The Collected Verse of Mary Gilmore: 1887-1929, vol. 1.
Under the General Editorship of Paul Eggert of the Scholarly Editions Centre at the Australian Defence Force Academy, the Academy Editions of Australian Literature comprise the first series of critical editions of major works of the nation's literature.
The series meets the highest possible standards of scholarly editing, and aims to provide reliable reading texts and rigorously researched contextual annotation. The choice of copy-text and exhaustive textual collation, with a foot-of-page (or foot-of-poem) apparatus recording variants, enable access to the process of transmission of the literary work. In choosing the copy-text, the editor must decide 'between a textual presentation that gives highest authority to authorial intention and one that has a documentary form of the text as its authority' (p.ix). In the case, as here, of an edition of poetry, there will be many individual copy-texts and many such decisions to be made. Strauss's editorial rationale elaborates further:
The choice of copy-texts and the arrangement of the poems are designed to reflect the historical sequence of Gilmore's self-projection as an Australian poet and her reception by readers. For this reason the copy-texts are chosen from early, but not necessarily the earliest, published versions. The distinction is between the uncollected poems and those appearing in her various volume collections. The copy-texts of the former are taken from their earliest verifiable printing. Those of the latter are taken from the volumes in preference not only to earlier journal-published printings but also to later revisions made or possibly sanctioned by Gilmore for anthology representation or for Selected Verse.... all known printings prior to Gilmore's death in 1962 are noted and were taken into account in determining which ones represented new typesettings. All such typesettings were collated with the relevant copy-texts, and the collations are recorded following each text. For every published poem therefore, the reader is afforded access to all the variant versions available to readers during Gilmore's lifetime. (p.lxxiii)
To say this is a daunting task would be an understatement, yet Strauss has carried it through with authority and meticulous attention to detail. The intention of the edition is
to restore the entire corpus of Gilmore's published poetry, to public availability. In doing so it will bring back into print several hundred journal poems which were never collected by Gilmore herself, and which may at first glance seem to confirm the critical commonplace that Gilmore was not only a prolific poet but an uneven one. (p.xxix)
A reading of the lull text tends rather to substantiate this assessment: for example, the poems to 'Tiddley Winks' and 'd'Babby,' and many of the 'dialect' poems, fail to strike a chord (with this reader, at least). It is true that 'Gilmore was staggeringly prolific of ideas for poems: on the evidence of composition dates, she would sometimes begin as many as four poems on a single day' (pp.lxxii-iii), not all of them successfully carried through. The resultant overview is invaluable, however, and there are enough good poems there to make the exercise worthwhile. Moreover, as Strauss herself points out, 'judgments as to what is "trivial" or "second-rate" do not always coincide within the same era, let alone across boundaries of time, class or gender' (p.xxx). It is important that this body of work by a public literary figure, created Dame of the British Empire 'for services to literature,' should be preserved and re-evaluated, and Strauss's dedicated scholarship is the first step in such a process.
Mary Gilmore was born Mary Jean Cameron on 16th August 1865 and died 2nd December 1962. An excellent chronology in The Collected Verse of Mary Gilmore pinpoints major events in her life, publications, literary friendships, and provides a ready reference for the reader. Aside from many poems in journals, Mary Gilmore published eight major collections between 1910 and 1954, four minor or pamphlet collections and a Selected Verse (Angus & Robertson, 1948). Critics such as H.M. Green, Tom Inglis Moore and R.D. Fitzgerald placed her among Australian poets 'worthy of note,' yet by the end of the twentieth century she had been reduced to representation through a few favourite anthology pieces ('Eve-Song,' 'Old Botany Bay,' 'The Waradgery Tribe,' 'The Tenancy' and 'Nationality'). Strauss explains this falling out of favour:
There are reasons in Australian literary history why Gilmore's poetry was likely to be pushed into the background. During her own lifetime there were two waves of formidable contenders for critical recognition: R.D. Fitzgerald and Kenneth Slessor in the 1930s; Judith Wright, A.D. Hope and James McAuley in the 1940s and 1950s. These were poets more amenable to the kind of critical assessment that ruled in the universities, those official custodians of literary reputation, at the time when Australian literature was beginning to establish something of an academic foothold. And following Gilmore's death, an impatient "generation of "68' would elbow its way onto the poetic stage with a version of making it new that had little time for any of its predecessors' literary pieties. (pp.xxviii-xxix)
Nonetheless, the range of Gilmore's work reveals changing aspects of Australian poetry from the 1890s to the mid twentieth century.
