Victorian Poetry 40.1 (2002) 33-53
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A "Lonely Crossing":
Approaching Nineteenth-Century Australian Women's Poetry
IN APPROACHING WOMEN'S POETRY PRODUCED IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY Australia, one still undertakes a "lonely crossing." Difficulties are encountered in not only locating "poetical remains" but in beginning to theorize its value both in terms of Victorian or feminist criticism and through a framework which takes account of the specific cultural context in which such poetry emerged. The nineteenth century would see rapid changes in how writers perceived Australia, with shifts in constructions of it as an outpost or prisonhouse of the Empire to an increasingly self-determined identity leading up to Federation in 1901. Excluded from the vision of a distinctive national literature as promoted by contemporaries like Charles Harpur, Henry Kendall, and Adam Lindsay Gordon, women poets were generally consigned to a separate and, significantly, secondary order. Like their British counterparts, they were expected to focus on familial or devotional themes, reflecting their principal identity as mothers and the moral arbiters of a burgeoning society. Furthermore, in being perceived to offer a heightened emotional transparency, their work was valued predominantly in terms of feeling. The sphere of the imagination and of lasting immortality was a masculine domain, the latter achieved by memorializing the epoch-making events of explorers or the pioneer experience.
One consequence of male writers dominating the historical or the epic poem was that women poets were elided in the construction of an Australian literary heritage. If their poems were anthologized, it was because they presented the image of the feminine helpmeet or celebrated the bush idyll. More often than not, they were simply overlooked, then forgotten. Even feminist critics of the late twentieth century directed their energies to recovering nineteenth-century novelists, finding in that genre a more accessible form and—as a more acceptable genre for women's writing [End Page 33] —the results of a potentially greater freedom for expression. The work of the early women poets remained enclosed within the pages of colonial newspapers or in the odd posthumous volume that found its way to a library by virtue of being part of a greater book collection. Such traces are hard to find, having frequently been published under a husband's name, a pseudonym, or anonymously.
While on the one hand I wish to reconstruct a female poetic tradition of nineteenth-century Australia, I would also like to complicate its grounding. Rather than read these women's texts as simply expressing gender difference through specific themes or images (such as transformation, entrapment, and escape), I want to do so through a cultural lens. How might their writing reflect as well as negotiate their positioning as women and as writers in colonial territory? Nineteenth-century Australian women often experienced a far greater sense of transitoriness than their European counterparts: beyond the usual transformations through life such as marriage, childbirth, and death, they also experienced a further sense of instability brought about by migration, travel, and cultural isolation. Lastly, they were positioned in relation to two cultures that were historically connected but distinct in important ways. As Fiona Giles points out, the female subject in the Australian colonies was constructed as "other" to the normative categories of nationality, gender, and sometimes class embodied by the English gentleman. 1 However, she was also emerging as culturally different at a point where the details and limits of this otherness were being contested.
Australian women poets explored this shiftingness, sometimes crossing between issues of gender, nation, and the word in the same text. One of the earliest women poets in Australia was Eliza Hamilton Dunlop, who published a number of poems under the heading "Songs of an Exile." Her own longing for her native Ireland was projected onto the fate of the dispossessed Aboriginal people. In 1838, Dunlop wrote "The Aboriginal Mother" in response to press debates concerning the fate of twelve white stockmen on trial for murdering about thirty Aborigines, many of them women and children, near Myall Creek in northern New South Wales. Against the view...