The bushfire and the Australian imagination

There is a good article in today’s Australian by Simon Caterson: Living with the embers.

IT would be hard to overestimate the strength of the hold that bushfire has over our physical environment and over the Australian imagination. When in 1988 a series of ceremonial bonfires was lit during the Australian bicentenary celebrations, historian Geoffrey Blainey viewed the event as honouring "the most powerful, majestic and frightening force in our history: the force of fire".

Bushfires recur every year and occupy an important part of our culture and art. Blainey observes that "every day for millions of days countless fires have been lit or enlarged for countless purposes, and many of those fires had unintended consequences"…

The definitive Australian film (or play) on a bushfire theme may be yet to emerge, but many painters and writers have tackled the subject. In March 2003, the National Gallery of Victoria staged an exhibition of fire-themed art works to raise funds for victims of that summer’s fires.

Among the paintings assembled were works by John Longstaff, Eugene von Guerard and Tim Storrier. One of the best-known is Longstaff’s Gippsland, Sunday Night, February 20th, 1898, which shows a horseman riding swiftly out of a forest at night with the fire front advancing close behind him.

Australian writers have long striven to give expression to the horror of bushfire, while often acknowledging the subject’s indescribability. In his 1853 poem The Bush Fire, Charles Harpur writes: "Where are the words to paint the million shapes /And unimaginable freaks of Fire, /When holding thus its monster carnival /In the primeval forest all night long?"

A 19th-century writer who described a bushfire from personal experience was Marcus Clarke, who found himself suddenly caught up in a mallee scrub fire, which he tried to help contain in a back-burning operation: "But the fiery cohort came up, roaring in the tops of the trees, and was upon and past us almost before we could feel its heat, leaping our little line without a pause, and flying away into the forest. We had to run for our lives and, escaping danger of crushing branches, blazing bark and sudden whirls of yellow fire, that would play and crackle about us from some sappy fern, fell with singed hair and blinded eyes into the company of our reinforcements."

A sinister metaphor for bushfire was used by English author H.G. Wells, who visited Australia in the late 1930s.

"A bushfire is not an orderly invader, but a guerilla," Wells wrote. "It advances by rushes, by little venomous tongues of fire in the grass; it spreads by sparks burning leaves and bark. Its front is miles deep. It is here, it is there, like a swarm of venomous wasps. It shams dead and stabs you in the back. It encircles you so that there is no sure line of flight of its intended victims. It destroys the bridges in your rear. It bars the road with blazing trees." …

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John Longstaff, “Gippsland, Sunday Night” 1898

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Top poems 5: Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) — “The Oxen”

I find the people of Hardy’s generation quite fascinating. A N Wilson’s God’s Funeral is one interesting account of why this might be so, but in brief this was the generation that grew up deeply influenced either by evangelical Christianity, or by Catholicism, or both, but took on the implications of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, and in Hardy’s case lived through the impact of World War I, during which this poem was published. The photo, from a History of the American Field Service in France, is captioned: “Funeral of Richard Hall, Christmas 1915”.

And we think we live in an age of change!

This poem may best be seen, perhaps, as about nostalgia for belief. On The Victorian Web you may find a couple of relevant essays: Thomas Hardy’s Religious Beliefs by George P Landow, and Image, Allusion, Voice, Dialect, and Irony in Thomas Hardy’s "The Oxen" and the Poem’s Original Publication Context by Philip Allingham.

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Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come; see the oxen kneel,

"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

To quote Allingham:

Published in the Times on Christmas Eve, 1915, the lyric is founded upon the old folk tradition that, as Hardy’s mother told him as a child, the creatures whose ancestors witnessed the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem kneel to commemorate the event every Christmas Eve at midnight. Despite its seasonal setting and publication, on a first reading "The Oxen" seems hardly suggestive of the yuletide cheer one would expect…

the poem is neither picturesque nor sweetly nostalgic, but aches with a sense of loss and exclusion. "In ‘The Oxen’ the poet looks back regretfully to his boyhood days when he believed in miracles" (Firor 150) and was charmed by the naive folk belief in the kneeling of the oxen. As critics such as R. W. King (1925), Carl J. Webber (1940), C. Day Lewis (1951), Tom Paulin (1975), J. O. Bailey (1970), James Richardson (1975), F. B. Pinion (1976), and Trevor Johnson (1991) have noted, the dominant feeling of "The Oxen" is one of wistful regret or poignant loss at the passing of a secure world buttressed by the allied senses of legend, tradition, faith in presiding deity, and community…

