Women Poets of the Victorian Forests

Article excerpt

In the nineteenth century a distinctive group of seven women poets flourished in eastern Victoria. All spent their early years in forested hill country similar to that of the Dandenongs near Melbourne. They were in the main from families of pioneering settlers and traders.

Nellie Clerk (1855-1907) took up a selection block with her husband near Korumburra in south Gippsland. She began to write poems for the Mirboo Herald, and the paper published her collection Songs from the Gippsland Forests in 1887. Her poems were praised by the English litterateur Douglas Sladen in his anthologies of Australian literature published in London in 1888, but were little known in Australia at that time.

Marie Pitt (1869-1948) grew up on the goldfields north of Bairnsdale. After marriage she moved to the mining towns of the Tasmanian west coast and then to Melbourne, where she became a journalist with radical views. She wrote poems about all the places she had lived in.

Mary Fullerton (1868-1946) spent her childhood on her parents selection block at Glenmaggie, north of Heyfield, where the Australian Alps flatten out onto the plain. She published four books of poetry in her lifetime, the first two Moods and Melodies (1908) and The Breaking Furrow (1921) being based on her early days, as is her classic autobiography of an Australian childhood, Bark House Days (1921). She moved to Melbourne and spent most of her adult life in England.

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Marion Miller Knowles (1865-1949) was the daughter of a gold agent at Woods' Point. Early on she became a teacher, and during her lifetime she wrote ten volumes of verse on the hill country of eastern Victoria. Some of it, as indicated by the title of one of her volumes Fronds from the Black Spur (1911) is based on the ranges in the Healesville area. She lived in Melbourne after she married, and like Marie Pitt worked as a journalist there.

Grace 'Jennings' Carmichael (1867-1904) was the daughter of the manager of a pastoral run at Orbost. She moved to Melbourne as a nurse and published verse on her Gippsland days under the name of Jennings Carmichael. She travelled to England after her marriage, where she died from the effects of poverty and starvation. An Irish-Australian member of the English House of Commons, J.F. Hogan had her verse published in book form as Poems in 1895.

The Temple sisters Hilda Temple Kerr (1874-1956) and Mabel Stewart Temple (1871-1892) also grew up im Orbost. A joint book of their verse entitled Australian Poetry was published in 1905. Mabel died young, and Hilda married a doctor, Dr. Kerr, and was prominent in Orbost life.

All seven women were born in the same generation (between 1855 and 1874) and inherited the tradition of lyric nature verse begun by the early Australian poets, Charles Harpur and Henry Kendall, who flourished in similar fern gully country in coastal and mountain country in New South Wales. But the seven poets are only a group in the sense that they wrote similar verse. They grew up in isolation from the literary world generally and without knowledge of each other, with the exception of the Temple sisters who are likely to have known Grace Carmichael at Orbost. The remarkable thing is that they produced such similar verse.

The women poets admired the beauty and tranquility of the bush. Its unspoiled nature reflected the innocent state of their childhood days. The bush was the place where they came to meditate and ruminate, and it induced in them a quasi-religious state of awe and serenity. These poets loved wandering through the bush and gradually falling into a trance like state of poetry inducing reverie. Their mood was uplifted by the great trees, which relieved a vague feeling of despondency which enveloped them. They saw the tall trees as majestic and unbending, a pointer to the eternal, towering above their own mundane strivings. …