Section 12 [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.]

§ 12

The Austral muse

William Charles Wentworth’s poem, on the other hand, contains the germs of our indigenous Australian literature. It begins passionately with what must have seemed astounding to Englishmen at that time, and would even be astounding to some Englishmen to-day — a cry actually of nostalgia for Australia, uttered by an Australian in England, in the very halls of culture, at Cambridge!

Land of my birth! Tho’ now, alas! no more,
Musing I wander on thy sea girt shore . . .

Where Sydney’s infant turrets proudly rise,
The newborn glory of the southern skies:
Dear Australasia, can I e’er forget
Thee, Mother Earth? Ah no, my heart e’en yet
With filial fondness loves to call to view
Scenes which, though oft remembered, still are new . . .

The spacious harbour, with its hundred coves
And fairy islets — seats of savage loves . . .

And shall I now, by Cam’s old classic stream
Forbear to sing, and THOU proposed the theme?
Thy native bard, though on a foreign strand,
Shall I be mute and see a stranger’s hand
Attune the lyre? . . .

The audacity of this opening must have appalled the judges, with its reference to England as a “foreign” country. No doubt poor Wentworth, in exile at the grey English University, felt that he ought to shock them a little, stir up their insular complacency, shout at them that Australia was not what they thought it was, that the new continent was a vast literary theme, not merely a subject for a pretty exercise in versifying. It was not his fault if they failed to understand him, at that time, and preferred Mr. Praed’s cold prettiness and religiosity to Mr. Wentworth’s surely incomprehensible Australian patriotism.

“Proud Queen of Isles!” he hailed Australia, sitting “vast, alone” upon the ocean, with the “Polynesian brood” of islands dispersed around her like the cygnets of a swan —

While every surge that doth thy bosom lave,
Salutes thee, Empress of the Southern Wave.

His poem tells how De Quiros, “first of Europe’s roving train,” came to Australia, and astonished the natives with his giant ship looming shoreward, “portentful of impending fate.” He tells how the natives, “with frequent spear,” caused the Spaniards to retrace a “sullen course” to their ship. Next comes a long and delightful eulogy of the Aborigines:

Ye primal tribes, lords of this old domain,
Swift-footed hunters of the pathless plain,
Unshackled wanderers, enthusiasts free,
Pure native sons of savage liberty . . .

Say — whence your ancient lineage, what your name,
And from what shores your rough forefathers came? . . .

Let Learning’s sons who would this secret scan
Unlock its mystic casket if they can . . .

There follows an apt and exact description of the natives, in their hunting, their corroborees, their fights:

Such, mountain sons of freedom, your delight,
Such your rude sport by day, your mirth by night,
Nor would you these few savage joys forego
For all the comforts all the arts bestow.

and after a charming picture of a tribe nestling naked in a cave to shelter from a thunderstorm, the poet says that Diogenes himself would have thrown away his cloak and tub to join them; an extraordinary prognosis of gymnosophy, which must have seemed the maddest blasphemy to the judges after they had read Praed’s description of Savage unbliss.

Wentworth next refers to Cook and La Perouse, not merely perfunctorily, as Praed had referred to them, but in some close detail:

Illustrious Cook! Columbus of our shore,
To whom was left this unknown world t’ explore!
Its untraced bounds on faithful chart to mark
And leave a light where all before was dark . . .

And thou, famed Gallic captain, La Perouse! . . .

Whereas Praed had described La Perouse as a “venturous Frank” upholding the Sign of his Saviour in pagan parts of the earth, engaged in a “gracious plan” and a “pious toil,” as one whose death was mourned by the Muse, Wentworth honours the Frenchman’s memory with a suggestion that he and his crew, stranded on a desert island, drew lots and ate one another, —

Till of thy ghastly band the most unblest
Survived — sad sepulchre of all the rest!

Such an idea in poetry, at that time, shows to what an extent Wentworth’s Muse was uncloistered, unacademic, a creature of realistic trend, the Muse who had accompanied Wentworth and his two companions among the chasms and gorges of the Blue Mountains, where, perhaps, the food question had threatened to become acute! — a Muse not theoretical and “pretty,” not sentimental and piously “cultured” — the Muse of a man of action!

