Remaking the Middle Ages in Australia: Francis Webb’s ‘The Canticle’ (1953)

Francis Webb's verse-sequence on St Francis of Assisi, 'The Canticle', from Birthday (1953) has been acknowledged as a watershed in his career (Griffith, Life and Poetry 5, 76, 131) and as a major refocusing of his art (Ashcroft 15-19). I wish to re-read 'The Canticle' here, mainly as an important poem by an Australian writer still lacking sufficient scholarly attention, but also as an instance of what might be called Australian medievalism. I want to show how Webb's poetry, through its local inflection of a disputed European tradition, remade the significance of a central medieval figure--St Francis--within an Australian context. In doing so, I hope to show how earlier European culture (in this instance, medieval culture) can be of importance to our understanding of Webb as a modern Australian writer.

In Australia, the Middle Ages have sometimes been seen as the first instalment of an Anglocentric's or Eurocentric's inheritance (Mead, 'Anti-Imperial Approaches' 409); even worse, as an instalment no longer relevant. At any rate, Australians reading earlier European literatures are now called on to consider what function their work performs here and how it is attached to their local situation. To quote Jenna Mead, ë[Medieval and early modem] texts need to be part of a discursive formation that identifies its subject 'culture' as the intersection of ideology and critique in the everyday practices of both reader and textí (Mead, 'Producing Culture' 389).

The project Mead outlines quickly raises a procedural difficulty, simply because of the shortage of knowledge about what possible uses Australians have ever had for the Middle Ages. Without knowing more about that history, we cannot properly understand what is involved in the Australian reception and construction of the Europeap past. In this connection, an important missing study is the representation of the medieval in Australian literature and art. How much is there? What is it like? Whilst the English enjoy a 'Middle Ages' much influenced by Pugin, Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites, do Australians simply internalise a pseudo-'metropolitan' medieval inheritance, 'both European and not European', ignoring local conditions, as John Docker once wrote about our English departments (Docker 443-45)? If, as I think, a poem like Webb's 'Canticle' indicates otherwise, then the local agenda of Australian responses to the medieval becomes of more general interest. It exists as an issue in Australian literature, as Tennyson's Idylls have made it exist in British literature.

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Published 1 May 1999 in Volume 19 No. 1. Subjects: Australian culture, Literary career, Medieval history, Poetic techniques, Roman Catholicism, Saints, Writer's craft, Writer's inspiration.

Cite as: Lynch, Andrew. ‘Remaking the Middle Ages in Australia: Francis Webb’s ‘The Canticle’ (1953).’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 19, no. 1, 1999, doi: 10.20314/als.0c6734243c.