The following is the text of a lecture Robert Adamson gave as CAL Chair of Australian Poetry at the University of Technology Sydney.
I begin with a quote from the great British art critic and poet, Herbert Read, from his preface to the 1969 Collected Poems of Francis Webb, published by Angus & Robertson:
“There are lyrical sequences in this volume (how beautiful, ‘The Tower’, for example, and the last poem in the volume, ‘Wild Honey’ with its perfect concluding line), but Francis Webb, like Browning, is essentially a dramatic poet—even his lyrics, like Browning’s are dramatic. His ‘Self Portrait’ is an exact one:
Fullness, shadow: what to tell again
But the so tender voyaging line of truth,
Time shuffles a timid foot, will linger
While the tired cockcrow of your lifted finger
Opens dawn and a worn album of love and pain,
Brown eyes and hair flow humbly from the earth.
From the beginning Francis Webb has sought that ‘so tender voyaging line of truth’, single-mindedly, and with a somewhat disconcerting unawareness of the fashionable poetry of his time. He was always concerned with the same tragic problems as Rilke, Eliot, Pasternak and, to mention a contemporary who presents a close parallel, Robert Lowell. I cannot, after long mediation on his verse, place his achievement on a level lower than that suggested by these names.”
This is a wonderful summation of Webb’s achievement and it stands up well forty years later. That said, we must remember two years before this, in 1967, London Magazine published a review of recent Australian literature that failed to mention Webb. In a letter of response Herbert Read questioned the reviewer and said :
To say that ‘After Judith Wright, the only Australian poet of statue and continued development is Peter Porter is to ignore one of the greatest poets of our time—Francis Webb…one of the most unjustly neglected poets of the century
It’s well known that Webb spent many years in mental hospitals. I want to quote from a privately printed book of his correspondence sent to me by Frank’s sister Leonie. The book is called Francis Webb, Poet and Brother and was compiled by Peter and Leonie Meere. Here’s a passage from the Introduction concerning the question of his health.
That Frank developed some form of serious mental illness cannot be doubted. The nature and causes of his illness, we contend, have not been clarified and now probably never will be. Drugs and enforced hospitalization, we believe, are contenders for ‘honours’ as both causes of the illness and as treatments for it.
Francis Webb wrote many letters concerning his mental illness, the treatments and hospitals and the doctors he experienced. These letters are written with piercing lucidity and witty humorous asides, there are passages and insights that are quite heart-breaking. ‘Does any madman have sufficient grasp of reality to write my kind of stuff? What is the strange, actually occult value of this label ‘insane’ that you have consented to have sewn onto my lapel? Didn’t Lowell and Macleish have old Ezra Pound released from an asylum? What have I done worse than all the scum claimed Ezra did of his own free will?’
Francis Webb didn’t write poetry at all when he was ill. He wrote before the onset of the illness, between attacks, after he had recovered from treatment or when he was able to ease off the medications.
That Webb suffered from mental illness is clearly a significant feature in his biography and his later literary reputation. However, this emphasis on pathology risks slanting our full understanding of Webb’s poetry. We must not forget how deep a grasp of poetry Webb had, his intellectual agility as a technician, his deep knowledge and experience as a poet …
The following paragraph written in 1961 shows how clear minded he was about writing poetry :
The line of the singer is the longest in English poetry. He must be the complete technician, skilled in manipulating that very silence that follows word and stanza. Always, perhaps in our times more than others —the pressure of conformities threatens him and his way of breathing. That is why he tends to shape for himself a personality in which to live and write. Such a self-conscious formation of personality may be dangerous: it may result in a mere mask, or run to seed, it may distort the rational and emotional integrity of experience and thinking. Pitfalls galore await him: the facile, the repetitive, the pastiche.
Earlier, in a letter to Leonie and Peter from Surrey in England in May 1956, Francis writes “I was born for poetry and lived for it. Poetry is the greatest vocation on earth. I’m now a fully dedicated writer, in it up to my neck, and there are pot-holes on the road”. Frank’s sister Leonie later said “Francis Webb defined himself as a poet—his profession and occupation was ‘poet’. He worked in a variety of jobs as a means of support so that he could get on with his purpose for being—writing poetry”.
