My Country and Other Poems by Dorothea Mackellar

Technically, Dorothea Mackellar is a good poet, and she’s a pleasure to read, but her subject choice, and her mode of writing, lack some of the edge and energy of modern poetry. As a poet of the senses, she’s exceptional. She’s fascinating when she tries to write in an extension of the English tradition, while needing to adapt her classical references to an alien environment. There’s a real tension there between the old fashioned poetical shortcuts (all of the harks, and beholds, and invocations of God) and the landscape she’s working on, which is described as primal and unaffected, and filled with elementals who don’t care about your existence, let alone you personal salvation.

Mackellar was occasionally a political poet. Although she did have a message, she’s had her victory, which obscures her point.  The idea that people who benefit from being Australian should stop harping on about the superiority of the Mother Country isn’t in question anymore, beyond occasional debates about citizenship. It’s hard for a modern reader to see My Country as a teenage rebellion poem, where an eighteen year old grabs the entire upper class of her society and gives them a slap in the face. That’s what it was, though: Dorothea was the Sex Pistols for her generation.

As an aside, I think she’d be a perfect steampunk heroine: biting wit, trained in fencing, skilled at languages, travelling at whim, inappropriate affairs, losing her fiance to another woman because of postal etiquette. Someone really needs to do a series of novels with her shooting classical Greek gods as they step off the boat and saying “Didn’t you read the poem? Pan and nature spirits only!”

Mackellar is particularly attuned to the shades of colour of the bush. The problem here is that her reference palate has slipped a little. How many modern people know that by cardinal she means a distinctive shade of scarlet. How many people know what colour chalcedony is? To be able to do a study where she describes an entire scene of green things by comparing them to other green things is clever, but only works in the modern reader has seen both the original, and each of the comparison objects, and I’m not sure we have that sort of visual literacy anymore.

Mackellar often avoids extended metaphors, because she’s doing an impressionist painting with words, and so she doesn’t need symbolism. When she chooses to compare a great tree in the middle of a burn off to a sacrificial king robed in stars, or embodies Australia as a mercurial, copperhaired witch, she shows that she’s skilled at this. I wish she’d done it more, because the cleverness and incisiveness she shows in these comparisons is, to me, more attractive than her pointing out to me that a particular rock, at a certain time of day, is the same colour as a persimmon, even though the observation is perfectly apt and slightly surprising.

Recommended for readers who like other bush poets. She doesn’t have the humorous undercurrents in Paterson or Lawson, but she doesn’t have the blokey-swaggie bushmen out conquering the frontier either. Her female characters are portrayed with a realism not found in the popular male authors,  even when they are, for example, undergoing apotheosis into a dryad. Personally, I enjoyed it most by splitting the work so that I read the four main collections separately.