Reprint: A Fair Pioneer: Jennings Carmichael by Henry Tate

Posterity will be interested in the pioneers who broke the hard and stony ground in the dawn of artistics Australianism. The fact that women achieved an early prominence should come to be regarded as typical of the modern advance in the status of the feminine sex. Australia's dawn period may be said to have closed with the Boer War, 1899. Towards the end of this period, in the early nineties, the poems of Miss Jennings Carmichael began to engage the attention of Australian verse lovers. These poems were perhaps the first produced by an Australian woman to achieve distinction as possessing an intrinsically Australian interest. As in the case of Adam Lindsay Gordon, Australia is indebted to "The Australasian" for the world-wide dissemination and recognition of the poems of this fair pioneer.

Grace Jennings Carmichael was born at Ballarat in 1868. Her father, Archibald Carmichael, was a pioneer of early mining days. Jennings went to live at Orbost, Gippsland, when she was three years old. There she developed her love and lore of the bush. Her contributions to "The Australasian" reached London, and made such a favourable impression in English literary circles that in 1895 a fine collection of her poems was published in London by Messrs. Longmans, Greene, and Co. Mr. J. F. Hogan, writing at Westminster in 1895, points out that Adam Lindsay Gordon and Henry Kendall both died "before they could enjoy the satisfaction of seeing their works published in London amid a chorus of critical approbation." He also remarks that the Australian bush is one of the keynotes of the poetry of Jennings Carmichael. This phase of her work monopolises attention here, but those who may read or reread her for her intrinsically Australian work will not lightly pass by what may be called, for distinction's sake, her cosmopolitan poems of first-rank quality. "Late Laurels," perhaps the finest of all poetical tributes to the memory of Lindsay Gordon, the children's poems, and the striking "Remonstrance" compel mention. Other equally fine work must be passed over in favour of the authoress's accomplishment in the domain of a distinctively Australian imagery and thought.

In "A Wallaby Christmas-tide" delicate and suggestive Australian images begin to be found.

"The bush must do for our church to-day,
   And birds be the bells to call us.
The breeze that comes from the shore beyond,
   Through the old gum branches swinging,
Will do for our solemn organ chords
   And the sound of children singing."
Her word-pictures of the bush are notable for truthful suggestion peeping through her choice of tranquil moods.
"The dreamful distances, where blue mist fills
   The bushy spaces. . . ."
And again:-
"The ranges haunted by a wraith of rain
When lightwood flowers."
The heat of a summer evening is deftly suggested in --
"The young night lies upon the quiet land,
   By large horizons rimmed,
The winds are blowing from the low sea strand,
   The distant hills are dimmed.
Dusk's sweet irresolution lingers round,
   Blurring the faint outline
Of fences pencilled on the sunburnt ground,
   And shadowy sheep and kine."
Here the word-glimpse of the fences, seems to throw a glamour over the whole stanza.

She is fond of singing the "wattle spangles," but her themes are never vapid. She remembers that the wattle blooms in advance of spring.

"You seem to forget the wind and the wet,
   Brave little blossoms bold!
You claim no right from the tardy sunlight,
   But break your buds of gold,
'Neath a gloomy sky, where the storm clouds fly
   And the rain mists are unrolled."
Among the birds the kookaburra is one of her favourites. She finds something better than "ghastly mockery" in his resonant challenge.
"I did not know the sunward side of wings
   ln shadow overhead,
Nor understand why every wild bird sings
   As if its young were fed!"
She notices where he goes.
"The barren, broken limb is thine by choice."
and is gently philosophical concerning his abode:
"Oh, happy birds, let's hear you while we may,
   Dear laughing birds, sing on!
A morn may dawn when we shall wait in vain
   For voices that are gone!
Sing, dearest birds! No cruel hand is here
   To still your strenuous lay;
Only a heart that loves you tarries near
   Your nests to-day!"
Like all imaginative Australians, she finds and yearns towards a new music in the bush -- a music deeper than externals, and yet impregnated with the natural sounds of the hills and gullies.
"Each soaring eucalyptus, lifted high,
   The wandering wind receives;
I watch the great boughs drawn against the sky,
   Laden with trembling leaves.
A soft, harmonious music, full and rare,
   Murmurs the boughs along,
The voice of Nature's God is solemn there,
   In that deep undersong."
She hears
"Delicate airs and harmonies pass,
   Subtle and swift, through the bowing grass."
She has left us many of these pictures, much of this music, culled in those more innocent years, and it is pleasant to think of her roaming along some
'"Dear old road, wheel-worn and broken,
   Winding through the forest green,
Barred with shadow and with sunshine,
   Misty vistas drawn between.
Grim, scarred bluegums ranged austerely,
   Lifting blackened columns each
To the large fair fields of azure,
   Stretching over out of reach."
Jennings Carmichael began a successful series of lectures on "The Spirit of the Bush," at the Masonic Hall, Melbourne, in 1895. Some Melbourne citizens still remember that evening. The slender, youthful charm of the poetess, her earnestness, and the interest that her personality lent to the pictures she unfolded of the beauties of the Australian bushland, remained as a vivid memory long after the untimely mists of Fate had descended upon the white gowned figure, and the sweet voice sang no more.

First published in The Argus, 11 March 1922

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

I can find practically no poetry by Jennings Carmichael anywhere on the internet, with the exception being "A Woman's Mood".

You can also read Henry Lawson's poem written about the poet.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on September 18, 2009 9:09 AM.

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