Photograph Courtesy of Mark Boyle

Austral Muses

The Muse of Australia

Where the pines with the eagles are nestled in rifts,
And the torrent leaps down to the surges,
I have followed her, clambering over the clifts, By the chasms and moon-haunted verges.
I know she is fair as the angels are fair,
For have I not caught a faint glimpse of her there;
A glimpse of her face and her glittering hair, And a hand with the Harp of Australia?

I never can reach you, to hear the sweet voice So full with the music of fountains!
Oh! when will you meet with that soul of your choice,
Who will lead you down here from the mountains?
A lyre-bird lit on a shimmering space;
It dazzled mine eyes and I turned from the place,
And wept in the dark for a glorious face,
And a hand with the Harp of Australia!

by Henry Kendell

My Muse

My muse is a minx with a spell for a smile.
She gallops a wagon of whims through the skies,
And teasings capricious and pranks all the while
She pours upon me who would sing to her eyes.

She coaxes me on like a siren at play,
then leaves me alone with a shadow to doze.
As faithless as Venus, she flits with a fay,
Or marries her moods to the rim of a rose.

I went to her house and I opened the door
To peep at the exquisite corridors there,
And thousands of dreams that were strewing the floor
Cried: "Constancy only can win the most fair."

And so on her lily white doorstep I wait,
Or wander with my lover in glee
Now faithful, now fickle, I toy with my Fate.
For I am a maiden as willful as she.
Zora Cross

To Charles Harper

I would sit at your feet for long days,
To hear the sweet Muse of the Wild
Speak out through the sad and the passionate lays
Of her first and her favourite Child.

I would sit at your feet, for my soul
Delights in the solitudes free;
And I stand where the creeks and the cataracts roll
Whensoever I listen to thee!

I would sit at your feet, for I love
By the gulches and torrents to roam;
And I long in this city for woodland and grove, And the peace of a wild forest home.

I would sit at your feet, and we'd dwell
On the scenes of a long-vanished time,
While your thoughts into music would surge and would swell
Like a breeze of our beautiful clime.

I would sit at your feet, for I know,
Though the World in the Present be blind,
That the amaranth blossoms of Promise will blow
When the Ages have left you behind.

I would sit at your feet,
for I feel I am one of a glorious band
That ever will own you and hold you their Chief,
And a Monarch of Song in the land!
Henry Kendell

Communing with Nature:

1. "Go out and commune with nature. For a few moments, out in nature, even your own backyard, write down everything around you. Describe the sounds, the smells, the sensations, the air, the trees, the land, and your own feelings and emotions. Now start again and imagine all the things that are hidden that could be responsible for all the things you wrote. What creatures and beings may be causing them that no one ever sees? Does someone carry the scents to your nose? Is that rustling sound only wind or scurrying animals, or the ones who tend the wild seeds struggling to break free of the earth? Are those dewdrops only condensed water, or glistening water fairies sunbathing upon the leaves? Write down your discoveries, or sketch them."

2. "Do you have snow where you are? If so, go beneath the shadow of a bare tree on a sunny day, and look into the bright spots among the web of shadows on the snow below. Look for images among the bright spots, or even in the shadows themselves. Watch the spots move and twist. Find shapes, actions, constellations of a great hero, beloved bumbler, or amazing creature. What are those shapes you find doing? What stories lie hidden among those visions? What events or actions have led them to be remembered within the patterns of nature? What story do only you, the storyteller, see and know to tell the world, while sitting beside the fire, hiding from the chill? Write your stories."

3. "Tie prayers or wishes bundled in fibers and strings to a tree branch, so that when the birds have taken the strings for nests, the note will be released as well to the world to be recieved by the energies of life, and through your generosity to life's creatures. Do this only on trees in your yard, not natural lands, forests, or parks, as we don't want to litter!"

from Joshua Parkinson

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I Love A Sunburnt Country

Celebrate the Genius of Place

P.R. Stephenson wrote a paper in June 1935 entitled The Foundationss of Culture in Australia: An Essay Towards National Self Respect. This article reveals that Stephenson had changed from internationalist to extreme nationalist. In this article he began to work on the notion of essentially local character of culture, and the urgent necessity for an Australian culture, unbeholden to the language and imagery of the old world.

Stephenson's Nationalism became even more extreme with the passage of time, but this does not lessen the merit of some of his words or detract from the fact that there remains an urgent necessity for Australia to have its own language and imagery. During a six month trip throughout Western Europe and Scandinavia in 2001 I was appalled by the impact of globalization - by the cultural cleansing that has taken place. I mourned the loss of culture I had read about, but could no longer find evidence of. It was disturbing to sit in cloned shopping centres with cloned merchandise and to see so little evidence of national identity.

