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Hope, Alec Derwent (A. D.) (1907–2000)

by Ralph Elliott

A. D. Hope, by Loui Seselja, 1991

A. D. Hope, by Loui Seselja, 1991

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn3416461

It was typical of Alec Hope that on his appointment as Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Melbourne in 1945 he joined a class of two to learn Arabic in order to study "the fabulous wealth of Arabic literature" at first hand, and to profit from the presence at the University of one of the finest Semitic scholars in the world, Maurice Goldman, driven into exile by Nazi Germany. But much to his regret he was unable to keep up his Arabic studies on being appointed Professor of English at the Canberra University College in 1951, although the College was then still under the aegis of Melbourne University.

When the College was absorbed by the new ANU, A. D. Hope became its Foundation Professor of English, a post he held until his retirement in 1968. Together with the writer Tom Inglis Moore, Hope had introduced the study of Australian literature at the Canberra University College at a time when only Brian Elliott in Adelaide had succeeded in elevating Aust. Lit into a subject fit for university study. "You led the van, my friend," wrote Hope in a poem addressed to Brian Elliott.

A foundation member of the Australian Humanities Research Council in 1956 — and for three years President of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English — A. D. Hope became a foundation Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities in 1969, was awarded the OBE in 1972, and appointed AC in 1981. Numerous literary prizes paid tribute to his steadily growing renown as a poet, while his academic achievements were widely recognised. He became an Honorary Fellow of University College, Oxford, and of Clare Hall, Cambridge, as well as of the American Academy of the Arts and Letters. Several universities, including the ANU, conferred on him Honorary Doctorates of Letters.

On his retirement the ANU made him Professor Emeritus and a Fellow, and named a building in his honour — where he continued to enjoy contact with students. It is in the A. D. Hope Building, now housing the new School of Humanities, where a set of lively sketches near the entrance and the colourful portrait by Keith Looby have kept his image alive for generations of students and staff. One of the latter is David Brooks, formerly on the staff of the ANU Department of English and editor of the two recent volumes of Hope's poems and of essays on his poetry.

Hope was a shy man, "a mild little man", Douglas Stewart called him. "I have always by nature ... been more or less an isolated individual," Hope wrote in 1974, and his shyness may perhaps explain the comment by one of his Canberra students that when teaching he used to look at the tree outside the window rather than at his students. But "the professor", as he wrote in his early "Flower Poem", was very much aware of the class of female students anxious for the saving grace of poetry:

Only transfusion of a poem's blood Can save them, bleeding from their civilisation.

Had he not chosen to be, above all else, a poet, Alec Hope would probably have become a philologist. Born in Cooma on 21 July 1907, his family moved to Tasmania in 1911 where his father, a Presbyterian minister, had been appointed to a church in Campbell Town and where he began to teach his young son Latin, much to the boy's delight: "It was exciting to be learning a foreign language especially as I was learning ancient history at the same time," he recalled in a letter to Ann McCulloch of Deakin University in 1989.

After attending Bathurst High School and Sydney's Fort Street Boys' High School, young Alec studied at Sydney University from 1925 to 1928, where he gained first-class honours and the University medal in Philosophy as well as a scholarship to Oxford. By then he had acquired enough French to read not only most of the Symbolists, "who attracted me greatly and whom I imitated", but also such earlier writers as Marie de France, Villon, and La Fontaine.

At Oxford, Hope's tutors included such luminaries as C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. L. Wrenn, and C. T. Onions. Reading in the Language School of English, he became enamoured of Germanic philology, including Old English, Old Icelandic, and Gothic, as well as studying German.

He later added Russian and, later still, Greek. Such courses are, alas, becoming increasingly rare in many Western countries, including Australia, and even in Britain's older universities. Readers of Hope's poetry, not as furnished with learning as he was, may well be puzzled by poems like "Meditation on a Bone", with its runic inscription, or "Fafnir", whom Hope knew from his reading of the Volsunga Saga in the Oxford Language School. There he was at the same sufficiently fascinated by Wulfila's translation of the Bible to opt for Gothic as a special subject in his finals, although he did not sit for the paper, "which was possibly why I returned to Australia with a third-class honours degree".

