[Editor: This poem, written by Laura Wilson, about the Burke and Wills expedition, was published in “The Little Laureate’s Corner” section of the The Australian Town and Country Journal (Sydney, NSW), 17 February 1909.]
Burke and Wills.
By Laura Wilson (Ringwood, Vic.).
We listen while the poets
Tell-tales of bygone days;
Of Arthur and his knighthood,
Of Alfred’s minstrel lays,
Of soldiers and brave sailors,
Who many battles fought,
And not their own vainglory,
But England’s honor sought.
But some there are far braver
We speak of with hushed breath,
Who fought not actual battles,
Yet warred with life and death.
One fateful, cloudless morning,
They left a verdant green
With Hope writ on their faces —
Hope well and plainly seen.
For many days they travelled
O’er deserts’ cheerless waste,
And cheerless was the prospect
That hopefully they faced.
Their friends left far behind them,
A widening plain before,
A pitiless sun above them,
Their quest a distant shore.
And on through weeks of suffering,
Undaunted still they pressed,
The hope of a great nation
Was centred in each breast.
At last their goal was sighted,
The great Gulf came in view —
With many a thankful blessing
Saw they its waters blue.
Then back they turned their footsteps
Towards their own dear home land,
One of their number buried
Beneath the golden sand.
With faces wan and haggard,
With footsteps feeble now,
Their only hope in Heaven,
In Him to whom we bow.
And when life’s sun was setting
They their old camp drew nigh,
And there in hopeless solitude,
Poor Wills was left to die.
P’raps, ere he passed the Border,
There came with sweet refrain
Some angels, whisp’ring softly,
“Thou hast not lived in vain.”
And when brave Burke discovered
Life’s race for him was run,
He begged King leave him lying,
His face towards the sun.
And King? Ah! fate was kinder;
P’rhaps God had heard the prayer
That He in His great mercy
At least one life would spare.
Then, hark, all ye Australians,
And listen while I say,
That men were never braver
Than Burke, Wills, King, and Gray!
The Australian Town and Country Journal (Sydney, NSW), 17 February 1909, p. 16
See also: The Burke and Wills expedition
Alfred = King Alfred (849-899), a British king who was also known as Alfred the Great; he was King of the Wessex (871-899)
See: 1) Dorothy Whitelock, “Alfred: king of Wessex”, Encyclopaedia Britannica
2) “Alfred the Great”, Wikipedia
Arthur = King Arthur, a British king who was also known as Arthur Pendragon, a prominent figure in British history and legend (it is a matter of dispute as to whether he was an actual historical figure, a composite of historical figures, or a fictional figure of folklore)
See: 1) “King Arthur: legendary king of Britain”, Encyclopaedia Britannica
2) “King Arthur”, Wikipedia
Border = in the context of death, the border between life and death
ere = (archaic) before (from the Middle English “er”, itself from the Old English “aer”, meaning early or soon)
Gulf = in the context of the northern coast of Australia, the term “Gulf” usually refers to the well-known Gulf of Carpentaria, although there are several other gulfs located on Australia’s northern coast (Admiralty Gulf, Beagle Gulf, Cambridge Gulf, and Van Diemen Gulf)
hast = (archaic) have
He = in a religious context, and capitalized, a reference to God or Jesus Christ
Him = in a religious context, and capitalized, a reference to God or Jesus
His = in a religious context, and capitalized, a reference to God or Jesus Christ
lay = song, tune; ballad (may also refer to ballads or narrative poems, as sung by medieval minstrels or bards)
nigh = near, close, especially regarding time or place (e.g. “the time was nigh”); approaching, nearly; almost
o’er = (archaic) over (pronounced the same as “oar”, “or”, and “ore”)
p’raps = a contraction of “perhaps”
p’rhaps = a contraction of “perhaps”
thou = (archaic) you (regarding a person as the subject in a sentence)
vainglory = boastfulness, excessive self-pride, vanity, promoting one’s own glory in a vain manner
verdant = countryside covered with lush green grass or other plant life; may also refer to the colour green, or to someone who is “green” (i.e. lacking experience, judgment, or sophistication)
wan = having a sickly or pale appearance; a poorly appearance suggestive of unhappiness or grief; a lack of energy or feeling (e.g. a smile or laugh, displaying little effort, energy, or enthusiasm); lacking good health or vitality (may also refer to something which is dim or faint, e.g. light, stars, sun)
whisp’ring = (vernacular) whispering
writ = (archaic) written; writing; write; can also refer to a court order which directs someone to carry out an act, or to refrain from carrying out an act; may also refer to something written, or to a document considered to be the most authoritative in its field, e.g. Holy Writ (the Bible, or a passage from the Bible)
ye = (archaic; dialectal) you (still in use in some places, e.g. in Cornwall, Ireland, Newfoundland, and Northern England; it can used as either the singular or plural form of “you”, although the plural form is the more common usage)
[Editor: Added a closing double quotation mark after “lived in vain.”]