In 1935 Stephenson wrote "Australia is a unique country. All countries are unique but this one is particularly so. Visitors, such as D.H. Lawrence, have discerned a spiritual quality of ancient loveliness in our land itself. The flora and fauna are primitive, and for the most part harmless to aman, but to the visitor there is another element, of terror, in the Spirit of the Place. The blossoming of the waratah, the song of the lyrebird, typify the spirit of primitive loveliness of our continent; but the wail of the dingo, the gauntness of our tall trees by silent moonlight, can provide a shiver of terror to a newcomer. Against a background of strangeness, of strange beasts and birds and plants, in a human emptinesss of three million square miles...people... have become acclimatised in this environment new to them but geologically so old that Time seems to have stood still here for a million years."

He also pointed out that "Throughout the nineteenth century in Australia, from the earliest writers, whether they were convict gentlement or military gentlement, or black sheep sent out to the colonies with a remittance, there was a pronounced regret at the colonial lack of culture." He noted that "sentimental exiles regretted the lack of castles and ruins, regretted that Australia was not like England. Their state of mind, nostalgia for the homeland, is common to all exiles. In Australia, owing frequently to the circumstances of exile nostalgia took an accute form."

The Austral Muse

In this passage Stephenson discusses William Charles Wentworth's entry in the Chancellor’s Medal at Cambridge University in the year 1823. Stephenson is making a comparison to Praed’s poem, which won the Prize Poem.

Wentworth's poem and Stephenson's comments on his work have a lingering fascination for those of us who have shed remaining fragments of the exile mentality which has prevailed for so long.

*******************

"William Charles Wentworth’s poem, on the other hand, contains the germs of our indigenous Australian literature. It begins passionately with what must have seemed astounding to Englishmen at that time, and would even be astounding to some Englishmen to-day—a cry actually of nostalgia for Australia, uttered by an Australian in England, in the very halls of culture, at Cambridge!

Land of my birth! Tho’ now, alas! no more,

Musing I wander on thy sea girt shore . . .

 

Where Sydney’s infant turrets proudly rise,

The newborn glory of the southern skies:

Dear Australasia, can I e’er forget

Thee, Mother Earth? Ah no, my heart e’en yet

With filial fondness loves to call to view

Scenes which, though oft remembered, still are new . . .

 

The spacious harbour, with its hundred coves

And fairy islets—seats of savage loves . . .

And shall I now, by Cam’s old classic stream

Forbear to sing, and THOU proposed the theme?

Thy native bard, though on a foreign strand,

Shall I be mute and see a stranger’s hand

Attune the lyre? . . .

The audacity of this opening must have appalled the judges, with its reference to England as a "foreign" country. No doubt poor Wentworth, in exile at the grey English University, felt that he ought to shock them a little, stir up their insular complacency, shout at them that Australia was not what they thought it was, that the new continent was a vast literary theme, not merely a subject for a pretty exercise in versing. It was not his fault if they failed to understand him, at that time, and preferred Mr. Praed’s cold prettiness and religiosity to Mr. Wentworth’s surely incomprehensible Australian patriotism.

"Proud Queen of Isles!" he hailed Australia, sitting "vast, alone" upon the ocean, with the "Polynesian brood" of islands dispersed around her like the cygnets of a swan—

While every surge that doth thy bosom lave,

Salutes thee, Empress of the Southern Wave.

His poem tells how De Quiros, "first of Europe’s roving train," came to Australia, and astonished the natives with his giant ship looming shoreward, "portentful of impending fate." He tells how the natives, "with frequent spear," caused the Spaniards to retrace a "sullen course" to their ship. Next comes a long and delightful eulogy of the Aborigines:

Ye primal tribes, lords of this old domain,

Swift-footed hunters of the pathless plain,

Unshackled wanderers, enthusiasts free,

Pure native sons of savage liberty . . .

 

Say—whence your ancient lineage, what your name,

And from what shores your rough forefathers came? . . .

 

Let Learning’s sons who would this secret scan,

Unlock its mystic casket if they can . . .

There follows an apt and exact description of the natives, in their hunting, their corroborees, their fights:

Such, mountain sons of freedom, your delight,

Such your rude sport by day, your mirth by night,

Nor would you these few savage joys forego

For all the comforts all the arts bestow.

and after a charming picture of a tribe nestling naked in a cave to shelter from a thunderstorm, the poet says that Diogenes himself would have thrown away his cloak and tub to join them; an extraordinary prognosis of gymnosophy, which must have seemed the maddest blasphemy to the judges after they had read Praed’s description of Savage unbliss.

Wentworth next refers to Cook and La Perouse, not merely perfunctorily, as Praed had referred to them, but in some close detail:

Illustrious Cook! Columbus of our shore,

To whom was left this unknown world t’ explore!

Its untraced bounds on faith l chart to mark

And leave a light where all before was dark . . .

 

And thou, famed Gallic captain, La Perouse! . . .

