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38. Pitt, Marie E. J. (Marie Elizabeth Josephine), 1869-1948.
Selected poems of Marie E.J. Pitt / foreword by W.F. Wannan. (Melbourne : Lothian, 1944)
Virginia Woolf once wrote of Edwardian works that “in order to complete them it seems necessary to do something—to join a society, or, more desperately, write a cheque”.54 At times, Marie Pitt’s poetry provokes precisely this feeling. Yet Pitt remains one of Australia’s most powerful protest poets, mobilising a forthright and colourful rhetoric to stir readers into action. Both Woolf and Pitt focus their attention on material change for women and the need for women to develop their full potential. Both saw education and freedom from domestic tyranny as the key to achieving this goal. Yet while Woolf advocated finding a room of one’s own and five hundred pounds a year—an unrealistic goal for most middle-class women, let alone the working class—Pitt warned against the dangers of an over-prolific motherhood. Her work was populist, seeking out readers who had little leisure time and whose knowledge of the world was drawn primarily from the newspaper. She employed familiar poetic forms like the ballad, the song, and the sonnet to rally readers, in a similar way that the song and manifesto were used by racially and economically disempowered groups in the early to mid twentieth century.
Like Mary Gilmore, she saw motherhood as the central defining fact of gender difference. Yet, Pitt understood that middle-class women were further interpellated through bourgeois capitalism, resulting in different priorities, sometimes even a different morality, to their working-class counterparts. Her voice could be considered outspoken for a woman, even in an era where women were entering and informing public debates. Unlike Gilmore’s more monitored feminine tone, Pitt’s bold complaint and insistence to be heard were viewed by many as “masculine”.
Born in 1869 in Bulumall in north-east Gippsland, Pitt experienced a rough pioneering childhood. As the eldest of seven children, it fell to her to walk the mile or so to the local hotel and procure whisky for her goldmining father, “Wild Ned”.55 She married a goldminer who later contracted miners’ phthisis. Her best-known poem, “The Keening,” was written in response to the mining company’s refusal to pay the Pitts any compensation. In it, she describes the harsh conditions of the mining work, of men choking on the “’fracteur” fumes, “’stoping’ the stubborn matrix,” and “stifling in torrid ‘rises’”. Alliteration—emphasising poetic language’s breath and aesthetic orientation—is set against the grim loss of workers’ breath. For Pitt, the mining bosses were in league with the men of government, “fat blasphemers” sacrificing men in the name of capitalism. Pitt assumes the collective Othered “we” in vowing vengeance for the “life-blood” that has been spilled:
We are the women and children
Of the men that ye mowed like wheat;
Some of us slave for a pittance—
Some of us walk the street;
Bodies and souls, ye have scourged us;
Yet have winnowed us flesh from bone:
But, by the God ye have flouted,
We will come again for our own!
Throughout her husband’s illness, Marie was the primary breadwinner, editing The Socialist. In 1912, William Pitt died, leaving Marie with three children to raise. He was still only in his forties. Marie would become increasingly closer to fellow poet and socialist, Bernard O’Dowd and in 1920 they created a scandal when O’Dowd left his wife and five children to set up house with Marie and her children.
39. Wright, Judith, 1915-2000
The Moving Image: Poems / by Judith Wright. (Melbourne: Meanjin Press, 1946).
Judith Wright was born into one of the premier pastoral families of New South Wales. She attended Sydney University and then travelled to Europe. Between 1943 and 1947, she lived in Brisbane where she helped out with Meanjin Papers by performing unpaid secretarial tasks. Through the Meanjin office, she met her future husband, Jack McKinney. The Moving Image (1946) was her first published collection of poetry and was a critical success. It contains some of her best-known poems like “Bullocky” (which was widely taught in schools) and its title poem reflects the influence of McKinney’s philosophies.
40. Shaw, Winifred Maitland, 1905-6- ?
The aspen tree and other verses / by Winifred Maitland Shaw. (Sydney : Tyrrell's, 1920)
Shaw, Winifred Maitland, 1905-6-?
Babylon / by Winifred Shaw ; decorations by Hugh McCrae. (Sydney : Art in Australia, 1924)
Winifred Shaw was heralded as something of a child genius, having produced an accomplished collection of poetry by the age of fourteen. It is worth noting the changes in the way her work was marketed. In the first collection, The Aspen Tree and Other Verses, she is pictured in the opening pages as the innocent schoolgirl. Only four years later, a subsequent book, Babylon, reveals the influence of the Lindsay circle and touches on social degeneration and decadence.
