[Editor: This poem by John O’Brien was published in Around the Boree Log and Other Verses (1921).]
He comes when the gullies are wrapped in the gloaming
And limelights are trained on the tops of the gums,
To stand at the sliprails, awaiting the homing
Of one who marched off to the beat of the drums.
So handsome he looked in the putties and khaki,
Light-hearted he went like a youngster to play;
But why comes he never to speak to his Darkie,
Around at the rails at the close of the day?
And why have the neighbours foregathered so gently,
Their horses a-doze at the fence in a row?
And what are they talkin’ of, softly, intently?
And why are the women-folk lingering so?
One hand, soft and small, that so often caressed him,
Was trembling just now as it fondled his head;
But what was that trickling warm drop that distressed him?
And what were those heart-broken words that she said?
Ne’er brighter the paddocks that bushmen remember
The green and the gold and the pink have displayed,
When Spring weaves a wreath for the brows of September,
Enrobed like a queen, and a-blush like a maid.
The gums are a-shoot and the wattles a-cluster,
The cattle are roaming the ranges astray;
But why are they late with the hunt and the muster?
And why is the black horse unsaddled to-day?
Hard by at the station the training commences,
In circles they’re schooling the hacks for the shows;
The high-mettled hunters are sent at the fences,
And satins and dapples the brushes disclose.
Sound-winded and fit and quite ready is Darkie,
Impatient to strip for the sprint and the flight;
But what can be keeping the rider in khaki?
And why does the silence hang heavy to-night?
Ah, surely he’ll come, when the waiting is ended,
To fly the stiff fences and take him in hand,
Blue-ribboned once more, and three-quarters extended,
Hard-held for the cheers from the fence and the stand.
Still there on the cross-beam the saddle hangs idle,
The cobweb around the loose stirrup is spun;
The rust’s on the spurs, and the dust on the bridle,
And gathering mould on the badges he won.
We’ll take the old horse to the paddocks tomorrow,
Where grasses are waving breast-high on the plain;
And there with the clean-skins we’ll turn him in sorrow
And muster him never, ah, never, again.
The bush bird will sing when the shadows are creeping
A sweet plaintive note, soft and clear as a bell’s —
Oh, would it might ring where the bush boy is sleeping,
And colour his dreams by the far Dardanelles.
John O’Brien, Around the Boree Log and Other Verses, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1921, pp. 130-132
Neil Andrew McRae says
I love this poem. I first read it in year 9 English at St Joseph’s College many years ago. Thank you! Just to let you know there is a typo halfway through where “he” should be “be”:
(But what can he keeping the rider in khaki?)
I live in Turkey now where ANZACS are considered fellow-victims of the excesses of British imperialism, so this poem resonates strongly. Shall peace ever prevail and all men be equals.
Thank you very much for your comment.
The typo has now been fixed; it now reads:
“But what can be keeping the rider in khaki?”
Many thanks for your diligence in pointing it out. Unfortunately, your comment re the typo was missed when it was originally posted, but the error has now been fixed. Better late than never?
Rex Stanley says
I first heard of Ownerless around the mid-1950s or a bit earlier when a truncated version of it was recorded by an Australian country music singer whose name is now lost to me. It was quite a big hit in country music and I don’t think I have heard it again in the past seventy-plus years. What a regret! And to read it again in full in early 2020 still wrenches my heart. Does a country boy ever lose his love of horses? The nearest in recent years to challenge Ownerless would have to be Eric Bogle’s “It’s As If He Knows”, which I would recommend to anyone sensitive of horses and wars. But maybe at 85 years I have gone into that legendary second childhood.
William Grey says
I’ve just read ‘Ownerless’ for the first time (Jan 2022) and I’m puzzled about the first line of the third last stanza:
“Still there can the cross-beam the saddle hangs idle”
There seems to be a typo. Much more plausible (to my amateur prosodic eye) is:
“Still there on the cross-beam the saddle hangs idle”
Surely the grammatical requirement is for a preposition, not a verb.
Many thanks for your help in pointing out the error.
The typo has now been fixed; it now reads:
“Still there on the cross-beam the saddle hangs idle,”
The text of the books on this site are usually produced using OCR technology, which is not always 100% accurate (sometimes far from it); although usually any mistakes are picked up when the text is being prepared for the site (but occasionally some slip through).
Your assistance is much appreciated, as otherwise such errors may go unnoticed.