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Louisa Lawson

How might women’s poetry represent Australian life and identity differently to the poetry of their male contemporaries?

Louisa Lawson was born in 1848, an era that gave very limited agency and identity to women.  Nevertheless, she flourished against this oppressive backdrop, and became a pioneer fighter for the rights and suffrage of women. She possessed a radical and militant view of the strength and rightful relational position of women, stating in her feminist journal, The Dawn:

‘…there is no power in the world like that of women , for in their hands lie the plastic unformed characters of the coming generation…’.

The circumscribed power of women, and their infinite struggle against the notion of woman as a ‘mere appendage of man’, provided the impetus for many of  Lawson’s poems.  Her existence in the isolated and acrimonious Australian bush further compounded her personal struggle, and the resulting convictions in her poetry.   Lawson, among many female poets of the colonial era, imparted a new perspective in a patriarchal domain.  She provided a voice for the complex life and identity of the ‘most humble (of) countrywomen’.   She used prose as an instrument to discuss and subvert the taboo circumstances of the time.  The covert purpose of her poetry was to voice the universal concerns of all colonial women, and to advocate a ‘significant shift in the power relations that operated between men and women in the home’.

During the late nineteenth century, poetry which contained momentous or historic nuances was looked upon as a predominantly masculine sphere, ‘with women being accorded, the more familial and devotional realms’. The land was also perceived as a rugged and masculine entity, which vehemently excluded the stereotypical powerless and irrational woman.  Furthermore, the relationship of man to the land in the late nineteenth century ‘pit the native son against the bush’.  Women were also alienated from the romantic idealisation that emerged among the urban dwellers, of the unfettered bushman who enjoyed a ‘plentiful sewing of wild oats.’.  The poetry of Australian men illuminated the physical hardship of the bush, but gave little credence or relevance to the psychological struggle the women who shared ‘almost on equal terms with men, the rough life and the isolation which belong to civilization’s utmost fringe’.

Throughout ‘Lines Written During a Night Spent in a Bush Inn’, Lawson’s tone is impregnated with despondency and depression. The narrator reflects on her life as merely a ‘pestilence past’.  She is shrouded in a white robe, which could represent the purity of women, or the colourlessness of death.  The ‘neatly sown borders’ of the robe could epitomise the ideal fastidious and clean entity of a woman in a masculine milieu, but be actually concealing the narrator’s internal disarray.   The narrator is submissive and accepting of death ‘without shudder or moan’, and a burial in a ‘natural tomb’, which could symbolise a mother’s nurturing womb, or a disconnection from a patriarchal deity and an afterlife not tainted by social conventions.

Her desire for a bush grave ‘ ’neath the big kurrajong’, a common tree in the bush, elucidates her affinity with the bush, and draws a clear distinction between the land itself and the brutal lifestyle that woman must endure out in the bush.  Lawson also frankly proclaims the gendered nature of the narrator’s predicament through the words: ‘“A Woman.  May God rest her soul”’.  This epitaph also signifies the anonymous life the narrator has led.  The final line ‘It is day and I’m difficulties suffering still!’ symbolises that the narrator’s anguish is not transient, and only felt in her darkest hours, but is in fact a monotonous and unending suffering.  This turmoil was almost exclusively felt by the women, as their husbands were predominantly absent from the home. The women were isolated in the home and accorded the domestic duties, which were at times heartbreaking.

Lawson exhibits this maternal and nurturing facet of colonial bushwomen in her poem ‘Baby’s Troubles’.  In this poem, she comforts her crying child: ‘ “Come tell me now,” again I said, / As soft I rocked to hush her’.  Lawson also illustrates the profound and solitary grief that a women suffers after the death of a child, in her poems ‘In Memoriam’ and ‘A Mother’s Answer’-

For the loss of a mother’s, mysterious and deep.

I own that thought sinful, yet owning it- weep.

These poems are based on the death of her own child, Annette, at eight months old.  In ‘My Nettie’, she reveals the spiritual comfort that saved her from emotional disintegration after the death of her child– ‘Secure in his arms in that beautiful place, / A radiance of glory illuming her face.’  Lawson also elucidates the loneliness and desperation colonial women had to endure while raising their children in the absence of their husbands, in her poem ‘Light in Darkness’: ‘Sickness, sorrow, death, disgrace, / All of these I have to face’.  Lawson amalgamates the life of her colonial sisters in the bush, the beauty of the landscape, and their deep sense of nurturing in the stanza of ‘Women’s Work’:

Come from your homes on the farm and station,

Where the tall gums and the water bores stand;

Come with babes in your soft embraces,

Priceless gifts to a fair new land.

This nurturing and domestic aspect of the Australian identity was omitted by Australian male poets, whom employed a more epic and romantisised view of the bush.

