Reprint: Pioneers of the Pen: Barcroft Boake by John K. Ewers

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That the memory of Barcroft Henry Boake is kept alive by the output of little over a year's work is in itself a testimony to the man and to his verses.  What might have come from his pen had not fate intervened at the early age of twenty-six, it is difficult to say, but in the volume entitled 'Where the Dead Men Lie' (Angus and Robertson, Sydney) are thirty-one poems that have secured for their author an assured place in the annals of Australian literature.

Barcroft Boake was born at Balmain, Sydney, on March 26, 1866. His mother was the daughter of an Adelaide accountant. Barcroft Boake, sen., came from Ireland at the age of twenty and early became interested in photography, which served him throughout his lifetime as a profitable means of livelihood. When the boy, 'Bartie,' as he was called, was nine years old, an intimate friend of the family Mr Allen Hughap, took a great fancy to the lad and persuaded his parents to allow Barcroft to accompany him to Noumea, New Caledonia. Here the boy stayed for two years, learning a fair smattering of French during that time.

In 1879 Mrs. Boake died, leaving behind her nine children. Barcroft wrote to his friend Hughap at the time: "Mamma has been taken away, leaving a little baby boy behind. What an exchange!" Still life went smoothly enough for the young poet. His father's photographic business was prospering and he was in a position to give his son a good general education. He went to school until he was seventeen, spending a few months at the Sydney Grammar School and five years under a private tutor. At that time we are told "he displayed no unusual ability; was a quiet reserved boy, yet by no means mopish; fond of reading: noticeably honorable, generous and constant in his affections."

He then entered the office of a Sydney land surveyor, and for twelve months was a temporary draughtsman in the Survey Office. In July, 1886, he secured the position of field assistant to Mr. E. Commins, a surveyor whose headquarters were at Rocklands Farm, near Adaminaby, New South Wales. For two years Boake was happy in his new surroundings. Here was something novel and interesting, differing greatly from the monotony of Sydney life.

It was while at this farm that he had a most unusual experience. Barcroft was in the kitchen with a friend, Boydie, a girl, and Ted, the farm rouseabout. In a moment of practical joking, it was suggested that they should hang themselves. Boydie merely knotted a handkerchief about his neck, but the impetuous Boake climbed to the rafters, from which hung a rope used for suspending sheep. Tying his handkerchief over his face, he placed the noose (a slip-knot) about his neck. For a time he supported his weight with his hands above his head, but his strength giving out, they slipped to his sides, and he hung there a few minutes gradually lapsing into unconsciousness. Not until nearly too late did the others realise the seriousness of his position. Frantically they cut his body down, and thus Barcroft Henry Boake was saved from a fate to which only a few years later his melancholy drove him. ln a letter to his father at the time he gives a very curious account of his mental experiences while life receded slowly from him, and these were later published in a more polished form in the "Bulletin."

"I no longer possessed a body," he wrote. "Nothing was left of me but my head, and that reposed in the centre of a vast cycloramic enclosure whose walls, inscribed with the names and signs of the various arts and sciences, spun round with a waving, snakelike motion that made my eyes throb with a violent pain." For a while he thought of the futility of life, the pettiness of man. Then he felt himself sink ing, until he was lying on a ferry boat in the harbour. There had been a crash. Men were struggling, women shrieking . . and then his eyes opened to the reality of his position on the floor of the farm kitchen.

By the end of 1888 Boake had yielded completely to the spell of the bush, and left his surveying to become a boundary rider at Mullah Station. While work was plentiful he was happy, but when droving jobs were scarce or offered not enough employment to keep body and soul busy, he was wont to lapse into melancholy and brood.

"I think it is a natural consequence of being face to face with nature so continually," he wrote to his father; "but the great mystery of human nature often comes before me as I ride about. It seems to me so sad and so disheartening ... to toil with the knowledge of the vanity of it all in our hearts. Civilisation is a dead failure; it only brings these truths more forcibly before us; a savage never thinks of such things."

Still there were moments of intense joy. He was experiencing those rich, luxuriant impressions which were later to speak in his verses. He is always the keen rider, the lover of the out-of-doors, and nothing delights him more than to tell of the cattle hunt.

In a letter to his father, dated November, 1889, he mentions having obtained for the first time a full copy of the verses of Adam Lindsay Gordon. For some years, Boake had been an admirer of Gordon, and when later he commenced writing himself he was dubbed "the modern Gordon"! One day his friend, L. C. Raymond, said laughingly: 'You know, if you want to be a second Gordon you must complete the business properly and finish up by committing suicide.' Boake's only reply was a soft, quiet laugh.

In 1800 his droving brought him to Bathurst, and he seized the opportunity of visiting his father for a few days. On his return to Bathurst he discovered that his partner had drunk both his own and Boake's cheque and disappeared. This and his father's urgings persuaded him to take up surveying once again, this time with W. A. Lipscomb in the Riverina. It was during this brief period that Boake turned to verse as a medium of self-expression. "He usually wrote his verses," says Raymond, "on any odd scraps of paper and copied them carefully in a MS. Book, after which they were generally rewritten and handed to me to punctuate before being sent for publication." Acceptance by the "Bulletin" of some of his verse moved him to high spirits, but his was a nature of extremes. He was up one day and down the next.

In Dec 1981 his appointment with Lipscomb ended, and unheralded he appeared upon his father's threshold. Unwelcomed, too, it would appear, for Boake, sen. was at the time depressed over financial embarrassment, and did not want his son's melancholia to join the general pessimism. For five months he remained with his father, the latter end of the stay being irksome to a degree. His father insolvent, his grandmother confined to her bed, himself unable to obtain employment. Boake's spirits sank lower and lower. On May 2 he left the house never to return. Eight days later his body was found suspended by the lash of his stockwhip from a tree on the shore of Long   Bay, one of the arms of Middle Harbour.

Of his verse, the most striking is "Where the Dead Men Lie." It has strength and power of its own, tracing the farflung burial places of the pioneers of the continent, and ending somewhat bitterly:

   Moncygrub as he sips his claret,
      Looks with complacent eye
   Down at his watch-chain, eighteen carat--
      There in his club, hard by:
   Recks not that every link is stamped with
   Names of the men whose limbs are cramped with
   Too long lying in grave mould, camped with
      Death, where the dead men lie!

In his "Song From a Sandhill," he gives a unique impression of a rainy day:--

   Drip, drp, drip! They must be shearing on high,
   Can't you see the snowy fleeces that are rolling, rolling by?
   How many bales, I wonder, are they branding to the clip?
   P'raps the Boss is keeping tally with this drip, drip, drip!

But the real Boake is found in his long, racy, galloping verses, reminiscent of Gordon (he has been called Gordon's poetic son!) In these he has preserved all the thrill of his droving days: 

   Thud of hoofs! thud of hearts! breath of man! breath of beast!
   With Melvor in front and the rest hell to flank
   So we rode in a bunch down a steep river bank.
   Churning up the black tide in the shallows like yeast.

First published in The West Australian, 14 December 1929

[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 February 18, 2011 8:42 AM.

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