Antipodean Verse


JUST as our earliest forefathers brought with them from fabled Jutland the Beowulf, that broken torso of a mighty folk-epic, long to remain the unequaled model of many imitators, so each successive swarm from England, the officina gentium of the Anglo-Saxon race, has taken with it its literary Penates, setting them on new altars, to be worshiped in the glow of strange fires. But much time must elapse while the new race reduces nature to subjection and undergoes that Titanic warfare that must ever precede an age of song. He that lives his epic in the stern realities of colonization must leave the celebration of his deeds to other hands than his own, and he that would evolve the lyric effect of new environment in poetry must enjoy that mastership over the claims of the body that a pioneer’s life can never yield.

Hence in a consideration of antipodean verse we must remember that Australia is laboring under a charge of that heinous crime, extreme youth, under which we Americans are suffering only to a less frightful degree. True, we have passed the age of tutelage, and in some things, at least, think that we know a great deal more than our seniors. We are far from disputing the dictum of the clever author of Jonathan and his Continent, that “ there are Americans in plenty, but the American does not yet exist.” But if we are not yet “ assimilated,” what is to be said of the AngloAustralian, with the wonders and the terrors of a strange continent yet fresh upon him? He has felled huge forests, he has built great cities, but the afternoon of his day of labor is still well before him, and it will be long before he can sit down carelessly in the lengthening shadows of his own work and contemplate the deeds that he has done.

As Gulliver long since discovered, all things are largely a matter of proportion, and the “masculine countenance” of the king of Lilliput and his lofty stature, that exceeded that of his courtiers by the breadth of a nail, are things as important in themselves as the comparative dimensions of Alps and Andes. On the scale of Shakespeare all men are pigmies; on the scale of the talented contributor to the Ulladulla Weekly Post a Laureate Pye may assume visible proportions. We should fall into grave difficulties were we to apply the standards of either ; but some few things we must demand.

Among the antipodes, “ the first Australian poem of note ” is generally considered to be Wentworth’s Australasia, published in 1823. This is a sufficiently stiff and Pope-like address to the “ illustrious Cook,” of whom it is pertinently asked, —

“ Why were thy mangled relics doomed to grace
The midnight orgies of a barbarous race ? ”

Of another early Australian poem, entitled The Kangaroo, Charles Lamb slyly remarked that he thought he could detect in it “ some relish of the graceful hyperboles of our elder writers.” However, these were only beginnings, and deserve perhaps as much notice as Cromwell’s contemporary, Mrs. Bradstreet’s Tenth Muse lately Sprung up in America.

To Charles Harpur, according to the best Australian authorities, belongs the honor of being “ the gray forefather of Australian poets.” Harpur published many poems during the “ forties,” showing a mind strongly affected by the pathos of the settler’s life, and by the grand natural scenery about him.

With 1860 appeared Domett, Gordon, McCrae, and Kendall, all represented in Longfellow’s Poems of Places, Oceana. Nor must we omit to mention Richard Hengist Horne, whose witty estimation of the value of an epic to the modern English public at a penny a copy gained for his poem. Orion, a greater popularity than its real merit could have attained. Horne removed to Australia in 1852, and added no little in his later poems to the store of Australian verse. We shall not seek to detract from the glory of Orion by quoting from the South Sea Sisters, a Lyric Masque.

Alfred Domett, too, is among the poets which England has sent out to her colonies, but his achievements are so identified with his adopted home that his Ranalf and Amohia, the Maoris’ Hiawatha as it has been called, must always remain the chief epic, jewel of Oceana’s poetic crown. Domett gave much attention to the fast-fading traditions and folk-lore of the various native tribes, though, if we are to judge from the resulting poems, he has cast about them the raiment of that true poetry that has long since gained him the recognition of such men as Browning and Longfellow. We cannot refrain from quoting the direct words of the conclusion of the Legend of Tawháki from Ranalf and Amohia : —

“ Then as he fling’s off forever
That disguise’s dim defilement, Hapae smiles sweet reconcilement;
Swift the child they bathe, baptize it, lustral waters o’er it dashing;
And Tawháki — breast and brow sublime insufferably flashing,
Hid in lightning’s, as he looks out from the thunder-cloven portals
Of the sky — stands forth contest— a God and one of the Immortals.”

McCrae, too, worked in this vein of aboriginal folk-lore, — a vein to which the poet, must bring the gold of his own thoughts, if he would make anything out of it but the veriest dross. Decaying aboriginal races are not interesting, and noble savagery is apt to lose much of its picturesqneness upon too close an acquaintance.

