[Editor: This article by Mary Hannay Foott was published in The Bookfellow (Sydney, NSW), 29 April 1899.]
II. — Mary Hannay Foott.
Mary Hannay Foott still writes verses; but they are not the verses of her earlier, more ardent youth. For
There are gains for all our losses,
There are balms for all our pain;
But when youth, the dream, departs,
It takes something from our hearts,
And it never comes again.
“From our hearts” — and from our work. So criticism of Mary Foott as a writer of verse practically begins and ends with the volume published in Brisbane at the end of the eighties, and with some half-dozen pieces since. It is a small volume, but saw two editions; and it includes about five poems, about nineteen fragments of poems, and about thirty-eight phrases and suggestions which no lover of Australia and of Poetry would willingly forget. And if, when your own time comes, Messieurs the Bards who wear the local laurels of to-day! will you not be more than satisfied with such a reckoning?
It is a villainously arithmetical reckoning — and scarcely even accurate. Yet at least it is a counting of beauty-spots and not of freckles. And it is allowed to stand in order to give the idea that not all Mrs. Foott’s work is a desirable delight; that some of it is too topical, and some too mechanical, and some too academical; but that a large portion of it is pleasant to read, and a small portion precious to read and remember.
With a qualm (for the title at the head of this notice) and a pang (for its subject) one writes that Mary Foott is not Australian but Scottish. (“By the way,” brightly comments Mrs. Foott, “how few Scotswomen write verses! The Scotswoman in poetry may not be quite a snake in Iceland; but she is a fair second.
Caledonia, stern and wild,
Meet nurse for a poetic child!
is, perhaps, like Lady Macbeth, meet nurse for ‘men-children only.’” But is the comment just? Mackenzie Bell is at hand to give an opinion exactly contrary. “Scotland has been remarkable for producing a succession of songstresses whose poems have possessed that rare lyrical charm which appeals to the hearts of high and low alike … Besides Lady Nairne, writers like Lady Grisell Baillie, Jean Adam, Allison Cockburn, Jean Elliot, Lady Anne Barnard, Elizabeth Hamilton, Jean Glover, and Johanna Baillie form a roll of poetesses of which any country might be proud.” Yet, it is true, these belong to a very far-gone day.)
Having been born beyond Australia, Mary Foott (then Mary Black) made the best amends she could by coming here when a very small child, and remaining affectionately ever since. Scotland colours notably only one of her poems — “Gorse in Bloom”; while Australian scenes and longings are commemorated in nearly all. Educated in Melbourne, Mrs. Foott wrote her first verses as a schoolgirl in competition for a medal offered by Vic. Caledonian Society, which she won. She studied art under Von Guérard at Vic. National Gallery, and at the first Art Students’ Exhibition in 1874 was awarded a First Certificate — the highest honour then attainable.
Whilst still in Victoria Mary Black had contributed to Melb. and Sydney Punch, to the Australasian, and to the Town and Country Journal (“Mr. Samuel Bennett, of the Town and Country, and Mr. C. H. Buzacott, of the Queenslander, are the only newspaper proprietors who ever paid me for verse”); but it was after her marriage to Mr. Thomas Wade Foott, and especially during her residence at Dundoo station, in the Warrego district of Queensland, that Mrs. Foott gained that sympathy with the life of the bush so evident in her collected work. In 1886, after the death of her husband, Mrs. Foott became literary and social editor of the Queenslander, and remained in that position for ten years. At present she is a member of the teaching staff of Wagga (N.S.W.) Grammar School. Of her two sons the elder is a lieutenant in Q. Permanent Artillery; the younger, an engineer, is employed with the Anglican Mission at Wanegela, British New Guinea.
Mrs. Foott’s verses are not numerous, and pretend to no high imaginative rank. They are the sincere reflections of a sweet woman’s soul, often poetically inspired and poetically phrased, and for the most part seizing a momentary emotion, or idea, or picture, and stating it lyrically and straitly. It is for debate whether Mrs. Foott’s exceptional intellectual endowment has helped or hindered her poetical utterance. On the one hand it gives her verses a thoughtful basis without which some would seem too slight: on the other it has lessened their spontaneity and to some extent chilled their expression. Certainly Mrs. Foott’s best lines have been written from an emotional, not an intellectual stimulus. It is keen feeling, not strong thinking, which expands her grasp and heightens her reach. Verses like those for the Melbourne Exhibition of 1880 —
Ceased is the sound of the chisel, and hushed is the hammer’s ring,
And the echoes that haunted the empty halls for a while have taken wing;
And the doors are open, and overhead are a thousand flags unfurled,
While with music and song to the House she has built Victoria welcomes the world —
are poetically worthless. The writer’s head may sympathise with the progress of Australia, but her heart is only vaguely touched. It is when her womanly instincts of love, or pity, or sympathy, or worship, are aroused, that she has most power to rouse the reader. The tragedy of Marie Antoinette pierces her, and she writes of the night-blooming white Julienne — “the flower of Marie Antoinette” —
Perchance, like thee, while life was bright
Her soul no holy saviour shed;
Yet scattered incense when grief’s night
Wept dews of blood upon her head.
The parallel is essentially intellectual, but warmed to poetic life by the writer’s sincere emotion.
Often Mrs. Foott has the power of picturesquely and forcibly phrasing a scene or idea. The characteristic impression of drought-end is nowhere better set forth than in these lines —
He dreamt as he slept that a spirit swept from the sweltering Indian seas,
And her misty pinions veiled the moon and her trailing robes the trees …
A wind sea-born of the wild monsoon — a flash like the heavens aflame —
A thunder-crash like the crash of Doom, and the wished-for waters came.
