John Oxenham WWI poet

You have to be a historian to appreciate the dichotomy between what was valued in the past and what we have chosen to keep of it now, which of course, will be reevaluated by future generations ad infinitum. Books and writing bring it home all the time. Who’s heard of John Oxenham? And yes, he is the father of the famous children’s writer, Elsie Oxenham. History has left us with ‘the war poets’, a select group whose writing about WWI is currently how we like to see it. But what about back then? In this period as we are reflecting on the first of the big twentieth century wars, might it not be apt to remember it as those who lived through it remembered it?

And if that’s the case, then it isn’t Siegfried you should be reading, it is Oxenham. His poetry sold over one million copies during the war and his hymn, ‘For Men at the Front’, sold at least five million copies, that being the most conservative estimate.

For The Men At The Front

Lord God of Hosts, whose mighty hand
Dominion holds on sea and land,
In Peace and War Thy Will we see
Shaping the larger liberty.
Nations may rise and nations fall,
Thy Changeless Purpose rules them all.

When Death flies swift on wave or field,
Be Thou a sure defence and shield!
Console and succour those who fall,
And help and hearten each and all!
O, hear a people’s prayers for those
Who fearless face their country’s foes!

For those who weak and broken lie,
In weariness and agony–
Great Healer, to their beds of pain
Come, touch, and make them whole again!
O, hear a people’s prayers, and bless
Thy servants in their hour of stress!

For those to whom the call shall come
We pray Thy tender welcome home.
The toil, the bitterness, all past,
We trust them to Thy Love at last.
O, hear a people’s prayers for all
Who, nobly striving, nobly fall!

To every stricken heart and home,
O, come! In tenderest pity, come!
To anxious souls who wait in fear,
Be Thou most wonderfully near!
And hear a people’s prayers, for faith
To quicken life and conquer death!

For those who minister and heal,
And spend themselves, their skill, their zeal–
Renew their hearts with Christ-like faith,
And guard them from disease and death.
And in Thine own good time, Lord, send
Thy Peace on earth till Time shall end!

and here, from his best-selling – though he had to publish it at his own expense as his publishers didn’t want to – book Bees in Amber


He writes in characters too grand
For our short sight to understand;
We catch but broken strokes, and try
To fathom all the mystery
Of withered hopes, of death, of life,
The endless war, the useless strife,—
But there, with larger, clearer sight,
We shall see this—His way was right.

This is how people lived and died during WWI, with the words of Oxenham providing the meaning, the reassurance to make the unbearable bearable. We should not forget this.

Caroline Carleton – South Australian poet

As I’ve mentioned, I’m looking at Australian poets in the period mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries because we seem to be listing lots at the moment, and difficult lives is a common theme, particularly for the women.

Each has a unique story, and yet each is nonetheless typical in the struggles and privations experienced. For over 150 years now Carleton is remembered as the creator of the lyrics for one song, its impact being sufficiently longlasting that it came close to becoming our national anthem, losing out to ‘Advance Australia’. She won a handsome sum of money for her efforts and given that she had a gainfully employed husband, one might be forgiven for thinking ‘pin money’ then. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Caroline Carleton

Caroline had married in England and a few years later in 1839, with two young children, they boarded a ship to take them to a new life in Adelaide. Both children died during the voyage, the horrors of which I don’t think we can even imagine. Her husband had been a medical student when they married and never finished his studies. Perhaps this is reflected in his dizzy progression from job to job in Adelaide, which wiki describes thus:

After a few false starts making cordials, castor oil, and other commodities, Charles (who never completed his degree) became around 1844 medical dispenser to the Colonial Surgeon, Mr. James George Nash F.R.C.S. They may have resided at the Adelaide Hospital, where Caroline had two more children. In 1842 he was assayer with Alexander Tolmer’s expedition to Mount Alexander which subsequently escorted a quarter of a ton of gold to Adelaide. In 1845 he and a Dr. Davy built a trial lead-smelting furnace. In 1847 they moved to Kapunda, where Charles was employed as assayer and perhaps as medical officer.

