Reprint: A Poet of Colour: Mabel Forrest's Life and Work by Alec H. Chisholm

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A paragraph in the obituary column recently took my thoughts back to a small room on an upper floor of a building in the heart of Brisbane. I see again a troop of fairies dancing about the whitewashed walls of that dingy little chamber-green fairies, pink fairies, and elves of other colours: some coy, some roguish, and all very dainty. Some are frolicking; others are perched sedately on the crowns of mushrooms and toadstools. Between the elfin groups are several small paintings and a number of inscribed photographs, of poets and musicians. The floor space of the room is equally crowded, it has shelves containing large quantities, untidily arranged, of articles and poems clipped by their author from newspapers and magazines; a small table, upon which rests a vase of flowers and a battered old typewriter; a chair facing the machine, and a visitor's chair near the door; an ancient couch to provide surcease from labour, and, supporting the gesture of hospitality made by that second chair, a small primus stove. In the chair facing the typewriter, her elbows resting on the table, and her dark, unusual eyes glowing behind glasses, sits the woman who is literally the presiding genius of this room. It is she who has caused the fairies to dance on the walls, even as she caused them during many years to dance on the printed page.

Alas, though, I write only of a memory. The fairies of the city room vanished some years ago when failing health compelled their creator to forsake the spot, and she herself was "made one with Nature" on March 18, when, as the obituary columns recorded, Mabel Forrest, poet and novelist, passed away. By that event Australia lost one of the most gifted women she has ever produced. Nevertheless, I for one am not wholly sorry that she has gone. She had suffered much, in many, ways, especially so in recent years. Indeed, she gave considerably more to life than life gave to her. Almost it seemed that the high gods, having equipped this daughter of a Queensland station with strange talents -- strange in the sense that poetic ability did not "run in the family," and was not stimulated by education determined capriciously to plague her with mundane misfortunes.

Thus there was not perhaps one year of her married life free from misadventure of some kind. Nor did she experience calmness in widowhood and middle-age. Her aged mother was killed in a street accident; various little affairs of business"went wrong," and in the meantime a weak heart frequently left her prostrated and unable to work. Her consolations were the affection of her daughter -- and of late of her grandchildren -- her poetry, her friends, her fairies, and, season by season, flowers of all kinds. Rarely did the table in the quaint little Room of the Fairies lack flowers from various gardens of Queensland.

Facility in Versemaking

Surely Mrs. Forrest's life was a striking example of courage and industry in the face of adversity. For more than 30 years she contributed a steady stream of verse and short stories to publications throughout Australia -- and recently England and America -- and for a considerable portion of that time her typewriter was her sole means of livelihood. No other woman in the Commonwealth has contrived to maintain herself by freelance work for such a long time. Five books of verse and four novels -- most of them published within the last 10 years -- represent a considerable achievement for any Australian, but   these are merely a modest portion of the entire body of literary production accomplished by Mrs. Forrest. Necessarily much of her work was "pot-boiling," and of no real merit, but the amount of good verse relative to the total quantity written by this industrious and sorely-tried woman is somewhat astonishing.

Both the quantity and the quality is explained by the fact that she was a "natural" poet. It is an odd thing that women poets in Australia appear to be more facile than men. At any rate, Mrs. Forrest's verse fell from her typewriter with extraordinary sureness. A brain teeming with elfin fancies and colours created ideas without stint, and happy words waited upon the ideas right heartily, so that the writing of a poem was less of a tax upon her mentality than it was upon her physical resources. It was a custom of hers to write me gossipy letters on the back of carbon copies of poems that had won approval from various editors, and in every instance it could be noted that the "second thoughts," the alterations," were very few. Many of the verses went from the typewriter to print without a word being amended. The one weakness was punctuation -- and in this Mrs Forrest was not singular among women writers.   Once an academic visitor -- he was among those who had the superficial impression that the signature, "M. Forrest," belonged to a man -- attempted to present her with a book dealing with the niceties of verse-making. The idea, it seemed, was to improve her work technically. Mrs. Forrest would have none of it. She had never "learned" verse-making, she said, and did not propose to begin after she had won editorial and public approval for a quarter-century. So, sitting in her little Room of the Fariies, she smiled blandly across the typewriter at her mentor, just as she smiled at scores of other visitors who came to offer either advice or homage, and then she went on with her work in the some old non-technical way.

A Poet's Self-epitaph

Poems came to Mrs. Forrest of their own accord, as it were. More than once she dreamed of a colourful scene, or a gay romance, and set it down in verse soon after waking. Sir Matthew Nathan, then Governor of Queensland, once described to her a 15th century window in his English home, and was charmed soon afterward to receive a dainty poem, full of quaint conceits, framed around that window. Several years ago I wrote in a book of the glories of the Macpherson Range, and told of the things to be seen and heard when sitting on a doorstep at dawn on the edge of a jungle. That "doorstop at dawn" caught Mrs. Forrest's fancy, and the verses she wrote around the phrase contained imaginings even brighter than the original scene. Another "objective" poem, and a charming trifle it was, had

her old typewriter as its subject. Another, vivid and colourful, was based upon a picturesque pumpkin seen at the Brisbane Show. (Did not Furnley Maurice once say that he would like to write a poem on an old boot?) Mrs. Forrest also wrote in verse what may be regarded as her own epitaph. Imagining the poet to die in the autumn -- which she herself did -- she wrote three verses mingling colour and irony, and then added this expressive verse:-  

   If I should make her epitaph
      It would be writ in petals fair:
   'Twould be half sob and half a laugh
      The scented phrase I'd fashion there   
   (More true than chiselled ones, perchance),   
   "She used to hear the fairies dance".

No other Australian poet, with the possible exception of Hugh McCrae has displayed such aptitude for creating pictures in verse. Colour for her had "a universal tongue" and under its influence her fancy roamed in far places. She had never travelled. "It is extraordinary," she once said to me, "that I am always in the same place while my friends move around the earth." Nevertheless her vivid imagination took her to scenes denied to others. She roamed in secret places of the earth, among vanished nations, in Eastern cities, in glorious gardens, among "peach blossoms blowing over sodden grass," beside singing brooks, and even   among "ribbons on city counters, rolled like tyres for pixy cars." She was fond of the verse of Lord Dunsany, and when she read his phrase, "And the butterflies sang of lost pink cities," she was away immediately on wings of fancy to that enchanted spot: -

   The city that I know to-day is grey,  
      Grey river and grey tower and greyer street;
   But sometimes, at the coming of the spring
      I hear a distant fluting, honey sweet,
   And guess, unseen, a ghostly player cries     
   The lost pink cities of the butterflies.

Life, as I have said, frequently bore very harshly upon Mabel Forrest, but always there were compensations; always there were the "lost pink cities of the butterflies." It is, I think, by and through these compensations that she would wish to be remembered -- not as the woman who smiled wanly and said, "I have had a dreadful time this year," but as the poet who "used to hear the fairies dance."

First published in The Argus, 6 April 1935

[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 January 28, 2011 10:27 AM.

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