Whereas Praed had described La Perouse as an "adventurous Frank" upholding the Sign of his Saviour in pagan parts of the earth, engaged in a "gracious plan" and a "pious toil," as one whose death was mourned by the Muse, Wentworth honours the Frenchman’s memory with a suggestion that he and his crew, stranded on a desert island, drew lots and ate one another,—

Till of thy ghastly band the most unblest

Survived—sad sepulchre of all the rest!

Such an idea in poetry, at that time, shows to what an extent Wentworth’s Muse was uncloistered, unacademic, a creature of realistic trend, the Muse who had accompanied Wentworth and his two companions among the chasms and gorges of the Blue Mountains, where, perhaps, the food question had threatened to become acute!—a Muse not theoretical and "pretty," not sentimental and piously "cultured"—the Muse of a man of action!

Next comes a picture of Sydney Harbour and Sydney town, growing apace in the thirty-five years since Phillip’s fleet came to anchor there:

Lo! thickly planted o’er the glassy bay,

Where Sydney loves her beauties to survey,

And every morn delighted sees the gleam

Of some fresh pennant dancing in her stream,

A masty forest, stranger vessels moor

Charged with the fruits of every foreign shore;

While, landward the thronged quay, the creaking crane,

The noisy workmen, and the loaded wain,

The lengthened street, wide square, and columned front

Of stately mansions, and the gushing font,

The solemn church, the busy market throng,

And idle loungers sauntering slow among . . .

This picture of urban life changes next to a pastoral of peaceful colonial settlement:

. . . frequent stand

The cheerful villas ’midst their well-cropped land;

Here lowing kine, there bounding coursers graze,

Here waves the corn, and there the woody maze;

Here the tall peach puts forth its pinky bloom,

And there the orange scatters its perfume,

While as the merry boatmen row along

The woods are quickened with their lusty song . . .

From Parramatta to Hawkesbury and Richmond and Windsor, says the poet, not noticing the incongruity of the two Thameside names—

Thence far along Nepean’s pebbled way,

To those rich pastures where the wild herds stray,

The crowded farm-house lines the winding stream

On either side . . .

It is delightful to imagine the effect of this upon the judges, assuming always that they were quite unteachable English professors, somewhat ignorant, in the manner of professors, of contemporary events. Praed’s poem would please them, because it would express their own preconceived idea of Australasia the wilderness; but what would they make of Wentworth’s description of the urbanisation of the wilderness? Would they believe him? Have Englishmen of the insular kind ever believed that Australia is urbanised, or can become urbanised? It is hard to part with an illusion. Even in 1935 Professor Cowling can sigh that "Australia has no London."

Wentworth next comes to a subject dear and familiar to him—the Blue Mountains:

Hail, mighty ridge! that from thy azure brow

Survey’st these fertile plains . . .

 

Vast Austral Giant of these rugged steeps

Within whose secret cells rich glitt’ring heaps

Thick-piled are doomed to sleep, till some one spy

The hidden key that opes thy treasury;

How mute, how desolate thy stunted woods,

How dread thy chasms, where many an eagle broods . . .

This is the very exciting stuff of real experience, and any reader but the English professors would have felt the ascending excitement of the poet’s recollection:

How dark thy caves, how lone thy torrents roar,

As down thy cliffs precipitate they pour,

Broke on our hearts, at first with venturous tread,

We dared to rouse thee from thy mountain bed!

I should like to print the whole poem here, and probably shall reprint it in some form as soon as possible, though, indeed, it is well enough known to scholars, if not to Australians in general.

From the wide sweep of the Bathurst Plains, where—

The ripened harvest bends its heavy blade,

And flocks and herds in thousands strewed around

A wake the woodlands with their joyous sound,

the poet turns with sadness to ask why the Australasian muse is silent:

Thy blue-eyed daughters, with the flaxen hair

And taper ankle, do they bloom less fair

Than those of Europe? Do thy primal groves

Ne’er warble forth their feathered inmates’ loves?

To ask such questions is to answer them, and Wentworth looks at the only blot on the landscape, convictism, which restrains Australasians from bursting into song:

’Tis slavery’s badge, the felon’s shame

That stills thy voice and clouds thy opening fame . . .

Land of my hope! soon may this early blot

Amid thy growing honours be forgot;

Soon may a freeman’s soul, a freeman’s blade

Nerve every arm, and gleam through every glade—

No more the outcast convict’s clanking chains

Deform thy wilds and stigmatise thy plains . . .

I find such lines as these full of power, even to-day, when convictism is still obtruding into our literature. To the English professors, identified with the nation who sent the convicts and floggers here, Wentworth’s resentment must have appeared unseemly. This is only another example of differences in the point of view."

extracts from The Foundation of Culture in Australia by P.R. Stephenson

Activities

1. Make a collage that celebrates 'Place'

2. Make some footprints that illustrate the footprints you will have left in your place.

3. Celebrate the genius of place by writing about your place and your place in the world.

Associated Links

Dorothea McKellar - My Country