[Editor: This article about Mary Gilmore was published in The Bulletin (Sydney, NSW), 1 October 1903. The first part is a review of Mary Gilmore’s poetry; the second part is about her life, written by Mary Gilmore (aside from the introductory paragraph), especially concentrating on her time spent in South America.]
One Australian Girl.
Mary Gilmore’s verses, printed in The Bulletin, The Worker (Q.), The Queenslander, The Clipper, and many other Australian papers, have gained a wide popularity. Those reprinted on this page exhibit her talent at its best, poetically speaking. In other examples, where she strikes the note of social sympathy, she appeals to a numerous class of readers with equal force and effect. Her work is often hasty — the rough embodiment of a mood or an idea, quickly seized and crudely set down. Yet sincerity and passion give the verse a rare poignancy. Such a little homely gem as “Marri’d” is unique. The theme is commonplace; even the vision is commonplace; but the power to express the vision at that pitch and in that way is memorable.
There are other pieces in which a finer phrase meets a finer emotion. The emotion is usually lyric — a momentary flash, a natural cry, owing little to “fundamental brain-work.” It is the eye, the imagination of the Celt once more. Mary Gilmore’s father was a Scottish Highlander, “very Highland”; and the character of her verse is hereditary, attenuated by admixture and coloured often by personal experience.
The work of such a quick, alive, glancing, scintillating mind is naturally full of unconscious echoes. Occasionally one is reminded of the style or matter of Heine or another. Mary Gilmore’s poetical value issues, in fact, from instinct and temperament, and not from education, though she has been well educated in the conventional sense. The heat, the glow, the touch of phrase and tingle of feeling that differentiate her work from mere journal-verse — these she owes to her ancestry. Her work is original in fibre.
Twice or thrice, as in “A Little Ghost,” it holds an atmosphere of mystery, that indefinably haunting quality which is given and received by no conscious artifice or effort. At other times, Mary Gilmore writes what might be called epigrams of emotion — stanzas of four or eight lines in which the words set themselves without premeditation to the tune of feeling:
We did not think it, did we,
Love had us in a net?
Now we may not remember
Nor yet may we forget.
A slight verse and simple; yet there is something in the saying that is noteworthy.
The story of Mary Gilmore’s life is remarkable. She was born near Goulburn, N.S.W. Her father was a Cameron, and her earliest and best-known verses appeared over the initials “M.J.C.” Going to country schools at Wagga and elsewhere, she became a pupil teacher under N.S.W. Education Department at the age of sixteen, after passing a brilliant examination. She was given her choice of appointment in Sydney or any of half-a-dozen country towns, and chose Wagga as being near her own people, and because she had gone to school there. “I was only a gawky country girl dressed in a home-made frock when I entered the school to begin work, and when I went eagerly up to an old school-fellow (she wore a watch, and her skirt was weighted down with pennies instead of shot, and afterwards she married a clergyman and wore glasses) she coldly gave me the tips of her fingers and turned away to another girl, whose dress had six pearl buttons where mine had one.” A successful career as a teacher followed — at Silverton, and later at Sydney — until Miss Cameron came within the circle of the New Australia movement, and went to Paraguay as a colonist.
“I had a lot of fever in the colony; and people said I worked too hard. I was married there, and my child was born in the neighbouring town. The nurse — an ex-colonist — was drunk from before his birth till a week after, and I did not write to the colony for help because I did not care to expose her, thinking no one but I knew she drank. Only for the kindness of a chance visitor I would have died, and only for the nurse’s little girl of eight I would have gone often all day, while in bed, without food. A month before my child was born I went into Villa Rica. When my child was two weeks old I returned to the colony, and when he was sixteen days old I was at the washtub — this because I knew every woman in the colony had as much work to do as ever she could manage without mine being added. I remember the longing I had, when my child was born, to send a wire to my husband, but I was afraid of the expense — it would have seemed like taking bread out of the children’s mouths, and I sent only a letter. But I never think of that telegram without a feeling of sadness. I was away and the baby was come, and I had to wait for the chance of the mail being sent for from the colony for my husband to know.
“I remember how we made a cot for the child. Will split the timber — lapacho, a hard wood and a heavy — with maul and wedges, then he trimmed down the splintered sides with an adze, after which he split the pieces with an old saw. He was weeks over the work — the wood was so hard — then with a plane and a spokeshave he smoothed all the surfaces. It was a bit out of plumb in some of its legs, but it would take a beautiful polish. The idea of the polish was a joy to us, but we had neither the time nor the material to polish with, so the joy never had a foundation in fact. And though the cot was finished, I never put the boy to bed in it except by day. It seemed so cold-hearted to put him away in the night, and we thought he might feel lonely. ‘Besides,’ his father said, ‘he is such a little fellow.’ We made also a whatnot, but it was sawn out with a crosscut — I was the architect, Will was the executive. It was a thing of beauty, actually had a bead on its front edges, and wouldn’t go skew-wise if it stood away from the wall. In fact, it could on occasion stand alone; but we kept it nailed to the wall for security and safety’s sake.
