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The Darkening Ecliptic by Ern Malley

Introduction by Max Harris

“And yet I know I shall be raised up
on the vertical banners of praise.”

This piece was published in as an introduction to the Ern Malley poems in Angry Penguins (1944 Autumn number), and also in the collection of Ern Malley poems titled The Darkening Ecliptic, published as a 45-page booklet by Red & Harris in 1944. It is 3,000 words or about six printed pages long.

Ern Malley prepared for his death quietly confident that he was a great poet, and that he would be known as such. He prepared his manuscript to that end — there was no ostentation nor the exhibitionism of the dying in the act. It was an act of calm controlled confidence. He treated death greatly, and as poetry, while undergoing the most fearful and debilitating nervous strain that a human being could possibly endure. He was dying at the age of 25 with Grave’s Disease.

Nobody had any idea that Ern Malley wrote poetry. For several years he was thought of simply as the young man who worked as a motor mechanic at Palmer’s Garage on Taverner’s Hill in Sydney, after leaving the Summer Hill Intermediate High School at the age of 14. When he turned 17 he went off alone to Melbourne, where little or nothing was known of his activities. He was said to have been living alone in a room in South Melbourne and earning his living peddling insurance policies for the National Mutual Life Assurance Company. He returned to Sydney where, after refusing to be operated upon, he died of Grave’s Disease. Even his sister, next of kin, did not know that he wrote. In Sydney he was known to possess only one book — Veblen’s “Theory of the Leisure Classes.” That is all.

Yet I am firmly convinced that this unknown mechanic and insurance peddler is one of the most outstanding poets that we have produced here. Yet this is not based on any romantic reaction to the circumstances by which his poetry has come into possession, nor by the great artistic self-possession with which he treated his forthcoming death. It is the perfection and integration of his poetry. This brief study will, then, treat almost entirely of the quality and nature of his poetry.

But first I feel there is justification for completing the story of Ern Malley. Recently I was sent two poems from a Miss Ethel Malley, who wrote saying that they were found among her brother’s possessions after his death on July the 23rd, 1943. Someone suggested to her they might be of value and that she send them to me for an opinion. At this stage I knew nothing about the author at all, but I was immediately impressed that here was a poet of tremendous power, working through a disciplined and restrained kind of statement into the deepest wells of human experience. A poet, moreover, with cool, strong, sinuous feeling for language. I sent these poems to my co-editor, Mr. John Reed, and they were then shown to a number of people, most of whom, without any information about the author, bore out my opinion. Then, at my request, Miss Malley sent the complete MSS, along with the facts about her brother as she knew them. I quote verbatim from her letter: —

“You asked me for some details about Ern’s illness. I didn’t mention in my last letter that his death was due to Grave’s disease. If he had only taken better care of himself it need not have been fatal. But while he was away from home he neglected his health. When he was called up for his medical exam the doctors evidently told him what was wrong with him, because he was rejected. But I don’t believe he saw a doctor again until he came home last March, though I found out later he had been dosing himself with iodine and the doctor said that must have kept him going. He was terribly irritable and hard to do anything for. I was anxious for him to go to hospital where he could be properly looked after, but the doctor said it would be better for a person in his condition to stop at home. The doctor spoke of operating at first, but when he refused to have it done the doctor said it would be better not to, which I thought was strange.

“You asked me to tell you something about Ern’s life. Well, my brother’s full name was Ernest Lalor Malley and he was born in England at Liverpool on March 14, 1918. Our father died as a result of war wounds in 1920, and the family came out to Australia, where mother had relations. We lived for many years in Petersham, where Ern went to the Petersham public school and the Summer Hill Intermediate High. He did not do very well at school, although he was good at other things. Mother died in August, 1933, and I could not stop Ern from leaving school after that, as he was set on going to work. I have always thought that he was very foolish not to have got his intermediate [a high school graduation certificate — J.T.], but he was determined to go his own way. He got a job as a mechanic in Palmer’s Garage on Taverner’s Hill for a couple of years. He was always clever with mechanical things and I thought he was settled and had got over his wildness. But when he turned 17 he came home one day from work and said he was giving up his job at the garage and was going to Melbourne. I did my best to persuade him, but he went. After that I did not see much of him or hear from him as he did not write, but someone I knew met him in Melbourne and told me that he was working for National Mutual selling insurance policies. They said he was living in a room by himself in South Melbourne. I remember I was worried at the time whether he was looking after himself properly, because he was never very strong. I wrote to him, but he did not reply for a long time. Later, in 1940, I think it was, I did get a letter from him saying that his health was better and that he was making a fair amount of money repairing watches and doing other work on the side. I did not hear from him again until the beginning of this year I found he was back in Sydney. I got him to come home, and it was only then I realised that he was ill, but even then I had no idea how bad he really was. He was amazingly active for his condition. Finally he told me that he knew what was wrong, and I managed to get a doctor to him. The weeks before he died were terrible. Sometimes he would be all right and he would talk to me. From things he said I gathered he had been fond of a girl in Melbourne, but had some sort of difference with her. I didn’t want to ask him too much because he was nervy and irritable. The crisis came suddenly, and he passed away on Friday the 23rd of July. As he wished, he was cremated at Rookwood.”