When Francis Webb was not in the Air Force or working for a publisher he preferred manual labour. Poets like John Clare to John Shaw-Neilson found release by working with their hands. Basil Bunting spent time doing roadwork in Northumbria as he composed Briggflats in his head by day and then transcribed it at night. Francis Webb wrote during his time as a farm labourer in an orchard at Galston. He was living in a shack on the property, working by day, and reading Hopkins or composing poetry at night. His letters to his sister during this time indicate it was a peaceful and happy period of his life. Here is a poem he wrote at the time:
The Black Cockatoos
Black cockatoos are somewhere under the sun:
Down with the mattocks, let the wild couch-grass run.
Take the gully-road, slide on the sticks and stones
And wait for the artists of Heaven, the crested ones.
Skinny growths of winter rouse themselves up
For a marriage, a picture, a poem. The cloth and the cup
Are lying upon the blue board. Music again,
Unearthly as space itself: they are coming, then.
With a full heart, kneel and accept what is given,
Take into your eyes and hearts this bounty of Heaven:
One prideful crow sidestroking brilliantly there
In somewhat less than a hundred feet of air
Douglas Stewart published Webb in the Bulletin for the first time in 1940. He was 16, the youngest poet ever published in the red page, the literary pages, the most prestigious place for a poet to appear in Australia.
The literary climate in Sydney at the time was influenced and guided by Douglas Stewart and his friend Norman Lindsay. Stewart was the Literary Editor of the Bulletin from 1940 to 1960. When he left the Bulletin he took up a position with Angus & Robertson. He was responsible for their poetry list right up until 1972. Stewart and Lindsay were apart of a group known as the Vitalists, along with R.D. FitzGerald, Hugh McCrae, Kenneth Slessor, A.D. Hope and others. This group promoted Norman Lindsay’s aesthetic credo and published their work in the journal Vision established in the 1920s by Norman and Jack Lindsay . Douglas Stewart had established a trend that promoted a Nationalistic poetry and drama consisting of heroic figures and myths. Stewart encouraged poets to write about the figures in our past who (he thought) could offer the country a unique identity. In a souvenir publication for the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust he made this comment:
The playwright, I think, creates the myths by which the people live: the heroic, gigantic, legendary figures, fathers of the race, ancestors spiritual or actual, to which the living man can point and say, ‘This is what I am made of; that is what makes us different from other people; that is what I believe in; those are my gods and my devils.
Here are some titles of books published by A&R in this period , Five Visions of Captain Cook by Kenneth Slessor, the Fire on The Snow a radio play about Scott of the Antarctic and Ned Kelly by Douglas Stewart, William Hart-Smith’s Columbus Goes West, Rosemary Dobson’s A Ship of Ice and Rex Igamell’s The Great South Land. Stewart and Norman Lindsay were influenced by the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and saw the hero’s self-assertion as a good beyond morality.
Webb held different beliefs and the cargo of his first epic poem would eventually reveal itself. However Francis didn’t show his full hand until after Angus & Robertson published his first book A Drum for Ben Boyd. He waited until he was on the other side of the world in Canada before he wrote an explosive epistle to Lindsay that utterly changed their relationship. His long book length poem about Boyd was in some ways Webb’s version of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud’s ‘The Drunken Boat’ but let me come back to this in a little while.
The official history of Australia generally available in the 1940s and 50s was akin to the stories Doug Stewart was promoting. I remember what was served up in my school in the ’50s. I attended Neutral Bay Public School, it was actually on Ben Boyd Road, not far from where Francis Webb grew up. Boyd was taught as if he had been some heroic gift to the country, we learned he virtually established the whaling industry and that his vast sheep stations contributed to the country’s economy. They didn’t mention he fled the country after he was made bankrupt and that he was being investigated for great frauds.
