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Alec Derwent (A. D.) Hope (1907–2000)

by Susan Lever

This article was published online in 2023

A. D. Hope, by Loui Seselja, 1991

A. D. Hope, by Loui Seselja, 1991

National Library of Australia, 26894996

Alec Derwent Hope (1907–2000), poet, teacher, and literary journalist, was born on 21 July 1907 at Cooma, New South Wales, eldest of five children of Percival Hope, Presbyterian minister, and his schoolteacher wife Florence Ellen, née Scotford, both New South Wales-born. In 1910 the family moved to the Kirklands Presbyterian manse in the countryside ten kilometres from Campbell Town, Tasmania. Alec was educated at home until commencing high school in 1919, when he boarded for two years at the progressive Leslie House School in Hobart. When his father was appointed to Lithgow parish, New South Wales, in 1921 Hope left the family to attend Bathurst High School for his Intermediate and Leaving certificates. In 1924 he repeated his matriculation studies in Sydney at Fort Street Boys’ High. He was delighted to find his new school ‘simply buzzing with intellectual pursuits of every kind’ (Hope 1992, 43), with classmates such as R. G. Howarth, who would have a parallel career as poet and professor.

Hope won an exhibition to the University of Sydney (BA, 1928), where he majored in philosophy (then including psychology) and English, achieving first-class honours and being awarded a university medal in each subject. John Le Gay Brereton and Ernest Rudolph Holme taught him English literature and language, but he was particularly impressed by the professor of philosophy, John Anderson, who espoused a fiercely critical approach to received religious, social, and political wisdoms. Hope resisted religious and political commitment for the rest of his life.

In 1928 Hope was awarded the James King of Irrawang travelling scholarship to attend University College, Oxford (BA, 1930). He studied English literature as well as Gothic, Old English, and Icelandic languages under C. L. Wrenn, C. S. Lewis, C. T. Onions, and J. R. R. Tolkien, with a view to becoming a philologist. In letters home he wrote about his declining enthusiasm for study and begged his family to ‘Find me a job as far removed from the academic as you can. I feel stifled in them’ (Brooks 1995, 101). He returned to Sydney with a third-class degree and a sense of failure that was confirmed by Holme’s advice that a third precluded an academic appointment at the University of Sydney. He lived as a resident tutor at St Paul’s College for a year while training at Sydney Teachers’ College, then spent the next two years in casual teaching positions at various New South Wales schools. During these years he also studied Russian language, living for a time with his Russian teacher’s family in King’s Cross. He refreshed his psychology studies after his appointment as a vocational psychologist in the New South Wales Department of Labour and Industry in 1933. In 1936 he moved to Canberra as educational psychologist and manager of the Canberra Trades School. He returned to Sydney in 1938 to lecture at the Sydney Teachers’ College in education.

While in Canberra Hope became friendly with Penelope Robinson, then working as a typist with the Commonwealth Department of External Affairs. They married at the Canberra registry office on 23 May 1938, and she joined Hope in Sydney. In 1939 he moved to a position in literary studies at the college and ‘tried to forget that I had ever called myself a psychologist’ (Hope 1992, 89). Hope’s first child, Katherine Emily (known as Emily), was born in 1940; twin sons, Geoffrey and Andrew, followed four years later.

From childhood Hope had written poetry, publishing in the Bathurst High school magazine and various Sydney University magazines through the 1920s and early 1930s. He began publishing poetry again on his return to Sydney, mainly in the new literary journals Southerly, Meanjin, and Australian Poetry, and also reviewing books for these journals. He began broadcasting school talks while at the Teachers’ College and became ‘Anthony Inkwell’ for the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s Argonauts radio program for children. In 1943 Meanjin published Hope’s famous poem, ‘Australia’ which expressed his ambivalent attitude to his homeland: ‘Where second-hand Europeans pullulate / Timidly on the edge of alien shores’. He also contributed poems that were to become frequent anthology pieces, such as ‘Observation Car’ (1943) and ‘Standardisation’ (1944), to two privately circulated booklets.

