[Editor: This poem by Joseph Furphy was published in The Poems of Joseph Furphy (1916).]
“The Schoolhouse on the Plain.”
(From “An Idyll of the Wimmera.”)
On the geodetic line, where the parish boundaries join
At a level and interminable lane
You can see it there, alone, standing calmly on its own,
Like an iceberg in a solitary main.
It’s a topographic base, and each near or distant place
Is located from the Schoolhouse on the Plain.
It lies open to the road, in the usual country mode,
With a few old waster posts to bridge the drain;
The reserve is clean and dry, being several inches high,
The building standing back about a chain.
Nothing could excel the stand, and it’s worth its bit of land,
That inexpensive Schoolhouse on the Plain.
It requires a lick of paint, to correct the weather-taint,
And its windows should have here and there a pane;
The open-jointed floor swallows pencils by the score,
And the veteran desks are inked with many a stain;
Still it’s proof against the wet, and there’s lots of service yet
In that unpretentious Schoolhouse on the Plain.
Such eventual wear and tear, with contingent disrepair,
Is appointed unto everything mundane —
Bear in mind it braves with ease the fanatic and the breeze,
Spreading influence that nothing can restrain —
Think how superstitions yield, and sectarian feuds are heal’d,
In that nation-building Schoolhouse on the Plain.
All the district, far and near, has a postal centre here,
So suitable that no one can complain;
Here the local Rechabites, on alternate Thursday nights,
Renew their solemn davy to abstain;
Also that improvement class, call’d the Literary Ass,
Holds its meetings at the Schoolhouse on the Plain.
When election time draws near, then the hayseeds rally here,
To catechise the candidate urbane;
To demand a cockspur line, and an open port for twine,
With reduction of the railway freight on grain.
Here on polling day they meet, to discomfort Lygon Street,
No nonsense with the Schoolhouse on the Plain!
Here the missionary man, fresh from Indian or Japan,
Unblushingly takes on him to maintain
That he labours day and night in a harvest field that’s white,
With other statements shaky and inane;
But his magic-lantern show makes the entertainment go,
Till applauses fill the Schoolhouse on the Plain.
Every Sunday, after two, there’s an old-man rendezvous,
And the edifice becomes a sacred fane;
Then along the fence, each side, stands a line of horses tied,
And the seats within hold all they can contain;
While some good, well-meaning man, as per local-preachers’ plan,
Holds Service in the Schoolhouse on the Plain.
And as he exhorts or prays, or the flock their voices raise
In rendition of some Sankey-book refrain,
A dozen dogs, and more, hold possession of the floor,
Dumbly showing how they need insectibane —
Nor are such things taken ill, for there’s no superfluous frill
At those preachings in the Schoolhouse on the Plain.
There the boys deal glances fond, and the girls, of course, respond,
In spite of the indifference they feign;
Whilst the mothers of the youth listen to the word of truth,
Till they feel about as innocent as Cain;
And the toddlers play bo-peep, and the rude forefathers sleep,
Being bosses of the Schoolhouse on the Plain.
But the Monday, coming round, as by ancient usage bound,
Sees our jossless system under way again;
Then the hopefuls mobilize, and the droning murmurs rise,
Whilst the tree of knowledge creaks beneath the strain;
And the R’s extend their roots, and the young idea shoots,
Under cover of that Schoolhouse on the Plain.
There are stories carted here, from the Northern Hemisphere,
And design’d to cause a thrill through every vein,
Of monarchs, grave or gay, each distinguish’d in his day
By being feeble-minded or insane —
But here the kids compete for the scorner’s sinful seat.
Their troubles at the Schoolhouse on the Plain!
As becometh Jim and Bill, their solicitude is nil
Touching Mary Queen of Scots or Anne Boleyn,
But the ructions of the kings, when their docile underlings
Made a many-figured tally of the slain,
Are consider’d worth review, for the sporting instinct true
Is powerful at the Schoolhouse on the Plain.
There are lessons setting forth how an islet somewhere north
Knock’d the stuffing out of Holland, France and Spain;
How, from east to west, its drum makes our planet fairly hum,
And the sunrise follow meekly in its train;
How that spadeful, all alone, gave us everything we own,
Especially this Schoolhouse on the Plain.
And the lydy-teacher there, comes from heaven alone knows where,
Like some angel they’re vouchsafed to entertain.
She controls her motley drove by the gentle power of love,
Emphasising her affection with a cane —
True, she cavils all the while at the rough, untidy style
Of her pupils in the Schoolhouse on the Plain.
