Reprint: The Australian Muse by E. M. England

It seems that we have to go through a long experimental stage in order to find ourselves. This is only natural in a nation composed of so many diverse stocks as ours. But out of all the chaos the national muse will emerge at last, smiling and serene, for, above all other things, the Australian is intent upon all that he does. From the galloping rhymes which stirred our fathers we tend now to swing to the other extreme. Most of our poets are busy studying style and the lore of other countries, and in that we can only be imitative. Take the work of Dulcie Deamer and Bettie Riddell, both of whom spend much energy upon classical legend. The legend of the Maori and the aboriginal should lend themselves to rhyme as much as the classical myths. In the abstract the mournful aboriginal and the courageous Maori are poetical -- equally with the noble Red Man so lauded by American poets. Especially the Maori. His appearance, his prowess in war, his mysterious origin -- all these should provide much scope. But apparently our poets are left cold. Every wild race has its yearnings and ideals -- emotions often incomprehensible to the white mind, because the dark man cannot or will not explain them. If we could contrive his unity with nature, in addition to our book-learning, what poets might arise!

The Great Out-of-Doors.

This intangible something is every where at hand in the bush, but, unfortunately, poets tend to congregate in towns. Any morning the essence of many secrets can be felt rising and wreathing about one like incense in the great outdoors. It seems to be waiting for the eye and the ear that can understand. Many bushmen feel it, but they could not express it in words. It is the magic that would emanate from a very old woman, who retained the beauty of youth until her death -- a "She" incarnate. Who is going to seize upon the weird glamour and sing of it? If we are ever going to have any characteristic poetry of our own it must strike the happy medium between the old galloping rhymes and the modern tendency to stray into other pastures. In the great area of this continent there must lie plenty of scope for hundreds of pen-points, hundreds of bards. We are ready to enjoy any type of good poetry, but it seems inevitable that the poet who will be selected as our national one will be a man or woman who inter- prets the message of the Australian landscape. From the foam of the Pacific, the sands of the desert, the opal-tinted ranges, the mines, the wells of oil and water, the grassy plains, his inspiration must come. And that it will come there is no doubt.

Foreign Inspiration.

In the meantime it is of little use to complain that our poets turn to other countries for their subject matter. If they live in towns they cannot understand the true Australia any more than a man in New York or London or Ontario could fully grasp the American, English, or Canadian countryside. Perhaps, in their ambition and thirst for knowledge, they read too much. There may be such a thing as cramming, even in regard to poetry. Otherwise, why do Mabel Forrest, Dorothy MacKellar, and Myra Morris persistently introduce foreign climes, Eastern pageantry. Why are the Celtic mystics so much felt in the poems of L. Lucas and S. Neilson, the classical influence in Z. Cross and H. M'Crae? Even Edward Vidler himself, in his exquisite little play, "The Rose of Ravenna," went to old and mellow times for his plot. Still, all this is excusable. Poetry is universal, and all who run may read. A poet cannot be bound any more than a bird. Cage a feathered songster, and the best of its songs are mute -- certainly the fresh, wild ecstasy goes. It is useless to tell a poet that he must turn this way or that way for his subject matter. It only hampers and embarrasses him.

And it is not a scrap of use to be ashamed of being Australian. In the first place, why should we? It was with mingled feelings that I read in the "Galmahra" of October last the following sentiments re Jack Lindsay's publication, "Vision":

"It represents one of the landmarks of Australian literature, for it crystallised the growing revolt of the younger literary generation both against the shackles of 'local colour,' and against the too-convenient Swinburnian dress that Australian verse had, for the most part, worn since the days of Adam Lindsay Gordon and Kendall."

The Place of Local Colour.

Let that "too-convenient dress" "go by all means, but why, in the name of reason, should we be averse to "local colour"? If one takes up a book of verse by a poet from South Africa, does one hope to read of larks and dells and fens? No, one probably finds, and certainly hopes to, a thing like "Zulu Girl":

When in the sun the hot red acres smoulder,
   Down where the sweating gang its labour piles,
A girl throws down her hoe and from her shoulder,
   Unslings her child tormented by the flies.
She takes him to a ring of shadow pooled
By thorn-trees; purpled with the death of ticks.

-something that breathes of veldt and kopje and vast space. Any Australian ought to be equally typical of his country, or, if he is not, wishful of being so. Otherwise he is denouncing that which should be nearest and dearest to him. If he is reluctant to be Australian, then what is he going to be?

While oversea critics may label our work as doubtful because of its very atmosphere, I am confident they respect us all the more as they watch us developing along our own lines; watch the Australian--

Above the level desert's marge
Looming in his aloofness large while
From his life's monotony
He lifts a subtle melody.

to quote Arthur Adams' very true picture of "The Australian."

We are in a state of transition. Not that the stockman, sheep, or cattle have disappeared from our landscape. But other things have come as well. To our old interests new ones have been added, so that poets, as well as ordinary people, have new and universal themes. All we have to do is to be patient, and to encourage, to have faith in our poets and ourselves. It is very certain that there is light ahead.

First published in The Brisbane Courier, 8 September 1928

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

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on August 20, 2010 8:54 AM.

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