“Some time after, we severed our connection with the Cosme colony, and while Will was in Patagonia I went into Villa Rica to live, renting the same little house where my baby was born. The evenings were pleasant, for it was May, and I used to sit in the verandah at sundown and even till nearly dusk. After a week of this my landlord and his six daughters came one evening to see me and remonstrate. ‘It wasn’t safe,’ they gave me to understand; ‘there were bandidos about.’ ‘Would I go indoors before sundown and fasten up the house?’ And he hauled in the trunk of a small orange tree to add to the security of my door. This door opened in the middle, had a bolt top and bottom, and a double-lock in the middle. He fastened the bolts, double locked the door, and then jammed the sapling against the middle of it. One of the daughters, to make things more secure, brought in a long board; this was propped in against the upper part of the door. Some weeks afterwards, finding the door rattle in a high wind, I examined the hinges. There were no screws in them, only nails, old rusty nails, and about two to each hinge. I smiled. The thing was so like Paraguay.
“After that I ceased to barricade the door in the middle, and did it at the sides — not that it mattered much, except as a precaution against it being blown in. To this house used poor Larry Petrie to come after his seventeen hours duty at the Railway Station. ‘Larry, Larry, you foolish fellow,’ I used to say — ‘why don’t you go to bed instead of coming up here?’ ‘Bed!’ he would reply — ‘how can I sleep ? The carpenters work beside me, and the lampmen are in and out all the time; and so it’s a case of get drunk, or come and talk to you,’ and he would stay and talk till his nerves quietened, and then tramp wearily back to his little lamp-room for an hour’s sleep. Twice he prevented a collision; once he saved a train from fire, and died at last with his ribs through his lungs, his life given for that of the stationmaster’s child.
“Will came up to Villa Rica from Patagonia, intending we should all go down as soon as the summer came. We went from Villa Rica to Sapucay (the Railway works) and lived there two or three months. Then to Buenos Aires for a few months. Here Will went shearing in the Argentine — such an experience! In November nearly three years ago we left for Gallegos, in South Patagonia. From Gallegos the Falklands lie east 300 miles, so you may guess how cold it was. Magellan’s Strait is two days’ ride south. On the way south an epidemic of measles broke out; my little son took the complaint, and inflammation of the lungs set in.
“There was no milk, water ran short; it was thick and purple; we were on a waterless coast in an old ship, whose engines might blow up any time, whose condenser only condensed enough for the first class, and used to break out in leaks every second day. The Doctor suffered from melancholia and loss of memory; he was kindness itself, and used invariably to pray over my little one, but he dared not trust himself to do anything beyond taking his temperature. When I would beg of him, ‘Doctor, is there anything can be done?’ he would say, ‘We can only wait, we can only pray’ — and sometimes, ‘He is too weak for anyone to do anything.’ We were 31 days on a voyage that should only have taken six or seven. The Pacific boats do it in two-and-a-half. Yet Billy lived.
“In Patagonia I was for a time governess to, I think, the most awful girl that ever lived. She was sixteen, looked eighteen, and called herself fourteen. She knew everything ever known, and what I told her one day she told me back in a day or two as entirely her own. Among the items of her own peculiar knowledge was that ‘she knew the woman who made all the lace for Queen Victoria’s wedding.’ After three months governessing I went from the Estancia to live in Gallegos. Here I was advised to take up English teaching. I demurred on the ground that I could not speak Spanish. ‘Oh, but you are such a good English scholar,’ was the reply, ‘you should do well at it.’ It seemed a queer reply and a queer reason for success, but there was a lot in it; so I took a house and began teaching.
“My first pupil was Don Vicente Cané, of the Bank of Argentina, nephew to a gentleman whose name I forget, but who was one time Plenipo. for Argentina in London: a fine scholar and a brilliant writer. Don Vicente lent me his uncle’s translation of “Henry V,” which was really Shakespeare in another language. The first month of teaching was dreadful. I felt such a fraud, for I hadn’t the use of twenty words of the language, though with the dictionary I could read fairly well. As the lesson hour came round my knees used to shake with apprehension lest Don Vicente wouldn’t come, and my stomach grew sick in dread of the lesson should he come. Whichever way it was, it was awful. Yet in a week Señor Cané brought me other pupils, and the Deputy Governor sent me more. Indeed, in a little while, I had to take a more convenient house, and had as many pupils as I could manage. And they were so kind, all of them. I got on splendidly with my Spanish, and they were kind enough to say they did well with the English — and indeed, after a while, I think they did, for I tried hard enough. Moreover, they all expressed their sorrow and disappointment when I told them I was leaving.
