Hope was born in Cooma, New South Wales. His father was a Presbyterian minister and his mother a teacher. He was educated partly at home and in Tasmania, where they moved in 1911. Three years later they moved to Sydney. He attended Fort Street High School, the University of Sydney, and then the University of Oxford on a scholarship. Returning to Australia in 1931 he then trained as a teacher, and spent some time drifting. He worked as a psychologist with the New South Wales Department of Labour and Industry, and as a lecturer in Education and English at Sydney Teachers' College (1937–44).
He was a lecturer at the University of Melbourne from 1945 to 1950, and in 1951 became the first professor of English at the newly founded Canberra University College, later of the Australian National University (ANU) when the two institutions merged. At the ANU he and Tom Inglis Moore created the first full year course in Australian literature at an Australian university. He retired from the ANU in 1968 and was appointed Emeritus Professor.
He was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1972 and a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1981 and awarded many other honours. He died in Canberra, having suffered dementia in his last years, and is buried at the Queanbeyan Lawn Cemetery.
Although he was published as a poet while still young, The Wandering Islands (1955) was his first collection and all that remained of his early work after most of his manuscripts were destroyed in a fire. Its publication was delayed by concern about the effects of Hope's highly-erotic and savagely-satirical verse on the Australian public. His frequent allusions to sexuality in his work caused Douglas Stewart to dub him "Phallic Alec" in a letter to Norman Lindsay. His influences were Pope and the Augustan poets, Auden, and Yeats. He was a polymath, very largely self-taught, and with a talent for offending his countrymen. He wrote a book of "answers" to other poems, including one in response to the poem "To His Coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvell.
The reviews he wrote in the 1940s and '50s were feared "for their acidity and intelligence. If his reviews hurt some writers – Patrick White included – they also sharply raised the standard of literary discussion in Australia." However, Hope relaxed in later years. As poet Kevin Hart writes, "The man I knew, from 1973 to 2000, was invariably gracious and benevolent".
Hope wrote in a letter to the poet and academic Catherine Cole: "Now I feel I've reached the pinnacle of achievement when you equate me with one of Yeats's 'wild, wicked old men'. I'm probably remarkably wicked but not very wild, I fear too much ingrained Presbyterian caution". Cole suggests that Hope represented the three attributes that Vladimir Nabokov believed essential in a writer, "storyteller, teacher, enchanter".
Kevin Hart, reviewing Catherine Cole's memoir of Hope, writes that "When A. D. Hope died in 2000 at the age of 93, Australia lost its greatest living poet". Hart goes on to say that when once asked what poets could do for Australia, Hope replied "oh not much, merely justify its existence".
In 1998 a celebration of his life and works, The Scythe Honed Fine, was published by the National Library of Australia.
In 1937 he married Penelope Robinson. They had a daughter, Emily, who predeceased her parents in 1979; and two sons, Andrew and Geoffrey, who survived him. Penelope died in 1988.1956: Grace Leven Prize for Poetry
1965: Britannica Award for Literature
1966: Australian Literature Society Gold Medal
1967: Myer Award for Australian Poetry
1969: Ingram Merrill Foundation Award for Literature (New York)
1969: Levinson Prize for Poetry (Chicago)
1972: Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE)
1976: The Age Book of the Year Award for A Late Picking
1976: Robert Frost Award for Poetry
1981: Companion of the Order of Australia (AC)
1989: New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards Special Award
1993: ACT Book of the Year Award for Chance Encounters
Honorary doctorates from four Australian universities