A lonely Orpheus, Liam McIlvanney

The Snake-Haired Muse: James K Baxter and Classical Myth
Geoffrey Miles, John Davidson and Paul Millar
Victoria University Press, $50.00,
ISBN 9780864736581


“What happens is either meaningless to me, or it is mythology.” Though James K Baxter’s vatic pronouncement is often cited, its implications are seldom heeded. Mythology – and particularly the Greek and Roman legends he imbibed from early childhood – was how Baxter made sense of his world. He didn’t think about myth so much as through it. He saw himself in Odysseus, saw Odysseus in himself. He saw Persephone as a Remuera housewife, pictured randy Otago students as Hero and Leander. These classical figures were archetypes, yes, but they were characters, credible beings who had their counterparts – their reincarnations it could almost seem – in contemporary New Zealand. As Geoffrey Miles suggests in this absorbing new study, myth is less Baxter’s “baggage” than the vehicle of his verse: “Myth is not a trapping which he assumes for public effect, but a fundamental part of how his mind works”.

It might seem, to anyone familiar with Baxter’s work, that Miles is voicing a truism here. But with honourable exceptions (including Vincent O’Sullivan and Lawrence Jones), New Zealand critics have downplayed or even disparaged Baxter’s engagement with classical mythology, often through a baleful ‘Kiwi’ impatience with the esoteric and the highfalutin. Iain Sharp’s response to the Troy and Carthage allusions in Baxter’s “Wild Bees” – “Aw, for Gawd’s sake, get off your high horse, Jimmy” – is merely the most flamboyantly crass expression of a widely shared sentiment. Ironically, of course, there is more affectation in Sharp’s blokeish persona – the critic in gumboots and singlet – than in Baxter’s resort to classical myth.

In any case, the notion that Baxter’s use of mythology is contrived, precious or superficial cannot survive an acquaintance with The Snake-Haired Muse. A three-way collaboration involving a Baxter scholar (Paul Millar), a classicist (John Davidson) and a specialist in the reception of the classics in English literature (Geoffrey Miles),  the book examines mythological references in Baxter’s poetry across his career, drawing impartially on the published and unpublished work. Constructed around a number of case studies of mythological figures (including Venus, Hercules and Odysseus) and classical motifs (the underworld, the labyrinth), the book not only demonstrates the pervasiveness of mythology in Baxter’s verse but explores its dissenting, polemical edge.

It was Graham Greene, like Baxter a Catholic convert, who praised “disloyalty” as the writer’s cardinal virtue. Baxter, too, valued disloyalty and shared Greene’s vision of the writer as a “piece of grit in the State machinery”. A perennial outsider, warring with the “monstrous” materialism and Puritanism of New Zealand society, Baxter quite naturally pictured himself as a lonely Orpheus, an exiled Odysseus, a Prometheus stealing fire from the gods, a Theseus stalking the minotaur, a Sisyphus pushing his boulder uphill. Tracing these figures through Baxter’s published and unpublished poems, the authors show how Baxter customised and naturalised his classical material in works that stay stubbornly rooted in Pig Island soil.

A key virtue of this study is its willingness to accommodate the fluidity, the creative inconstancy of Baxter’s mythological imagination. Baxter is not a scholar but a poet: his treatment of a particular myth over the course of his poetic career can be shifting, ambiguous, even contradictory. Where one poem requires the Muse to be a benign and beautiful Venus (“To My Father”), another presents her as a vengeful hag (“The Muse”). And the Muse is not alone: as Miles observes, “Baxter’s mythological figures almost all show this duality – an ability to stand, alternately or simultaneously, for diametrically opposite things”. It is to the credit, therefore, of all three authors that there is no Casaubon among them, no-one labouring to construct a key to all Baxter’s mythologies.

Miles, described in the preface as the “lynchpin of the project”, has written the bulk of the book. After staking out the ground in a lucid introduction, Miles explores Baxter’s treatment of Hercules, Theseus and Odysseus, before conducting a bravura tour of “Baxter’s Underworlds”. Miles is also responsible for the largest single section of the book, an exhaustive 85-page catalogue of “every character or story from classical myth mentioned in Baxter’s work”. Arranged alphabetically, this “Mythological Who’s Who in Baxter” is a formidable scholarly achievement in its own right, and turns an important critical study into an essential work of reference, a book that Baxter scholars will want to keep at their elbows.