The first poem in Webb’s new Collected Poems is called ‘The Hero of The Plain’: written when he was seven years old it records an indelible impression of the darker side of the heroic deed. There is a poem by Arthur Rimbaud titled ‘Seven-year-old-Poets’ that recalls a state of mind that would have been well known by the young Francis Webb : ‘All day he sweated obedience’.
Webb was careful about what he said to Stewart and Lindsay. At the time this was a wise move. In his poetry he challenged the history of each period he wrote about, and he saw clearly the narrow perspectives of Lindsay and Stewart’s tub-thumping. He had an apt phrase for the historical record: ‘dry old national motives’.
When Webb first submitted A Drum for Ben Boyd (even the title’s a tip-off) to A&R Douglas Stewart took the manuscript up to Springwood for a weekend. In a letter to Webb, Norman Lindsay says, ‘Doug Stewart and I spent a day over this work, re-reading it and discussing it from every angle, and it grew stronger the more we analyzed it’. They were very impressed by Webb’s brilliant technique but when they came across something they didn’t agree with, it was put down as obscure thinking, rather than a challenge to their beliefs. Webb’s use of form was a subtle parody of the style of verse in vogue at the time.
Stewart and Lindsay understood Webb’s view of Ben Boyd was a dark one, however they didn’t seem to pick up on the possibility that it might be a critical mirror reflecting ironically back at them.
The figure of Boyd with his schooner, the Wanderer, his whaling boats, involvement with black-birding, the shady real-estate developments and a town built and named after himself is a shadow-figure built up throughout Webb’s poem in monologues drawn from the memories of ten people who were close to Boyd in some way. Maybe Stewart and Lindsay read A Drum for Ben Boyd as positive slant on a tale of heroic deeds gone wrong.
Today Francis Webb’s portrait of Ben Boyd reads like the tale of a privileged adventurer, a forerunner of the likes of Christopher Skase.
Norman Lindsay invited Frank Webb up to his studio in Springwood for a weekend and Webb was for the first time, exposed to Lindsay’s unguarded opinions. Lindsay was known for his anti-Semitism and also believed in a white Australia and a loose Nietzschean celebration of the will’s achievements. He also believed that it was inevitable that the Aboriginal people of Australia would die out. These views often spilled over into his writing. Modern editions of his children’s story The Magic Pudding now omit a couplet in which the phrase ‘you unmitigated Jew’ is used as an insult. As the critic Livio Dobrez puts it, the Vitalists by this stage were ‘nationalism gone to seed.’ Webb was appalled by these views but listened silently, he later blamed himself for this silence and brooded over the conversations between Doug Stewart and Lindsay and others in their circle.
Webb’s family had empathy for Aboriginal people and passed this onto the children, the grandparents often talked about their respect the original inhabitants had for the land. Webb’s grandfather instilled awe in the children by showing Frank and his sisters the Aboriginal shark carving on a great rock near the entrance to Ball’s Head Reserve just behind the house where they grew up. Webb has several references to these experiences in his poems. In the poem ‘End of the Picnic’ the landscape at Botany Bay is perceived as holy and the arrival of the Endeavour as the beginning of its defilement.
End of the Picnic
When that humble-headed elder, the sea, gave his wide
Strenuous arm to a blasphemy, hauling the girth
And the sail and the black yard
Of unknown Endeavour towards this holy beach,
Heaven would be watching. And the two men. And the earth,
Immaculate, illuminant, out of reach.
It must break—on sacred water this swindle of a wave.
Thick canvas flogged the sticks. Hell lay hove-to.
Heaven did not move.
Two men stood safe: even when the prying, peering
Longboat, the devil’s totem, cast off and grew,
No god shifted an inch to take a bearing.
It was Heaven-and-earth’s jolting out of them shook the men.
It was uninitiated scurf and bone that fled.
Cook’s column holds here.
Our ferry is homesick, whistling again and again;
But still I see how the myth of a daylight bled
Standing in ribbons, over our heads, for an hour.
