[Editor: This poem by Kenneth Mackay was published in Stirrup Jingles from the Bush and the Turf and Other Rhymes (1887).]
The Bush Fire.
In days when breath comes short and fast,
And birds are still with stifling heat;
While clouds of dust are upwards cast
By weary cattle’s lagging feet;
When winds that come are dry and hot,
From burning forests filled with flames,
And horses seek each shaded spot,
With reeking sides and drooping manes;
In times of drought, when all the land
Is full of glare and torrid heat;
When streams are only gleaming sand,
To mock and blister thirsty feet;
When thunders roll and lightnings flash,
And all the sky is wild and red,
As mighty storm-clouds onward dash,
To join aerial combat dread,
All pitiless, alas, they soar,
Forgetful through the heated air —
Then tearless pass, nor stoop to pour
The life they in their bosoms bear:
’Tis then the fiery demon springs
From forests thick with scrub and pine,
To scorch and blast all living things,
From sturdy box to clinging vine.
Above his path the air is dark
With clouds that speak of fear and death,
While gleaming sparks of leaf and bark
Are borne upon his baneful breath.
The smoke in heavy circles floats,
That hour by hour decrease in size,
While men stand still with parching throats,
To gaze with terror-stricken eyes
Upon the sun that, sinking low
Behind the hill-heads brown and bare,
Seems like some demon’s face aglow
With thirst and anguish and despair.
And through the dust hurrying past
Great droves of cattle, and the goods
Of those in other days who cast
Their lot among the deeper woods;
While in their rear the bushmen wage
A losing battle all night long,
Where all the air is full of rage
And smoke and death and fiendish song.
Once and again they dash their boughs
Against the crackling ruddy line
That licks their sweat-besprinkled brows,
And makes them reel as though with wine;
About their feet the insects crawl,
That live in rot and noisome shades;
Above their heads great monarchs fall,
Struck to the heart by fiery blades.
And gliding on from log to log,
Snakes hurry by with sinuous haste,
While kangaroo and native dog
With terror fly the burning waste.
God help the flocks they cannot bring;
The cattle, mad with smoke and pain;
The birds that have not strength of wing;
The men who fly when flight is vain!
For back the fighters fall at last,
With swollen tongues and blistered feet;
And trees are laid before the blast
As reapers slay the ripened wheat.
* * *
’Tis night once more, and all around
A thousand watchfires light the scene;
The fire-king holds the conquered ground,
And rests where forest homes have been.
While on the morrow, o’er the smoke
That hangs above the cursed place,
Will eagles fly with regal stroke
O’er blacken’d stump and blasted face;
And foetid things will scent the prize,
And come to gloat with reeking breath,
And fight, and fill with furious cries
This land of ruin and of death.
Kenneth Mackay, Stirrup Jingles from the Bush and the Turf and Other Rhymes, Sydney: Edwards, Dunlop & Co., 1887, pages 25-28
baneful = bad, evil; causing destruction, great distress, much damage, woe (may also refer to something which causes death, especially poison)
morrow = (archaic) the next day, tomorrow
o’er = over (pronounced the same as “oar”, “or”, and “ore”)
reek =  fog, fumes, smoke, steam, or vapor (may also refer to a strong unpleasant smell)
reek =  a strong unpleasant smell (may also refer to fog, fumes, smoke, steam, or vapor)
De Boeker says
Well, well, 1887, why did’nt we study the Poem in school?
prose is so beautifully written, for AUSTRALIA we have lived
with destruction that nature brings, amazing we still have our native animals
and how the bush regenerates, Long Live Australia.
Yong Mateus says
Good post! Thanks!