Cantos Of Wandering  Introduction

Ross Keating tells us that this long poem was first written as a verse play called The Great Wall and given a public reading. It was released in its present form in 1957. I can’t help reproducing a review that Ross quotes, a review from a real Australian literature ‘heavy’ of the time in the most prominent literary magazine, Meanjin:

“Cantos of Wandering is one of the most curious books of pseudo-poetry ever published in Australia. Its muddled pastiche of the Bhagavad-Gita, Rilke, Blake, Old Bush Songs and Madame Blavatsky, occasionally attains a certain crazy force. Mr Brabazon is capable of producing images and phrases which at least have an air of poetry about them; but his notions of rhythm are primitive to say the least…”

Poor Francis. All the more wounding may have been the fact that these remarks were not far off the truth, especially if any underlying message was seen as theosophical blather by the critic. The Brabazon literary output got almost no attention from the world of literature after this.

The underlying message of the Cantos seems to be –

It is no good remaining in a stasis of aesthetic contemplation, we have to embark on a restless seeking of the will of God in confronting experience and the frantic contents of the mind until we reach a stilling of desire.

Francis was to some extent writing out of his personal experience, of his own struggle to reconcile romantic love with wider ideals; and of his attempts to cope with the welling up of the enormous energies mentally swirling from his encounter with Meher Baba. Out of this comes some incoherence, wandering cantos indeed, but there are also some vivid insights into the struggle between life and transcendence.

In the opening stanza we have a not very believable etherealizing of some working girls on their lunch break as a chorus from Nature, but then some fine hints of the power of love in Canto II:

Love is the light of your own intelligence,
Perfect and self-existent, ready to guide
And aid you in that search you have begun;
The sun which holds the planets of the mind
Upon their course and purpose; the fire
Which motivates the heart, and sustains action;
The flame which burns up ignorance and every form of death;
The Self of yourself, God, your own Heritage.

Peter the protagonist gets plenty of good advice but is still trapped within the stone walls of his own mind. But much of the poem can’t help striking the reader as overdone as in Canto III when Peter meets ten rhapsodic Aussie swagmen who carry on like crazy fakirs.

Much of the poem is as if Francis is trying to capture some of the power of modernist art, say Picasso or Kandinsky, in his surrealistic distortions, but he does not have the discipline and skill of his later verse to fulfil his enormous ambitions. As it is we feel at times trapped in the ravings of Peter’s restless mind. Things are more successful at more reflective moments as in the advice from his friend Salik in Canto IV and the voice from the wireless which explains the ascent from the many to the one. When things get too high-flown as in Cantos V and VI his experiences are not convincing. It all seems like the script for a surrealist film and the words just won’t bear the weight of fancy and seem an affectation. Canto VIII descends into near farce as Peter roams in ”the pastures of near-madness.” The salvific love between the man and his woman at the end was not entirely plausible, at least to this reader.

One feels Francis may have learnt a lot from this rather hectic attempt to capture his own excitement at the vistas opened up by his Master.

(N.B. Feel free to on this site to challenge the patronizing tone I have here taken.)


[Author: Geoff Gunther]