Webb sees the longboat as the ‘devil’s totem’ as it glides silently across the bay and then in a brilliant shift from one line to the next ‘Cook’s column holds here’ where ‘Our ferry is homesick, whistling again and again’ we have moved through time to the present, an image of the Union Jack with its red ribbons, crossed in the flag above the landing party yet still staining the atmosphere . Webb is applying a Cubism with words, we are there with the Aboriginal people on the shore at La Parouse as the English plant the flag, and then in the turn of a line we have moved forward two hundred and two years in the poem to the present moment.
Francis Webb burst onto the Australian poetry world with his first book A Drum for Ben Boyd in 1948. He followed it with Leichhardt in Theatre. In 1950 it would have been impossible to ignore him. It’s not surprising he was taken up by Angus and Robertson and into the fold with Norman Lindsay. Stewart and Lindsay didn’t know what they were getting into with this fierce but well mannered prodigy. Webb’s early poems were as technically assured as the early poetry of that other young poet in Paris one hundred years before him. The young Frank was a version of Arthur Rimbaud in reverse, instead of outright rebellion, Webb wove his original ideas carefully into his meticulous verse forms. He wrote in pentameters with intricate rhyme schemes then moved into other forms with each new book. Webb’s impeccable manners were handed down from his sophisticated and loving family who supported him in his vocation.
Like Rimbaud he was a born poet who excelled at school. Webb won prizes for his poetry and gained First Class honours in the Leaving Certificate and was second place on the State honours for English. He won an Exhibition to Sydney University and became a champion runner and swimmer instead of a sulky lay-about. There were other parallels, instead of rejecting God and becoming a nihilist like Rimbuad, Webb became a devout Catholic and called iconoclasm ‘that ancient disease’. Instead of taking up his exhibition at Sydney University he joined the Air Force. After he completing his training at the Wireless and Gunnery school in Ballarat, he sailed for Canada. When Francis Webb returned to Australian after a year’s service he was promoted to Flight Sergeant, he was 21 years old and the war was over.
There were reasons behind most of his decisions but to understand these we need to look at some biographical details. Frank’s father Claude Webb was the director of the North Sydney Academy of Music. It was here that he met and married one of his students, Hazel Leonie Foy, she was the youngest child of Francis Foy, founder of the retail firm Mark Foy’s in Sydney. Hazel was well educated and had travelled the world by the time she met Claude. The young couple lived at Wollstonecraft, where they had two daughters, Mavis and Claudia before they moved to Adelaide where Claude set up a studio and made a living importing and selling pianos. The business went well and the couple had two more children, Francis was the third child born on the 8th of February 1925, his youngest sister Leonie was born fifteen months later.
Michael Griffith in his book God’s Fool has written an account of the first tragedy the Webb family encountered, and I quote him here:
In April 1927, youthful high spirits led Hazel—(who had her father’s passion for thoroughbreds)—to attend a race meeting near their home at Rose Park shortly after suffering a bout of influenza. As a result she collapsed and died of pneumonia two days later. Frank Webb was two years old when his mother died, and there was more tragedy in store. The grief-stricken father, who had apparently warned his wife of the danger of going out in her condition, was devastated. The loss of his beloved wife and the practical difficulties that ensued, in regard to managing both his family and his business, precipitated a deep depression from which he never fully recovered. Being an only child, there were few close relations to whom he could turn to for help in this time of need. It is known that he pleaded with the one person he knew was strong enough, his mother, to care for his children. He asked her to promise that his children would never be separated. Claude was initially cared for, in private hospitals, but the cost of this, to his family was such, that by 1931, when Francis was seven years old, Claude had himself admitted to Callan Park Mental Hospital in Sydney.
Claude remained in Callan Park until February 1945, when he was taken to Balmain Hospital suffering from peritonitis and died there at the age of fifty two. Francis was 21 at the time his father died.
In the poem ‘Hospital Night’ Francis Webb addresses his father directly:
It is pain, truth, it is you, my father, beloved friend,
Come to me in the guile and darkness of a day’s end,
As a frail intense blue burning, near nor far.
