Poet C.J. Dennis (1876-1938), Activist Judith Wright (1915-2000)
by Mary W Maxwell
We all know our hour, I suppose. But in Wright’s poem Black Cockatoos, printed below, we see that birds know their hour too. And poets know how to identify these great mysteries in just a few words.
CJ Dennis, on the other hand, was a fiction writer in verse. How could he so perfectly capture a type of person? When I hear people talk about Australian culture, I think of the men described by Banjo Patterson and CJ Dennis. The characters they created were not beholden to anyone outside of Oz.
I’ll abbreviate the beginning of his Sydney Harbor Bridge poem. It was first printed in his book The Sentimental Bloke. I say we need more sentimental blokes today.
I Dips Me Lid, by CJ Dennis
It ‘appened this way: I ‘ad jist come down,
After long years, to look at Sydney town.
An’ ‘struth! Was I knocked endways? Fair su’prised?
I never dreamed! That arch that cut the skies
The Bridge! I never thort there could ‘a’ been —
I never knoo, nor guessed — I never seen …
Well, Sydney’s ‘ad some knocks since I been gone,
But strike! This shows she keeps on keepin’ on.
I’d strolled about the town for ‘arf a day
Then dragged me carcase round the ‘arbor way
To view the Bridge from Dame Macquarrie’s Chair
Then parks me frame, an’ gits to thinkin’ there —
Thinkin’ of older days; an’ I suppose
I must ‘ave nodded orf into a doze.
Nex’ thing I knoo, ole Phillip come an’ sat
Beside me, friendly like, an’ starts to chat.
“Young sir,” ‘e sez. “You, too, in sheer amaze
Look upon this, and hark to other days,
An’ dream of this fair city’s early start.
In which (‘e bows) I played my ‘umble part —
My ‘umble part — a flagpole an’ a tent.”
“Come orf!” sez I. “You was a fine ole gent.
Reel nob. I’ve read about the things you did.
You picked some site.” (‘E bows. I dips me lid).
“Young sir,” ‘e sez. “I’ve dwelt in spirit ‘ere
To watch this city waxin’ year by year:
But yesterday, from a mere staff, a tent,
Wonder on wonder as the swift years went —
A thrivin’ village, then a busy town,
Then, as a stride, a city of renown.
Oh! what a wondrous miracle of growth
Think you not so?” “Too right,” I sez. “My oath!”
“Young sir,” ‘e sez. “The tears well in my eyes
When I behold von arch that cleaves the skies —
That mighty span, triumphant, where we view
My old friend Darwin’s vision now made true:
‘There the proud arch, Colossus-like, bestride
Yon glittering stream and bound the chafing tide!
‘Twas so he dreamed a few short years agone.
Spoke truly, sir; they keep on keeping on.”
So Phillip spoke ‘is piece, fair puffed wif pride.
An’ ‘im an’ me dreamed by the ‘arbor-side
I, of the scene before, of years to be,
An’ of the marvels that men yet might see
‘Im, of a lantern gleamin’ thro’ the fog
To light a tent, an’ two men, an’ a dog ….
Then both of us, like some queer instinct bids,
Stands up, serloots the Bridge, we dips our lids.
Today, Australia Day, at 2.45pm I will host a poetry session in the Rotunda of City Park, Launceston. (What a beautiful city, the third oldest in Australia).
I will read some of Judith Wright. I am not sure of the copyright status but will check it out next week and pay up if I have to. Here, then, the Black Cockatoos.
It’s worth being Australian just for this one poem, IMHO.
Each certain kind of weather or of light
has its own creatures. Somewhere else they
wait as though they but inhabited heat or cold,
twilight or dawn, and knew no other state.
Then at their time they come, timid or bold.
So when the long drought-winds, sandpaper-harsh,
were still, and the air changed, and the clouds came,
and other birds were quiet in prayer or fear,
these knew their hour. Before the first far flash
lit up, or the first thunder spoke its name,
in heavy flight they came, till I could hear
the wild black cockatoos, tossed on the crest
of their high trees, crying the world’s unrest.