[Editor: This poem by C. J. Dennis was published in Backblock Ballads and Other Verses (1913) and Backblock Ballads and Later Verses (1918).]
An Old Master
We were cartin’ laths and palin’s from the slopes of Mount St. Leonard,
With our axles near the road-bed and the mud as stiff as glue;
And our bullocks weren’t precisely what you’d call conditioned nicely,
And meself and Messmate Mitchell had our doubts of gettin’ through.
It had rained a tidy skyful in the week before we started,
But our tucker-bag depended on the sellin’ of our load;
So we punched ’em on by inches, liftin’ ’em across the pinches,
Till we struck the final section of the worst part of the road.
We were just congratulatin’ one another on the goin’,
When we blundered in a pot-hole right within the sight of goal,
Where the bush-track joins the metal. Mitchell, as he saw her settle,
Justified his reputation at the peril of his soul.
We were in a glue-pot, certain — red and stiff and most tenacious;
Over naves and over axles — waggon sittin’ on the road.
“’Struth,” says I, “they’ll never lift her. Take a shot from Hell to shift her.
Nothin’ left us but unyoke ’em and sling off the blessed load.”
Now, beside our scene of trouble stood a little one-roomed humpy,
Home of an enfeebled party by the name of Dad McGee.
Daddy was, I pause to mention, livin’ on an old-age pension
Since he gave up bullock-punchin’ at the age of eighty-three.
Startled by our exclamations, Daddy hobbled from the shanty,
Gazin’ where the stranded waggon looked like some half-foundered ship.
When the state o’ things he spotted, “Looks,” he says, “like you was potted,”
And he toddles up to Mitchell. “Here,” says he, “gimme that whip.”
Well! I’ve heard of transformations; heard of fellers sort of changin’
In the face of sudden danger or some great emergency;
Heard the like in song and story and in bush traditions hoary,
But I nearly dropped me bundle as I looked at Dad McGee.
While we gazed he seemed to toughen; as his fingers gripped the handle
His old form grew straight and supple, and a light leapt in his eye;
And he stepped around the waggon, not with footsteps weak and laggin’,
But with firm, determined bearin’, as he flung the whip on high.
Now he swung the leaders over, while the whip-lash snarled and volleyed;
And they answered like one bullock, strainin’ to each crack and clout;
But he kept his cursin’ under till old Brindle made a blunder;
Then I thought all Hell had hit me, and the master opened out.
And the language! Oh, the language! Seemed to me I must be dreamin’;
While the wondrous words and phrases only genius could produce
Roared and rumbled, fast and faster, in the throat of that Old Master —
Oaths and curses tipped with lightning, cracklin’ flames of fierce abuse.
Then we knew the man before us was a Master of our callin’;
One of those great lords of language gone for ever from Out-back;
Heroes of an ancient order; men who punched across the border;
Vanished giants of the sixties; puncher-princes of the track.
Now we heard the timbers strainin’, heard the waggon’s loud complainin’,
And the master cried triumphant, as he swung ’em into line,
As they put their shoulders to it, lifted her, and pulled her through it:
“That’s the way we useter do it in the days o’ sixty-nine!”
Near the foot of Mount St. Leonard lives an old, enfeebled party
Who retired from bullock-punchin’ at the age of eighty-three.
If you seek him folk will mention, merely, that he draws the pension;
But to us he looms a Master — Prince of Punchers, Dad McGee!
C. J. Dennis, Backblock Ballads and Later Verses, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1918, pp. 11-14
Previously published in:
C. J. Dennis, Backblock Ballads and Other Verses, Melbourne: E. W. Cole, , pp. 19-22
Den Houghton says
Great use of words, worth a place in poems hall of fame.
Laths is I think the correct word, not lathes.
I double-checked “Backblock Ballads and Later Verses”, and on page 11 it definitely says “laths”, not “lathes”.
Thank you for the correction.