Friday, January 19, 2018

Captain Quiros by James McAuley

Captain Quiros
Each year in the break immediately after Christmas, I read an epic poem. It's a small personal tradition that I've kept up for the last eight years since first starting this blog, but it's been a good way of keeping in touch with one of my favourite forms of storytelling.

Until the rise of the modern realist novel, epic poetry was one of the most prestigious and beloved forms of narrative literature. Starting in classical Greece and Rome with works like Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid, epic poetry continued throughout the medieval age and enjoyed a resurgence with the Renaissance before quietly giving way to the novel. Along the way, epic poems gained a number of distinct tropes. They often involved the foundation of a noble house or formative events from the history of a nation. They blended fantasy with real-life events, made references to other epic poems, and began with an invocation to the poet's Muse (which in Christian epics always meant the Holy Spirit).

Above all, they were a form of myth-making. An epic poem took the history and heritage of a people, and elevated it to the status of myth. It then became something that could be looked back to with pride, as a reminder of the ideals that birthed and inspired them.

(Obviously, this kind of exercise is not always a good idea, especially when the history and heritage in question is fabricated from lies and half-truths as a way to pardon and whitewash evil. But more about my other recent holiday read next time.)

I give this quick introduction to epic poetry because it's no longer as mainstream as it once was, despite the fact that people still occasionally write it (GK Chesterton's The Ballad of the White Horse is a good example of a more recent epic poem). And also because it explains what I found so special about James McAuley's Captain Quiros. Australia, you see, was not settled by Europeans until 1788. The day of the epic was already long past when the modern Commonwealth of Australia began to be formed. I have read possibly dozens of epics in my life, all of them commemorating other people's history. Reading an epic poem by an Australian poet about events in Australia's history was a completely new and uniquely moving experience.

The island in Vanuatu where Quiros landed, still named Espiritu Santo

A Myth for Australia

The irony is that nobody in this poem sets foot on Australian soil once, but McAuley doesn't let that stop him. He chooses to focus on something that happened before the discovery of the continental landmass: the origin of Australia's name. Before the discovery and mapping of Australia or Antarctica, and as early as ancient times, scholars agreed that given the great landmasses in the northern hemisphere, there must logically also be some great landmasses in the southern hemisphere, which they called Terra Australis or the Southland.

Late in 1605, the devout Portugese explorer Pedro Fernandez de Quiros set out from Peru on a mission to discover the Southland. His three ships crossed the Pacific Ocean and ultimately made landfall on a large island in what is today Vanuatu. Quiros believed he'd found the Southland, and he named it Australia del Espiritu Santo - the Southland of the Holy Spirit. Idealistically, Quiros named his new settlement Nova Jerusalema - New Jerusalem - and instituted a chivalric order, the Knights of the Holy Ghost, to go along with it. Within weeks, however, the colony had to be abandoned. Quiros always desired to return and prove that he had in fact discovered the Southland, but he would never be taken seriously again.

This is the story behind James McAuley's epic of Australia. Part One of the poem deals with Quiros's first expedition under Mendana to the Solomon Islands. As pilot, Quiros is unable to prevent the dissolution of the Mendana expedition as a result of mutiny and ill-treatment of the local natives. Part Two, which kicks off with an amazing Proem, deals with the expedition to Vanuatu and the foundation of New Jerusalem. And finally, in Part Three, the disappointed and dying Quiros is comforted by a vision of the future of his Southland of the Holy Spirit.

I really appreciated McAuley's treatment of the subject matter. He is well and truly mythmaking here, especially in Part Three. He doesn't try to make Quiros into an Achilles, or the Spanish expedition into lantern-jawed heroes. Captain Quiros could only ever have been a tale of the clash between ideals and human sin, so that's the story McAuley tells. He is very matter-of-fact about his hero's weaknesses as well as the ill-deeds of the Spanish explorers. His portrait of the native islanders is both respectful and sensitive, treating them more as noble than savages; we see the difference between those who have never heard the truth but are willing to receive it, and those who have the truth but have hardened their hearts against it. It's not by any stretch of the imagination a romantic story - in fact it's an extremely grounded story - and yet that just gives Part Three all the more visionary power. Nobody is surprised when good people accomplish good things. It's when somehow God works in our weaknesses, failures, and sins to produce good things that we are overwhelmed with awe and thankfulness. And that's how James McAuley weaves a myth for Australia.

