A Message of Hope from the land of the Southern Cross
Jarred Vehlen reviews Andrew Huntley’s new collection of poetry
From Tradition and away from Tradition: Poems, 2001-2014, by Andrew Huntley, Extra Castra Publications, 2014
For generations men have spoken about the Western tradition, or all that makes up European culture; that which is handed down from one generation to the next, and is preserved in our religion, great books, art, music and architecture. Since the nineteen-sixties, this idea has been dangerously undermined, among other things, by post-modernism and deconstructionism. Its exponents would have us believe that such attempts to speak about our tradition account for nothing more than a “grand narrative”, a great fiction that is set in place to uphold traditional hierarchies and forms of authority, and ought therefore to be abandoned in favour of egalitarianism and democracy. We are told to distrust our ancestors, for they knew only a fraction of what we now know, and to question our customs and conventions in the name of progress. The pursuit for Truth is cast aside in favour of relativism. This way of thinking has led to a conscious effort to destroy our cultural heritage. Yet, despite this wholesale destruction of tradition, there appears to be a resurgence of traditional ways of thinking and of viewing our cultural history.
The first poem of Andrew Huntley’s fourth published collection of poems, From Tradition and away from Tradition, sets the tone for what is a collection of concentrated poetic meditations on the present state of the West. Through “On Reading a Book Discarded by a Dominican Library” the poet observes that, collectively, we no longer take any interest in “Blest books”; those works, theological, philosophical, literary, historical, that have formed our tradition. In our neophilic age, we “…sickly prize/ Ephemerality in word and deed…”. This turning away from once valued books in an unceasing search for novelty becomes something of a symbol of our turning away from our cultural heritage, ultimately our Christian heritage, and is the unifying theme of the collection.
Huntley, in his seventies, focuses on the rapid decline of the West after the Second World War. Of the nineteen-sixties he contends that this was the “predatory decade”, a “ten year zeitgeist that undid the West.” The “baby boomers” (in the poet’s words “the new free”) “Were raised upon loud ignorance—great coup/Of Satan’s war to kill that Life which grew/Out of the tomb: our Risen Deity.” His poetry is written from the fixed point of tradition, from which he sees the decline of Christian civilization. Many of the poems in the collection suggest to us that the current sorry state of affairs (gross violence, the breakdown of the family, the proliferation of pornography) is so often the result of turning away from God. In this respect the Fall is central to many of Huntley’s poems, indeed to the collection as a whole. The poet believes that without an understanding of our fallen human nature, we are prone to all kinds of delusions, to all kinds of perversion. In “Lament for the Latest Female Backpacker Murdered” he notes that “All’s not as when our human life began—/Since evil made a target of the fair.” This kind of insight is edifying for those who find themselves uncomfortably awash in the liberal and laissez faire attitudes of modern culture, a culture that more and more openly denies the existence of God.
Huntley’s poetry is unashamedly Catholic. Our civilization in his estimation cannot hold together for long away from God, and the only hope of amends is a return to a rightful understanding of the relations between God and man. As a perceptive Catholic who can read the signs of the times, Huntley’s critique of Western cultural decline also falls upon the Church (that great bastion of salvation and civilization) which was so caught up with the Cultural Revolution of the nineteen-sixties. Of the Novus Ordo, the modern re-working of the ancient Roman Liturgy, he notes that it “…brought a permeating principle of change/Into the Teaching Church.” Instead of holding firm to its original doctrines, the Church made near-fatal concessions to the modern world (the result of the Second Vatican Council and the idea of aggiornamento, “updating”), to the point where it “scarcely mentioned sin.”
Huntley is a proudly Australian poet, yet he is able to situate Australian culture within the broader context of Western European tradition. In “Revision Splendid”, a “colonial poem” written in homage to the great Australian explorer Major Thomas Mitchell, Huntley exhibits a gift for broad historical vision. He sees Australian life and history as an extension of and a part of Western culture. The poem beautifully evokes this heritage when it reminds us of the “Greek and Latin planted now throughout a woken land…” in the names of Central Victoria’s humble, yet majestic, mountains. The poet sees the spread of Empire and the discovery of Australia as part of God’s Providence (“from Heaven flowed the mandate” for Mitchell to explore and survey). This is certainly a refreshing notion at a time when much of the Australian literary scene seems weighed down by the parochial and a political correctness that would deny our British and European heritage. Huntley’s ability to look beyond the confines of Australian culture gives his verse a wide-ranging and timeless appeal.
While the collection offers many poems that concentrate on societal decline, a number of poems are movingly intimate and personal and give us an insight into the life of the poet as a single man. “Bare Lauds” is a beautiful example:
At sixty-one (so, silently)
I mourn the love that will not be;
Standing alone in a dawn wind,
With more than half a life behind . . .
Watching the wasted starry height
Desist in unremitting light
Which motions all along its way—
A further day, a further day.
A poem like this is deeply personal, yet it reminds us of human suffering and that we live our lives in a “vale of tears”. Huntley is able to take a personal experience and turn it into something of universal value.
“The Plough and the Cross”, the final poem in the collection, is a beautiful, long, blank verse poem recounting the life and experience of the poet. It traces his early life and his journey to the Universal Church and teaches that the life of the soul is starved, is dead, without recourse to the life giving springs of holy teachings. While it is the story of one man’s life as lived from the nineteen-sixties until now, it is at the same time the story of the decline of our Christian civilization, the story of everyman as he finds himself today, cut off from the past, cut off from God. While many of Huntley’s poems evoke a strong sense of sorrow by forcing us to consider how our modern culture has recklessly cast aside much of our cultural heritage, “The Plough and the Cross” evokes God’s Providence and exhorts us ultimately to find refuge in the Christian virtue of Hope:
God’s Providence shapes the least moment (per
Omnia saecula saeculorum):
Night after night, His Cross points to our pole,
Completing design – hence purpose – promising
The Faith that leads to Life for evermore.
Here in Australia, in the Western tradition’s southernmost land, we can look to the night sky and be reminded of God by seeing the Southern Cross.
Huntley’s poetry is for those who still take the Western canon seriously, who devote proper attention to the reading of poetry, and who have a firm understanding of history. He has used, for the most part, the traditional forms and metres of English verse: those timeless forms that, in the right hands (such as Huntley’s), stir the soul and imagination to see the beauty and truth of life. Unlike a great deal of modern verse, his poetry has great clarity and precision—particularly his blank verse—and is not vague, ambiguous or deliberately cryptic. More specifically, his verse can be situated within the great Catholic poetic tradition alongside Hopkins, Thompson, Chesterton and Belloc. In From Tradition and away from Tradition Huntley has proven himself one to hold firm “…to the truths which have tradition for their warrant” (Titus 1:9, the epigraph for the collection), and can be counted among those who champion the recovery of Western tradition.
This book may be published online at http://www.ebay.com.au/itm/Tradition-and-away-Tradition-Poems-2001-2014-ANDREW-HUNTLEY-/301651279056?pt=LH_DefaultDomain_15&hash=item463bd13cd0
Jarred Vehlen is an English and Humanities secondary school teacher in Central Victoria, Australia