Reprint: Mary Gilmore: Australia Old and New by Nettie Palmer

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We are accustomed to thinking of Australia as new, and so it is.

   "Last sea-thing dredged by Sailor Time from space"

is the first line of a famous sonnet on Australia by Bernard O'Dowd. Yet there have been moods, and there have been groups of people in which Australia has seemed to be already old, old with the oldest sorrows and views of the old lands. With some such mood affecting a group of people, the project of "New Australia" arose in the 'nineties, and Mary Gilmore, as a girl, was touched by that emotion and joined in the project. The idea of "New Australia" was not a reform here in Australia. It was a project of escape from conditions and limitations here. Led by William Lane, a large number of men and women sailed from Australia for Paraguay, where the Government had granted a tract of land for their colony, to be run on Socialistic lines. Mary Gilmore, an energetic and enthusiastic young teacher had expressed to Lane her interest in his ideas. He challenged her, saying that if she was as interested as that she would join them. She accepted his challenge, and joined the expedition. Later on she married one of the other members, and their son was born in Paraguay. The conditions of the settlement of "New Australia" and of its later born brother, "Cosme," are now a matter of history. The difficulties out-weighed the benefits; that is most people's conclusion. The result was failure; that is generally accepted. And yet Mary Gilmore is not alone in saying that the whole costly experience was well worth whatever any one put into it. To her it meant an extraordinary deepening of her youthful years, and nothing that happened later has been able to weaken her faith in life. Most of us hope that, whatever else Mary Gilmore may write, she will not fail to give us memoirs of her Paraguay years. She has always had an ear for names and an eye for the perception of character. Memoirs written by her would have a ring and vigour about them, full of meaning both to those who knew her dramatis personae and to those who did not. She has already shown her flair for this kind of reminiscence in notes and short sketches. I think particularly of the notes appended to her most recent book of verse, "The Tilted Cart." Modestly put out as a book of verse for recitation, "The Tilted Cart" carries with it a priceless appendix of annotations to the poems.

These notes are an account of recollected details from Mary Gilmore's childhood in a country district of New South Wales.  To this day she is chiefly associated with Goulburn, where she often lives.

A Woman Poet?

Returning, then, to our Australia, which we must call old, because it is not newer. Mary Gilmore settled again about 1900. Not that such an active woman is ever "settled." Her life is always being drawn out of her by the constant demands of others. Her poems are written in snatched leisure, not in a large calm. The wonder is that they are written at all. Mary Gilmore has seemed to make a principle, almost, of this expenditure of energies, dreading the extreme alternative, that of being a fixed stone and gathering moss! Perhaps a tiny recent poem of hers expresses what I mean -- and much more. It is:--

   The Tenancy.

   I shall go as my father went,
      A thousand plans in his mind,
   With something in hand unspent,
      When death lets fall the blind.

   I shall go as my mother went,
      The ink still wet on the line:
   I shall pay no rust as rent
      For the house that is mine.

There you have a characteristic poem of Mary Gilmore's, brief yet full. She never writes as if she remembered that verse was paid for at so much a line, never spins a single thought out to make a long piece that would look imposing!  But such a poem, of course does not show the whole of Mary Gilmore. It leaves out her most characteristic quality, that of a woman. I have been blamed sometimes for writing of "women poets," as if that were something less than "poets" in general. Perhaps I should have balanced it by using some expression like "men poets," which I dislike somehow. What I meant by a woman poet, though, is a poet who gives what a woman only could give. Mary Gilmore has done this again and again. Her early book of verse, "Marri'd," had for its title poem something that came as a revelation; just a few simple verses by a woman who feels restlessly happy in the sense of keeping house for the man she loves:

   And feeling awful glad
   Like them that watched Siloam,
      And everything because
      A man is coming home!

Public Spirit.

When we feel that some one is public-spirited, we do not mean that they move in the limelight. They are usually too busy for that. Mary Gilmore has been public-spirited in countless ways, showing it both in definite acts and in an attitude of mind, a "preparedness." Sometimes she has used her pen, availing herself of what power would accrue to a conspicuously signed protest or advocacy. At other times she has used the personal influence that is hers after a long life of usefulness and creative activity. For the moment I shall name only three of her definite activities. The first has to do with her own Goulburn. There is a certain conspicuous hill which she, in common with many others, was anxious to have preserved as a memorial site. From descriptions, one gathers that the hill as it stands is a natural monument, conspicuous from overlanding trains, and easily made emphatic by a light on its summit at night. To have such a place reserved in perpetuity as a memorial seems simple and desirable enough, but every one knows that the simple and desirable things are usually attained "not without dust and heat." Mary Gilmore, by Press and other publicity, fought for the reservation of that hill. A second effort of hers that is remembered was the organisation of a public funeral for Lawson. She would say that this was the work and act of many people, and that all Australia desired it, and this is, in one sense, true; but such an act needs a definite pressure exerted at the right instant, and Mary Gilmore was able to see the right moment for that pressure and the right way of using it. The last instance of her public spirit, apart from her literary spirit, that occurs to my mind is a recent series of articles contributed to a powerful daily urging the development of interest in our blacks and their ways -- before it is wholly too late. Pointing out how this American mind has been enriched by the consciousness of the Hiawatha legends, she emphasised the need for collecting at least our aboriginal names before all their meanings and associations are forgotten. Her poem, summing up what we have lost, ends with the stanza:-

   But we, we have cut down our once green tree,
      The blossom of the past fails sere. . . .
   O that the blind would see!
      O that the deaf would hear!
   O that some brave spirit of a branch soon bare
   To save its last lone leaf would dare.

Near and Far.

Mary Gilmore's varied life has been filled with interests from near and far. Like others who returned from New Australia, she has enriched the life of our own country by means of her experiences. In a brilliant sonnet she has contrasted the two kinds of life, the wide-spreading and the small and dear. The sonnet begins with a description of some vast view across South American plains :  

    I have known distance and have drank of it!

It concludes on a tender, intimate note, naming home-loved places like Gundary, and remembering childish joys when she would go  

    To see the sun dance up on Easter morn.

She has not allowed her interests to become thinly cosmopolitan; she has never forgotten to draw nourishment from her own soil. One more thing she has remembered -- her Scottish and Irish ancestry. The home of her childhood was, as she says, among the old Scottish and Irish settlements. Her father spoke the Gaelic, and her own interest in words has always been intense. Fortunately, she has never let that be her whole interest. To her the words, after all, are only an exquisitely varied medium for expressing her rich experience of life. Her three volumes of poems and her well-known book of essays have by no means held all her published work. It is time for another book, collecting what poems have been appearing in fugitive form. One hears word, also, of varied work in manuscript awaiting publication. If this appears soon, 1928 will be a happy year in Australian letters.

First published in The Brisbane Courier, 10 March 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 July 22, 2011 6:47 AM.

Australian Literary Monuments #32 - Mary Gilmore was the previous entry in this blog.

Poem: Mary Gilmore by Jim Grahame is the next entry in this blog.

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