An enthusiastic eulogist of Gordon, of whom it is unnecessary to say that he is a fellow-countryman, writes as follows : “ Gordon has one supreme merit, — he is interesting to everybody : as much to the stable-boy and stock-man as to the scholar, as much to the school-boy as to the sentimentalist.” Our Australian’s enumeration of “ everybody” is instructive. He goes on to add, “ No other Anglo-Saxon poet, of anything like Gordon’s gifts, has approached him in knowledge of the horse.” We will venture to say, “ doubtless ; ” and, considering the difficulty that some have had in catching and saddling Pegasus, this is an admirable equipment for a poet to begin with. Our critic concludes with an Anglo-Australian coinage : “ It is as a horse-poet that Gordon will principally be remembered,”—probably not meaning exactly a centaur. Have we not said that this whole subject is a matter of proportion ? Our little critic from Lilliput here holds a massive measuring-rod in his hand, a rod just six inches long. By any taller standard Gordon is a rough border spirit of the “ Bret Harte type, with a true, earnest heart and a limited gift of verse. The poor fellow committed suicide ; perhaps these lines from his Sick Stock-Rider, which have pathos if no poetry, would not be an unfitting epitaph : —

“ Let me slumber in the hollow where the wattle-blossoms wave,
With never stone or rail to fence my bed;
Should the sturdy station children pull the bush-flowers on my grave,
I may chance to hear them romping over head.”

In the Athenæum of September 27, 1862, appeared a review of a packet of manuscript poems of Henry Kendall, then a youth of scarcely twenty. The Athenæum confessed that the packet was by no means the first that had found its way to Wellington Street, Strand, “ an appeal from the neglect which genius finds in the colonies to the more liberal and impartial literary courts of the mother country.”The review continued, “ Mr. Kendall has much to learn; but he has received from Nature some of that strong poetic faculty and power which no amount of learning can bestow.” This early verdict of the Athenæum has stood the test of time, and it is interesting to quote in this connection a clipping from one of the great London dailies of quite recent date : “ Kendall

occupies, it may justly be said, much the position in Australia as Edgar Allan Poe does in America. At any rate, nothing so wholly unique has reached England since the brilliant young American’s poems first took the English public by storm. Kendall ... is undoubtedly the first notable native-born Australian poet.” Not to say more, it is to be noticed that even the mighty Brobdingnagian vision occasionally confuses the inhabitants of Lilliput with those whose stature, we trust, is a trifle greater.

But Kendall really is a poet with not a few natural gifts. Further than this, he is a student of other poets; but in some instances he has allowed his masters to show too much in his method. The metre, though handled far less sombrely, and especially the repeated refrain of the following have in them an echo of The Raven: —

“And hither they will flock again, the ghosts of things that are no more,
While, streaming down the lattices, the rain comes sobbing to the door:
While, streaming down the lattices,
The rain comes sobbing to the door.”

Again, remembering that September is May for the poor antipodes, who have many things topsy-turvy: —

“September comes in with the wind of the west,
And the spring in her raiment.
September, the maid with the swift, silver feet,
She glides, and she graces
The valleys of coolness, the slopes of heat,
With her blossomy traces.”

This has in it more than an alliterative resemblance to Swinburne’s “lisp of leaves and ripple of rain.”

But who can carp against an amiable poet who thus disarms his critic in his Prefatory Sonnets ? —

“ So take these kindly, even though there be
Some notes that unto other lyres belong,
Stray echoes from the elder sons of song;
And think how from its neighboring native sea
The pensive shell doth borrow melody.”

Kendall’s faults — and he has plenty of them — are largely the result of a want of real culture. Errors in taste are not frequent. Some of his devices for a rhyme are so naive as to raise a smile. In the weird, and we may add distasteful poem, From Cooranbean, — by the way, a great favorite among the Australians, — fifty-seven years are described as “ these forty-nine winters and eight; ” and further on, the exigencies of the rhyme demanding, “ fifty-four winters and three.” The advantages of this arithmetical method are patent when the torturing of a rhyme is in question.

With characteristic energy the Australian critics praise those poems which deal most with their own flora and fauna. Beyond the peradventure of a doubt they are the best judges of these matters; and we blush to acknowledge that we have never seen a wattle-blossom, nor heard the moko-moko’s bell or the warrigal’s bark.

There may be a future for poetry among the antipodes, but much is to be done before a man can rise among them sufficiently great to challenge a place for himself in English literature. Most of what Australians have written is newspaper verse, deservedly as ephemeral as newspaper prose ; and until Australian writers can cease to say, “ The character of Australian poetry is now determined a good deal by the taste of the editors of the great weekly papers,” but little advancement can be predicted.