The Ballad of Remembrance [poem by John Shaw Neilson]

[Editor: This poem by John Shaw Neilson was published in Collected Poems of John Shaw Neilson (1934).]

The Ballad of Remembrance

I met a man out Bathurst way in the middle of the year,
He had an honest, kindly face and eyes without a fear;
A pleasant man to look upon and a pleasant man to hear.

And he would talk as men will talk of what their hands have done,
Of plains and hills and the wilderness where sheep and cattle run,
Of the bitterness of frost and rain and the blinding of the sun.

He had the bushman’s ready eye, and he heard the faintest sound,
The names he knew of all that flew, or ran upon the ground,
His knowledge was not of the kind that is with scholars found.

One thing I saw whene’er I talked of all red history,
Of England’s victories on the land, her strength upon the sea,
He listened quietly, but would say no generous word to me.

The silence of the man was such, that I would more and more
Speak of the English; there had lived never on earth before
A race so just and merciful, — his silence made me sore.

One night I spoke of English law, and what the English do —
“Listen,” he said, “and I will tell a shameful thing to you,
’Twas old when I was born, this night it comes up ever new.

“Too long have I been in the bush, my thinking may be slow,
But when you praise the English, then knowing all I know,
If I did not speak, then I should feel the lowest of the low.

“My father, he could fight, although he was but bone and skin,
I saw him fight with a big man, who had the heavy chin,
And the heavy fist. I stood two hours and saw my father win.

“My father had the slow speech, and his words came tenderly;
When we were splitting in the bush one day we took a tree
With young birds in the nest, all day he could not speak to me.

“An open-handed man he was, as all who knew him tell;
He was not hard in anything, he strove to teach us well;
He said. ‘There’s something in a man, that they dare not buy or sell.’

“My father could not read or write — now little children can, —
Of Death, and things at the back of it, his simple reasoning ran,
And he said, ‘I can’t believe that God is bitter like a man.’

“How quiet he was, because he stared they said his eyes were dim,
But when he drank, those eyes would change, and his jaws would be so grim,
And the thoughts at the bottom of his heart came tumbling out of him.

“‘Some things there are,’ my father said, ‘I keep remembering,
A man’s body is coarse, he said, though he may be a king,
But the body of a sweet woman, that is the holy thing.’

“’Twas in your England that he starved and he would not dare to kill,
He knew the law, and the law it said, his mouth he must not fill.
All Wisdom came from God, he heard, and the hunger was His Will.

“There was the food before his eyes, and why should he be bound?
The rich men owned each inch of earth and the riches underground;
They would have owned the soul of man had such a thing been found.”

“These laws,” I said, “were harsh, but they have long since disappeared,
Wherever strong men live and thrive, is English law revered,
That flag is loved, and we are proud to know that it is feared.”

But the man he said, “You boast that all the English laws are fair,
Long have I heard such tales, they seem like dust upon the air,
For the English sent my father here for the shooting of a hare.

“One day we were in the deep bush, my father’s tongue was free,
I was not far into my ’teens and his back he showed to me,
And even now when I think of it, my eyes can scarcely see.”

“These laws,” I said, “were cruel laws, they were in every land,
The English gave you all you have and you fail to understand
That laws are made for the English, by the people’s own command.”

The man he said, “I may be dull, you speak of English law,
Would you so love it had you seen the shameful thing I saw?
For me that back is always bare, those wounds are always raw.

“He was a convict forced to work, when the squatter ruled the land,
For some slight fault his master put a letter in his hand
And he said, ‘Take this to Bathurst Gaol, they’ll make you understand.’

“Too well the law, my father knew, the law of Lash and Chain,
That day he walked to Bathurst Gaol, ’twas in the blinding rain,
And they flogged his flesh into his bones — then he walked back again.”

The man he said, “I have always heard that English laws are fair,
We are a part of England, and her fighting glory share,
But the English sent my father here for the shooting of a hare.

“My father was of England and it is against my will,
Of any nation on the earth, to speak one word of ill;
But I know the English by one mark — my eyes can see it still.”

Then spoke I still of England, I would not lightly yield,
“England,” I said, “is strong, she does the little nations shield,”
And the man he said, “Some things there are that never can be healed.”

John Shaw Neilson (editor: R. H. Croll), Collected Poems of John Shaw Neilson, Melbourne: Lothian Publishing Company, 1934 [May 1949 reprint], pages 169-175

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