The Poetics of Travel: Rodney Hall’s The Lonely Traveller by Night (excerpt)

Dr Ian Dixon

Writer and theorist E. M. Forster (1984) insists that the traveller imbibes a quality of the land they visit. Similarly, Rodney Hall’s deep interest in travel and its effect on the individual mind are richly apparent in The Lonely Traveller by Night (1996). In Lonely Traveller, Hall tells the story of the internal and external journeys of Isabella Manin and Yuramiru, two unlikely travellers, who accidentally intersect in Venice, Italy in 1667.

The book is the second instalment of Australia’s only septalogy of novels and represents a versatile use of physical journey as metaphor for his characters’ internal transformation. Hall utilises both poetry and musicality in his language, which heightens the reader’s experience both through the literature and across the foreign terrain he depicts. This includes a telepathically projected expedition across Australia before its official (British) discovery. I will analyse some of the poetic effects and devices utilised in Hall’s art concentrating on Lonely Traveller.

Despite Hall’s oeuvre warranting serious analysis, there has not been enough secondary literature devoted to him. Of those studies written, only two give fitting credence to the excellence of Hall’s craft. Firstly, Paul Genoni’s ‘Rodney Hall: Exploring the Land in the Mind’ in Subverting the Empire: Explorers and Exploration in Australian Fiction’ provides insightful analysis. Genoni gives a detailed illustration of mapmaking and its connection to imperialistic thought in Australia as depicted in Hall’s novel The Second Bridegroom (1991). Secondly, David Tacey’s ‘Rodney Hall: Old, New, Black and White Dreamings’ in Edge of the Sacred: Transformation in Australia (1995) gives a short but insightful Jungian analysis of his work. This essay also draws on personal communications I have made with Rodney Hall during a decade of our close professional association. This includes travel in its own right: a three-month trip around Europe revisiting the salient places Hall visited in his three-year walk around Europe as a 22 year old in the 1950s. I will draw upon these sources whilst analysing Lonely Traveller.

As a seasoned traveller, Hall understands the beauty and terror of foreign lands from an experiential standpoint. This is where his knowledge and his love of travel amalgamate. Hall’s writing visits a maze of countries and examines the mythologies contained within them. His ability to encapsulate the inner experience of the traveller in poetic metaphor leads him to the deeper perceptions of Lonely Traveller (Chekhov in Leonard, 1977).

Lonely Traveller is part of a septalogy of novels merging themes and sharing characters and spans (in narrative chronology) from Terra Incognita (1996) set in the seventeenth century to The Day We Had Hitler Home (2000) set in 1917. The seven novels consider Australia’s mythical place in European history. The first of the seven reveals Australia’s discovery as an idea for an opera in the 17th century. The last sees Europe reinvented as a documentary film through the eyes of a young Australian.

Lonely Traveller is the second book of the trilogy The Island in the Mind (1996) after Terra Incognita. Its title is taken from the sorceress’s curse in the lyrics from Henry Purcell’s travel-rich first opera Dido and Aeneas (1688):

Wayward sisters, you that fright
The lonely traveller by night,
Who like dismal ravens crying
Beat the windows of the dying (Tate, 1688).

These words predict the journey for Isabella as she will indeed face the horrors of cultures clashing and the death of her Aboriginal avatar Yuramiru, leaping from the ship’s window. Although from a libretto of questionable literary merit, the very phrase ‘the lonely traveller by night’ rises and falls in a series of peaks and troughs akin to the experience of a sea voyage (an experience common to both Lonely Traveller and Dido and Aeneas) (Tate, 1688). The novel’s title initiates the poetry of the novel and integrates it immediately with the concept of travel.


The Poetics of Travel: Rodney Hall’s The Lonely Traveller by Night (excerpt) | 2012 | Uncategorized | Tags: , ,