Christian Mysticism and Australian Poetry

By Sutherland, Emily | Transnational Literature, November 2013 | Go to article overview

Christian Mysticism and Australian Poetry


Sutherland, Emily, Transnational Literature


Toby Davidson, Christian Mysticism and Australian Poetry (Cambria Press, 2013)

The idea that poets may find a voice in mysticism should not be, on reflection, an alien concept. Both poets and mystics strive to express that which can never be expressed totally because it must also be experienced. St Teresa of Avila alludes to divine intimacy, which is often accompanied by holy intoxication, leading her to speak folly in a thousand holy ways.

Davidson's book, developed from his 2008 Doctoral thesis 'Born of Fire, Possessed by Darkness: Mysticism and Australian Poetry', seeks to show how the Western Christian mystic tradition has influenced a number of poets. The poets featured in this volume draw on the works of the Spanish mystics, St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Avila, Christian texts and spiritual writings, striving to reconcile the contemplative and the contemporary

Mysticism ranges over a number of beliefs and philosophies. It is not confined to Christian teaching, but the author has wisely confined his study to Western Christian Mysticism, defined as 'the direct, experimental, or unitive expression of Christ, God, or Godhead transcending regular modes of knowledge and language' (8). Davidson distinguishes between mystical poets who are not mystics but who demonstrate mystical expression, and mystic poetry which refers to 'the rare and fine cases of poetry written by established Christian mystics (8). Nor are all the Australian poets who are examined in depth in this volume Christians. What he does set out to demonstrate is the development of Australian mystical poetry from his earliest example, Ada Cambridge, to the work of indigenous poets. Prior to the individual chapters dealing with these writers, Davidson has written a general introduction entitled 'Cross-currents and Precedents', which looks at the Colonial period, Post-Federation and Postwar, this being World War II. In this overview he traces the strong influence of Anglican traditions and the English poets, such as Wordsworth, to a closer identification with Australian people and conditions, and finally to a reemergence of saints and scholars. A number of poets are mentioned and quoted, including Christopher Brennan, James McAuley and A.D. Hope. While these poets do not have individual chapters on their work their influence is acknowledged.

This book enriches our study of Australian poetry in three ways. Few Australian poetry scholars have examined their subject from a philosophical or theological theme and thus this book opens up a new avenue for discussion. It brings some poets to the forefront who had previously been considered irrelevant or second-rate. The chief example is Ada Cambridge, who Davidson claims was Australia's first major mystical poet, despite being dismissed by her contemporaries as writing poems of 'insipid femininity' (55). The third strong positive in this book is the inclusion of Indigenous mystical poets.

John Shaw Neilson, who followed Ada Cambridge, was less influenced by her, not surprisingly given the lack of recognition of her worth, but he looked to Brennan, Yeats, and Hopkins. …

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