The Bush Fire [poem by Charles Harpur, 31 March 1851]

[Editor: A poem by Charles Harpur.]

Contributions to Australian literature.

(Being leaves from Charles Harpur’s Wild Bee of Australia)
No. 2.

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 repaired.

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 unencumbered.”

Right before,
A narrow strip of clearing, like a glade,
Stretch’d 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 ? Well 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,
Though breathless.

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.

All grouped
In safety now upon that hill’s bald 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 !
Up-climbing 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 so, 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,
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 their spiral 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
Outstretch 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 their doom. Such was the prospect ;
Illuminated cities were but jests
Compared to it for splendor. But enough !
Where were there 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.— 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 attained to the height of five and six feet, and several kinds of spear-grass (or grass trees) even to double that height ; and this gave to the Bush Fires of those times a character altogether tremendous in comparison to any affairs of the kind that may be seen now-a-days within the compass of at least three or four hundred miles. It has been my fortune, however, to have witnessed several very great ones, and I have thrown together in the poem the more striking aspects and circumstances of each and all of them.

The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.), Monday 31 March 1851, page 4


  1. Wow, sooo good.
    Its a bit of a hard read because of the non flowing language but I hung off every word.
    What a terrifying event to happen to a family, especially in those days when there was no transport out of there or early warning communications, equipment or fire fighters to help.
    I could hear the enormous roar of the fire in his words. And to look back and see your house burning, probably built with your own hands, can’t imagine what that wold be like.
    Sounds like it was almost death inevitable. They were so lucky to escape and live to tell the story.
    There is a line that I think describes some people not escaping and being burnt, but maybe I am just reading too much into it, Have to read it again (slowly) to try and find out.

    Having read about some of the catastrophic fires in the past, in the 1800’s and 1900s plus living through quite a few devastating bush fires causing thousands of deaths and loss of many properties and millions of acres of bushland and animals over my six (and a bit) decades, it seems like these events are on re-wind and mother nature will do as she pleases with floods, hot winds, years of drought then eventually leading to fires and rain again, to put them out herself, then re-grow the forests and start the cycle all over again. This is Australia !

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