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Women poets of the Victorian forests.

In the nineteenth century a distinctive group of seven women poets flourished in eastern Victoria. All spent their early years in forested hill country similar to that of the Dandenongs near Melbourne. They were in the main from families of pioneering settlers and traders.

Nellie Clerk (1855-1907) took up a selection block with her husband near Korumburra in south Gippsland. She began to write poems for the Mirboo Herald, and the paper published her collection Songs from the Gippsland Forests in 1887. Her poems were praised by the English litterateur Douglas Sladen in his anthologies of Australian literature published in London in 1888, but were little known in Australia at that time.

Marie Pitt (1869-1948) grew up on the goldfields north of Bairnsdale. After marriage she moved to the mining towns of the Tasmanian west coast and then to Melbourne, where she became a journalist with radical views. She wrote poems about all the places she had lived in.

Mary Fullerton (1868-1946) spent her childhood on her parents selection block at Glenmaggie, north of Heyfield, where the Australian Alps flatten out onto the plain. She published four books of poetry in her lifetime, the first two Moods and Melodies (1908) and The Breaking Furrow (1921) being based on her early days, as is her classic autobiography of an Australian childhood, Bark House Days (1921). She moved to Melbourne and spent most of her adult life in England.


Marion Miller Knowles (1865-1949) was the daughter of a gold agent at Woods' Point. Early on she became a teacher, and during her lifetime she wrote ten volumes of verse on the hill country of eastern Victoria. Some of it, as indicated by the title of one of her volumes Fronds from the Black Spur (1911) is based on the ranges in the Healesville area. She lived in Melbourne after she married, and like Marie Pitt worked as a journalist there.

Grace 'Jennings' Carmichael (1867-1904) was the daughter of the manager of a pastoral run at Orbost. She moved to Melbourne as a nurse and published verse on her Gippsland days under the name of Jennings Carmichael. She travelled to England after her marriage, where she died from the effects of poverty and starvation. An Irish-Australian member of the English House of Commons, J.F. Hogan had her verse published in book form as Poems in 1895.

The Temple sisters Hilda Temple Kerr (1874-1956) and Mabel Stewart Temple (1871-1892) also grew up im Orbost. A joint book of their verse entitled Australian Poetry was published in 1905. Mabel died young, and Hilda married a doctor, Dr. Kerr, and was prominent in Orbost life.

All seven women were born in the same generation (between 1855 and 1874) and inherited the tradition of lyric nature verse begun by the early Australian poets, Charles Harpur and Henry Kendall, who flourished in similar fern gully country in coastal and mountain country in New South Wales. But the seven poets are only a group in the sense that they wrote similar verse. They grew up in isolation from the literary world generally and without knowledge of each other, with the exception of the Temple sisters who are likely to have known Grace Carmichael at Orbost. The remarkable thing is that they produced such similar verse.

The women poets admired the beauty and tranquility of the bush. Its unspoiled nature reflected the innocent state of their childhood days. The bush was the place where they came to meditate and ruminate, and it induced in them a quasi-religious state of awe and serenity. These poets loved wandering through the bush and gradually falling into a trance like state of poetry inducing reverie. Their mood was uplifted by the great trees, which relieved a vague feeling of despondency which enveloped them. They saw the tall trees as majestic and unbending, a pointer to the eternal, towering above their own mundane strivings. The great trees were steadiest and enduring, in contrast to their own fluctuating emotional moods. Soon the delicious green days of their childhood will recede, and they will have to take their chances in the unknown world outside.

In a late Romantic way they enjoyed the conflicting emotions of elevation and sadness which coursed through them. They saw in contrast of shadow and shine in the forests an emblem of their own turmoil, and it was an exquisite mixture of the two they tried to capture. Rhapsody and remorse wind through these poems like tendrils entwined around each other, exhilaration at the present radiance of nature, regret that life will not fulfil its wonderful promise.

The forest, 'Jennings' Carmichael wrote, 'had a magic kind of fascination, blended with a feeling of perplexity'. She marvelled at the way the bright rays of sunlight were broken up by the dark foliage of the forest's understory, producing a dappled effect of light and shade:
 Dear faithful trees, I find you steadfast still,
 In spite of time and change!
 With musing eyes I roam the rock-strewn hill,
 And look out towards the range.
 Soft sun sped arrows pierce the forest thro'
 In long clear lanes of light,
 They melt and mingle in a mist of blue,
 Where shadow steals in sight.