In 1849 they returned to Adelaide, where he opened a chemist’s shop at 37 Hindley Street, then in August 1851 to ca.51 Rundle Street. He visited the gold diggings at Forest Creek, Victoria, perhaps working as an assayer and gold buyer, and returned to his Rundle Street shop with new advertising directed at miners. The shop was taken over early in 1853 by James Parkinson and throughout 1853 to May 1854 he was selling bottled English porter and stout at Blyth’s Building, Hindley Street.

He was returning officer for Grey Ward in the 1855 Census.

He took a position as superintendent of the West Terrace Cemetery in November 1855.

He may have taken on the position, but it was Caroline who did the work. He spent his time ill and then dying. It was towards the end of this period that she wrote ‘The Song of Australia’ under the name of Nil Desperandum. Surely, if you have heart strings, reading that tugs at them, doesn’t it? We read in a recollection of Carleton written in 1922, that the clergymen of Adelaide petitioned the government to permit her to continue on the work she had been doing for her husband, but the plea was declined. If her son has been old enough, it could have been awarded to him and she could have done it for him – or for any male – but not on her own account.

And so the government officials of Adelaide made the decision that Carleton should be a desperate mother of 5 children with no means of supporting them other than selling poetry. She set up a school – as was another common ploy of destitute educated women in the colonies – indeed, we recall the relatively successful example of MJ Franc in South Australia – but found it hard going and so we see her next in the court notices of the newspapers of the day:

South Australian Register
Thursday 8 August 1867 ‘The Undersigned, CAROLINE CARLETON, of North-terrace, Adelaide, Schoolmistress, do hereby declare that I am unable to meet my engagements with my Creditors. Dated at the hour of half-past two o’clock in the afternoon, this seventh day of August, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-seven.’
Wednesday 28 August 1867 She is one of a long list of paupers listed to appear in court for insolvency.
Wednesday 18 September 1867 She is too ill to present herself to the insolvency court and so her case was adjourned.
Wednesday 9 October 1867 ‘In that of Caroline Carleton, the insolvent was again absent, aud the Official Assignee was empowered to issue a warrant for her arrest if he thought proper.’ and the same day:
Wednesday 9 October 1867 ‘In re Caroline Carleton, late of North-terrace, schoolmistress; an adjourned final hearing. Mr J. W. Downer for the insolvent. The insolvent did not appear, and after a few remarks by His Honor animadverting on her contemptuous treat ment of the Court, the Official Assignee was em powered to issue a warrant for her arrest if he thought fit.’
Wednesday 23 October 1867 In the matter of Caroline Carleton, the insolvent was awarded a second-class certificate without suspension.

She struggled on with her notion of opening schools and died utterly exhausted in her early fifties.

The Mail
Saturday September 1, 1934 published the following about Carleton written by Beatrice Bevan who I understand to have been a critic and poet.

Authoress of ‘The Song of Australia’

WHEN an Act of Parliament created the Colonisation Commission of South Australia to deal with the new colony’s settlement on lines worked out in Newgate by the notorious lawyer abductor of heiresses, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, there was in the house of the Gordon’s at Layal in the Azores, the baby who was later to come to South Australia and to be acclaimed ‘Australia’s National Poet’ and, in England was the girl who was to be the authoress of ‘The Song of Australia.’ ‘ Caroline was the daughter of William Baynes of Bonner’s Hall, near London. At 18 she mar ried Charles James Carleton, of an old English family, and a few years later left with him and their two little children for South Australia.. It was a sad voyage, for their two children died, but soon after reaching the new land Mr. Carle- ton was given a medical appointment in Ade- laide, and later, at the Kapunda mines. He had studied medicine in England, and intended some time to return and fully qualify for his degree. Prospects in South Australia were bright. Mr. Carleton bought up land at Glenelg, and opened a chemist shop.

