February 11th 2017

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COVER STORY Free-trade policy sending manufacturing into free-fall

CANBERRA OBSERVED Jeers at suggestion we not be fringe dwellers

EDITORIAL Nothing new among Trump's executive orders

QUEENSLAND Pro-life Brisbane marches as abortion vote nears

GENDER POLITICS Autism, gender-dysphoria link: the evidence mounts

EUTHANASIA Quebec, Dutch, Belgian and Oregon laws a 'mess'

OBITUARY Scholar's passing is our common loss

WESTERN CIVILISATION The owl of Minerva: the signs of times past

POETRY Hal Colebatch: the poet who celebrates heroism


MUSIC Juggling with time: it's all in the head

CINEMA What doesn't kill you makes you stronger: Split

BOOK REVIEW Teen brings 'penny dreadfuls' to life

BOOK REVIEW Money and quantum physics


EDITORIAL The future of Senator Cory Bernardi

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Hal Colebatch: the poet who celebrates heroism

by Jeffry Babb

News Weekly, February 11, 2017

Hal Colebatch has excelled in almost every literary form, from radio plays to history. His book, Australia’s Secret War: How Unionists Sabotaged Our Troops in World War II (Quadrant Books, Sydney, 2013) was joint winner of the 2014 Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History. His book, The Light River, was awarded the West Australian Premier’s Award for Poetry in 2008.

Hal G.P. Colebatch

Colebatch is a man of adventurous intellect, yet he returns again and again to the same themes in his works.

Little critical attention has been paid to Colebatch’s poetry, yet it repays scrutiny. Of all the forms in which he has excelled, poetry is the genre in which Colebatch has displayed the greatest technical mastery. Some might argue that his Man-Kzin Wars series, derived from Larry Niven’s science fiction novels about the clash between an effete human civilisation and a race of humanoid tigers, shows greater imagination. Yet in terms of the sheer range of topics and themes, and sustained application, Colebatch’s poetry must be considered superior.

Colebatch is a very good poet technically. Unlike many modern poetasters, he can write sestinas and sonnets with flair. His poetry displays a depth of learning which is rare among modern poets. Few modern poets can match Colebatch’s depth of poetic skill and knowledge. That is because, at least in part, Colebatch sets himself in opposition to the modernist trend that has all but extinguished the command of technical poetic form all educated people were once expected to aspire to master.

Take this poem, The Lion in Winter, from his first published collection, Spectators on the Shore (Edwards and Shaw, Sydney 1975).


Zoos are of the future
Like Rodin or Rilke. They seem to see
A comment on themselves. The Different and
Becoming Extinct

Like this lion. Poets are seldom like lions,
but occasionally like them manage to smell
to become flabby in concrete boxes and not
to mix with their fellow creatures very well.

The future is in zoos. Poets watch the lion,
notebooks ready. We wait upon the scene.
It is a very cold day, and the lion’s urine
Is half-frozen in pools and turning green.


Unlike modernist pioneers Rimbaud and Rilke, Colebatch does not seek to alienate the average man and woman. His poems are not gibberish; they can be readily understood by the average reader. Most can be recited for pleasure and with pleasure. Colebatch is not self-consciously “modern”. He aims to be comprehensible and to be read widely, both by “highbrows” and “lowbrows”. Thus, the image of the lion trapped and enclosed with its own half-frozen urine is a powerful image of artists who are separated from their audience by barriers of their own construction, who contemplate their own waste. Poets should not be a hieratic caste, trading secrets among themselves in small magazines circulating among the literati, in Colebatch’s view. Poetry is for the people.

The intention of this critique is not to retell Hal Colebatch’s life story, which has been examined in Tony Thomas’ biographical note, “Hal Colebatch: Inside an Outsider” (Quadrant, October 2013). In terms of technical ability and breadth of outlook, Colebatch must rank as one of Australia’s most accomplished poets. He certainly deserves more than a biographical note, even if only to explicate the themes that he returns to throughout his career as a published poet.

Colebatch’s poetry is in many ways a fanfare for the common man. And for all the breadth of his outlook, he has been remarkably consistent in his artistic concerns.

His latest book, Under a Dragon Moon (yet to be published), offers a fuller version of his previous works. The title itself is taken from G.K. Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse. Colebatch is able to recite this epic poem from beginning to end. Colebatch reveres both Chesterton and Arthur the Great, Saxon King of Wessex, who defeated the Danes at the Battle of Ethandune, set in the Vale of the White Horse.

The strain of Catholicity that runs through Chesterton’s work frequently appears in Colebatch’s own poetry. Colebatch can also quote from memory other more commonplace comic verse, such as the despondent farmer Hanrahan, who maintains “We’ll all be rooned” come rain or shine (Said Hanrahan,
P.J. Hartigan). In these people, the warriors and the farmers, Colebatch sees the deepest human values: courage in the face of adversity and the quiet heroism of daily life. He sees value in people who rise above the ordinary, such as Rudyard Kipling, whose writing was “as bright as a Churchill painting” (To Kipling) and who see the heroism of daily life.