41. Cross, Zora, 1890-1964.
Songs of love and life / by Zora Cross. New and enl. ed. (Sydney : Angus & Robertson, 1917)
In 1918, Zora Cross’s career was at its zenith. Her popularity was such that, as Michael Sharkey notes, her name “was fashionably given to children born in subsequent years, and even bestowed upon a race horse”.56 Her best-known volume, Songs of Love and Life, with its erotic sonnets provided a new register for young Australian women searching for ways to articulate their sexual desire. Initially, Bertram Stevens approached George Robertson with the manuscript but Robertson was not interested in the proposition. He attributed this initial reaction to “the mood I happened to be in” and “the fact that the lady’s mother was willing to ‘put up’ part of the cost (almost invariably a bad sign)”.57 Mary Cross ended up financing the first edition of Songs of Love and Life in late 1917.58 It sold out in forty-eight hours. The second edition was picked up by Robertson, who began viewing Zora as a modern-day Currer Bell. Robertson’s opinion was reinforced by Christopher Brennan’s report on the manuscript. Making a number of detailed comments on various sonnets, Brennan noted that he would not have been quite so thorough were it not that he felt that he had before him “the real stuff of poetry”. Zora’s sonnets sometimes reminded him “without any copying, without any reminiscence—of the best sonnet-writers, from Rossetti back to Shakespeare”. Yet while she had an unbridled talent and “astounding” mastery of the sonnet-form, there were also “astounding lapses”.59
The collection contains two quite different sets of poems, a series of girlhood poems and the love sonnets. In the former, girlhood is a state separate from the realities of the modern world. They echo the poetry of Mabel Forrest and Dorothea Mackellar in being filled with witchery, spells, faerys, and fayness. Yet for Zora, the language of enchantment provides a way through which a girl’s sexuality may be spoken. It is no coincidence that sexual pleasure is covert in both “Girl-Gladness” and “The New Moon,” being represented as truant activity and a secret evening tryst. In “Memory,” Zora reveals the girl and the woman as ‘moments’ of the one subject. Full of “childish charms,” an eight year old asks the older version of herself, “Now have you been a good, good girl? Have you had much spanking since you were Me?” The older self evades her question, “For I’ve earned more spanks than I dared to tell”. While “Eight must never see Twenty-three,” she provides a way through which Zora can hint at the more adult pleasures gained from being bad.
In contrast to the girl-poems, the volume’s central group of poems, the sixty “Love
Sonnets” do away with concealment. Sonnet XXX advocates a free love ethos:
Ah Love, back to realities we rush
Over each lidless dream, as boys to play.
Fancies and thoughts may blossom any day
But Youth has only once her early flush.
Age trammels us, and all her threshers crush
Passion, delight, and beauty into clay;
Time broods upon the bosom of the bay
Holding his finger with an ancient “Hush”.
So while we are both young, while my breasts well
Tingling to you, and life is mostly fire—
Warm blood, and warmer throb of pulse and kiss—
Strive not our happy passions to dispel.
Love…Love…until our bodies both transpire,
For growing old, we must forswear such bliss.
In bringing both kinds of poems together in the one collection, Zora draws an inevitable comparison between the freedom of affection that girlhood allows and the bohemian desires more associated with the New Woman. Their difference is revealed to be of discursive degree: girlish sexual desire is described as “gladness” rather than “bliss,” a girl merely “cuddles” rather than indulging in a clinging embrace.
42. Hirst, A. D. (Amy D.)
Through the gates / by A.D. Hirst. (Sydney : Tyrrell's Limited, 1921)
On her way to England in 1910, Nettie Palmer met Amy and Hetty Hirst, who she wrote of being “wonderful friends—brother & sister, lovers may be—without demonstration or anything unnatural”. Nettie became particularly close to Amy, describing her to Vance as
very sweet, quite the most original human on the boat, I think. She has rather short hair, not from any “mannish” intention assuredly, & it happens to suit her wonderfully, with her light, frank poise & eyes like wells of blue lights. She is little & sometimes looks like a rather eerie child, but she has a strong, understanding face, too.
She concludes, “I think you’d like her a whole lot”. Like Nettie, Amy also had poetic
aspirations and on the journey, they wrote verses to each other, “‘Larboat Lyrics’ & ‘Starboard Spasms,’” which Nettie explained were “quite serious when you get inside”.