Hope approved of the invention of the surrealist poet ‘Ern Malley’ by his friends, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, in 1944 to hoax the editor of the modernist journal Angry Penguins, Max Harris, though the consequent obscenity charges against the journal revealed the censorious society of the time. In 1946 Hope moved to the University of Melbourne as a senior lecturer in English. Students remembered his quiet lecturing style that seemed ‘as if he were thinking aloud, gradually surrounding the topic with a variety of reflections’ (Buckley 1983, 61–62).

By the time he arrived in Melbourne, Hope was ‘thinking of myself seriously as a poet by profession,’ who had sought a university appointment as ‘it was reasonably well paid in money [and] it offered more than any other field by far the best reward in free time’ (Hope 1992, 94). Though he was now a professional university academic, his satire written during these years in the manner of Alexander Pope, Dunciad Minor, demonstrated his cynicism about the leading academic approaches to literary criticism at the time.

Hope had prepared a book of poems for publication as early as 1947, but decided to withdraw it in the face of the censorship trials of Max Harris for Angry Penguins and Robert Close for his novel Love Me Sailor. Poems such as ‘Imperial Adam’ and ‘X-Ray Photograph’ were more explicit than these publications, and he continued to have difficulty finding a book publisher over the next years. Nevertheless, Hope’s poems circulated widely in the literary community: H. M. Green in his critical survey of Australian poets Fourteen Minutes (1944, revised 1950) described Hope’s ‘The Damnation of Byron’ as ‘magnificent’.

At the beginning of 1951 Hope returned to Canberra to take up the foundation chair of English at the Canberra University College. In 1954 he introduced a course on Australian literature taught by Tom Inglis Moore, the first full such course in a university. He met other Australian poets as he travelled nationally to deliver Commonwealth Literary Fund lectures at Australian universities helping to promote their work. During the 1950s he reviewed regularly for Australian Broadcasting Commission radio and the Sydney Morning Herald, gaining notoriety for a review of Patrick White’s The Tree of Man, which criticised White’s style as ‘pretentious and illiterate verbal sludge’ (Hope 1956, 15). In a 1956 Current Affairs Bulletin article, ‘Standards in Australian Literature,’ he argued that the national literature needed novels that moved beyond historical fiction, and poetry that addressed more than the ‘scenery’ if it was ever to emerge from its colonial status.

Hope’s first book of poetry, The Wandering Islands, was not published until 1955, at last making his work accessible to general readers. Until then he had been better known ‘as a public literary nuisance, a satirist, a critic, and a poet—very much in that order’ (Buckley 1957, 142). The book was awarded the Grace Leven prize (1956). In 1960 Canberra University College amalgamated with the Australian National University (ANU), with Hope becoming the expanded university’s inaugural dean of arts in its School of General Studies (1960–62). His Poems was published in London (1960) and New York (1961), gaining admiration from American reviewers. Over the next decade he was frequently invited to American universities, and his verse began to appear in international anthologies such as the Norton Anthology of English Poetry. He became the most internationally recognised Australian poet until Les Murray gained prominence in the 1980s.

At the end of 1968 Hope retired from his professorship to focus on his poetry, taking an appointment as emeritus library fellow at the ANU. The poetry collections that followed demonstrated his range of interests, including New Poems 1965–1969 (1969), A Late Picking (1975), and Orpheus (1991). While known best for his early satires and carefully composed meditations such as ‘The Death of the Bird,’ his later work demonstrates a greater range of styles and subjects with ambitious love poems such as ‘An Epistle: Edward Sackville to Venetia Digby’ and ‘The Planctus’ sonnets, and engagements with scientific discovery such as ‘An Exercise on a Sphere’. Though much of his poetry drew on European literature, he surprised readers with some poems about Australian life in his late book Antechinus (1981). Hope’s poetry often responded to the poetry of others, sometimes playfully as in his A Book of Answers (1978). His language skills are evident in his translations of Russian and Portuguese poets, and of his own poems into Italian. All his life he read the work of other writers, not only in English but also in Latin, French, Russian, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese.

