Floating Life 4/06 ~ 11/07

an archive

Friday Australian poem # 6: Mary Gilmore, "Nationality" and "Old Botany Bay"

This poem by a much under-rated Australian poet is profoundly simple, a rare achievement. It is impossible not to sympathise with the speaker on the one hand, and not to be disturbed by the implications of what she says on the other.


I have grown past hate and bitterness,
I see the world as one;
But though I can no longer hate,
My son is still my son.

All men at God’s round table sit,
and all men must be fed;
But this loaf in my hand,
This loaf is my son’s bread.

Paradox, thy name is poetry.

Old Botany Bay

I’m old
Botany Bay;
Stiff in the joints,
Little to say.

I am he
Who paved the way,
That you might walk
At your ease to-day;

I was the conscript
Sent to hell
To make in the desert
The living well;

I bore the heat,
I blazed the track –
Furrowed and bloody
Upon my back.

I split the rock;
I felled the tree:
The nation was-
Because of me!”

Old Botany Bay
Taking the sun
from day to day…
shame on the mouth
that would deny
the knotted hands
that set us high!


 Dame Mary Gilmore (1865-1962) was a Utopian then a Communist just about all her life, but paradoxically became a Dame of the British Empire and had her face on our currency as you can see: click on the $10 to read all about her. I can still recall her regular column in the Communist Party newspaper Tribune. A reminder of the time when there really were influential socialists in Australia, some time in the Cretaceous period… Despite the current government’s desperate attempts lately to pin radical socialism on “trade union bosses/hacks” in the Labor Party — as recently as Question Time yesterday, that sorry farce — it is many a moon since the real thing was to be found in the ALP. Some repine over that, others are relieved. The slur is as inappropriate as comparisons between John Howard and Hitler.

But back to Dame Mary: her life was quite fascinating, and she was a more than competent poet. She was also a living connection to the 1890s and the Lawson tradition, as the following item from Memories of Henry Lawson, an exhibition in the University of Sydney Library, shows.

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Written by Neil

September 14, 2007 at 9:38 am

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