“Half the lessons I gave at my own house, the rest at the houses of pupils, and many and many a day the wind blew my little boy off his feet as we hurried along to a lesson, or dashed me against a telephone post or a fence. The wind is incessant. Except in the dead of winter, when all is frozen, it never ceases. I have been half-an-hour going 100 yards, and holding on to fences all the way, and I have seen men — who wear no skirts — have to put their hands to the ground to maintain their balance. My little boy I couldn’t leave at home, as he was too young, and a servant was out of the question. Only soldiers’ wives were available, and they would only stay till they had pilfered all they wanted; in addition to which none of them could cook, and all were dirty and immoral.
“During the time I was in Gallegos, war was threatened between Argentina and Chili. The disputed territory was only 60 miles away. It was a time of great excitement. Soldiers drilled daily back and front of my house, beginning at 2 a.m. — the days were long and there was little darkness at night; the pigeons were taken out and trained, and the wildest rumours prevailed. Chilenos were openly arrested in the streets and locked up, and l was frankly told that unless we had our passports Will would be imprisoned. He was away and I was alone — he was fifty miles off at Estancia Condor, initiating machine shearing at the station. There was no direct mail to him, and if I wanted to telephone or telegraph I would have to do so via Chili, as the lines ran to and from Punta Arenas, and when Chili chose that we should get news of the negotiations she opened the lines; when she didn’t choose she closed them.
“We had no Consul, but the English officials in the Chilian English Bank swore to defend the bank and the English women with their lives. There were a few robberies, and I slept every night with an axe, two or three carving knives, and a siren whistle under my pillow, some of my pupils impressing upon me never to open my door at night, should a knock come, till I knew who was outside. Indeed, I was thought to be a phenomenal woman to live alone and not be afraid. I wasn’t afraid, but I was mightily excited, and terribly anxious for the future. We had weeks of this, every few days bringing news of mobilisation of troops first on one side and then on the other. Our hope was that negotiations would go on till snow fell in the Andes, when the passes — there were only two — would be closed, and in the we meantime might get a man-of-war from the Falklands. Remember, we were living amongst peoples only semi-civilized, and of whom three parts were of Indian extraction. I never kept a revolver in the town, though I had offered me. It is an awful thing to kill a man, and down there unless you kill it is useless shooting, and I wouldn’t dare to kill. My husband, too, was considered mad because he did not carry a knife, not even when over the machines at Condor, where he had all the nationalities under him, and not one but was armed.
“For many reasons I liked living in Patagonia, but the cold was too severe — not the degree of cold, but the cold combined with the wind. The wind gets in everywhere. I have been three days (on the edge of the Pampa) trying to get the irons hot enough to iron, and burning coal all the time; and water dropped on the floor in my kitchen froze at once. In the poorer houses the breath formed frost on the blankets, and I have had ice one-eighth of an inch thick day and night on the inside of my bedroom window. As I sat governessing on the Estancia my breath formed frost flowers on the schoolroom window, and the room stood at 32 degrees and a shade under. This with a kerosene-heater in the room.
“After fourteen months of Patagonia we left for Buenos Aires, and in March, 1902, left B.A. for Australia.”
The Bulletin (Sydney, NSW), 1 October 1903, The Red Page (verso of front cover, prior to p. 1)
The text written by Mary Gilmore has been put in a “blockquote”, so as to distinguish it from the rest of the article.
adze = an axe-like cutting tool with a curved blade
Andes = the Andes Mountains, or Andean Mountains, a long mountain range in South America
B.A. = (in the context of South America) Buenos Aires, the capital city of Argentina
bandido = (Spanish) bandit, outlaw (from the Italian “bandito”)
Buenos Aires = the capital city of Argentina
Condor = (also known as “Estancia Condor” or “Estancia El Condor”) an area located south of Río Gallegos in the province of Santa Cruz, Argentina
Estancia Condor = (also known as “Cóndor” or “Estancia El Condor”) an area located south of Río Gallegos in the province of Santa Cruz, Argentina
Gallegos = Río Gallegos, the capital city of the province of Santa Cruz, Argentina
Patagonia = a region in southern South America, part of Argentina and Chile
Plenipo. = an abbreviation of “plenipotentiary” (a diplomat)
Sapucay = (also spelt “Sapucai”) a town in Paraguay, located south-east of Asunción and north-west of Villarrica
station = a large rural holding for raising sheep or cattle; the term “property” is used for smaller holdings
Villa Rica = (also spelt “Villarrica”) the capital city (from 1906) of the Guairá Department (part of the Misiones Province), Paraguay; its full name is Villa Rica del Espíritu Santo, or Villa Rica of the Holy Spirit
[Editor: Changed “carry a knive” to “carry a knife”.]