Reprint: Racing Poetry

The triumphs of the turf are seldom, if ever, celebrated in verse; for though it is a theme which affords countless incidents which might fitly be commemorated in song, yet it must be confessed that racing men are not usually of a poetical turn of mind, and the ordinary poet is certainly not often addicted to the pleasures of the racecourse. There have been, however, within recent years two poets of no slight degree of excellence -- one in England and the other in Australia -- who, from pure love of the subject, have obtained no insignificant success when dealing with sporting subjects. Major Whyte Melville, indeed, confined his powers in this direction to verses either commemorative of some famous hunting run or of some favourite steed; but his prose works were seldom without one or more thrilling accounts of races in which the heroes of his novels were more or less directly interested. Adam Lindsay Gordon, also an Englishman by birth, drew, on the other hand, his inspiration principally from the racecourses of Australia, and, though his chef-d'oeuvre, "How We Beat the Favourite," is the description of a steeplechase in the old country, yet his description in verse of the Melbourne Cup of 1867, won by Tim Whiffler, stands perfectly unique as a specimen of what racing poetry should be, and shows how fascinating such might well become when treated in an equally effective and natural manner. How true to life, and yet what sterling poetry, are the following lines, descriptive of the race-course just before the start for an important race, all who have been present at the Derby at Epsom, or at a Melbourne Cup race, can testify:

There's a lull in the tumult on yonder hill,
   And the clamour has grown less loud,
Though the Babel of tongues is never still
   With the presence of such a crowd,
The bell has rung. With their riders up
   At the starting post they muster,
The racers stript for the Melbourne Cup
   All gloss and polish and lustre.
And the course is seen with its emerald sheen
   By the bright spring-tide renewed.
Like a ribbon of green, stretched out between
   The ranks of the multitude.
No poet has ever drawn a picture more true to nature, but Gordon had a thorough knowledge of his subject as well as an enthusiastic love of the sport which he describes, which enabled him, even more than Whyte Melville, to bring to the eye of the reader the scene he thus portrays. And moreover, in the stanza which describes the finish of the race --
They're neck and neck; they're head and head;
   They're stroke for stroke in the running;
The whalebone whistles, the steel is red;
   No shirking as yet or shunning.
One effort, Seagull, the blood you boast
   Should struggle when nerves are strained;
With a rush on the post by a neck at the most
   The verdict for Tim is gained --
-- one can imagine the two horses coming up the straight and the excitement of the struggle culminating as the winning horse forges first past the post, and the numbers proclaiming the result to the multitude are hoisted amid breathless silence --
When, with satellites round them, the centre
   Of all eyes, hard pressed by the crowd,
The pair, horse and rider, re-enter
   The gate, mid a shout long and loud.
In his verses, however, it will be seen that Gordon invariably regarded the turf from its most favourable aspect. It was the race itself, the struggle for supremacy between horses, that he loved to record; but the dark and tortuous ways of turf diplomacy he wisely leaves altogether on one side; and the only time he refers to it he shows his distaste for the subject in the following verse:
Hark! the shuffle of feet that are many,
   Of voices the many-tongued clang:
"Has he had a had night? Has he any
   Friends left?" How I hate your turf slang.
'Tis stale to begin with, not witty,
   But dull and inclined to be coarse ;
But dull men can't use (more's the pity)
   Good words when they slate a good horse.
In the hunting poetry of Whyte Melville, the same enthusiastic love of the horse for his own sake is observable. In his prose works indeed, as for instance, in "Digby Grand," Melville describes incomparably all the various episodes connected with racing in a true and graphic manner; but he, like Gordon, reserves his poetry to commemorate the performances of some equine favourite, or the deeds of some noted champion on the racecourse or in the hunting field. In this the two men are identical; both have ridden their rides as well as written about them, and both are animated with the feeling that Gordon expresses --
In their own generation the wise may sneer,
   They hold our sports in derision;
Perchance to sophist or sage or seer
   Were allotted a graver vision.
Yet if man, of all the Creator planned,
   His noblest work is reckoned,
Of the works of His hand, by sea or by land,
   The horse may at least rank second.
While Whyte Melville speaks of the death of a favourite in lines which express something of the same idea:
For never man had friend
More enduring to the end,
Truer mate in every time and tide.
Could I think we'd meet again,
It would lighten half my pain,
At the place where the old horse died.
As poets, however, there can be no comparison between the two men. Whyte Melville when he left prose and took to verse was distanced by the more dashing Australian writer whose genuine poetic instinct, combined with a keen perception, places him on a par with the most celebrated of our more recent poets. Of all Whyte Melville's songs "The Clipper that Stands in the Stall at the Top" has perhaps more of the ring which marks Gordon's poetry, though such lines as--
We are in for a gallop, away, away;
I told them my beauty could fly ;
And we'll load them a dance ere they catch us to-day,
For we mean it, my lass and I.
She skims the fences, she scours the plain,
Like a creature winged, I swear.
With snort and strain on the yielding rein,
For I'm hound to humour the mare --
show an equally keen appreciation of the enjoyment of the gallop which Gordon expresses by --
The measured stroke on elastic sward
   Of the steed three parts extended
Hard held, the breath of his nostrils broad
   With the golden ether blended.
Then the leap, the rise from the springy turf,
   The rush through the buoyant air,
And the light shook landing; the veriest serf
   Is an emperor then and there.
It must be esteemed a great misfortune to racing as a sport that Gordon's unhappy and untimely death deprived the world of any more of his stirring racing lyrics, which not only tend to make the sport more popular for its own sake, but bring into prominence the real object of the turf, and the pleasure which may be derived from it, both of which seem at times to be almost totally obscured by the mercenary motive with which racing nowadays is conducted. Anything that tends to elevate the turf in the eyes of the public and to increase its popularity, independent of the totalisator and the betting ring, is to be welcomed with gratitude, and few people can read " How We Beat the Favourite" without some genuine sporting interest being excited in their breast, and without feeling some interest in the struggle so graphically related. Thus it is, the poems of Adam Lindsay Gordon, described by him to his English compeer, Whyte Melville, as --
Rhymes rudely strung, with intent less
   Of sound than of words,
In lands where bright blossoms are scentless,
   And songless bright birds,
are now, years after his death, just coming into notice in his native land. The recent numbers of the Sporting and Dramatic News hold notices all more or less complimentary on his poems, and, as a consequence, they will probably come under general observation in the old country. There they will certainly be welcomed and eagerly read ; for there, at least, are many kindred spirits who will agree with him --
If once we efface the joys of the chase
   From the land and outroot the stud,
Good-bye to the Anglo Saxon race,
   Good-bye to the Norman blood.
First published in The Brisbane Courier, 19 June 1885

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

You can read the full text of the Gordon poems:
"How We Beat the Favourite"

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on September 11, 2009 8:46 AM.

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