State Library of NSW presents Libby Hathorn’s Poets of Australia: Dorothea Mackellar


I love a sunburnt country
A land of sweeping plains Of ragged mountain ranges
Of droughts and flooding rains. I love her far horizons
I love her jewel-sea, Her beauty and her terror –
The wide brown land for me! [music] Hello, I’m Libby Hathorn, Australian writer
and poet and I learnt to recite that poem, all six verses of it, when I was only 9 years
old. You may have some of that poem but not the story behind it of Dorothea
Mackellar the poet’s life. [music] Dorothea was a poet who was famous in her
own lifetime. For many Australians she captured the soul of the country. And if you like secrets, she was an expert,
keeping a secret diary with a code no one could crack ’till – well, more about that later. I’m here at the State Library of NSW where
there are books of course but way more than books. It’s a place of magic to me. In here are precious treasures that help us
remember our Australian poets of the past: Manuscripts and letters in the actual
poet’s handwriting – No computers then – photos, paintings, sketches – and even a lock of Dorothea’s hair! [music] Isobel Marion Dorothea Mackellar
was born in 1885 in Sydney. A lucky child, Dorothea as she was always called, grew up in a beautiful house near
the harbour. Her family also had properties in the country
like Kurrumbede in Gunnedah where there’s now a statue of Dorothea on a horse. [music] With her three brothers, her Mum
and Dad, and best friend Ruth, Dorothea had an instant audience
and she was writing plays and poems from a young age. [music] There were balls and dances and luncheons
to attend, and overseas cruises to Europe, London and even Japan. Girls in families like hers weren’t
expected to go to work so there was plenty of time for writing and submitting
her poems for publication. Sounds good but maybe, just maybe, you might
begin to feel like a bird in a cage! And you might begin to invent characters who become
your imaginary friends. No wonder Dorothea began to keep
secret diaries in code. Dorothea couldn’t even visit anyone without
someone from the family going with her. Though many of her poems are
happy ones, one day, feeling down, she wrote a poem
called Captive. My soul is sick of the soft slow days
My heart is sick of the gentle ways. My body is sick of its silken thrall.
Sick – I am sick to death of it all! It’s a long poem written in 1907 when
she was 22 and had had quite some success with various poems in publications.
But there were shadows across Dorothea’s life just like anyone else’s. An early poem was about her favourite
brother, Keith, who was killed during the Boer War. When would I like to die, to die? Without a cry, In a hard-fought
fight where blows are dealt And the death-strokes less
than a girl’s kiss felt So would I die. Keith’s death deeply affected
Dorothea for much of her life and later she invented a character
that some say was based on Keith called Kid Prevost, the hero of her
adventure romance novel, Outlaw’s Luck. She was young and energetic and her poetry
appeared in English and American magazines. In 1912 her first novel, The Little Blue Devil,
was published, which she co-wrote with her childhood friend Ruth Bedford. There’s some dispute about when Dorothea
actually wrote her most famous poem, My Country. Some say it was
on her parents’ property and others that it was in London when she
was homesick for Australia. Here it is in her own handwriting which is
amazing and thrilling to me! We are also lucky to have this treasured book
hand-painted by Jessie Hilder. And what inspired the poem? To start with,
there was the breaking of the drought and the miracle of the green mist of
new grass on the farm. Core of my heart, my country!
Land of the rainbow gold, For flood and fire and famine
She pays us back threefold. Over the thirsty paddocks
Watch, after many days, The filmy veil of greenness
That thickens as we gaze. When England declared war on Germany in 1914
and Australia joined in, Dorothea immediately volunteered to work for the Red Cross with
her friend Ruth. And her diaries show a general interest in the politics of the time especially
since Australia was one of the first countries to give women the vote. And they note some of her romances
and even an engagement! But how do we really know what she thought about? It took a long time but finally a researcher
in this very library cracked Dorothea’s secret code. It revealed many of her inner thoughts
and feelings and, what is interesting to me, the importance of colour and the beauty of
wherever she was and whatever she was doing. [music] At home, Dorothea continued to write with
Ruth and they produced stories and plays and even performed those plays for the
Red Cross to raise money. But poetry was Dorothea’s main passion and
her collections of verse like The Closed Door and Dreamharbour were very popular. She belonged to literary clubs and was even one of the founders of the NSW Society of Women Writers that
still meets in this library 90 or more years on! In later years, Dorothea moved into Cintra, a house not far from here in Darling Point
Road and her brother Eric and friend Ruth came to live with her. And she
continued to write, her last poem being published in 1943. Friends
who were also writers and artists would visit like Ethel Turner, the author
of Seven Little Australians; the artist Pixie O’Harris; and Norman Lindsay who was famous
for his sculptures and drawings and his children’s book The
Magic Pudding. But in her later years Dorothea became quite
ill and kept to herself until her death in 1968 at the ripe old age of 82. I like the fact that the family gravesite
in Waverley Cemetery looks out on the changing colours
of the Pacific Ocean which is often a fierce blue. Because Dorothea Mackellar was held in
such high esteem as a poet, her favourite poem was read at the
grand state funeral held for her. It’s not her most famous poem My Country,
lovely though it is in every single verse, but something rather closer to Dorothea’s
heart, the lovely poem Colour. So I’ll leave you with it while here at the
State Library of NSW we continue to search thruough the treasures for our
series of Australian poets. The lovely things that I have watched unthinking,
Unknowing, day by day, That their soft dyes have steeped
my soul in colour That will not pass away – Great saffron sunset clouds,
and larkspur mountains, And fenceless miles of plain,
And hillsides golden-green in that unearthly Clear shining after rain; There is no night so black but
you shine through it! There is no morn so drear,
O Colour of the World, but I can find you, Most tender, pure and clear. [music]

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