Whitlam as a young poet
FRATER AVE ATQUE VALE
Since the passing of former PM and comrade Gough Whitlam, many have remembered him for his words, wisdom and trademark ‘whitticisms’. But Whitlam’s way with words was no accident; the development of his skills as an orator and wordsmith can be traced back to his formative years. By the age of fifteen he had already completed his leaving certificate at Telopea Park Intermediate High, but was too young to matriculate, and so moved to Canberra Grammar for three more years, honing his skills in Ancient Greek. During this period, he contributed original poems and translations to the school magazine, The Canberran, copies of which are held in the Whitlam Institute’s collection at the University of Western Sydney.
Young Gough translated the renaissance sonnets of Ronsard from French, the neoteric poems of Catullus, the elegies of Propertius and Horace from Latin. His original poems are dense with classical allusions and a sophisticated understanding of how words work. He had the doggedness as a student to sniff out all a word’s connotations and equivocations. For example, the precise treatment of light in his ‘Ode to the Institute of Anatomy’, a reflection on the macabre museum of biological specimens that now houses the National Film and Sound Archive: “There cut-throats’ brains are kept in pond’rous vases, / And lizards’ bowels float in lucent cases; / Around them hyalescent waters flow / And orbs electric cast a lurid glow.” As the path of projected light moves backwards to its source, refracted through degrees of translucency, the quality of the light is embellished with connotations that carry forward the poem’s gothic thrust.
Other treasures held by the Whitlam Institute include an ode written by the former PM when he was in the RAAF on the occasion of his troop’s passing out, and a handwritten poem found in the drawer of a sewing machine.
But the most fitting for this sad occasion is his 1933 translation of ‘To Sirmio’ by the Roman poet Catallus. An apt poem for a man who promised to treat God as his equal, and who said of Malcolm Turnbull’s property: “I am completely at home. It’s just like Olympus.”
In 1883, Alfred Lord Tennyson (whose son and amanuensis happened to be the second Governor General of Australia) wrote his famous lyric ‘Frater ave atque vale’ (Brother, hail and farewell). In this poem, Tennyson combines elements from two very different poems by Catullus – To Sirmio, a joyful lyric on the occasion of the prodigal son’s return home, and an elegy for his brother.
In his translation of the former, Gough builds on Tennyson’s sense of competing moods, taking a slightly more melancholy tone than in other translations (Thomas Hardy’s, for instance).
TO SIRMIO (excerpt).
Weary and travel-stained I reach my mere,
And sink upon the bed of which I dreamed;
By this reward I am from toll redeemed.
Hail, Sirmio, receive me with good cheer:
Rejoice, O lake, with surging Libyan foam;
Laugh out with peals of laughter at my home.
And, if not to Olympus, perhaps Gough has gone here, repatriated to his vision of Lake Garda’s dream-like peninsula.