As a child, she was a voracious reader with a passion for words, becoming a pupil teacher in a bush school near Wagga Wagga, under the tutelage of an uncle, just before her thirteenth birthday. Nine years later, posted to the remote mining town of Silverton as a provisionally qualified teacher, she came in touch with labour activism and became, more significantly at that time, a budding writer. The earliest Verse Notebooks in the Mitchell Library's Gilmore papers (MS 123) date from 1887, and her earliest recorded published poems also date from this period. When she received a posting to Sydney in 1890, Mary Cameron 'gravitated towards the literary world of radical politics associated particularly with the Bulletin' (p.xxxiv). Her mother was a friend of Louisa Lawson, founder of the radical feminist journal, the Dawn, in 1888, and Mary in turn became a close friend of Henry Lawson.
A major influence among the Bulletin circle was John Farrell, writer of left-wing satirical and narrative verse. However, the most important of her early contacts was A.G. Stephens who, as editor of the Bulletin Red Page and the Bookfellow, published a number of her poems. Another major influence was William Lane, co-founder and editor of the radical Brisbane journal, the Boomerang, and a Utopian socialist. In 1895, Mary Cameron set out alone for Paraguay to teach the children of his second settlement at Colonia Cosine. There she met and married William Gilmore and in 1898 gave birth to their only child, William Dysart Gilmore. The family returned to Australia in 1902, where they found a home with Will's parents near Casterton.
From that point on, Mary Gilmore's literary career began to take off. A.G. Stephens offered a Red Page featuring her poetry, and in 1906 she was included in Bertram Stevens' An Anthology of Australian Verse. In 1910 her first volume of poetry, Marri'd and Other Verses was published by George Robertson, receiving favourable critical notice. Significant are poems displaying a social conscience, such as 'The Woman' ('This victim of our gods -/The social laws--that slay.') and 'Down By the Sea,' written when 'to be the mother of an "illegitimate" child was to be an outcast' (p.88):
Past houses where mothers like me slept warm, And babies like mine were born; Where it was not a sin to have loved as I, And motherhood meant not scorn.
Responses such as these to the plight of society's victims reach their culmination in the much later poem, 'The Baying Hounds' (Battlefields, 1939):
There was no hunted one With whom 1 did not run, There was no fainting heart With which I had not part, The baying hounds bayed me, Though it was I was free.
Individual poems from Marri'd and Other Verses were reprinted in Stevens' Golden Treasury of Australian Verse (1912) and several journals, and by 1913 Gilmore had also become technical owner of the struggling Book fellow.
In 1918 Gilmore finalised the preparation of her second major collection, The Passionate Heart, published by Angus & Robertson. George Robertson personally went through the proofs with her, and the resulting volume was widely and favourably reviewed. Contents include anti-war poems which nonetheless celebrate courage and fortitude, nationalistic poems such as 'The Australian' ('O brave Australian whistling man'), a number of poems about Sydney, further poems dealing with attitudes to illegitimacy, the well anthologised and feministic 'Eve-Song' and others along the same lines, such as 'Life and Thought' ('Her story one that neither strikes nor stirs, /Her world the four white walls of penury. /Yet whose the greatest winning, his or hers?) Here the final line creates a balance, as do such poems as 'The Wife's Song.'