Colebatch returns to his central themes consistently: the beauty of the Swan River; the intensity of feeling created by romantic love; the sharp teeth hidden in a kitten’s ball of fur; common men and women who are transformed when they are called to be heroic by circumstance. His artistic precursors are authors of the early 20th century, such as G.K. Chesterton, H.G. Wells and Rudyard Kipling, when men and women would devote themselves to serving the British Empire and its people. He clearly prefers Tom Stoppard’s naturalism to Harold Pinter’s theatre of the absurd (see On the Award of the Nobel Prize to Harold Pinter).

Colebatch has a clear sense of hierarchy. Perhaps one could call his attitude noblesse oblige. He admires people like (Sir) Winston Churchill, (Sir) Robert Menzies and William Pitt the Younger, who had the courage to stand alone, to defy circumstance. He is more likely to celebrate greatness of spirit than inheritance, as in his poem Fanny Radmall, Lady Houston, about the former chorus girl who funded the development of the Supermarine Spitfire, the fighter aircraft that had a primary role in saving Britain during the Battle of Britain, when Britain stood alone in its air war against Germany in World War II.

His villain is odious socialist historian Eric Hobsbawm (In Memoriam, Eric Hobsbawm), who applauded every Soviet atrocity since the Soviet assault on Finland. Colebatch writes:


Hell’s got a new guest today
Eric Hobsbawm’s come to stay


Colebatch has a strong sense of the numinous, in other words of a spiritual force or divine influence at work in the world. “Numinous” derives from the Latin numen, for “divine will”. He is not a Christian poet in the tradition of Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ, for example. He does have, however, a strong feeling for a divine presence. Often he has a sense of the mysterious and awe inspiring as manifested in nature.

While he does not have a faith expressed in the form of a denominational affiliation, he has a firm attachment to writers such as Chesterton, who were converts to Catholicism. Like Chesterton, his poems are frequently apologetics based on an inspiration from nature. Nature, especially water, reveals to him a sense of the numinous.

His prize-winning collection, The Light River (Connor Court, 2007), has diverse poems celebrating water. The Swan River, where he spent part of his youth, has a particular fascination for Colebatch. The Swan River or just “the river” yields “vistas of gifts to lift the spirit/a few minutes’ walk/from my house!” (Swan River at Nedlands (ii)).

Water fascinates Colebatch because its quiddity is so elusive. That is, its “thingness” is always changing; water is not one thing, it is many things. It may be warm and gentle or it may rage and howl; it can be indeed a harsh and unpredictable mistress. Water may be vapour, it may be liquid, it may be solid. It is never one thing; water is always in transition, yet it is recognised as a blessing, particularly in an arid state like Western Australia.

“The quality of mercy is not strain’d, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven,” says Portia. Mercy, Portia says, is “twice blest.” (William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene 1). Water is a form of divine mercy, an instrument of justice – God’s gift to mankind, like Grace, which works mysteriously in this world.

The San Demetrio: "a floating industrial plant".

If Colebatch has one poem that epitomises his values, it is likely to be The San Demetrio (The Light River). Colebatch says that his father told him this story when he was a small boy. The poem is dedicated to Peter Kocan, a talented poet and novelist who has had a troubled life. Although he was awarded an Australian Council Emeritus Writers Award in recognition of his contribution to Australian literature, he will always be remembered for his attempt on the life of Arthur Calwell, Leader of the Opposition after an anti-conscription rally at Mosman Town Hall in June 1966. Calwell forgave Kocan, who was found to be mentally unstable. Kocan was confined in a mental hospital for 10 years. Colebatch reveals in his work and life a similar generosity of spirit.

The San Demetrio is about heroism. It is an epic poem set in World War II about the extraordinary heroism of a crew of 14 men, mostly civilians, who saved a precious cargo. I gave this poem a more extensive treatment in “On Being a Hero: The Notion of the Hero in the Works of Hal G.P. Colebatch” (Jeffry Babb, Masters thesis, University of Melbourne, 2014).

Colebatch celebrates merchant seamen, men who do dirty, anonymous work. “Larger questions hardly arise.” The ship, carrying 12,000 tons of petrol, is a floating bomb. “These are no heroes of the sea, these are only men/who help run a floating industrial plant.”

The Jervis Bay, Stureholm and San Demetrio were in the same Atlantic convoy. There was nothing obviously gallant about the San Demetrio, unlike the Jervis Bay, an armed merchantman which took on a German pocket battleship, or the neutral Stureholm, a heavy laden Swedish ship carrying scrap metal, retracing its route to pick up the survivors of the Jervis Bay. But something caused the survivors of the San Demitrio to return to their sluggish, stricken floating bomb. “Frost bitten, sea sick and starving”, facing a gale for nine days and navigating by the stars glimpsed at night through the racing clouds, they make landfall. They have brought more than 11,000 desperately needed tons of petrol to harbour. It is a new beginning.

Colebatch is not extravagant in his praise. These men became heroes more by accident than by an act of will. He celebrates their ordinariness and their intention to nurse the San Demetrio home.

Merchant seamen are not normally the stuff from which heroes are made; a hard life and a cruel death, usually. No decoration “for valour in the face of the enemy” with crimson ribbon for these men. Yet, when they had a choice to make, they rose to the occasion. This is one of Colebatch's best poems.

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