THEN came the financial crisis. The Government was practically insolvent, and so were many individuals. Mr. Carleton was urged to go through the insolvency court, as others were doing. He and his wife decided somehow to meet their liabi- lities, without taking that step, and they did so, though with a young family to provide for, the struggle was too much for Mr. Carleton’s never too robust health. He was given the position of Superintendent of Cemeteries, not too cheerful an occupation, and too much work for his health. Caroline Carleton did the work in his name, and it was under these conditions that she wrote our ‘Song of Australia.’ which won the prize given by the Gawler Institute on the occasion of its second anniversary. Herr Carl Linger won the prize for the musical setting. On Mr. Carleton’s death the Governor was petitioned to allow her to keep on the work she had been doing in her husband’s name. There was objection to the position being held by a woman. Her son was too young for it to be in his name, so she lost it. She then began to teach. but. though her bright spirit remained indomitable to the end, she had reached the limit of physical resistance. She caught a chill was unable to teach, and went to live at Wal laroo with a daughter who had a school there. She died in 1874, four years after Adam Lindsay Gordon, died in Victoria. IN the Wallaroo Cemetery is the obelisk of polished red granite, set on a square base. One side has a scroll on which is inscribed:— ‘In memory of Mrs. Carlton, authoress of The Song of Australia.’ who was interred in this cemetery on July 12, 1874. Aged 54 years; Erected by her admirers. November. 1923.’ The baby from Layal has been acclaimed ‘Australia’s National Poet.’ and has the niche next to Lord Tennyson (another link with South Australian history) in the Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey. How shall we honor Caroline Carleton? By making her song the national song of Australia?

I’ve started thinking – too much perhaps – about the bravery of these women who came to Australia, leaving behind their families, their safety, their homes. To what extent was their poetry the thing that made it bearable for them? Carleton wrote this, a regular theme of these women who came to this utterly alien primitive place on edge of the world, while life was utterly desperate.

Oh, say not that no perfume dwells
The wilding flowers among;
Say not that in the forest dells
Is heard no voice of song.
The air is laden with the scent
Borne from the clustering flower
With which the wattle is besprent,
Like Danae’s golden shower.
And silvery wattles bending low
Sweet incense scatter far,
When light winds kiss the pensile bough
Beneath the evening star.
And forest flowers of varying dye,
Now white, now blushing red,
In modest beauty charm the eye,
And fragrant odours shed.

There’s perfume breathed from Austral flowers,
And melody is there —
Not such as in far Albion’s bowers,
Falls on the accustomed ear.
But thrilling snatches of wild song,
Poured forth from lonely glen,
Where winds the hidden creek along,
Far from the haunts of men.
And hoarser notes in wild woods heard
Sound like strange harmonies,
As flashes past the bright winged bird,
Gleaming in azure skies.
Then say not that no perfume dwells
The wilding flowers among.
Say not that in the forest dells
Is heard no voice of song.

They were able to elevate themselves above the shitty drudgery of life in exile and elevate their readers at the same time. Thousands of people turned out to remember Carleton on Centenary day in Adelaide, 13 March 1936. In the mid-1970s when the competition was held to decide the new national anthem, Carleton’s Song of Australia was one of only three which were seriously considered. There is no entry for her in the Australian Dictionary of Biography. There is one for the man who composed the music. When you read it, you might keep in mind that the only reason that there is a remembrance to him, created in the 1930s was because one was built for Carleton.

Carleton’s most famous legacy

Australian poetry and RD Fitzgerald

Reading a couple of books set in Iceland recently – not least of which is Burial Rites – it is hard not to be struck by the common theme of poetry making. Is there something about isolation and poetry that go together? Is that why poetry is all but dead, is it simply the consequence of living in a world with no aloneness, no solitary moments left in which to construct these little word puzzles?

And is it the isolation of Australia, in more than one way, which made it such a commonplace for so long here, the writing of poetry? I’m listing many slim (as is the wont of poetry books) volumes by men and women from the mid-1800s to mid-1900s or thereabouts, at which point, the art began to be neglected, and then forgotten.

RD Fitzgerald, a poet of international repute, was a champion of the idea that poetry was a common thing, something people did. In his “Cinderella and others” (the text of which I lift here from, though it does not credit its source) he says:

We had finished work and were driving along the waterfront at Bondi, hot, dry, dusty. I was watching out to the right for the nearest pub. Tom had already caught sight of one and was looking for a place to park. Bill in the back of the car, sandwiched between the theodolite legs and a chaff-bag full of pegs, was as thirsty as either of us; but his mind was not on the pub, it was with his eyes on the sea. What he said was:

Prettiest thing I know is a wave breaking.
Same with a fire; I can watch a fire till it burns me.

