Reprint: Dorothea Mackellar

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Amongst the many classical definitions of poetry it is not always possible to find one that just exactly describes a particular poet. For, after all, the definitions are by their nature general, while they also express more of the author's reaction to poetry than what the poets themselves are seeking to express. But, for the work of Dorothea Mackellar, Edgar Allan Poe surely found the perfectly fitting phrase when he described poetry as "the rhythmic creation of beauty."

From the first poem, which, when it appeared in the London "Spectator" about 20 years ago, attracted attention to her work, up to the latest work that she has done, Dorothea Mackellar has been creating sheer rhythmic beauty. Often quoted aa one of the most sincere and genuine expressions of an Australian's feeling for his country, this poem sings in simple lines of the elementary appeal of Australia:

   "I love a sunburnt country,
      A land of sweeping plains,
   Of ragged mountain ranges,
      Of droughts and flooding rains.
   I love her far horizons,
      I love her jewel-sea,
   Her beauty and her terror --
      The wide brown land for me!

   The stark white ring-barked forests,
      All tragic to the moon,
   The sapphire-misted mountains,
      The hot gold hush of noon.
   Green tangle of the brushes,  
      Where lithe lianas roll,
   And orchids deck the tree-tops
      And ferns the warm dark soil.

   Core of my heart, my country!
      Her pitiless blue sky,
   When sick at heart, around us,
      We see the cattle die --
   But then the grey clouds gather,
      And we can bless again
   The drumming of an army,
      The steady, soaking rain."

This poem is typical, with its simplicity and the vividness of its imagery, of the work of this poet, which as Miss Nettie Palmer remarks, "has been chiefly vivid and enthusiastic landscape painting." It is typical also in its expression of the limitation of the emotions of the poet. Enthusiastic as she is in her descriptions and in everything she writes, she seems never to have plumbed the depths of any great emotion.

The daughter of Sir Charles Mackellar, well-known as physician and legislator, Dorothea Mackellar has never known the struggle which has tried and tested many another poet. She was born in Sydney, educated privately and travelled extensively in Europe and America, Morocco and Egypt, China and Japan. Thus she is by no means parochial in her admiration for Australia. Nor is she limited in the sweep of her artistic vision. She is one of those who found a place in the group which the Vision Press sought to stimulate a few years ago. Several examples of her recent work are included in the Vision Press "Poetry in Australia in 1923." But although her verse is essentially personal in the universal sense, which makes the lyric, it lacks the strength of expression which comes from the experience of deep emotion.

Fanciful, charming, colourful, and vivid are adjectives which describe her most striking qualities. She has the simple and vivid imagination of a child, as when she sings, in "Magic"--

   "Crawling up the hillside,
      Swinging round the bay,
   With a ceaseless humming
      Ply the trams all day.

   When it's dark I linger
      Just to see the sight;
   All those jewelled beetles
      Flashing through the night!"

Dorothea Mackellar is always keenly conscious of the romance of common things. In "The Open Sea" she paints a vivid word-picture --

   "From my window I can see,
      Where the sandhills dip,
   One far glimpse of open sea.
      Just a slender slip
   Curving like a crescent moon --
      Yet a greater prize
   Than the harbour garden-fair
      Spread beneath my eyes."

Her later verse, even when it is concerned with the expression of thought as well as description, reveals the same childlike inconsequentiality. In "Waste" she tells of Swaying Moonflower, the potter's daughter, who rejected all the magnificent gifts brought by all the Sultans and Rajahs --

   "Her mind being set on Celestial things."

The point of the poem lies in the philosophical conclusion drawn at the waste involved in the rejection of these gifts, and is expressed in this way --

   "All the Rajahs and Sultans went
   Home with their disillusionment;
   All the presents she scorned were hurled
   (Tigers included) about the world;
   They mostly dropped them into the sea --
   But not even a turquoise was offered to me!
   I wish it had been -- I hate all waste,
   And nourish an earthly contemptible taste
   For peacock-shimmers and vanities
   But Swaying Moonflower was doubtless wise."

Dorothea Mackellar'a first book of poems, "The Closed Door and Other Verses," was published in Melbourne in 1911. It rapidly ran into four or five editions. Since then she has published another volume, "The Witch Maid and Other Verses" and much scattered verse. She has found a place in the Oxford "Book of Australian Verse" and in the "Children's Treasury of Australian Verse." Some of her best songs challenge comparison with some of the oldest and best as when in "Summer is Icumen In" she sings of--

   "The beautiful old simple songs
      That make us laugh and cry,
   That sing of dying loveliness,
      In words that cannot die:"

with its conclusion--

   "And Alisoun is dead long syne
      With him that called her fair,
   But love is just as sweet and fresh
      When spring is in the air;

   And though I must perforce be dumb
      Who have no skill to sing,
   I am as deep in love, in love,
      As is the year in spring!"

This is poetry, whch, without qualification, places Dorothea Mackellar high in the ranks of the poets of the world.

First published in The Morning Bulletin, 7 March 1931

[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 August 12, 2011 7:21 AM.

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