Had he obtained a first, he might have remained at Oxford, teaching Gothic and Germanic philology and enjoying more of his vacations at Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire. The 13th-century monastic buildings had combined with Tudor, 18th-century, and Victorian additions into "a delightful whole, and there I felt myself, as I did at Oxford, living in a timeless present", as he wrote in his autobiographical Chance Encounters in 1992. In a way, Lacock Abbey, since 1944 a property of the English National Trust, symbolises with its splendid architectural synthesis Hope's own blending of past and present, of the classical, medieval, and modern in his temperament and, above all, in his poetry.

After Hope's return to Australia in 1931 there followed a series of short-term appointments, his marriage to Penelope Robinson in 1938, and the births of their children — Emily, Andrew and Geoffrey. Emily Hope, a talented painter, sculptor, and jewel worker, died in 1979; the twin boys have survived their parents.

It was during his tenure of a lectureship at Sydney Teachers' College that Hope first met fellow poet James McAuley, joint perpetrator with Harold Stewart of the notorious Ern Malley hoax in 1944, which for Hope presented almost "a religious war against the corrupters of poesy", as Ann McCulloch has suggested. Although always a devoted teacher, he cared little for literary criticism. In a letter to Clem Christesen, editor of Meanjin magazine, Hope averred: "My job is literary criticism — that's how I earn my living at any rate — and a certain time in each year is devoted to Australian writers of whom I know so little and by whom for the most part I am profoundly bored or irritated." One such writer, not surprisingly, was Max Harris, "the well-known manager of the Educated Womb", whose The Vegetative Eye had been soundly lambasted by Hope in Meanjin.

Some 15 years later A.D., now Professor, Hope directed his broadside at Australian university education. His views, first expressed in 1965, are as relevant now as then; perhaps, in view of the rapid expansion of the cyberworld, even more so:

"In the universities nobody talks about wisdom any more and the ideal is often a narrow research in which the end in a view is nearly always the practical applications of the knowledge acquired. "Our education, as I said, is specific. It aims at turning out well-moulded definite characters which will fit without friction into the Society that provides the education. Whether it succeeds in this is not important."

It is different for the artist, Hope argues. He or she needs Keats's "negative capability", which means the capability of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. In one of his finest poems, "A Letter from Rome", Hope expresses much the same thoughts framed in classical ottava rima ("For easy-going verse it's just the thing!").

He may not believe
the prophets of impending doom,
The Spenglers, T.S.Eliots and such,
Guides to the Waste Land and the Wrath to Come,
and yet
although the roots are sound enough
A blight has touched the branches and the fruit.
The voice of wisdom falters and falls off
In aimliss speculation and dispute.
The single, sure tradition and the tough
Old faiths that fed and fostered it are mute.
Ours is now
the age of plastics and alloys
Which bring combustion engines in their train
To fill with hideous and inhuman noise
All our once pleasant cities of the plain.

The familiar labelling of A. D. Hope as a traditionalist versus the modernists of today goes much deeper than the obvious antithesis between his preference for classical forms of poetry — rhythm, metre, structure, rhyme— and today's trendy, fashionable "formless babble and vomit", as he acerbically put it. Poets, he claims, have lost touch with the humanist values of the past, its ancient myths and legends, its tales of love and lust, of passion and prophecy. In "An Epistle from Holofernes" he writes:

It is the meaning of the poet's trade
To re-create the fables and revive
In men the energies by which they live,
To reap the ancient harvests, plant again
And gather in the visionary grain,
And to transform the same unchanging seed
Into the gospel-bread on which they feed.

"This is, of course," as Judith Wright, Hope's friend and fellow poet, had written, "the task of all poets; but in Australia only Hope has seen and stated it so clearly. This may be because, of all our poets, Hope has thought most about the task of poetry."

Our country, is Hope wrote in one of his best-known poems, "Australia", may be "the Arabian desert of the human mind", but he hoped that "still from the deserts the prophets come". And so he turns "gladly home/ From the lush jungle of modern thought" to his homeland, to:

a landscape lost in its thoughts, as I in mine.
Places and names that echo and remain,
Khancoban, Kosciusko,Tom Groggin, Jindabyne,

concluding this poem, 'Beyond Khancoban', with this telling quatrain:

Man is made by all that has made the history of man,
But here the Monaro claims me; I recognise
Beyond Khancoban the place where a mind began
Able to offer itself to the galaxies.

There can be no better epitaph for the boy from Cooma than this.

Original publication

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Citation details

Ralph Elliott, 'Hope, Alec Derwent (A. D.) (1907–2000)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/hope-alec-derwent-a-d-503/text504, accessed 29 July 2014.

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