Reprint: Mark Twain's Poem

Mark Twain has been moved to write a poem on Australia. In a lecture the other night he said:-" I have a poem. I have written a poem only once in 30 years. I have now written one of four stanzas, and when I had the inspiration I knew it was time. I always have an inspiration to write a poem -- once every 30 years. I felt that sort of feeling the night I landed here. The time was up. The inspiration was ripe. If I am going to write a book about this trip round the world, why a book of such a character ought to have some poetry in it. I felt that. So I was looking round tor a subject. First I thought of Sydney Harbour, but then I thought maybe somebody has attended to it. Then I thought that would be rather large for me -- rather above my poetical stature. Then I thought of the fauna of Australia -- the remarkable examples that exist here and don't exist anywhere else in the world. They have been written about and written about in prose, but they ought to be written in poetry. I thought that would be a very good scheme. I made a list of them and began."

There seems to have been some difficulty. Twain continued:- "I began on one, on the-poem. I have not got the list complete yet. I have got down a lot. I have got emu, kangaroo, jackass, or laughing jackass, and the bell bird, and so on. I have a lot of those, and then I have a list also of the extinct ones-the wonderful extinct ones like the dodo, the boomerang, and the great moa, and the larrikin. I can say now that the most difficult thing in the world to do is to write poetry when you don't know how. You see it is the rhymes that make the trouble, for if you get the sense right, why then there is no word that will rhyme with it. If your rhymes rhyme then there is no sense in it.

      "Land of the ornithorhynchus." 

That's a pretty one -- it is rhythmical and graceful. If I had a child I would name it after it.

      "Land of the ornithorhynchus,
         Land of the kangaroo,
      Old ties of heredity link us." 

But the thing would not work out.  The humourist said: "And there you are. You see I am right against a dead wall. You can see there is nothing in the world that will rhyme with ornithorhynchus. Kangaroo? Nothing rhymes with kangaroo. Of course, you can slyly let it off without rhyme, but it would fail. I gave that up. I'll let it out by contract. I thought I would offer a prize for it -- chromos, or something like that. I started another way:

      "Land of the fur-tailed rabbit,
      Land of the boomerang."

There it is the same thing. You can't find a rhyme for rabbit and another rhyme for boomerang. Boomerang don't rhyme with anything but boomerang. I saw the difficulty. You must start on a simple basis

      "Come forth from thy oozy couch,
      Oh ornithorhynchus dear,
      And great with cordial cheer
      The stranger that longs to hear
From thy own, own lips the 'tail' of thy origin all unknown,
Thy misplaced bone where flesh should be, and flesh where should be bone."

The Sydney Star could get no more of the poem, for the audience would not stop laughing.

First published in The Mercury, 2 November 1895

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

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on November 3, 2010 9:54 AM.

Poem: A Dream of the Melbourne Cup by A. B. "Banjo" Paterson was the previous entry in this blog.

Australian Books to Film #53 - High Road to China is the next entry in this blog.

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