According to Robert Louis Stevenson, “everything worth judging, whether it be a man, a work of art, or only a fine city, must be judged upon its merits as a whole”. The challenge for Baxter scholarship is that the whole Baxter is never in view. Two thirds of his output remains submerged in the 28 notebooks in the Hocken Library. In plunging so deeply into the labyrinth of the unpublished work, probing what Miles calls the “textual unconscious” of Baxter’s oeuvre, the authors of The Snake-Haired Muse bring the corpus into focus in a way that cannot happen via the misnamed Collected Poems. Not only do the unpublished poems amply confirm the mythological tenor of Baxter’s imagination, they permit a more informed and finely calibrated reading of the canonical poems.

This is nowhere clearer than in the discussion of “The Tiredness of Me and Hercules”. Miles reads this stringent late poem (written a bare fortnight before Baxter’s death) as a complex Christian allegory of the Atonement. If his reading is original and compelling – and it is – then this is partly because Miles has “followed Baxter’s treatment of Hercules, Atlas and the Hesperides through a number of largely unpublished poems” and can show how Baxter’s Hercules poems speak to one another. It is in passages like this that The Snake-Haired Muse proves its worth, using its mythological focus to extend our understanding of how the poems work.

Though he had his differences with Allen Curnow, Baxter agreed with the older man that a true poem should “change the imagination” of its reader. To do this, Baxter argues, a poem requires a “detonator” – some element that can jolt readers out of their complacency. Sometimes that detonator is a shocking anti-social sentiment, as when Louis MacNeice expresses his glee at the wartime blitzing of London’s buildings in “Brother Fire”. At other times the detonator may be an obscene word or a sexual image, which is why Baxter places such a premium on Robert Burns’s bawdry. And perhaps classical mythology – with its randy gods and scurrilous heroes, its ravishings and impostures and shocking transformations – serves a similar purpose for Baxter. Certainly, an unpublished mythological poem like “The Horse”, in which a giant visionary phallus transmutes into winged Pegasus, detonates with remarkable force, recalling Baxter’s penchant for “a poem like a hand-grenade”.

It might seem churlish to carp about omissions in a book that breaks whole tracts of new terrain, but there remain some striking lacunae. While Carl Jung and Robert Graves are rightly identified as key mediators of classical mythology for Baxter, there is, despite Baxter’s declared interest in the “totemism of primitive man”, no mention of J G Frazer. A little closer to home, the importance of Kenneth Quinn, the Otago Professor of Classics who encouraged Baxter to translate Catullus, might usefully have been explored. But most egregious is the scant attention paid to Robert Burns, that “tribal” Scottish bard who served as model and touchstone throughout Baxter’s career and who is rather quaintly described in the present volume as one of the “English poets” Baxter read in childhood.

The Robert Burns who treated classical mythology with edgy irreverence, who could present a foaming tankard of beer or a smoking stream of piss as his “Helicon” (“Love and Liberty”), or depict his Muse “sittan on her arse” (“The Author’s Earnest Cry and Prayer”), is clearly a model for Baxter. It’s no coincidence that the line from which the present volume takes its title – “The Snake-haired muse came out of the sky” – comes from Baxter’s “Letter to Robert Burns”, nor that the volume of Burnsian bawdry which Baxter kept on his office shelves during his tenure of the Burns Fellowship was The Merry Muses of Caledonia. But though the authors point to “the importance of Robert Burns in the development of Baxter’s conception of the Muse”, they appear not to have returned to Burns’s poems themselves and to their numerous and – for Baxter – exemplary invocations of the Muse. (In fairness, I should point out that this lacuna is made good in Geoffrey Miles’s brilliant forthcoming essay on “Baxter, Burns and the Muse” in the Journal of New Zealand Literature.)

Commendably, The Snake-Haired Muse refrains from advancing extravagant claims. No-one is suggesting that classical allusion forms the principal interest of Baxter’s verse or that his mythological impulse is always happy. But where the book excels is in paying Baxter the respect of taking his mythology seriously, and not dismissing it – along with his Catholicism and his Romanticism – as some kind of personal eccentricity. Instead of neglecting those elements of Baxter’s imagination that strike modern critics as outlandish, the harder critical task, as Paul Millar argues, is to “accept Baxter on his terms – unapologetically mythic, enduringly Romantic, and idiosyncratically religious”. In pursuing this task with such verve and assiduity, Miles, Davidson and Millar have produced a landmark study of Baxter and a seminal work of New Zealand literary criticism.


Liam McIlvanney is the inaugural Stuart Professor of Scottish Studies at the University of Otago.


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