Amy would die prematurely in 1920, her life “cut short by disease brought on through unwearied exertion in an inclement climate on behalf of the soldiers of Britain and Australia”.60 Besides discussing literature, Nettie and Amy shared their thoughts on sexuality with Amy declaring herself neuter. Nettie was much taken by this idea and later declared to Vance, “Sometimes I wish I had no gender but it is not entirely unmanageable”.61 Amy’s posthumous collection of poetry, Through the Gates (1921), gives some insight into Amy’s state of mind. While she herself is described on the opening page as “Poet—painter—psychic,” the volume depicts a division between the “Dayself” and the “Night-soul”, with reference too, to a “Dreamself”. Nettie explained to Vance, “By the way, this girl, Amy Hirst, can write—queer, vivid transcripts of subconscious states…all lateral renderings of dream places that she & another know”.62 The beloved Other referred to in Amy’s verse is addressed as “Pussy” and Through the Gates suggests a sexual identity that is subterranean, shadowy, and mystical. She would note the difficulty of “thinking Night-life into language” when “Daywords” as square and “cornery”. There is also plenty of reference to colour, Hirst referring to “True Colours” which leave no Shadow “but only the clear colour-glory of the Outline”. True-Colours also include sound.
Transformations in life, including the transition between Life and Death are called “Colour-Changes”. Hirst was also a painter and a number of her pictures are in Through the Gates.
43. Prichard, Katharine Susannah, 1883-1969.
The earth lover and other verses / by Katharine Susannah Prichard ; with decorations by Eileen McGrath. (Sydney : Sunnybrook Press, 1932)
Following the success of Zora Cross, Katharine Susannah Prichard explored female eroticism in her collection, The Earth Lover and Other Verses:
That o’er me rove,
So swelling soft
And smelling lie the rose,
Lips of my love! My love!
Lips of the bee
And fall from clinging,
Drunk with bliss!
That to me prove
But a chalice, white
For your delight
My love, my love!
Oh, I am faint
When your lips hang on mine,
And there is ecstasy
In their mute questing,
They are gentle
As the brooding dove,
Fierce as twin birds of prey,
Lips of my love! My love!
Here, Prichard’s narrator is a pure, previously unread recipient of male attention (a “white chalice”) rather than the initiating subject. For Prichard, the woman still experiences intimacy as submersion in a powerful male Other. Nevertheless, she makes public the private sphere of woman’s love, creating a further redaction or variant of the “New Woman”.
Flat Case 2
Writing and travel both represent forms of escape and while women and proper femininity have routinely been associated with the home and with staying “at home”, as the century unfolded mobility became an increasing possibility for middle class women. Indeed, women’s increased mobility can be read as a sign of modernity. Longer and shorter periods overseas mark the biographies of writers such as Miles Franklin, Christina Stead, Marjorie Barnard, Katharine Susannah Prichard, and Nettie Palmer. Travel provided women with opportunities to observe, describe, catalogue, reflect and report on what they had witnessed. And, as Stirling Armstrong, the novelist character at the centre of M. Barnard Eldershaw’s shipboard novel The Glasshouse (1936) shows (see item 60 below), travel also provided those stretches of time so conducive to writing. The works collected here are not formal guides intended for use by other travellers; they are travellers’ tales that offer vicarious pleasures for the armchair traveller, a political education for the curious or early lessons in environmental consciousness.
44. Devanny, Jean, 1894-1962.
By tropic sea and jungle: Adventures in North Queensland. (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1944)
A series of essays on aspects of life in tropical north Queensland, an area of Australia that Jean Devanny knew well and loved. However, as Devanny’s biographer Carole Ferrier noted, Devanny — a well-known Communist activist — was under constant police surveillance as she travelled around the region recording and documenting life there for this collection.
45. Prichard, Katharine Susannah, 1883-1969.
The Real Russia by Katherine [sic] Suzanne [sic] Prichard. (Sydney? : Modern Publishers, 1934?)
Prichard, a founding member of the Communist Party of Australia, was just one of the many writers and left intellectuals from the West who made political pilgrimages to the Soviet Union in the 1930s at the end of the first Five year Plan. While Prichard was not involved in the explicit production of propaganda, hers is an idealistic account of life there. While on this trip, she received the devastating news that her husband, Hugo Throssell, had committed suicide. She later recorded: “Only my belief in the need to work for the great ideas of Communism and world peace helped me survive a grief so shattering”.
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