She sets up to know a lot, but there’s one defective spot
In the dignity she struggles to sustain;
For her days are pass’d in fright, and her sleep’s disturb’d at night,
As if she had Inspector on the brain;
And her heart is in her mouth as she watches north and south
From the windows of the Schoolhouse on the Plain.
And when she is elsewhere gone, that old school will still live on —
Just as she herself was not the first to reign —
Since, for better or for worse, Young Australia comes in force,
(As a reference to the Year-Book will explain);
And he only leaves a place for his duplicate to grace;
In the roll-book of the Schoolhouse on the Plain.
They mature, and off they drop, in an intermittent crop,
Not a single soul desiring to remain;
For they know their road about, they can turn things inside out!
But existence, as they quickly ascertain,
Is a great deal harder row than they thought they had to hoe,
When they wagg’d it from the Schoolhouse on the Plain.
Many a shearer, tough and strong; many a drover, two yards long;
Many a bullock driver, hairy and profane;
Many an innocent yahoo; many a red-hot subject too;
Many a law-abiding devotee of gain;
Many a work-girl; many a wife — looking back upon their life,
Cherish memories of the Schoolhouse on the Plain.
Some important changes gleam o’er the spirit of their dream
As they blunder through their honourless campaign —
All that sense of brutal wrong has been dissipated long
From the standard they were driven to attain;
And they wish with all their heart they could make a second start
At the undervalued Schoolhouse on the Plain.
K. B. [Kate Baker] (editor), The Poems of Joseph Furphy, Melbourne: Lothian Book Publishing Co., 1916, pages 31-34
The phrase “lydy-teacher” (lady teacher) is very possibly a reference to Kate Baker, with whom Joseph Furphy was good friends.
Cain = the oldest of the two sons of Adam and Eve (according to the Bible, in the Book of Genesis, Cain murdered Abel, and thus the word Cain became associated with murder)
cavil = to raise objections that are frivolous, inconsequential and trivial
chain = a unit of measurement, being for a distance of 66 feet (20 metres)
davy = an affidavit (a legally-binding sworn statement given in writing)
fane = a church or temple
hayseed = someone from a country area, especially someone unused to city living (often used in a derogatory sense); bumpkin, hick, yokel
insectibane = an insect powder (made by Rocke, Tompsitt, and Co., Melbourne), used for both humans and animals
islet somewhere north = Britain
Jim and Bill = a reference to Bill-Jims, Australians; a “Bill-Jim” (or “Billjim”), being a combination of the common first names “Bill” and “Jim”, was a term used to refer to an Australian male; an ordinary, everyday Australian
lydy = lady
Lygon Street = a reference to the Victorian Trades Hall in Lygon Street (Carlton, Victoria), which was the headquarters and organising centre for various trades unions and the Australian Labor Party
magic-lantern = an early type of image projector used for showing slides of images, by projecting and magnifying images mounted on films or glass slides, using a concave mirror and a light source to direct the image through a lens onto a screen or wall (or, for a spooky effect, even onto a cloud of smoke); magic lanterns were used to display images for entertainment, information, and even for trickery (they were used by fraudsters, as well as magicians, to conjure up fake ghosts and spirits)
main = the high sea, the open ocean
Rechabite = a member of the Independent Order of Rechabites, an organisation dedicated to abstinence from alcoholic drinks; the term “Rechabites” was also used to refer to teetotalers in general (i.e. non-drinkers of alcoholic beverages)
Sankey = Ira David Sankey (1840-1908), an American evangelist, gospel singer, composer of religious music, and author of religious hymns and songs; he was well-known as the compiler of the popular book Sacred Songs and Solos: Twelve Hundred Hymns
spadeful = Britain; a reference to Britain being a small island; an over-exaggeration of the smallness of Britain as being just a spadeful of dirt
wag = to not attend school without permission to do so; to skip school, to be truant (may also be used in other contexts, such as to wag work, but primarily used regarding schooling)
yahoo = someone who lacks social sensibility or cultural refinement; a boorish, crass, noisy, rude, or stupid person (taken from the name of the race of brutish human creatures depicted in the novel Gulliver’s Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift) (may also refer to the word “yahoo” shouted as an expression of joy and happiness; may also refer to a wild human-like creature said to exist in the Australian bush, a yowie, similar to a yeti)
[Editor: Changed “monarch’s” to “monarchs”.]
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