The manuscript consists of sixteen poems. It bears the title, “The Darkening Ecliptic,” and at the bottom of the title page these words: —

“Do not speak of secret matters in a field full of little hills” — Old Proverb.

This I take to be an explanation of his complete silence on the subject of poetry during his lifetime. Two handwritten pages exist under the heading of Preface and Statement. I wish to start this review of his work with the seven aphoristic paragraphs which constitute this preface and statement, and which give such a remarkable and moving insight into the poetic motives of Ern Malley.


II.



These poems are complete. There are no scoriae of unfulfilled intentions. Every note and revision has been destroyed. There is no biographical data.

I have been placed in somewhat the same quandary as was Max Brod in disposing of Kafka’s writings. But with this difference. Ern Malley left no instructions, no indications of what he wanted done with his MSS. It was obviously prepared for publication. But he did not even mention its existence to his sister. Yet this statement assumes that posterity will be interested in his work, that the search for scoriae and biographical detail will take place. It is more of a challenge than an expression of his desires. For my part, I find such respect for the amazing relation of his art and his dying that I feel I have no right to conceal facts which bespeak greatness.

These poems are complete in themselves. They have a domestic economy of their own and if they face outwards to the reader that is because they first faced inwards to themselves. Every poem should be an autarchy.

To this statement I can add little or nothing. It is a beautiful and succinct expression of my own feelings to a poem.

The writing was done over five years. Certain changes of mental allegiance and superficial method took place. That is all that needs to be said on the subject of schools and influences.

That is all that can be said. What he read or when he read is a matter simply for conjecture. But from his poems there is evidence of tremendous assimilation and integration. The use of remote and esotreic [sic] language can at times be dangerous affectation and love of verbiage for its own colourful nature. In his few poems Malley’s vocabulary spans innumerable worlds, but his use of language is never logomachical. His wide, difficult vocabulary emerges spontaneously and necessarily from his poetic motives. Appropriateness is the final test, and Malley reveals an acid preciseness in all his handlings with language. In his poem Young Prince of Tyre, Malley writes: —

“Yet there is one that stands i’ the gaps to teach us
The stages of our story. He the dark hero
Moistens his finger in iguana’s blood to beseech us
(Siegfried-like) to renew the language. Nero
and the botched tribe of imperial poets burn
Like the rafters. The new men are cool as spreading fern.”

This is the task Malley set himself as he deliberately invoked death upon himself to provide the deepening and consummating forces of poetic experience.

For the sake of the unity of death and poetry, Malley sacrificed his relationships with the woman he loved, left her, and returned to Sydney. This I think is clearly the meaning of his mighty 16th poem when he says:

“In the same year
I said to my love (who is living)
Dear we shall never be that verb
Perched on the sole Arabian Tree
Not having learnt in our green age to forget
The sins that flow between the hands and feet
(Here the Tree weeps gum tears
Which are also real: I tell you
These things are real)
So I forced a parting
Scrubbing my few dingy words to brightness.”

The Arabian Tree is his poetic fulfillment, and its tears are, without doubt, real. Yet in the epic suffering of his going away like the elephant to die, he does feel himself to triumph, for later in the same poem he says:

‘I have pursued rhyme, image, and metre,
Known all the clefts in which the foot may stick,
Stumbled often, stammered,
But in time the fading voice grows wise
And seizing the co-ordinates of all-existence
Traces the inevitable graph’

Malley approached poetry with a tremendous sense of the imoprt [sic]of what he was doing. In one of his best poems, then, we find such relatively unfamiliar words as apodictic, valency, crenellated, enteric, and bourdon. Yet the poem logically demands these words because of its strict autarchical domestic economy. Language is not master; it is creator!

