'The Life, the Loves, of That Dark Race': The Ethnographic Verse of Mid-Nineteenth-Century Australia

By O'Leary, John | Australian Literary Studies, April 2007 | Go to article overview

'The Life, the Loves, of That Dark Race': The Ethnographic Verse of Mid-Nineteenth-Century Australia


O'Leary, John, Australian Literary Studies


Writing in 1938, the Australian anthropologist W.E. Stanner noted that the thought, culture and even the literature of his country had scarcely been affected by the life and death of its indigenous people. 'There are no epics on the last of the tribes', he stated, adding that in general Australian culture had remained almost innocent of any touch which was Aboriginal in origin or derivation ('The Aborigines' 2-4). Aboriginal people, he later concluded, had been subject to 'something like a cult of forgetfulness practiced on a national scale' ('After the Dreaming' 214).

Stanner's judgment was not entirely accurate. Some Australian writers had dealt with Aboriginal themes in the years before the Second World War. An example is Mary Gilmore, whose collections of verse The Wild Swan (1930) and Under the Wilgas (1932) contained a number of poems dealing with Aboriginal subject matter. 'I tried to point out what Australia has lost in distinctive literature in not using the aborigines and aboriginal lore, with their native customs and words', she wrote (Wild Swan 36 note). In poems such as 'Where Now Is Bribenabooka?' and 'Our Lost Field' Gilmore referred to Dreamtime legends to underscore her ubi sunt theme (Wild Swan 32-33; 36).

Affecting as Gilmore's poems are, they do not constitute the 'epics' whose absence Stanner noted. Such epics do exist, but to find them one has to go back to the mid-nineteenth century, to colonial poets who lived several generations before Gilmore. These poets produced a distinctive kind of verse about Aboriginal people, one I have termed ethnographic verse. Though mentioned in passing in the standard literary histories, this curious sub-genre has received little serious critical attention and is today largely forgotten. (1) Such a lacuna is damaging, for it limits our understanding of the cultural interaction between Australian settler society and Aboriginal people, at a time when colonial race relations are the subject of intense scrutiny. The fact that ethnographic verse raises complex questions about representation and agency should not deter us from reading it and attempting to assess its significance.

A curious sub-genre

Ethnographic verse was a loose, heterogenous sub-genre that mixed poetry with anthropology, or ethnology as Victorians called it. Its subject was the life of Aboriginal people before, or during the very first phase of, European colonisation--the 'life, the loves, of that dark race' as one writer, George Rusden, put it (Moyarra 84). In mixing literature and science, ethnographic verse, though unusual, was not unique--early scientific texts such as Lucretius' De Rerum Natura had been in verse, while at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, Erasmus Darwin had published several poems on scientific subjects. Two generations later, in colonial Australia, it was still thought possible to use poetry to convey scientific information. Literature and science were not opposed as they are today, with anthropology in particular having not yet formulated itself as a science.

Ethnographic verse in Australia fell into two broad types. There were tribal dramas, which described the life of pre-European Aboriginal people in the course of narrating a story of love, death and revenge. These stories could be based on genuine Aboriginal anecdotes or stories, or they could merely imitate them, making use of selected Aboriginal elements to give the poem an Aboriginal 'feel'. Authentic as these stories often were, they tended to be treated in a highly sentimental, melodramatic manner.

Different in character were the retellings of tribal legends or Dreamtime myths, or as much of these as Aboriginal people were prepared to communicate to uninitiated listeners. These poems usually included a description of the life of the tribe to whom the legend or myth belonged, but they did not contain the melodramatic plot found in the tribal dramas. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

'The Life, the Loves, of That Dark Race': The Ethnographic Verse of Mid-Nineteenth-Century Australia
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.