Old hands were stripped from the keyboard of time, they favour
White notes nor black, but they glitter, and glitter of a lover, As, out of war,
I labour, breathing deeply, and tremble towards your star.
When Francis was demobilized from the Air Force in 1946 he took advantage of his deferred University Exhibition and his status as an ex-serviceman to enroll in the Faculty of Arts at Sydney University where he spent most of his time in the Nicholson museum studying the antiquities.
John Dawes offers a revealing scene of Frank and the impact his presence made in Sydney around this time: Dawes wrote in the Catholic Weekly:
Just after the war, when I was a Campion Society group leader, I had in my ‘mob’ (mainly, but not exclusively, ex-servicemen), a young, sensitive, highly intelligent, perceptive, witty and wiser than his years ex RAAF member, who set all to thinking, disturbed complacency, asked penetrating questions and smiled and laughed gaily at the confusion he caused as he confounded us by his brilliance.
Quite a different Francis Webb to the one discussed in the correspondence of Doug Stewart and Norman Lindsay. Here’s Stewart writing about a weekend visit to Lindsay’s studio in Springwood:
I remember taking Francis Webb up for a day, just after he had written A Drum for Ben Boyd. Shy and pale and nuggety, looking like Keats with his pale blue eyes and prominent Roman nose, he strolled about the grounds and talked pleasantly on the lawn with us, full of admiration for his contemporary Australian poets and diffident about his own writing.
While Stewart and Lindsay were egging Francis on to add to their ‘myths of the heroic, gigantic, legendary figures, fathers of the race’, lines for a future book were running through Frank’s mind, ‘The tiny, not the immense, / Will teach our groping eyes.’ He had just completed another poem for his next book Leichhardt in Theatre called ‘Morgan’s Country’ about Dan ‘mad-dog’ Morgan. There is no heroic myth making, instead of iconic images like Nolan’s figurative Ned Kelly, Webb takes an abstract approach akin to Paul Cezanne’s cubist period. Webb stripped away whatever myth remained of Dan Morgan’s exploits and presented us with the raw facts. In a published note on the poem Webb states: ‘Morgan’s Country’ is a study in evil, that gent. murdered women and children’. The poem is more chilling than any study in prose could be, Webb takes us into Morgan’s thoughts as they run through the past, present and future, pretty much simultaneously. The poem covers the final seven hours of the bushranger’s life. Morgan had broken into Peachelba Station and held up the McPherson family. The night passes and at 5am Morgan looks out and sees the morning star. ‘The passage of the hours becomes tolling numbers running through the poem’ . The countdown to a premonition that comes to Morgan as he eats breakfast. ‘Ashes drift on the dead-sea shadow of his plate’. When Morgan leaves the property he will be shot in the back. The name Bill in the first line refers to ‘German Bill’ one of Morgan’s companions. One night, cornered by police, Morgan turned and coldly put a shot into his mate—so that Bill became a decoy to the police, so as to make clear Morgan’s escape.
This is Morgan’s country: now steady, Bill.
(Stunted and grey, hunted and murderous.)
Squeeze for the first pressure. Shoot to kill.
Five: a star dozing in its cold cavern.
Six: first shuffle of boards in the cold house.
And the sun lagging on seven.
The grey wolf at his breakfast. He cannot think
Why he must make haste, unless because their eyes
Are poison at every well where he might drink.
Unless because their gabbling voices force
The doors of his grandeur—first terror, then only hate.
Now terror again. Dust swarms under the doors.
Ashes drift on the dead-sea shadow of his plate.
Why should he heed them? What to do but kill
When his angel howls, when the sounds reverberate
In the last grey pipe of his brain? At the window sill
A blowfly strums on two strings of air:
Ambush and slaughter tingle against the lull.
But the Cave, his mother, is close beside his chair,
Her sunless face scribbled with cobwebs, bones
Rattling in her throat when she speaks. And there
The stone Look-out, his towering father, leans
Like a splinter from the seamed palm of the plain.