By implication, the principal voice is that of a man who has grown in perception through education and experiences acquired away from his birth-place, while the contemporary who would urge a nocturnal visit to the "barton by yonder coomb / Our childhood used to know" (lines 11-14) has left behind neither his physical nor his spiritual origins (as suggested by the dialectal words "barton" and "coomb" and the archaic "yonder").

These deliberate regionalisms amounting almost to archaisms are idiosyncratic of Hardy’s style; here they serve to defamiliarize the common setting and assist in investing in the oxen a numinous power. This defamiliarization was recognised by C. Day Lewis when he spoke of the poem’s possessing "a golden haze of retrospect" (155). The urban, cynical, scientific, rational voice overlays that of a rural, naïve believer who once spoke the Dorset dialect rather than the standard, modern English of his adult counterpart, whose voice contains all the other voices of the poem…

Top poems 4: John Donne “Nativity”

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16th century Woodcut by Titian in the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki collection

(No known copyright restrictions)

Seventeenth century near-contemporary of Shakespeare John Donne has managed to compact just about every bit of traditional doctrine on the Nativity into one sonnet!

Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,
Now leaves His well-belov’d imprisonment,
There He hath made Himself to His intent
Weak enough, now into the world to come;
But O, for thee, for Him, hath the inn no room?
Yet lay Him in this stall, and from the Orient,
Stars and wise men will travel to prevent
The effect of Herod’s jealous general doom.
Seest thou, my soul, with thy faith’s eyes, how He
Which fills all place, yet none holds Him, doth lie?
Was not His pity towards thee wondrous high,
That would have need to be pitied by thee?
Kiss Him, and with Him into Egypt go,
With His kind mother, who partakes thy woe.

 

A bit of a triumph, but not the best poem Donne ever wrote. The scene is indeed one for “faith’s eyes” rather than the stricter gaze of the historian, but who would complain too much?

Top poems 3: Robert Southwell “The Burning Babe”

It has been a while between poems here! With Christmas coming up, I thought I would post a few Christmas poems. This is perhaps the most bizarre, though I recall when first reading it at the age of sixteen being quite drawn by its odd imagery. I am no longer so sure of the theology it encapsulates, but that is another matter.

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Piero della Francesca, Nativity (c. 1470), National Gallery, London

    

THE BURNING BABE

By Robert Southwell

As I in hoary Winter’s night stood shiveringe in the snowe,
Surpris’d I was with sodayne heat, which made my hart to glowe;
And liftinge upp a fearefull eye to
vewe what fire was nere,
A prety Babe all burninge bright, did in the ayre appeare.
Who scorchèd with excessive heate, such floodes of teares did shedd,
As though His floodes should quench His flames which with His teares were fedd;
Alas! quoth He, but newly borne, in fiery heates I frye,
Yet none approch to warme their hartes or feele my fire but I!
My faultles brest the fornace is, the fuell woundinge thornes,
Love is the fire, and sighes the smoke, the ashes shame and scornes;
The fuell Justice layeth on, and Mercy blowes the coales,
The metall in this fornace wrought are men’s defilèd soules,
For which, as nowe on fire I am, to worke them to their good,
So will I melt into a bath to washe them in My bloode:
With this He vanisht out of sight, and swiftly shroncke awaye,
And straight I callèd unto mynde that it was Christmas-daye.

 

Southwell was a Catholic martyr. According to WikiSource, from which I took the original spelling edition above: “The Burning Babe was taken from a collection called St. Peter’s Complaint, printed privately and circulated shortly after the poet’s execution in 1595. Ben Jonson said that he would have been content to destroy many of his own poems to have written The Burning Babe.” The title link takes you to a modernised version.

For a Jerome Rothenberg book of the same name see illustrated Burning Babe.