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Christian Mysticism and Australian Poetry By Toby Davidson

Chapter :  Introduction
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Christian Mysticism and Australian Poetry

Melbourne restaurant’s “mystical sauce,” listed on an otherwise comprehensible menu.

Australian poetry scholars have mostly avoided tropes and themes more comfortably consigned to theology or philosophy, despite the fact that Australian poets have proved far less squeamish. Ada Cambridge, John Shaw Neilson, Francis Webb, Judith Wright, and Kevin Hart have variously engaged and represented Western Christian mysticism throughout their careers. These five poets were influenced by wider post-Enlightenment challenges to ecclesiastical strictures that saw many poets turn to mysticism in order to renegotiate their spiritual identities. The nineteenth-century crisis of faith in Europe against a tide of literary, philosophical, and scientific renovations of the human can be seen in the mystical autonomies of Ada Cambridge and John Shaw Neilson. So too the effects of a more sudden and cataclysmic crisis, this time of Australian faith in British political and cultural superiority during and after World War II can be seen in new adaptations of mystical figures and language in the postwar works of Francis Webb and Judith Wright. A late twentieth-century reckoning is evident in Kevin Hart and indigenous poets Maisie Cavanagh and John Muk Muk Burke.

Christian mysticism is the most accessed and influential mystical tradition in Australian poetry. As Rowland Ward and Robert Humphreys have noted, the influx of clergy from 1788 reflected the British Empire’s religious hierarchy with Anglican (1788), Methodist (1815), Roman Catholic (1820), Presbyterian (1822), Congregational (1830), and Baptist ministries (1834) arriving as part of the colonisation process (Religious 14) that forced Christianisation upon Aboriginal people. By the time Federation took place in 1901, 74% of the population identified as Protestant and 23% as Roman Catholic. By 2006, 64% of the population identified themselves as Christians (down 7% from 1996), whereas non-Christian faiths had grown to 5.6%, up 2.1% from 1996 (Holroyd, “Census” pars. 24–25). From at least the time of the nineteenth-century population surges to the present, surveyed Australians have represented a Christian