On the Paroo [poem by Henry Kendall]

[Editor: This poem by Henry Kendall was published in Leaves from Australian Forests (1869).]

On the Paroo.

As when the strong stream of a wintering sea
Rolls round our coast, with bodeful breaks of storm,
And swift salt rain, and bitter wind that saith
Wild things and woeful of the White South Land
Alone with God and Silence in the cold —
As when this cometh, men from dripping doors
Look forth, and shudder for the mariners
Abroad, so we for absent brothers looked
In days of drought, and when the flying floods
Swept boundless: roaring down the bald, black, plains
Beyond the farthest spur of western hills.

For where the Barwan cuts a rotten land,
Or lies unshaken, like a great blind creek,
Between hot mouldering banks, it came to this,
All in a time of short and thirsty sighs,
That thirty rainless months had left the pools
And grass as dry as ashes: then it was
Our kinsmen started for the lone Paroo,
From point to point, with patient strivings, sheer
Across the horrors of the windless downs,
Blue-gleaming like a sea of molten steel.

But never drought had broke them: never flood
Had quenched them: they with mighty youth and health,
And thews and sinews knotted like the trees —
They, like the children of the native woods,
Could stem the strenuous waters, or outlive
The crimson days and dull dead nights of thirst
Like camels! yet of what avail was strength
Alone to them — though it was like the rocks
On stormy mountains — in the bloody time
When fierce sleep caught them in the camps at rest,
And violent darkness gripped the life in them
And whelmed them, as an eagle unawares
Is whelmed and slaughtered in a sudden snare.

All murdered by the blacks! smit while they lay
In silver dreams, and with the far faint fall
Of many waters breaking on their sleep!
Yea, in the tracts unknown of any man
Save savages — the dim-discovered ways
Of footless silence or unhappy winds —
The wild men came upon them, like a fire
Of desert thunder; and the fine firm lips
That touched a mother’s lips a year before,
And hands that knew a dearer hand than life,
Were hewn like a sacrifice before the stars,
And left with hooting owls, and blowing clouds,
And falling leaves, and solitary wings!

Ay, you may see their graves — you who have toiled,
And tripped, and thirsted, like these men of ours;
For verily I say that not so deep
Their bones are that the scattered drift and dust
Of gusty days will never leave them bare.
O dear, dead, bleaching bones! I know of those
Who have the wild strong will to go and sit
Outside all things with you, and keep the ways
Aloof from bats, and snakes, and trampling feet
That smite your peace and theirs — who have the heart
Without the lusty limbs to face the fire,
And moonless midnights, and to be indeed,
For very sorrow, like a moaning wind
In wint’ry forests with perpetual rain.

Because of this — because of sisters left
With desperate purpose and dishevelled hair,
And broken breath, and sweetness quenched in tears —
Because of swifter silver for the head,
And furrows for the face — because of these
That should have come with Age, that come with Pain,
O Master! Father! sitting where our eyes
Are tired of looking, say for once are we —
Are we to set our lips with weary smiles
Before the bitterness of Life and Death,
And call it honey, while we bear away
A taste like wormwood?

Turn thyself, and sing —
Sing, Son of Sorrow! Is there any gain
For breaking of the loins, for melting eyes,
And knees as weak as water? any peace,
Or hope, for casual breath, and labouring lips,
For clapping of the palms, and sharper sighs
Than frost; or any light to come for those
Who stand and mumble in the alien streets
With heads as grey as Winter? any balm
For pleading women, and the love that knows
Of nothing left to love?

They sleep a sleep
Unknown of dreams, these darling friends of ours.
And we who taste the core of many tales
Of tribulation — we whose lives are salt
With tears indeed — we therefore hide our eyes
And weep in secret lest our grief should risk
The rest that hath no hurt from daily racks
Of fiery clouds and immemorial rains.



Source:
Henry Kendall, Leaves from Australian Forests, Melbourne: George Robertson, 1869, pages 121-124

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