Or here again —
The rushes are black by the river bed,
And the sheep and the cattle stand
Wistful-eyed, where the waters were,
In a waste of gravel and sand.
Those lines, for anyone who has witnessed it, are the scene itself; and these, for Charles Dickens, are not only the truth, but the essential truth to be said of the man who drew from common life its gaiety and pathos and glory —
Through webs and dust and weather-stains,
His sun-like genius paints
On life’s transfigured chancel-panes
The angels and the saints.
Mary Foott’s devotion of religion, often shown in her verses, is perhaps foreign to the local spirit and the spirit of the times. Yet for those who can win the mood some of her simple lines have the attraction which we own in the kindred lines of Christina Rossetti. These are two of sixteen verses addressed “To the Virgin Mary.”
Mother of Him we call the Christ,
No halo round thy brows we paint —
Incense and prayer we offer not,
Nor mind to title thee as saint.
And yet, no woman’s name — of all
With honour from the ages sent —
Mary! is aureoled like thine,
With love and grief and glory blent.
The second verse is surely very sweetly said. The first is no less characteristic of the writer, since it shows the intellectual side of her impressed, first of all, with the need of making quite clear the exact theological standpoint of the invocation.
Mary Foott has contributed many essays, tales, and sketches to the Australian press; but none of these have been re-issued in book form. Her “More Than Kin,” a comedy, was produced at Q. Government House in 1891; and “Sweep,” a three-act comedy for children, has often been played, and has been printed as a booklet.
Five of Mary Foott’s poems, reprinted in this number of The Bookfellow by the kind permission of the author, will give a truer conception of her talent than brief notice can hope to afford. The portrait of Mrs. Foott on page 20 is from a photograph by Lomer, of Brisbane.
The Bookfellow (Sydney, NSW), 29 April 1899, pp. 19-23
academical = academic; of or relating to an academy, college, university, or place of learning (usually regarding an advanced educational institution or a place of higher education)
aureoled = surrounded by a heavenly light, a radiant light, corona, or halo (typically indicative of a blessed or sacred being)
blent = blended (past tense of “blend”)
Caledonia = (Latin) Scotland; in Roman times, “Caledonia” was the name for the northern part of Great Britain, especially the land north of the River Forth or north of the Antonine Wall
Caledonian = (Latin) Scottish; of or relating to Scotland; of or relating to Caledonia (the northern part of Great Britain, especially the land north of the River Forth; Scotland); a person belonging to one of the Scottish tribes (especially during Roman times); someone from Scotland
chancel = the section of a church containing the altar, usually enclosed by a lattice or railing, for the use of the clergy and sometimes the choir
Charles Dickens = Charles John Huffam Dickens (1812-1870), English author, well known for his novels and short stories of the Victorian era
Christina Rossetti = Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-1894), English poet
gorse = (Ulex europaeus, also known as furze or whin) an evergreen shrub (bush) of the pea family, with yellow flowers and spiny leaves, native to parts of western Europe and north-west Africa
Government House = the official residence and offices of a Governor-General, Governor, or Lieutenant-Governor (especially in a country, state, or province of the British Commonwealth), often used as a venue for hosting official functions
Him = in a religious context, and capitalized, a reference to God or Jesus
Mackenzie Bell = Henry Thomas Mackenzie Bell (1856-1930), English author, poet, and literary critic
meet = (archaic) suitable, fit, or proper; also, something having the proper dimensions, or being made to fit; can also mean mild or gentle
Melb. = an abbreviation of “Melbourne” (capital city of Victoria, Australia)
Messieurs = (French) the plural of “monsieur”; used in English as the plural of “Mister” (which is abbreviated as “Mr.”); the title is used in English prior to the names of two or more men (often used regarding a company, e.g. “the firm of Messrs. Bagot, Shakes, & Lewis”, “the firm of Messrs. Hogue, Davidson, & Co.”)
own = confess; admit or affirm that something is true
pathos = compassion or pity; or an experience, or a work of art, that evokes feelings of compassion or pity
pinion = a bird’s wing; in more specific usage, the outer section of a bird’s wing; in broader usage, “pinions” refers to the wings of a bird (“pinion” may also refer specifically to a feather, especially a flight feather, or a quill)
Q. = an abbreviation of Queensland (a colony in Australia from 1859, then a state in 1901)
snake in Iceland = a phrase referring to something which is non-existent, based upon the fact that there are no snakes in Iceland (often rendered as “snakes in Iceland”, e.g. “there are probably just as many dragons in the Alps as there are snakes in Iceland”)
straitly = (archaic) closely, intimately, narrowly, tightly; (archaic) rigorously, strictly
taken wing = taken flight, flown away, gone away; advancement, progress, success (e.g. “his career had taken wing”), especially in a dramatic, quick or sudden manner; took off, to have an increase in achievement, activity, quantity, success or value
thee = (archaic) you
thine = (archaic) your; yours
thy = (archaic) your
Vic. = (rare) an abbreviation of “Victorian”
Von Guérard = Johann Joseph Eugene von Guérard (1811-1901), Austrian artist, worked in Australia from 1852 to 1882
This article has a style of not using the word “the” in appropriate places; those sentences have been left as they were originally published:
1) “offered by Vic. Caledonian Society” (not “offered by the Vic. Caledonian Society”)
2) “at Vic. National Gallery” (not “at the Vic. National Gallery”)
3) “contributed to Melb. and Sydney Punch” (not “contributed to the Melb. and Sydney Punch”)
4) “teaching staff of Wagga (N.S.W.) Grammar School” (not “teaching staff of the Wagga (N.S.W.) Grammar School”)
5) “lieutenant in Q. Permanent Artillery” (not “lieutenant in the Q. Permanent Artillery”)
[Editor: Changed “holy savour” to “holy saviour”.]