[Editor: This poem by Charles Harpur was published in The Bushrangers; A Play in Five Acts, and Other Poems (1853).]
The Bush Fire.
“’Tis nine o’clock: — to bed!” cried Egremont,
Who with his youthful household (for ’tis now
Long since) inhabited a lonely home
In the Australian wilderness, that then
As with an unshorn fleece of gloomy wood
Robed the vast bulk of all the mighty Isle.
But ere retiring finally, he went
Forth as his wont was, to survey the night.
’Twas clear and silent: and the stirless woods
Seemed dreaming in the witch-light of the moon
As like a boat of stained pearl, she hung
Amid the ridges of a wavy cloud —
The only cloud in heaven. While Egremont
Looked thus abroad observingly, he marked
All around him, listing the horizon’s verge,
A broad unusual upward glaring gleam,
Such a drear radiance as the setting sun
Effuses when the atmosphere is stormy.
What this might be he wondered — but not long;
Divining soon the cause — a vast Bush Fire!
But deeming it too distant yet for harm,
During the night betiding, to repose
With his bed-faring household he retired.
Sound was their sleep: for honesty of life
Is somewhat lumpish when ’tis once a-bed.
And now the darkness of the night was past,
When with the dreams of Egremont, a strange
And momently approaching roar began
To mingle and insinuate through them more
And more of its own import, till a Fire
Huge as the world was their sole theme: and then
He started from his sleep to find the type
A warning! for what else however terrible,
Might breathe with a vitality so fierce
As that which reigned without?
Scarce did he wait
To clothe himself ere forth he rushed; and lo,
Within the circling forest he beheld
A vast and billowy belt of writhing fire,
That shed a wild and lurid splendour up
Against the whitening dawn, come raging on!
Raging and roaring as with ten thousand tongues
That prophesied destruction. On it came,
A dreadful apparition — such as Fear
Conceives when dreaming of the front of hell!
No time was there to lose. “Up — up!” he cried
To all the house. Instantly all within
Was haste and wonder, and in briefest space
The whole-roused family were staring out
In speechless admiration, such as kept
Even Terror dormant; — till more urgently
The voice of Egremont again was heard:—
“Lose not a moment! Follow me at once,
Each with whatever he can grasp of use
And carry unincumbered!”
A narrow strip of clearing like a glade
Stretched out tow’rds a bald summit. Thitherward
The perilled people now were hurrying all,
While in their front, beneath the ridge, a dense
Extent of brushwood into which the Fire’s
Bright teeth were eating hungrily, still brought
The danger nearer! Shall they reach that hill
Unscathed, their only refuge? Will they speed
Past the red-rushing peril? Onward yet!
And onward! — till at length the summit’s gained,
And halting, they look back — in safety all,
But no sooner had they past
That fearful brush, than a vast swathe of flame
Lifted and hurried forward by the wind
Over their very passage track, was pitched
With a loud thud like thunder into it —
With such a thud as the sea-swell gives up
From under the ledges of some hanging cliff!
And in an instant all its depth of shade
Was as a lake of hell! And hark! as then,
Even like a ghastly pyramid its mass
Of flames went surging up — up with them still
A cry of mortal agony was heard
Ascending, all so terrible, indeed,
That they who heard it, never, until then,
Might deem a voice so earnest in its fear,
So strenuous in its anguish could have being
In the live bosom of the suffering Earth!
But soon did they divine, even to their loss,
Its import:— there a giant steed, their best,
Had taken refuge, there to die!
In safety now upon that hill’s bare top —
Egremont and his household looked abroad,
Astonished at the terrors of the time!
Soon sunk their rooftree in the fiery surge,
Which entering next a high-grassed bottom, thick
With bark-ringed trees all standing bleak and leafless,
Tenfold more terrible in its ravage grew,
Upclimbing to their very tops! As when
Upon some day of national festival,
From the tall spars of the ship-crowded port
Innumerous flags in one direction all
Tongue outward, writhing in the wind: even so,
From those dry boles where still the dead bark clings
And from their multifarious mass above
Of leafless boughs, myriads of flaming tongues
Lick upward, or aloft in narrowing flakes
Stream out, — and thence upon the tortured blast
Bicker and flap in one inconstant blaze!
Scared forward by the roaring of the Fire,
A flight of parrots o’er the upper ridge
Comes whizzing, and then sweeping down, alights
Amid the oaks that fringe the base of yon
Precipitous terrace, being deterred from still
Proceeding by the smoke uprolled in front
Like a dim-moving range of spectral mountains.
There they abide, and listen in their fear
To the tremendous riot of the flames
Beyond the ridge line, that keep nearing fast
Though yet unseen from thence — unseen, till now
Furiously seizing on the withered grove
That tops the terrace, all whose spiry shafts
Rush upward, and then culminating, bend
Sheer o’er the oaks wherein the birds are lodged.
All are in flight at once, but from above
As suddenly, a mightier burst of flame
Outsheeteth o’er them! — Down they dip, but it
Keeps swooping with them even to the ground —
Where, in a moment after, all are seen
To writhe convulsed — blasted and plumeless all!
Thus through the day the conflagration raged:
And when the wings of night o’erspread the scene,
Not even their starry blazonry wore such
An aggregated glory to the eye,
As did the blazing dead wood of the forest —
On all hands blazing! Mighty sapless gums
Amid their living kindred, stood all fire —
Boles, branches, all! — like flaming ghosts of trees,
Come from the past within the whiteman’s pale
To typify a doom. Such was the prospect:
Illuminated cities were but jests
Compared to it for splendor. But enough!
Where are the words to paint the million shapes
And unimaginable freaks of Fire,
When holding thus its monster carnival
In the primeval forest all night long?
Note. — A “strip of clearing” is a strip of land, on which the timber has been felled and burned off, but which is not yet enclosed or cultivated; and “bark-ringed trees” are trees from which a portion of the bark has been chipped away all round for the purpose of killing them as they stand, with the further view of burning them up by the roots when sufficiently decayed, in order to rid the land of them totally and at once. By felling them instead, the Settler must either incur the subsequent expense and trouble of “stumping,” or submit to the constant eyesore which a field, with the stumps remaining in it must inevitably present to his “bump of order” — that is, if he have it in any degree of fulness.
The descriptive detail of the text may appear overcharged to all those persons who have only witnessed such Bush Fires as occur on our ordinary commons; but in the earlier Colonial times, before the wilderness, generally, was so thickly stocked with cattle as even the remotest locations are at present, our natural grasses often attained to the height of five or six feet, and several kinds of spear grass (or grass trees) even to double that height.
Charles Harpur, The Bushrangers; A Play in Five Acts, and Other Poems, Sydney: W. R. Piddington, 1853, pages 72-75
bole = the trunk of a tree (may also refer to clays of various colors which are used to create pigments, or a red-brown color made from those clays)
doom = a terrible fate, especially death or destruction
ere = before (from the Middle English “er”, itself from the Old English “aer”, meaning early or soon)
o’er = over (pronounced the same as “oar”, “or”, and “ore”)
without = (archaic) outside
wont = custom, habit, practice; accustomed; apt, inclined
yon = an abbreviation of “yonder”: at a distance; far away
Old spelling in the original text:
Vernacular spelling in the original text: