nouns ('he puffs sun-cigarette until it dies / and negro night-soot brims in heaven's flues' ('Four Winds'), arcane vocabulary, and relentless syntactical involutions ('To the Beloved Born Too Late'):

But, pricked to sketch, dry-riddled, arid-pure,
for blood-tapped muteness I cannot atone
whose heart a dried-head-hard caricature
swings on parched sinew in a creel of bone.

The former prefers unpretending, often ironic reflections upon experience; Porter, a Vogelkop Bowerbird of experience, is fussily extravagant. His obsessive aesthetic analysis aimed at the transformation of tediousness, cynicism and roughness into glittering 'truth' – his 'incandescent verities'. When he applies this analysis to the land, as he does in his poems, the result is our complete immersion into an ordered world of pure aesthetics, the hallmark of traditional pastoral (Chaudhuri: 1989).

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