Reprint: Mabel Forrest: Our Romantic Poetess

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In the "Arabian Nights" we read of one Serendib, an Oriental merchant who went about the bazaars of Bagdad picking up all sorts of odds and ends, and making out of them, with deft artistry, things new and strange. Horace Walpole was a confessed disciple of Serendib, and decorated his bijou Gothic castle at Twickenham with lovely bits of statuary and cabinets crammed with coins and porcelain, and a hundred quaint ornaments in brass. Mrs. Mabel Forrest, our Queensland poetess, is another follower of Serendib, and from her magic pack of fancies she has for the last score of years or more been bringing forth, like a persuasive pedlar, a remarkable series of opalescent poems redolent of cedar and cinnamon, and reminiscent of the tinkle of temple bells. One wonders how she does it, as one wonders at a conjurer. Perhaps her fellow Australians have fallen into the placid mood of acceptance -- imagining that the things of beauty she has been producing with such fresh lustre and apparent ease are the things one expects as a matter of course from a conjurer. Long ago Kendall, thinking of Harpur, chided his countrymen on "the life austere that waits upon the man of letters here," and it would be a thousand pities if a similar indifference were to chill the heart of such a music-maker and dreamer of dreams as Mrs. Mabel Forrest has been.

   Upon an iron balcony above the city street,
   All day the pale, sick woman lies; across her idle feet
   A striped rug from Arabia; and in her slender hands
   The magic book that tells her tales of undiscovered lands.

The day will come when her magic book, like Prospero's, shall sink "deeper than did ever plummet sound," but, at least, let us reassure her that we love her sweet fantasies and re-echo in our hearts the clairvoyant sympathy which she has shown in many a poem for the weary and the heavy-laden. To do this is simple gratitude for the place she has taken since the death of Brunton Stephens as our representive Queensland poet, the one who has turned into shapes of beauty our common experiences of sunset and moonrise, of busy streets and shaded garden crofts, of child- hood's dreams and the wistful reveries of age.

Mrs. Mabel Forrest is a romantic lyricist. She is not a balladist like Banjo Paterson or Harry Lawson, for though she knows her Bush as intimately as any teller of its epical tales, her strength lies in the evocation of her thronging fancies, in the embroidery of them with the colours of masque or pageant, and in the lilting progress she gives to them the sound of shawms and cymbals. It is her most frequent method to take hold of some simple, common thing like a worn door-mat and turn it into a dream barge on which she visits the ports and happy havens of romance.

   Worn here and there by little feet,
      The mat upon the floor is string;
   And when you shake it, full of dust:
      By day an ordinary thing.
   But you should see it when at night
   The house is still and stars are bright.

The poem becomes an incantation, summoning up from the vasty deep "the cloud capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself," as by the waving of a magic wand. Image swiftly follows image, aglow with colour and aromatic with incense, till the exquisite and passionate sensuousness of it all exercises on the mind of the listener an almost hypnotic charm, as if we were indeed looking from magic casements on the foam of perilous seas in fairy lands forlorn. Mrs. Forrest's imagination is akin to that of Keats, who could not see a sparrow on the garden path without feeling that he was that very bird hopping about on the gravel. She visualises all objects within her ken, and her effects are so vivid that they do not need the underlining she sometimes gives to them. It is because of this art of make-believe that many of her poems fascinate the minds of imaginative children. She shares this knack with Robert Louis Stevenson, in his "Child's Garden of Verses." Here for example is one verse from "Goblin Time":

   In goblin time the iron tank --
   A harmless creature in its way --  
   Grows like some awful giant's head
   That crouched behind our house all day.
   The clothes-line hanging in the yard,
   With fluttering humble things upon,
   Has changed into a gallows tree,
   That holds a dangling skeleton.

Mrs. Forrest's imagination is populous with elfin folk. Another feature of her poetry is her riotous delight in decoration. She hangs festoons of flowers upon her rhymes, and threads them with necklaces of jewellery -- pearls, rubies, diamonds, turquoises, silver and gold. She clothes her figures with old time costumes or the silks of to-day. And as for colour, surely no poet has ever excelled her there. "Red Broom Handles " prompt her imagination to play with all shades of red from the caps of the pixies and ochre fishing-boats to the red of Revolution itself. The "Queen's Room" is a study in all sorts of yellows; and "Blue Tiles," seen in a shop window, call up to her fancy the Persian blue of Babylonian palaces. Indeed, she is apt to throw her palette into the picture-grey, moth-grey, stone-grey, snaky-grey; yellow, cowslip coloured, loquat yellow, grass yellow, saffron, golden amber, and "primrose honey," as well as reds and browns, blacks and whites. Out of such sensuously luxuriant material she can weave a story that is never dull, an exotic story of kings and queens, princesses and gypsy girls, and gentlemen with jewelled swords and sentimental hearts. Nor, is this all. She knows how to handle geographical decorations from the Orient. Of local colour no Australian poet has so great a command. Every bird and bush and flower is named and woven without forcing into her poetry. Her verse might have for its sign peacock with all its feathers up,under a rainbow. Her images have often the fanciful conceits of Donne.

   The mice of the Dark have nibbled the moon,
   Where it lay on the shelves of day.

As for metrical cleverness she has little to learn from Masefield's "Cargoes" when she writes of Sydney streets. To read a volume of Mrs. Forrest's poems is to feel yourself squatting in some Eastern palace on rugs of wondrous dye, with all the perfumery and cruelty of a Sultan's divan around you as you look from a lattice or a spicy garden of the Golden Horn. But if she surrounds herself with Oriental splendour, her ear is never dull to the still, sad music of humanity. How poignant her "Old Woman," in "Alpha   Centauri," and "Old Men," in the "Poems," are every reader knows.  And in the later poems (not yet   published in book-form) this diapason note sounds more frequently and more hauntingly, often in a single final line -- "I shall not need a lamp when I wander among the stars." Mrs. Forrest has been writing since the century began -- essays, poems, and four fine novels, and because she has written much under the spur of necessity, some critics have spoken of "her facile pen." "It costs not much to make a song," she says ironically.

   It needs no thews of mighty strength,
   No treasure fund of gold to sink
   Only a pen a dagger's length --
   With veil of heart's blood for the ink.

First published in The Courier-Mail, 30 September 1933

[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 October 28, 2011 6:58 AM.

2011 Man Booker Prize Winner was the previous entry in this blog.

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