Hope was a foundation member of the Australian Humanities Research Council (1956), and a member of the Commonwealth Literary Fund Advisory Board (1972–73) and its successor, the Literature Board of the Australia Council (1973–74). The many awards he received included the Australian Literature Society gold medal (1966), the Levinson prize for poetry (Chicago, 1969), the Ingram Merrill award for poetry (New York, 1969), the Age Book of the Year award for A Late Picking (1976), and foreign honorary membership of the American Academy of the Arts and Letters (1989). He was appointed OBE in 1972 and AC in 1981. He received honorary Doctor of Letters degrees from the ANU (1972), the universities of New England (1973) and Melbourne (1976), and Monash University (1976). In 1978 he became a foundational patron of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature.

While Hope’s poetry was widely taught in Australian schools and universities from the 1960s and valued for its craftsmanship and intellectual strength, by the 1970s some younger poets saw him as an archetypal traditionalist who produced poetry that was formally rigid, anti-modernist, and backward-looking. He was ‘readily represented as conservative, sexist and old-fashioned’ (McCulloch 2005, xxi). His early focus on the female body as an image of desire or bodily decay led to charges of sexism. Hope’s reputation declined as a result, but he remained the centre of a circle of Canberra poets that included David Campbell, R. F. Brissenden, and Rosemary Dobson.

Despite his claim to be something of an outsider, Hope had a wide range of friends and described himself as living for pleasure. His late-onset diabetes hardly diminished his enjoyment of food and wine, and he appreciated amusing company, especially of women. He habitually wore a jacket and tie, and was of average height, with strong eyebrows, and an open, friendly face that some thought cherubic. His personal manner was cheerful and scrupulously polite, belying the sharpness of his critical writing.

Hope’s daughter, an accomplished artist, died in 1979, and Penelope died in 1988. He remained in the family house at Forrest in inner Canberra until he moved in 1995 to a local nursing home, where he died on 13 July 2000; he was survived by his two sons. A portrait by Keith Looby, based on a photograph by Loui Seselja, hangs in the A. D. Hope building on the ANU campus, and a bronze bust by Cathy Weiszmann is in Garema Place, central Canberra, alongside busts of his fellow poets Campbell and Judith Wright.

Research edited by Stephen Wilks

Select Bibliography

  • Australian National University Archives. AU ANUA 19-4511(2), Hope, Alec Derwent, Staff File
  • Brooks, David, ed. The Double Looking Glass: New and Classic Essays on the Poetry of A.D. Hope. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 2000
  • Brooks, David. ‘A.D. Hope: The Oxford Letters.’ Voices: The Quarterly Journal of the National Library of Australia 5, no. 1 (March 1995): 90–102
  • Buckley, Vincent. Cutting Green Hay. Ringwood, Vic.: Penguin Books, 1983
  • Buckley, Vincent. ‘A. D. Hope: The Unknown Poet.’ In Essays in Poetry, Mainly Australian, 142–57. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1957
  • Cole, Catherine. The Poet Who Forgot. Perth: University of Western Australia Press, 2008
  • Hope, A. D. Collected Poems 1930–1970. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1972
  • Hope, A. D. Chance Encounters. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1992
  • Hope, A. D. Native Companions. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1974
  • Hope, A. D. ‘The Bunyip Stages a Comeback.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 16 June 1956, 15
  • McCulloch, Ann. Dance of the Nomad: A Study of the Selected Notebooks of A. D. Hope. Canberra: Australian National University Press, 2005
  • National Library of Australia. MS 5836, Papers of A. D. Hope. National Library of Australia. ‘The Scythe Honed Fine’: A.D. Hope: A Celebration for his 90th Birthday. Canberra: National Library of Australia, 1997
  • Wallace-Crabbe, Chris. ‘Obituary of A. D. Hope.’ Australian Book Review, no. 224 (September 2000): 53

Additional Resources

Citation details

Susan Lever, 'Hope, Alec Derwent (A. D.) (1907–2000)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hope-alec-derwent-a-d-503/text40328, published online 2023, accessed online 25 May 2024.

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