Randolph Stow’s ‘Outrider’ and the French Voyager Poem

Whereas the negative early criticism of Tourmaline (1963) found cogent, if belated rebuttal in the articles of A.D. Hope and Helen Tiffin that appeared ten years after what became known as 'the Tourmaline affair', an equivalent process of amendment has not occurred in the case of Randolph Stow's second volume of poems, Outrider (1962). Since little later criticism addresses the volume as a whole rather than individual poems, the remarkable shift from the Romantic and Metaphysical derivations in Act One (1957) to the Symbolist and Modernist allegiances of Outrider have not been appreciated. Critics have failed to acknowledge that Outrider was not intended as a relatively random collection of poems written over a number of years but rather a coherently organised sequence, whose procedures were inspired by 19th century French voyager poetry. In its strategies, Outrider can most profitably be regarded as an intensely personal counterpart to Tourmaline, whose achievement was likewise to construct a literary mode from the broadly European rather than the narrowly Australian heritage; one that could incorporate, within in its operations, a fundamentally Taoist resolution to divisions within the Western consciousness.

The initial difficulties critics had in arriving at a just appreciation of Outrider were compounded by its illustrated form of publication, where a comparison with the paintings of Sydney Nolan became a necessary part of the initial critical endeavour. Nolan chose to isolate those settings, or natural symbols, that particularly appealed to him among the twenty-four poems that make up the volume. Characteristically, if there is a human figure, it merges into, or out of, the environment, a technique that is most strikingly employed in the illustration inspired by 'The Calenture'. Nolan's diminution of the human element, however, downplays the subjective drama that imbues perceptions of land and sea in Outrider, and conceals the fact that its controlling mode is not vividly localised description but emblematic narration. The often arbitrary interspacing of eight illustrations among twenty-four poems of diverse subject and style provided another obstacle in its encouragement of a discrete rather than sequential reading of the poems. But the greatest distraction for the early reviewers proved to be the sheer brilliance of the Nolan paintings.

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Published 1 October 1997 in Volume 18 No. 2. Subjects: Australian literary criticism, Literary influences, Modernism, Poetic techniques, Poetry.

Cite as: Whitehouse, Carl. ‘Randolph Stow’s ‘Outrider’ and the French Voyager Poem.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 18, no. 2, 1997, doi: 10.20314/als.0dbd31e26a.