 Each soaring eucalyptus, lifts high,
 The wandering wind receives;
 I watch the great boughs drawn against the sky,
 Laden with trembling leaves.
 A soft, harmonious music, full and rare,
 Murmurs the boughs along-The
 voice of Nature's God is solemn there,
 In that deep undersong.

The forests act as a regulator of the emotions. Sometimes nature is in harmony with the poet's joyous mood; sometimes nature (the great trees) is a consolation for the melancholy of the poet; sometimes the relationship is contrary: 'The bright beauty of the afternoon struck a sadness through me', wrote Mary Fullerton in Bark House Days. The poets describe two levels in the forest. When they look up they see the giant boles of the forest, straight, upright, like the columns of an open-air cathedral, a temple of God. This induces feelings of vast, uplifting transcendence. But at a lower level of the forest floor, they notice the minutiae--the fronds, the rippling brooks and ferny glades, the abodes of forest sprites, faery magic and wood nymphs. These represent the Victorian ages two contrasting view of religion--the orthodox Christian view of heroic vertical transcendence, and the horizontal Celtic view of religion of nature--'a green thought in a green shade'. Fullerton, Pitt and Knowles were a mixture of Irish-Scots background and to them the understory of small brooks and ferns is like the Celtic nature world of free spirits.

In their poetry childhood innocence gives way to the prospect of growing up and experiencing the inevitable disappointments of life. One expression of this is the cutting down of the forests, as in Marie Pitt's poem 'Doherty's Corner':
 There are no fairies now at Doherty's Corner,
 Where dusky spider-orchids and wild white daisies grew;
 Time has stilled the heart of the singing forest
 Has stolen her fairies too.

 Henderson's Hill is green at Doherty's Corner,
 But no fairy trips in the dawn or the dusk thereon,
 Perhaps they died when the old black log and the bracken
 And the box bushes were gone.

The women poets lamented the loss of the forests, although they balanced this with a celebration of the new homesteads that were arising. Two opposing themes ran through their writing: the grandeur of the trees and the brave, incessant toil of the pioneers in cutting them down. Both were heroic entities, but they, were in competition with each other, the essence of tragedy. The contrary attitudes are caught in one of Nellie Clerk's poems:
 Far to west and to north, great clearings stretch forth,
 Herds and flocks and fat pastures revealing
 'Twixt dead trees that stand grey and gaunt o'er the land
 With bare arms to heaven appealing

 There, axes and fire have wrought my desire,
 Before them the matted scrub sweeping;
 But armies of those ghostly eucalypt trees
 For years their sad guard will be keeping.

Four of the poets lived into their eighties, with long careers. The other three (Clerk, Carmichael and Mabel Temple) died comparatively young. Two changed their poetic styles (Pitt became more forceful and political and Fullerton more metaphysical), but the other five remained in their original lyric mode. Marie Pitt, Mary Fullerton and Grace Carmichael were reasonably well known in Australian literary circles earlier in the twentieth century.

The only two male poets who flourished in eastern Victoria at the same time were Billy Wye and E.J. Brady, both of whom lived from the 1860s to the 1950s. Poetically they differed from their female contemporaries. Wye wrote about the vast alps of the Great Dividing Range rather than the forested foothills, and he wrote mainly in the ballad tradition, or the mixed ballad-lyric form. E.J. Brady of Mallacoota was a lyric poet but he wrote of the sea. Why did the women poets dominate? Men of the small farms seemed to have put their heads down and concentrated on the daily tasks of farming. Mary Fullerton hints of this when she remembers her brother Dick 'who by nature had an eye for the practical, called the dancing garment of the hillside 'good feed', and I recollect how, with all my heart--and not without a touch of priggishness--I pitied him'.

Marion Knowles and Mary Fullerton also wrote novels about the struggling mining and selector families in the forest country. Marie Pitt and Mary Fullerton took an active interest in women's affairs of the day--Fullerton was culturally radical and Pitt politically radical. Marion Knowles, like Mary Grant Bruce was involved in the women's movement from a conservative point of view.


Patrick Morgan is currently writing a book on the literature of the Gippsland.
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Author:Morgan, Patrick
Publication:M A R G I N: life & letters in early Australia
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Nov 1, 2008
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