Reprint: The Wattle in Poetry by A.G. Stephens

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It isn't. One would say it cannot be; were it not that poetry still here and there succeeds in swathing the most unpoetical words with an atmosphere of beauty; like the moss that (with time and moisture and a little soil) will even grow on a rusty old kerosene tin.

But poetry is a daughter of music; and there are discords in which music, with the best will and the finest instrument, becomes only noise. Many words, such as kitchen, quagmire, wattle, make a discord in poetical language.

Wattle is worse, because it makes a specious appeal to the popular poetical device of rhyme. Many of our early swagmen have died poetically beneath a wattle -- which, as far as my knowledge extends, is one of the last trees a swagman would choose to die under; if a choice were given him.

But the association between the view obvious wattle and the appropriate rhyme of "bottle" is clear; and there is the easy rhyme of "throttle." So the early poet meditated; and the poem leaves his throttle like a blessing from the bottle that consoles the weary swagman as he dies beneath the wattle.

Later poets dare not write so; though some of them apparently would like to: but civilisation has marched; and they dimly feel that those rhymes are below their dignity. Yet -- "cottle," "glottal," "pottle," "tattle," "twattle," -- what else? An excellent but desperate poetess has tried "mottle"--

   All noon, where the noon-lights mottle,
   I lie and listen, Wattle!

It is not happy.

Other poetesses have discreetly dodged the rhyme:

   "Why should not wattle do
      For mistletoe?"
   Asked one (there were but two)
      Where wattles grow.

And the poetical maiden answered prettily:

   "Since it is here, and you,
      I do not know,
   Why wattle should not do."

Much can be done with "wattle bloom" and "wattle-blossom" to soften the gurgling, choking sound that naturally reminded the pioneers of a death-rattle. One of the best wattle poems uses an effective refrain, "when wattles bloom":

   When wattles bloom the airs are sweet with Spring:
      Far-off, the misty, purple mountains loom;
   The woodlands with the wild birds' echoes ring
      When wattles bloom.

And the sound can be smothered in a wave of emotion:

   The golden eve is round me now,
      And golden dews are falling;
   And through the golden wattle's glow
      The golden past is calling:
   Calling, "Don't strip the wattle, Joe!  
      Don't strip the wattle!
   Joe, let the wattle grow!"
   Oh, her voice so sweet and low,
      Calling !

Kendall's sensitive ear rejected wattle for "mimosa," a literary use now rare, once not uncommon:

   The low mimosa droops with locks
      Of yellow hair in dewy glade.

Our "wattle," indeed, is now the world's "mimosa." Beyond Australia you hear only of wattle-bark, many years exported for tanning leather. "Mimosa" -- Australian mimosa acclimatised, with its source long forgotten -- floods Southern France and Italy, and burgeons in North Africa. Mimosa has sent the Americas, North and South, into raptures; it is even ostracised as too popular. Says a writer in "The Bookman," New York, for June last:

"The outstanding feature in the drama of the past season has been the elimination of mimosa as piano decoration. Ever since 1922 our entire dramatic scheme has been dominated by this yellow blossom. But in the fall of 1928 the managers took the matter into their own hands. Mimosa was out."

Our name "wattle" is good old English applied by Governor Phillip's first makers of "wattle-and-daub" huts; interlacing and covering with clay the flexible branches of the wattle. Its utilitarian meaning is to twist or plait; without reference to the golden blossoms that never grew in England, to "wartle" like the warts on the neck of a turkey-gobbler.

For poetical purposes, mimosa is preferred; and already many mimosa poems have been written in the United States; where our wattle-blossom is being absorbed as a national flower, as our eucalyptus has been annexed as a national tree. It is conceivable that, at some distant day, there may even be more mimosa blooms beyond Australia than there are wattle blooms within Australia. Meanwhile, with their national treasury of scented gold, Wattle Days dawn anew.

First published in The Brisbane Courier, 10 August 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 June 10, 2011 8:29 AM.

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