Bill will probably never know that he is a poet, as every man is, nor that, as every man does when the poet in him is moved, he spoke in verse.

Few of us have Bill’s gift, which makes him such good company, of co-ordinating moments of heightened realisation or perception with instantaneous aptness of words; and consequently few of us ever speak such good verse as those two lines. Technicians and Leaving Certificate candidates will observe how the second line, closely matching and balancing the first in some respects, and subtly contrasting with it in others, is its perfect complement. They will rightly ignore a brief hiatus in syntax and will appreciate the slow tempo with the change of image, the economy of expression, the unforced use of inversion, and the quiet but telling emphasis of the conclusion.

Poetry is a natural language for anything that requires to be conveyed from mind to mind a little more movingly, a little more directly, a little more nakedly than by the ordinary medium of speech. It is that Cinderella which dances on ahead of our thoughts on feet which that part of us which is princely may, with luck, fit a glass slipper to, but which pedantry is not likely to squeeze into stock size: “These are the latest in iambics, madam.”

By a complicated and very scholarly process grave counsellors, trudging laboriously after the prince and examining the churned mud at the cross-roads have become conscious of some of the prints left by the little bare feet he follows; so that we hear much about “sprung rhythm”, “prose rhythms”, “speech-inflections”, as if such verse as Bill’s were an invention of this century; as if the theorists, for all their learned airs, are unaware Beowulf ever dipped whiskers in mead.

Among both the learned and the not so learned it is accepted that poetry can be the language of the emotions; what does not gain such ready acceptance is that poetry is a living language whose syllables fall naturally into verse. And yet both these effects may be illustrated simultaneously by the easy experiment of dropping a weight on your toe. Any really prolonged and heartfelt profanity may lack originality but its imagery is elaborately fantastic; and it invariably scans.

Due to some misunderstanding of these very simple principles verse is considered difficult. Some modern poets have surrendered to this belief by writing not free-verse, which is legitimate, but outright prose; though as an act of appeasement to conventions which they affect to despise they saw it unceremoniously into lengths; and some have contributed to the belief by being as unintelligible as possible. It is an illogical belief nevertheless; for written verse is always far more carefully constructed than prose; the ideas are more carefully set out; the words are more carefully selected; the very spacing of the lines relieves the eye and assists the mind in following the sense.

Verse was once more widely used than it is now. Satires, essays, moral discourses, even scientific theses matters which have little in common with real poetry have been written in verse for the sake of its greater clarity and simplicity. But now even blank-verse plays, Shakespeare’s included, are considered unnatural; as if even were that true there were no room in the theatre for anything but the rigidly realistic.

Admittedly there are prose passages in Hamlet more effectively constructed and emotionally stronger than the regular verse – an astounding fact when it is considered how admirable the verse is; but this anomaly was recently removed by an astute critic who showed that Hamlet’s prose may be rearranged as verse of a type slightly more “advanced” than is normal with Shakespeare.

As a final example of poetry as natural language, I recall a quatrain, the last line of which was a real remark, uttered with such sincere thankfulness for small and large blessings that with all its superficial incongruity it fell into strict metre; whereupon, as might have been expected, the other lines wrote themselves spontaneously:

Our debts become deeper; our troubles grow thicker;
We’re broke to the wide; we’ve no diamonds or cars;
But we still can buy food and occasionally liquor,
And how good that our lavatory faces the stars!

There is in everyday life much that is difficult, much that is a weariness of the spirit, much that is sordid. But there is still the wave breaking, and there are still the stars. How good, how good indeed!

Elegantly put, as befits one who wrote poetry all his life.

What strikes me, as I list these small books of observations, thoughts and feelings is that they aren’t written by poets, they are written by people. Fitzgerald himself was a surveyor in a long line of surveyors. Others are teachers, farmers, orphanage administrators, lecturers, writers, blind, disabled, atheletes, real estate agents, footballers, servicemen, priests, counter-cultural dropouts, travelling salesmen, politicians, suffragists, solicitors, builders and bookshop managers. They are wives and husbands, parents, children. They are often sick and poor. What they share, their common bond, is that all these people needed to make their contribution to the ‘never-ending conversation about the meaning of life’ in this way. Their poetry is their mirror to the world.