Their counsel of thunder arms him. A threat of rain.
Seven: and a blaze fiercer than the sun.
The wind struggles in the arms of the starved tree,
The temple breaks on a threadbare mat of grass,
Eight: even under the sun’s trajectory
This country looks grey, hunted and murderous.
Here’s Bob Brissenden on ‘Morgan’s Country’:
The whole universe is somehow brought into the world of Morgan’s imagination—the immensities of space become the hollow immensities within the man himself, and within his memory of the dominant forces that shaped his personality….Morgan and his country, his physical environment, his landscape, become one and the same. In the opening stanza it is Morgan the man, we can assume, who is ‘stunted and grey, hunted and murderous’ beneath a sun which, like the bullets to be shot at the hunted man, pursues a ‘trajectory’.
When Webb’s second book Leichardt in Theatre appeared in 1952 it was reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement and ‘Morgan’s Country’ was singled out: the reviewer notes:
Nearly all Mr. Webb’s poems seek to enter into the mind of some traveller of the past and to look out through his eyes. Two brilliant poems deal with Cartier, the 16th century Frenchman who began the colonization of eastern Canada, and Morgan, an Australian bushranger who was shot in 1865 … Mr. Webb, if comparisons are at all helpful, has the descriptive force of Mr. Roy Campbell, the intellectual astringency of Mr. Robert Lowell.
Francis Webb never stayed in one place long unless he was constrained, the drive to move on can be seen in his continent-jumping—from Australia to Canada to England to Australia. He spent long periods in hospitals in each country, Birmingham’s Winston Green hospital for two years, Norwich’s David Rice Hospital for four years—although he wrote some of his finest poetry in these institutions, poems appeared in the TLS, the Bulletin and Angus & Robertson’s yearly anthologies.
While Francis was in Winston Green he even managed to get the B.B.C. to produce and broadcast his radio play Birthday about Hilter’s last days in the bunker. The Sydney Morning Herald reported this under the heading ‘Australian Poet to Hear his Play in Asylum’ the staff correspondent went on to say ‘Listeners will not be told of the circumstances behind the broadcast but the script has aroused the enthusiasm of the B.B.C. drama chiefs. Several are hailing the discovery of a new playwright’. Webb had earlier submitted a manuscript containing the radio play and a long poem ‘The Canticle’ based on the life of Saint Francis of Assisi to both the A.B.C. and M.U.P. and they both rejected it. A single volume of poetry with a play about Hitler’s last days and a ‘Canticle’ on Saint Francis. It was too much for the publishers. On his return to Australia in 1953 Webb published Birthday privately and it stands as one of his most important books.
Michael Griffith writes, ‘It was in Canada that the full horror of modern man’s inhumanity dawned on Webb as it did on many other people at that time. But Webb’s response was to feel personal guilt for global suffering—he clearly had that wisdom of the poetic genius that enabled him to acknowledge that the sources of all global evil were in every individual. His own moral cowardice in not having stood up to race hatred when he saw it (even when it lay in friends) was, he recognized, no different from the causes lying behind the tragedy of the war. A sense of complicity had become apart of Webb’s anguish. It was this of course, among other things, that occasioned the conflict with Lindsay and Stewart. Neither of these were interested in confronting the horrors of the modern world and Lindsay had no shame in publicly declaring his anti-Semitism, an attitude which was now responsible for one of the greatest mass murders in human history.’ Webb, in a letter to Doug Stewart writes :
Ages ago, I saw you for a moment and told you that Norman’s anti-Semitism, quoted by yourself without emphasis, had led me to attempt suicide in England. Firstly I told this to one person, Vincent Buckley. Then, years later I recalled fully all that led up to that attempted suicide and wrote to each of you telling the truth. Yes, anti-Semitism, art, and all known forms of cruelty led to it. But you and Norman were the two I most hated loosing as friends.
