Victorian Poetry 40.1 (2002) 7-20
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Marking The Unmarked:
An Epitaphic Preoccupation in Nineteenth-Century Australian Poetry
JUST OVER HALF A CENTURY AFTER VICTORIA'S ACCESSION TO THE THRONE, A London publisher issued an anthology that announced itself as "inspired by life in the Greater Britain under the Southern Cross" and "dedicated to the English of three continents." Running to nearly 600 pages, Douglas Sladen's anthology A Century of Australian Song provides a generous—not to say indiscriminate—sample of nineteenth-century antipodean verse, and has continued to be a reference point not only for historians of early Australian literary production but for poets as well. 1 As he explains in an introductory essay, the editor drew much of his selection from material sent directly to him in response to an open invitation published in weekly Australian and New Zealand newspapers. To his choices from those submissions he added some solicited items, a large helping of his own utterly banal compositions, and an assortment of poems by earlier writers. The anthology's limitations are obvious enough; as H. M. Green remarks, it includes "everything that Sladen thought worth dragging in on any conceivable ground" and the few accomplished poems "are submerged in a sea of what is at best mediocre even by the standards of the day and place." Nevertheless it is acknowledged to have "a definite historical importance," if only because it drew attention to the fact that Australian colonists were prolific producers of verse. 2
Themes of loss and lamentation pervade the volume. As a general feature this hardly makes it distinctive among Victorian collections of poetry. But in Sladen's book the melancholy motifs often take a specifically elegiac form, and tend to focus on particular memorials: even a cursory reader can hardly fail to notice that burial places recur obsessively as a topos. Given the intention to feature depictions of colonial "life and scenery" (p. 3), it seems remarkable that the locative traces of death and [End Page 7] mourning are so salient in the poems gathered here. The term "traces," however, should be understood in a broad sense; for while in some cases there is an evocation of specified commemorative spots, as in Barron Field's sonnet about the first European burial in Australia, other poems mark an absence in that they hover around the imagery of unmarked graves, as in Adam Lindsay Gordon's "The Sick Stockrider."
A Century of Australian Song contains many images of the "lonely grave" (pp. 43, 94), the "far-away grave" (p. 266), the "forsaken home and burial ground" (p. 78). "Who remembered where his dust was laid?" (p. 378) is a question that hangs over several of the dead. Often the place of interment is so isolated and nameless that the person who lies there is unidentifiable ("I stand by the grave of this unknown one" [p. 327]; "No human foot or paw of brute / Halts now where the stranger sleeps" [p. 266]). 3 There is a plangent insistence on the utter remoteness of these resting places, as in the poem by Henry Parkes called "The Mountain Grave" (pp. 370-371): "A lonely spot we chose for him— / Along the lonely path that led / Our footsteps to his lonely bed, / His corse we bore, with eyes all dim." Indeed a lonely unmarked grave is what dying speakers themselves are represented as earnestly desiring in some of these poems. In this there is of course a general similarity to some British poems of the period, such as Tennyson's "Come Not, When I am Dead" or Christina Rossetti's "Song" with its well-known opening lines: "When I am dead, my dearest, / Sing no sad songs for me; / Plant thou no roses at my head, / Nor shady cypress tree"), but the setting here is markedly Australian. In Adam Lindsay Gordon's "The Sick Stockrider" the title figure's last request is this: "Let me slumber in the hollow where the wattle blossoms wave, / With never stone or rail to fence my bed" (p. 180...