One or two of the critics (granted they had only seen two of his poems) said that his work was derivative and echoed various contemporary techniques. I am strongly of the opinion that these critics are completely wrong. His images are always pure and integrated within the poem in a remarkable cohesion. There is no hint of the Auden generation who tend towards the impersonal and philosophic as a product of the dynamics of their imagery. Malley stands in a curious, cool and penetrating way before the personal. The Auden school had not the confidence in the body of personal experience to make poetry of such humble personal material. Unlike the moderns from Dylan Thomas onwards, Malley is never carried along violently within the personal. With him image can be obscure, but never experience. Here, perhaps, he transcends Angry Penguin writers and contemporary English writers.

“The new men are cool as spreading fern.”

His sane personal verse is the embodiment in our time of this principle. I can link him up in my mind strongly with one poet only . . . the late Donald Bevis Kerr, yet it is strongly improbable that he ever saw Kerr’s work. These two, with their diverse spiritual outlooks, are the two giants of contemporary Australian poetry. In both there is the same restraint and sense of responsibility towards language. But there the resemblance ends.

To discover the hidden fealty of certain arrangements of sound in a line and certain concatenations of the analytic emotions is the “secret” of style.

In this statement and the next two Malley concerns himself with the technics of poetry. The full force of what he has condensed into such a brief statement can only be gathered from seeing what he has actually embodied of “style” into his poetry. A certain difficulty is encountered in trying to understand what he means by the “analytic emotions.” But I think the whole concept resolves itself into a simple unambiguous reflection. The emotional experiences which motivate art are not those which are generally considered as “life” or “immediate” experiences. The level and kind of feeling from which poetry emerges and operates do not bear any direct relation to the individual in an immediate and suffering relation to the universe. Art is not Life, nor is it an imitation of life. It is experiencing at a different level from life; it is life, but differs in kind from it. Art emerges from experience at the “analytic” level of the emotions. Art reflects life at second hand, as it were, when experience and detachment integrate in a dialectical union of “poetic” or “analytic” experience. The secret of style then is reduced to faithful reflection, for felicity of language is integral to the “analytic” experience itself. This, if anything, explains Malley’s detachment from the nerve-racking and terrifying experiences of his immediate life. The tragedy of the man is never reflected in the poetry, and this provides in part a measure of his greatness as a poet.

When thought at a certain level, and with a certain intention discovers itself to be poetry it discovers also that duty after all does exist: the duty of a public act. That duty is wholly performed by setting the pen to paper. To read what has thus been done is another thing again, and implies another order of loyalty.

The poet’s duty, Malley believes, is the communication of poetry. The act of creation is the poet’s social act and identifies poetry with communication. Beyond that, duty may exist for the man, but not for the poet. The poetry owes nothing but its own existence to society.

Simplicity in our time is arrived at by an ambages. There is, at this moment, no such thing as a simple poem, if what is meant by that is a point-to-point straight line relation of images. If I said that this was so because on the level where the world is mental occurrence a point-to-point relation is no longer genuine, I should be accused of mysticism. Yet it is so.

With this statement of Malley I do not claim to be in full agreement. Possibly because it is impossible to say what he meant exactly by a “point-to-point straight line of “images.” For me, image can sustain itself, and produce coherent experience, by operating autonomously. Image, develops and acts as it were as an allegory of the experience of which it is a reflection. Image can only provide a complete level of expression when its autonomy is dynamic; that is, the image develops within itself through some series of valid relations. I can conceive, for instance, the vast homeric metaphor existing as poetry without direct reference back to the subject from which it emanates. Kafka produces novels from single metaphores [sic] and their direct relations.

Those who say: What might not X have done if he had lived? demonstrate their different way of living from the poet’s way. It is a kind of truth, which I have tried to express, to say in return: All one can do in one’s span of time is to uncover a set of objective allegiances. The rest is not one’s concern.

Malley moved within self-imposed limitations. He did not aim at revelation of all Truth, of inferring a valid Weltanschauung from his own range. He aimed to reveal his Truth. Yet if I were to say that within this range he reveals infinitely spheres which he would consider “not his concern,” I too would be accused of mysticism. Yet it is so.


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