100 Australian Poems 6.0: "Bell-Birds" by Henry Kendall

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[It's been a while since I last posted in this series. Put it down to real life intruding, and once I fall off the treadmill it can be hard to get back on it again.]

By any criteria Henry Kendall's "Bell-Birds" must rank as one of the most popular poems written in Australia's literary history.  Austlit, "The Australian Literature Resource", lists 32 entries in its publication history; possibly ranking only with Dorothea's Mackellar's "My Country", Paterson's "Waltzing Matilda" and one or two others in its universality.  And yet it is not a poem I remember from my childhood - the Paterson and the Mackellar certainly, but not this one.

There is a lovely lilting feel to this work.  The rhymes generally read as occurring naturally (though a query may be made against "sedges/ledges" in the first verse), and the flow and rhythm are reminiscent of a warm, lazy spring day. 

If, as seems reasonable, Kendall wrote this a year or so before its publication in his collection, Leaves from Australian Forests, in 1869, then he was probably living in New South Wales at his happiest.  This was prior to his disastrous sojourn in Melbourne, the death of his young daughter and his descent into bankruptcy and mental illness.  There appears to be no despair or despondency in this work, only the wonder of nature and joy of life.

According to Wikipedia, Bellbirds are so-called "because they feed almost exclusively on the dome-like coverings of certain psyllid bugs, referred to as 'bell lerps', that feed on eucalyptus sap from the leaves", and not because of their distinctive tinkling, bell-like sound.  And yet Kendall refers to "The notes of the bell-birds are running and ringing."  Ringing, yes, but certainly not running.  But this is a minor quibble about a poem that deserves its place in any collection of classic Australian poetry. 

Text: "Bell-Birds" by Henry Kendall

Author bio: Australian Dictionary of Biography 

There are also a number of posts on this weblog regarding Kendall, his poetry and his life, which can be found here.

Publishing history: This poem was first published (so far as we can tell) in Kendall's verse collection, Leaves from Australian Forests, in 1869.  Subsequently it appeared in The Oxford Book of Australasian Verse in 1918 (and its later editions), and in Selections from Australian Poets compiled by Bertram Stevens in 1925. After that it was reprinted in just about every major retrospective Australian poetry anthology. 

Next five poems in the book:

"Are You the Cove?" by Joseph Furphy ("Tom Collins")

"How McDougal Topped the Score" by Thomas E. Spencer

"The Wail of the Waiter" by Marcus Clarke

"Where the Pelican Builds" by Mary Hannay Foott

"Catching the Coach" by Alfred T. Chandler ("Spinifex")

Note: this post forms part of my series on the poems contained in the anthology 100 Australian Poems You Need to Know edited by Jamie Grant.  You can read the other posts in this series here.

1 Comment

Ah yes, Bell-Birds - my mother's favourite poem ... for me there has always been something a little bit eerie about this poem, not to mention many of the poems of the 'colonial' times - it's hard for me to put into words, but has something to do with what is not spoken, what is hidden behind the rhyme, the silence of what O'Dowd later called 'the campfires of the lost'. Not sure if that makes sense, but thanks for the post - I love that Kendall was born in Ulladulla!

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on August 6, 2009 3:54 PM.

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Reprint: "Cobbers" and Correctness: The Need for Idiom by Nettie Palmer (Part 2) is the next entry in this blog.

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