Randolph Stow's 'Outrider' and the French Voyager Poem

Article excerpt

Whereas the negative early criticism of Tourmaline (1963) found cogent, if belated rebuttal in the articles of A.D. Hope and Helen Tiffin that appeared ten years after what became known as `the Tourmaline affair', an equivalent process of amendment has not occurred in the case of Randolph Stow's second volume of poems, Outrider (1962). Since little later criticism addresses the volume as a whole rather than individual poems, the remarkable shift from the Romantic and Metaphysical derivations in Act One (1957) to the Symbolist and Modernist allegiances of Outrider have not been appreciated. Critics have failed to acknowledge that Outrider was not intended as a relatively random collection of poems written over a number of years but rather a coherently organised sequence, whose procedures were inspired by 19th century French voyager poetry.(1) In its strategies, Outrider can most profitably be regarded as an intensely personal counterpart to Tourmaline, whose achievement was likewise to construct a literary mode from the broadly European rather than the narrowly Australian heritage; one that could incorporate, within in its operations, a fundamentally Taoist resolution to divisions within the Western consciousness.

The initial difficulties critics had in arriving at a just appreciation of Outrider were compounded by its illustrated form of publication, where a comparison with the paintings of Sydney Nolan became a necessary part of the initial critical endeavour. Nolan chose to isolate those settings, or natural symbols, that particularly appealed to him among the twenty-four poems that make up the volume. Characteristically, if there is a human figure, it merges into, or out of, the environment, a technique that is most strikingly employed in the illustration inspired by `The Calenture'. Nolan's diminution of the human element, however, downplays the subjective drama that imbues perceptions of land and sea in Outrider, and conceals the fact that its controlling mode is not vividly localised description but emblematic narration.(2) The often arbitrary interspacing of eight illustrations among twenty-four poems of diverse subject and style provided another obstacle in its encouragement of a discrete rather than sequential reading of the poems. But the greatest distraction for the early reviewers proved to be the sheer brilliance of the Nolan paintings. The conclusions reached by T.L. Rosenthal are typical of many:

But the real problem here is not one of book production economics but

whether Stow can survive Nolan, whose eight paintings produced here

... are so striking that there are few, if any living poets who could

so monopolise one's attention that one could forget the paintings.

... Nolan's paintings for this book ... overpower the poems.

Kenneth Slessor was the only reviewer to signal the danger that such an intimate juxtaposition of two mediums presented to an appreciation of the more variously subtle workings of the poetry: `the achievement of even the best illustration, it seems to me, is to fix the timeless and limitless content of a poem to a particular instant in a particular scene.' His warning went unheard.

Opportunities for re-appraisal were further restricted with the publication of Stow's selected poems, A Counterfeit Silence (1969). Though only two poems were omitted from Outrider (`The Wild Duck's Nest' and `The Ship Becalmed'), not only was the bipartite division abandoned but so was the order of poems in what had originally been Part One. Positioned between a rigorous selection of poems from the first collection, Act One, and a sizeable number of more recent poems, the conceptual daring of the sequence became even less apparent.

Outrider also suffered badly from the parochialism that dominated Australian literary criticism in the early sixties, which reveals a lack of generous reading outside the English, Australian and American mainstream, and in an oppositional stance towards Modernism, that used, as its critical touchstone, the nurturing of a regional tradition that could achieve a highly concrete and accessible rendering of the local. …