Webb was in Montreal when, to put it in his own words, ‘Old Nick showed his full hand’. Lindsay had written a letter responding to some poems and it tipped the scales; Webb decided to sever his relationship with Norman Lindsay. A series of bitter letters was exchanged between them and with the final reply from Lindsay, Webb says he found himself ‘reasonably in hell’ and decided to take a passage to England, he wrote: ‘For two or three days and nights I walked up and down the deck; in my hand was a drawing sent me by Norman Lindsay, a lovely head projected for my Leichhardt in book form; on the third night I tossed it overboard’.
Francis Webb’s last book, The Ghost of The Cock, is in my opinion probably his best, with the powerful poems of ‘Ward Two’: portraits of his fellow patients in what he called the ‘prison horror’ of Parramatta Psychiatric Hospital . Although the poems in this series are about terrible suffering, they are also strangely beautiful: I was impressed by their technical control and haunted by their subject matter. One poem is about a patient undergoing a pneumo-encephalograph, a procedure I knew about because I underwent one myself when I had meningitis. It’s a painful process in which a bubble of air is injected into the spine and travels up over the top of the brain as x-rays are taken. The poem describes the process in details that transform a medical procedure into a metaphor for spiritual alchemy:
Ward Two: Pneumo-encephalograph
Tight scrimmage of blankets in the dark;
Nerve-fluxions, flints coupling for the spark;
Today’s guilt and tomorrow’s blent;
Passion and peace trussed together, impotent;
Dilute potage of light
Dripping through glass to the desk where you sit and write;
Hour stalking lame hour . . .
May my every bone and vessel confess the power
To loathe suffering in you
As in myself, that arcane simmering brew.
Only come to this cabin of art:
Crack hardy, take off clothes, and play your part.
Contraband enters your brain;
Puckered guerilla faces patrol the vein;
The spore of oxygen passes
Skidding over old inclines and crevasses,
Hunting an ancient sore,
Foxhole of impulse in a minute cosmic war.
Concordat of nature and desire
Was revoked in you; but fire clashes with fire.
Let me ask, while you are still,
that in you marshaled this improbable will.
Instruments supple as the flute,
Vigilant eyes, mouths that are almost mute,
X-rays scintillant as a flower,
Tossed in a corner the plumes of falsehood, power?
Only your suffering.
Of pain’s amalgam with gold let some man sing
While, pale and fluent and rare
As the Holy Spirit, travels the bubble of air.
The Ghost of The Cock contains several poems of empathy for Frank’s fellow patients —there’s ‘Harry’, a mentally retarded fellow, who having written a letter:
licks the soiled envelope with a lover’s caress
Directing it to the House of no known address.
And the ‘Old Timer’ who lets :
deferential stars peep in one by one.
To watch may be deadly. There is no judgment, compulsion,
And the object becomes ourselves.
And there’s a man who can hardly see, speak or walk:
Away down, the roots, away down,
Who said, Let there be Light?
There’s the stunning poem called ‘Wild Honey’, where the poet watches a girl combing her yellow hair in a broken mirror on visitors day in the hospital gardens:
See her hands like bees
Store golden combs among certified hollow trees.
Have the gates of death scrape open.
Shall we meet (beyond the platoons of rainfall) a loftier hill
hung with such delicate husbandries? Shall ascent
be a traveling homeward, past the blue frosty feet
of winter, past childhood, past the grey snake, the will?
Are gestures stars in scared dishevelment,
The tiny, the pitiable, meaningless and rare
as a girl beleaguered by rain, and her yellow hair?
In 1968 it hadn’t occurred to me that Francis Webb was someone you could actually meet. It hadn’t even occurred to me that he might be living in Sydney. However I met John Buttsworth at a dinner party and he introduced himself as a psychiatrist. He and I began chatting, and he started telling me about a patient of his, Frank Webb, who was a poet. The name ‘Frank’ threw me for a second or two. Not Francis Webb?