The twenty years that followed the success of The Passionate Heart saw a number of major collections, overlapping to some extent in their composition but thematically discrete. The Tilted Cart: A Book of Recitations (1925) represents a return to rural traditions, commanding a more popular readership than The Passionate Heart. Notable here is the use of the vernacular, which informs many of the poems, and the capturing of colloquial idiom in the voices of different personae. The next collection was The Wild Swan (Robertson & Mullens, 1930), demonstrating that the return to rural traditions was an ambivalent one. Interesting here is the invocation of Aboriginal heritage. While the poem 'The Aboriginals' is problematic (in that it may be seen as presenting a romanticised acceptance of 'the lost tribes'), lines like 'Their blood is black on our hands that nothing can purge' stand up today. Under the Wilgas (Robertson & Mullens, 1932) incorporates Gilmore's attempt to introduce Aboriginal language into her poems, anticipating the ideals of the Jindyworobak movement, an attempt doomed to failure through the proliferation of explanatory notes and glosses. By contrast, the more straightforward 'The Myall in Prison' has been repeatedly anthologised, and the Aboriginal poems of The Wild Swan inspired positive comment and interest. A third collection at this time, The Rue Tree (Robertson & Mullens, 1931) was explicitly religious and Catholic (following a sojourn at St John of God's Hospital in Goulburn) and was largely ignored. It is the only major collection of Gilmore's not mentioned in the Oxford Companion to Australian Literature (2nd edn, 1994).
'The decade 1930 to 1940,' says Strauss, 'including as it does the 1939 publication of Battlefields, was probably the highpoint, or high plateau, of Gilmore's public life, if not of her role as a public literary personality .... ' (p.lix). In Battlefields, 'Gilmore could be seen as championing the cause of all those embattled by poverty, oppression and misfortune, "whether they be families on the dole, Aborigines, or victims of modern warfare and cataclysms of nature"' (p.lxi). There are, however, internal confusions or contradictions in Gilmore's social humanist philosophy. She was a firm believer in the White Australia Policy and in white (especially British) racial superiority. For example, the uncollected poem 'The Brown Woman's Husband' (pp. 423-4) speaks of the 'shame' of miscegenation, and 'The Black Labor Advocate' (pp. 481-3) rejects the British advocacy of cheap coloured labour, but not on humanitarian grounds:
Give him his country back again, Give him his native powers Give him his manhood among men-And leave, O leave us, Ours!
Despite such inconsistencies in her ideology (which may not have seemed inconsistent to those of her generation), and despite the fact that Inglis Moore believed she had written too much, he wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald (15 August 1942) that '[her] best work places Mary Gilmore squarely among the first dozen poets of Australia.' If we look to anthologies, edited by Moore, Percival Serle, A.G. Stephens, John Thompson et al., Judith Wright, Rodney Hall and others, we find Dame Mary Gilmore amply represented and discover a general consensus of opinion over which poems have endured in significance. 'The Tenancy,' for example, from Battlefields, is seen as a fitting epitaph to Gilmore's life and literary career:
I shall go as my father went, A thousand plans in his mind, With something still unspent, When death let 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.
Jennifer Strauss's excellent scholarly edition enables us to look at the body of work that has produced Gilmore's best poems, and the forces that have shaped it. Inclusion of Gilmore's own notes on the poems and Strauss's historical annotations on the subject matter are enlightening, and the chronological presentation of collected and uncollected publications contributes to the cumulative forward movement of the corpus. This current volume stops at 1929. With the texts of The Wild Swan, Under the Wilgas, Battlefields, Selected Verse and Fourteen Men still to come, as well as the poems of her last years, we can look forward to Volume II of The Collected Verse of Mary Gilmore.
Margaret Bradstock, University of New South Wales.
Margaret Bradstock is a poet, and scholarly editor of Tasma's The Pipers of Piper's Hill for the Colonial Texts Series.
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|Publication:||M A R G I N: life & letters in early Australia|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2006|
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