Next comes a picture of Sydney Harbour and Sydney town, growing apace in the thirty-five years since Phillip’s fleet came to anchor there:

Lo! thickly planted o’er the glassy bay,
Where Sydney loves her beauties to survey,
And every morn delighted sees the gleam
Of some fresh pennant dancing in her stream,
A masty forest, stranger vessels moor
Charged with the fruits of every foreign shore;
While, landward — the thronged quay, the creaking crane,
The noisy workmen, and the loaded wain,
The lengthened street, wide square, and columned front
Of stately mansions, and the gushing font,
The solemn church, the busy market throng,
And idle loungers sauntering slow among . . .

This picture of urban life changes next to a pastoral of peaceful colonial settlement:

. . . frequent stand
The cheerful villas ’midst their well-cropped land;
Here lowing kine, there bounding coursers graze,
Here waves the corn, and there the woody maze;
Here the tall peach puts forth its pinky bloom,
And there the orange scatters its perfume,
While as the merry boatmen row along
The woods are quickened with their lusty song . . .

From Parramatta to Hawkesbury and Richmond and Windsor, says the poet, not noticing the incongruity of the two Thameside names —

Thence far along Nepean’s pebbled way,
To those rich pastures where the wild herds stray,
The crowded farm-house lines the winding stream
On either side . . .

It is delightful to imagine the effect of this upon the judges, assuming always that they were quite unteachable English professors, somewhat ignorant, in the manner of professors, of contemporary events. Praed’s poem would please them, because it would express their own preconceived idea of Australasia the wilderness; but what would they make of Wentworth’s description of the urbanisation of the wilderness? Would they believe him? Have Englishmen of the insular kind ever believed that Australia is urbanised, or can become urbanised? It is hard to part with an illusion. Even in 1935 Professor Cowling can sigh that “Australia has no London.”

Wentworth next comes to a subject dear and familiar to him — the Blue Mountains:

Hail, mighty ridge! that from thy azure brow
Survey’st these fertile plains . . .

Vast Austral Giant of these rugged steeps,
Within whose secret cells rich glitt’ring heaps
Thick-piled are doomed to sleep, till some one spy
The hidden key that opes thy treasury;
How mute, how desolate thy stunted woods,
How dread thy chasms, where many an eagle broods . . .

This is the very exciting stuff of real experience, and any reader but the English professors would have felt the ascending excitement of the poet’s recollection:

How dark thy caves, how lone thy torrents’ roar,
As down thy cliffs precipitate they pour,
Broke on our hearts, at first with venturous tread,
We dared to rouse thee from thy mountain bed!

I should like to print the whole poem here, and probably shall reprint it in some form as soon as possible, though, indeed, it is well enough known to scholars, if not to Australians in general.

From the wide sweep of the Bathurst Plains, where —

The ripened harvest bends its heavy blade,
And flocks and herds in thousands strewed around
A wake the woodlands with their joyous sound,

the poet turns with sadness to ask why the Australasian muse is silent:

Thy blue-eyed daughters, with the flaxen hair
And taper ankle, do they bloom less fair
Than those of Europe? Do thy primal groves
Ne’er warble forth their feathered inmates’ loves?

To ask such questions is to answer them, and Wentworth looks at the only blot on the landscape, convictism, which restrains Australasians from bursting into song:

’Tis slavery’s badge, the felon’s shame
That stills thy voice and clouds thy opening fame . . .

Land of my hope! soon may this early blot
Amid thy growing honours be forgot;
Soon may a freeman’s soul, a freeman’s blade
Nerve every arm, and gleam through every glade —
No more the outcast convict’s clanking chains
Deform thy wilds and stigmatise thy plains . . .

I find such lines as these full of power, even to-day, when convictism is still obtruding into our literature. To the English professors, identified with the nation who sent the convicts and floggers here, Wentworth’s resentment must have appeared unseemly. This is only another example of differences in the point of view.

P. R. Stephensen, The Foundations of Culture in Australia, W. J. Miles, Gordon (N.S.W.), 1936, pages 43-49

Speak Your Mind