I was incredulous. ‘Yes that’s right,’ said John. ‘Have you come across his poetry?’ Come across it? I’d been reading Webb’s 1962 volume The Ghost of The Cock for more than a year and loved it— I thought it was as good as Hart Crane who was my favourite poet at the time. ‘Shit!’ I replied, catching the attention of everyone in the room. ‘You have Frances Webb locked up in Callan Park? He’s Australia’s greatest poet!’
John set up a meeting in his office, at 10am the next Monday if I remember rightly. He said he’d go and get Frank and bring him to the office so that we wouldn’t be distracted by the staff or patients. We’d be more comfortable here, he explained. I wondered, while waiting, what Francis Webb would look like: there was no author’s photo on The Ghost of the Cock and I’d never seen one in any of the literary magazines. But I wasn’t left wondering for long. John came back a few moments later and ushered Francis into the room. He was 44, but looked much older. His face was deeply lined and his short, greying, crew-cut hair gave him quite a tough look: his manner was strong but guarded. He reminded me of George C. Scott, the Hollywood actor.
John introduced us, asked if we’d like tea or coffee and we both declined. ‘Okay, then. I’ll leave you two in peace.’ Francis had an Australian accent, but not a broad one, and spoke only in snatches for the first ten minutes or so. After John left, I pointed to some lounge chairs and suggested we sit down and get comfortable.
‘I’m an editor of this magazine,’ I said, handing him the latest issue of Poetry Magazine. ‘I’ve brought you a copy.’ He opened it immediately without looking at the cover and glanced at the title page. ‘Roland Robinson,’ he said, ‘a fine poet, one of our best.’ He then turned back to the cover, with its photograph of John Thompson. Francis would have known him — he’d produced a program called ‘Quality Street’ that showcased poetry — but I don’t think he realised until he turned to page four why he was featured on the cover: under the heading Vale John Thompson. There were tributes and words of appreciation from Thompson’s colleagues at the A.B.C. and from poets Francis knew, like Nancy Keesing, Douglas Stewart and Kenneth Slessor.
Francis was visibly upset by the news of Thompson’s death, but was able to continue talking, looking straight into my eyes as he did so, his gaze steady and intense. We launched into a long conversation about Thompson, Slessor and other Australian poets. Sometimes he seemed to catch himself from expressing an opinion, but he was articulate and full of praise when discussing poets he loved. I noticed, however, that he often made disparaging remarks about himself, especially when I started talking about The Ghost of the Cock.
Frank seemed to think I wanted a copy, he told me he’d given the last one he owned to a male nurse who liked poetry. I was saddened to hear this. I assured him I already had a copy but would gladly give it to him. But this only seemed to agitate him. He said he didn’t want to talk about his own work and was silent for a moment. I decided to change tack.
I asked him what he thought of the American poets and we embarked on a long involved conversation about Hart Crane. After a while I recited a stanza from Crane’s poem ‘The Broken Tower’:
And so it was I entered the broken world
To trace the visionary company of love, its voice
An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled)
But not for long to hold each desperate choice.
He smiled for the first time. Sensing I had to tread carefully after his reaction to my mention of his own work, I asked him who his favourite Australian poet was. He considered carefully, then replied with deliberation: ‘Douglas Stewart’. This surprised me: in my mind Douglas Stewart was a publisher who’d written some delicate lyrics about rock orchids and a few boring radio plays about explorers. ‘Douglas Stewart,’ I repeated, dumfounded. ‘Why Douglas Stewart?’ ‘Because,’ said Francis, leaning towards me, his tone of voice confidential, ‘he once lent me five pounds.’
One of Frank Webb’s closest friends was Rosemary Dobson. I want to let her have the last word:
I want to leave with you, the impression of his innate dignity, as a person as well as a poet. Frank Webb was humorous, gentle, compassionate and courageous. And I am convinced that, in spite of his humility, he knew, at least at times, that what he had achieved, against all possible odds, was something absolutely splendid.
– Robert Adamson
Robert Adamson was the first CAL Chair of Australian Poetry at the University of Technology, Sydney from 2012 to 2015