How the Land Was Won [poem by Henry Lawson]

[Editor: This poem by Henry Lawson was published in Verses Popular and Humorous, 1900.]

How the Land Was Won

The future was dark and the past was dead
As they gazed on the sea once more —
But a nation was born when the immigrants said
‘Good-bye !’ as they stepped ashore !
In their loneliness they were parted thus
Because of the work to do,
A wild wide land to be won for us
By hearts and hands so few.

The darkest land ’neath a blue sky’s dome,
And the widest waste on earth ;
The strangest scenes and the least like home
In the lands of our fathers’ birth ;
The loneliest land in the wide world then,
And away on the furthest seas,
A land most barren of life for men —
And they won it by twos and threes !

With God, or a dog, to watch, they slept
By the camp-fires’ ghastly glow,
Where the scrubs were dark as the blacks that crept
With ‘nulla’ and spear held low ;
Death was hidden amongst the trees,
And bare on the glaring sand
They fought and perished by twos and threes —
And that’s how they won the land !

It was two that failed by the dry creek bed,
While one reeled on alone —
The dust of Australia’s greatest dead
With the dust of the desert blown !
Gaunt cheek-bones cracking the parchment skin
That scorched in the blazing sun,
Black lips that broke in a ghastly grin —
And that’s how the land was won !

Starvation and toil on the tracks they went,
And death by the lonely way ;
The childbirth under the tilt or tent,
The childbirth under the dray!
The childbirth out in the desolate hut
With a half-wild gin for nurse —
That’s how the first were born to bear
The brunt of the first man’s curse !

They toiled and they fought through the shame of it —
Through wilderness, flood, and drought ;
They worked, in the struggles of early days,
Their sons’ salvation out.
The white girl-wife in the hut alone,
The men on the boundless run,
The miseries suffered, unvoiced, unknown —
And that’s how the land was won.

No armchair rest for the old folk then —
But, ruined by blight and drought,
They blazed the tracks to the camps again
In the big scrubs further out.
The worn haft, wet with a father’s sweat,
Gripped hard by the eldest son,
The boy’s back formed to the hump of toil —
And that’s how the land was won !

And beyond Up Country, beyond Out Back,
And the rainless belt, they ride,
The currency lad and the ne’er-do-weel
And the black sheep, side by side ;
In wheeling horizons of endless haze
That disk through the Great North-west,
They ride for ever by twos and by threes —
And that’s how they win the rest.

Henry Lawson. Verses Popular and Humorous, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1900, pages 45-47

Editor’s notes:
disk = possibly a reference to the sun [it is unclear what “disk” is a reference to in this poem] [unknown]

ne’er-do-weel = (usually spelt “ne’er-do-well”) someone who is irresponsible, improvident, lazy or worthless; a contraction of “never do well”

nulla = a “nulla nulla”, a wooden club used by Australian Aborigines

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