Section 11 [The Foundations of Culture in Australia, by P. R. Stephensen, 1936]

[Editor: This is a chapter from The Foundations of Culture in Australia (1936) by P. R. Stephensen.]

§ 11

Convicts and sinners

Praed’s poem, characteristically English from the very beginning, opens with a description of a convict ship leaving England, while a busy seaman coils rope on the deck, carolling a song, and laughing lightly. Below deck are the unfortunate convicts:

Children of wrath and wretchedness, who grieve
Not for the country, but the crimes they leave . . .

There the gaunt robber, stern in sin and shame,
Shows his dull features and his iron frame;
And tender pilferers creep in silence by,
With quivering lip, hushed brow, and vacant eye . . .

A mixed lot, old and young, male and female, all longing to strike the fetters off, and bidding —

the last and long adieu
To the white cliffs which vanish from their view.

These miserable creatures, as England recedes, are already overcome with nostalgia of the exile. They go “tottering forth” —

to find, across the wave,
A short, sad sojourn and a foreign grave.

A stripling amongst them clasps his young hands, and looks “with marvel” on his galling chain. His soul dreams of the days when he tended his father’s plough:

Oh, yes! to-day his soul hath backward been
To many a tender face and beauteous scene;
The verdant valley and the dark brown hill,
The small fair garden, and its tinkling rill,
His grandame’s tale, believed at midnight hour,
His sister singing in her myrtle bower . . .

And also he dreams of the girl he left behind him, as all correctly sentimental exiles do in such circumstances. He wonders whether there will be a new life for him in the foreign land to which, under duress, he is going —

In some far distant clime
Where lives no witness of his early crime,
Benignant penitence may haply muse
On purer pleasures, and on brighter views . . .

The poet then proceeds to rhapsodise on the charms of Australasia, as he imagines them, from having read, one presumes, some accounts of Pacific voyages. He thinks of Australasia as a collection of islands, arcadian in atmosphere, with green turf and pleasant glades wherein Dryads and Naiads might dance:

Beautiful land! Within whose quiet shore
Lost spirits may forget the stain they bore.

But one thing is lacking in this idyllic Australasia: the Christian religion unfortunately has not yet reached the savage natives:

Alas! Religion from thy placid isles
Veils the warm splendour of her heavenly smiles,
And the wrapt gazer on the beauteous plan
Finds nothing dark except the soul of man.

The unredeemed savages in their darkness are presumed by the poet to be incapable of appreciating the beauties of their environment:

But where thy smile, Religion, hath not shone,
The chain is riven, and the charm is gone,
And, unawakened by thy wondrous spell,
The Feelings slumber in their silent cell.

In proof and illustration of this theological contention, the poet next recounts, as an example of the horrors of Australasian mental darkness, the death of a New Zealand chieftain, alone and unattended, because the customs of his savage tribe forbid attendance upon a dying person. Nevertheless, shuddering friends stand near, and the frantic Maori widow —

Binds her black hair, and stains her eyelids fringe
With the jet lustre of the emu’s tinge

and then, after staining her eyelids with the feathers of a black emu, she commits suttee in the manner of widows in India, —

And long acacias shed their shadows grey
Bloomless and leafless o’er the buried clay.

Worse things happen in New Zealand than emus and suttee and bloomless and leafless acacias! The poet next describes a fight between tribes of cannibals, who subsequently gorge on corpses:

And, last of all, the revel in the wood,
The feast of death, the banqueting of blood.

Cease, cease the tale — and let the ocean’s roll
Shut the dark horror from thy wildered soul.

The obvious remedy for this dreadful state of affairs in pagan Australasia is to send Christian missionaries there, as the poet proceeds to explain:

And are there none to succour? none to speed
A fairer feeling and a holier creed?

The death of Cook and La Perouse amongst these savages will surely, Praed thinks, be not in vain:

O’er the wide waters of the bounding main
The Book of Life shall win its way again,
And in the regions by their fate endeared
The Cross be lifted, and the altar reared.

In fancy the poet sees a missionary coming to Australasia, bringing Religion (or should we not nowadays say Culture?) with him:

Upon the shore, through many a billow driven,
He kneels at last, the messenger of Heaven!

The messenger of Heaven duly converts the Australasian heathens, shows them, with his superior knowledge, the advantages of becoming enlightened and cultured like himself and other Englishmen. It is a great day, indeed, for the Australasians when the missionary converts them wholesale to his point of view:

In speechless awe the wonder-stricken throng
Check their rude feasting and their barbarous song . . .

and gather round to listen to the Message from Overseas.

The first-prize poem ends on this note, with a brief envoi from the poet, an insincere sigh for the Arcadian peace of Australasia as a retreat from the anxieties and vexations of life.

Reading and re-reading this early classic work by an Englishman upon our Antipodean theme, I am more and more convinced that it provides an extraordinary demonstration of the key-attitude of Englishmen towards Australia. The poem tells us nothing actual about Australia, but much about an Englishman’s attitude towards Australia, which is regarded as the land of convicts and savages, the former homesick for their native land, the latter waiting to be enlightened by English missionaries of culture. This poem by Praed contains the germs of all the English literature written about Australia during the nineteenth century, and even down to our present day.

P. R. Stephensen, The Foundations of Culture in Australia, W. J. Miles, Gordon (N.S.W.), 1936, pages 38-42

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