Wednesday, 26 January 2011

My Country

Today (26th January) is Australia Day, commemorating the landing of the 'First Fleet' of British settlers (most of them involuntary!) at Sydney Cove in 1788. I don't think I've ever marked the day on this blog before, and Dorothea Mackellar's poem seems particularly apt at this time. It's probably regarded as a bit cliched now, not least because school children of several generations had to memorise it by heart (btw, school children no longer have to memorise poems, great speeches, or events/dates, and thus are given no ballast for the journey through life - a great failure of contemporary education). But the poet (19 when she wrote it, homesick in a grey Britain) gets so many things right in it, beginning with the stark contrast between the mother country and her antipodean daughter, that I still think it's worth reading, at least occasionally. However, as it's not informed by an orthodox Christian religious sensibility, a note I really miss, I've added a prayer by way of conclusion (Mackellar was baptised and buried an Anglican, but I don't know to what extent Angicanism or Christianity influenced her actual beliefs; the poem seems to verge on animism in its ascription of divine attributes to the land, or are we just reading too much into it?).

My Country
The love of field and coppice
Of green and shaded lanes,
Of ordered woods and gardens
Is running in your veins.
Strong love of grey-blue distance,
Brown streams and soft, dim skies
I know, but cannot share it,
My love is otherwise.

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 coil,
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.

Core of my heart, my country!
Land of the rainbow gold,
For flood and fire and famine
She pays us back threefold.
Over the thirsty paddocks,
Watch, after many days,
The filmy veil of greenness
That thickens as we gaze ...

An opal-hearted country,
A wilful, lavish land
All you who have not loved her,
You will not understand
though Earth holds many splendours,
Wherever I may die,
I know to what brown country
My homing thoughts will fly.

©Dorothea MacKellar

* This line reminds me of a conversation I had with a German-born pastor about my age, who had emigrated to Australia when he was about 20. I asked him if he missed the verdant countryside of of his homeland, to which he responded, "No, you can see so far here, it never ceases to amaze me. I don't miss Germany."

God, bless Australia,
guard our people
guide our leaders
and give us peace;
for Jesus Christ's sake. Amen.

From A Prayer Book for Australia (the current service book of the Anglican Church of Australia).


Before leaving the of the most interesting accounts of early Australia is Charles Darwin's chapter on his visit to these shores in The Voyage of the Beagle, which I have been reading lately. Darwin, an unusually astute and insightful travel writer, writes of the colony, then (1836) scarcely 50 years old, "On the whole, as a place of punishment, the object is scarcely gained; as a real system of reform it has failed, as perhaps would every other plan; but as a means of making men outwardly honest, - of converting vagabonds, most useless in one hemisphere, into active citizens of another, and thus giving birth to a new and splendid country - a grand centre of civilization - it has succeeded to a degree perhaps unparalleled in history."
Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle, Vintage, London 2009.

Pic: 'The Costume of the Australasians', from the recently discovered 'Macquarrie Sketchbook', c.1816-1820.

Historical note - the first governor of New South Wales (the first colony, covering the eastern quarter of the continent), Arthur Phillip, had a German Lutheran father; whether there were any Lutherans among the convicts or soldiers aboard the First Fleet I do not know, although it is quite possible as migration between Germany and England was quite fluid in Hanoverian times. However, Lutherans did not arrive in significant numbers until 1836, the first group being missionaries sent by J.E. Gossner from Germany to evangelise through word and deed the indigenous peoples around Moreton Bay (present-day Brisbane). Later the same year the group of free settlers led by Pr. A. Kavel who are usually regarded as the founders of Lutheranism in Australia arrived in Adelaide, South Australia, sponsored by George Fife Angas, a well-to-do Scottish Presbyterian merchant (they were fleeing religious persecution in Prussia, which elicited Angas's symapthies; in fact the undertaking to support the Germans nearly bankrupted Angas). However, two German missionaries sponsored by the Dresden Mission Society had preceded the South Australian group and applied themselves to working with indigenous peoples on the banks of the Torrens River in Adelaide; a plaque marks the location of their mission today (these two pastors did pioneering work in the documentation of the local Aboriginal langauge, and were fierce advocates for the people with the local governor). A Lutheran church was later built (and a congregation continues to exist there) on the land deeded by the colonial NSW government to the Gossner missionaries in what was later to become a suburb of Brisbane, Queensland. The various sites in Adelaide and its environs associated with Kavel's group, including the historically significant sites of Klemzig, Hahndorf and Bethany, are well marked.


Southern Cross said...

Hopefully you will have a wonderful Australia Day (it is still 11:16 a.m. here). This was a magnificent poem for a most excellent and lovely country. Blessings to all Australians.

Acroamaticus said...

Thanks, SC.