Bird of paradise
Signs and symbols

Unusually, McAuley leaves the traditional invocation of the Muse for Part Two of his epic, to introduce the expedition to Vanuatu. But when it comes, it's magnificent.
O for the gift of tongues and prophecy!
For these heroic mysteries require
The voice of Elders chanting solemnly
Over a sea of glass mingled with fire,
While all creation bears the underpart.
Let the resources of our fictive art
Thrill to such tones, burning with new desire.
To chart in verse the voyage that I took
In youth and hope to seek the Great South Land;
To shut the sounding Ocean in a book
By verbal spells; charm to an ampersand
Each curling seahorse; teach rough waves the dance
Of formal metre - might one not sooner chance
To draw out huge Leviathan with a hook?

It's fitting in multiple ways that McAuley calls for "the gift of tongues and prophecy". These are gifts of the Holy Spirit, the muse of Christian art; not only that, but the poem is all about the Holy Spirit working in history, and the naming of Australia as the Southland of the Holy Spirit; not only that, but the Holy Spirit crops up again and again throughout McAuley's oevre, usually linked with birds, especially the bird of paradise, and with Australia. For example, To the Holy Spirit, from a 1956 collection, which begins:
Leaving your fragrant rest on the summit of morning calm,
Descend, Bird of Paradise, from the high mountain;
And, plumed with glowing iris along each curving wire,
Visit in time our regions of eucalypt and palm.
Another symbol that cropped up a couple of times in the poem was the star Aldebaran, called a "prophetic star" at the end, and so likewise linked to the Holy Spirit. McAuley's very first published collection of poetry was titled Under Aldebaran, and one day I hope to come across someone who can explain more fully what this imagery meant to him. Unfortunately, McAuley's work has been so shrouded in silence since his death in 1976 that it's very difficult to find any in-depth discussion of his poetry.

Eschatology and History

James McAuley's myth of Australia inhabits the sharp cleft between the ugliness that is and the nobility that ought to be. It's a tension I know well: Pendragon's Heir is all about the same thing. But to have this applied to Australian history brings it all just a bit more sharply into focus.

Not that I would have given Quiros the same answer as McAuley gives him. As Quiros sails home in defeat, his dream of the Southland of the Holy Spirit in ashes, McAuley imagines him turning to a dying priest for encouragement: "Where was the fault, that we have merited/No more than this from heaven?" The priest replies at length:
Not ours to bring to birth
That final Realm; nor shall our labours build
Out of the rubble of this fallen earth
The New Jerusalem.
...
If by enthusiasm we should confuse
This dispensation with the next, we abuse
The wisdom of our Faith, and cheat our prayers.
Quiros's attempt to found the New Jerusalem and call down the power of the Holy Spirit on Australia was well-intentioned, but it left out one important consideration: the will of God. God doesn't work according to human schedule, and we don't bring in the kingdom by sheer hustle and bustle. So far, so good. However, I do think I would probably disagree with McAuley in some respects. He speaks of Eternity coming upon us unawares, as if the coming of the kingdom is a sudden thing. Naturally the consummation of history and the perfection of the kingdom will be sudden, but Scripture speaks of the stone growing slowly to a mountain that covers the whole earth, or leaven working systematically through the dough. It is God working in the church according to his secret counsels that brings about the growth of the kingdom, not human schedules, but desiring and hoping to build the kingdom on the earth, and doing it God's way, through service and sacrifice for the weak and the needy, is truly possible.

This said, I loved reading an epic poem about my own country that gave so much expression to what I've often thought or felt about it. The final canto especially, The Last Vision, powerfully expressed both the sins and the virtues in Australian history.
Mingled the seed grown in the new-turned ground:
The quickening Word, the cactus of delusion,
Straight stalks of courage, indolently wound
With flowering folly, all in gay profusion.
In Captain Quiros, James McAuley puts his finger on everything that I'm sad about in Australian history. This is a deeply bittersweet epic, but as an exercise in mythmaking for a post-Enlightenment nation, it's wonderful work. I never quite understood the power of national epic until I read this book, and I'm so glad to have discovered this one.

Find Captain Quiros on the Australian Poetry Library.

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