Ironically, Lawson utilizes an apathetic male narrator in ‘To a Libertine’ to illustrate her convictions. This poem blatantly exemplifies the pillaging of the every- women at the hands of man- ‘I poisoned her life with my passion / And murdered her beautiful trust’.  Again, Lawson uses death as a means for the devastated woman to extricate herself from her dreadful existence- ‘My life I no longer can bear / For death I am constantly praying’.  Lawson’s presentation of the woman protagonist in the poem as nameless and mute could be seen to parallel the stifled existence of colonial women.   In the final two lines, the callous narrator condemns himself to an eternity of horror:

While I with soul-lepers am sitting

In torment at hell’s awful gate.

The male narrator has finally acknowledged that his polluted soul will prohibit him from entering the gates of heaven, just as lepers were repelled from the gates of villages.

In ‘The Lonely Crossing’, Lawson uses the virginal woman ‘in a crown of white’ to symbolize the unspoiled universal woman, whom has not yet been tainted by patriarchal oppression and the lust of man.   In the poem, this purity is menaced and threatened to be corrupted by a ‘fiend from Hades’.  But the immaculate women is inexplicably saved from this peril by unseen forces beyond her control, and sent ‘to the streets of Jaspar’ while the fiend is sent to a ‘sin-black sea.’   The death of the ‘man with the swag’ at the conclusion of the poem could be interpreted as a metaphor for women’s struggle in the bush finding solace in death. Yet Lawson contrasts this despair to the resplendent and feminine image of:

The wattles waved, and their sweet reflection

In crystal fathoms responses made

The wattles engender the beauty and femininity of the Australian landscape, and their position as Australia’s national emblem represents a sense of unwavering patriotism on behalf of colonial women. Lawson is showing that although women’s life in the bush is unmerciful, the landscape itself is pure (‘crystal’) and ‘sweet’.

 

Lawson presents a similar dichotomy of the Australian landscape in her poem ‘Willow Witches’.  In this poem, she juxtaposes the ‘icy steel’ winter to the ‘warm’ and nurturing spring- using seasonal changes of the native Willow Witch tree as a symbol to demonstrate these ambivalent sentiments towards the Australian bush.  Lawson blends her sense of patriotism with her love for the Australian bush in her poem ‘Australia Felix’. In the second stanza she proclaims:

Australia, Australia!

Thy bush land slopes are fair;

And from thy dim deep mountain dells

Ascendeth every where.

Her poem ‘Sweet Australie’ also signifies this unyielding devotion to the country: ‘The dearest spot on earth to me / Sweet Australie, sweet Australie’.  Lawson also illuminates the fierce and widespread patriotism felt in that era, in her poem ‘The Call’, which embellishes men’s call to fight for the ‘Father’s native land’.   Conversely, Lawson describes the profound torment felt by a mother, who is forced to bid farewell to her son as he departs to fight in the war, and the contrasting naïve optimism of her son, in the poem ‘The Call to War’:

“Goodbye now dear Mother, get out of the rain,

Cheer up and don’t bother, I’ll come back again.”

I saw her form shiver and heard the soft moan

“God keep my heart beating until he is gone.”

However, the mother’s resolute national loyalty to Australia, and her pride in her son, eventually subsumes this anguish.  She embraces the fact that her son has gone to fight for the destiny of the country, and ‘Gave thanks to her God that her brave boy was fit’.

 

Lawson represents the Australian bush negatively in ‘The Squatters Wife’, employing sorrowful and gothic images- ‘gruesome sounds of death and dree’.  Lawson speaks of the devastating isolation ‘Far away from kith and kin’ and monotony of the bush- ‘many a weary mile within’. This poem embodies the issue of the socially invisible torment that the colonial women had to endure.   Lawson provides a preamble to this poem, which delineates the tale of ‘a beautiful and gifted girl’ who married a squatter, and arrives at his homestead to discover that her husband has a black mistress.  She is merely an addition to his property.  The repetition of the protagonist’s name ‘Alice Gertler’, at the conclusion of every stanza, shows that she is but an echo in the landscape.  Like the narrator in ‘Lines Written During a Night Spent in a Bush Inn’, the misery endured by Alice is unremitting– ‘making dreary days more drear / All the uneventful year’.  Alice is resigned to her profound sense of despair to such an extent, that she may be reaching insanity– ‘Ere will turn a woman’s brain’.

Furthermore, Alice’s husband’s sexual relationship with ‘a half-caste gin’, further compounds her horror.  She is appalled that he is placing her in the same, or even lower, social position as his black mistress. Lawson implies that Alice’s spirit has been irreparably crushed, and that she will remain by her unloving, brutal husband’s side ‘Until all is gone from thee, / E’en thy faith in Deity’.  Lawson is indicating that Alice will eternally be subservient to a masculine entity, and that Alice’s blind and irrational dependence on her husband will even exceed her faith in a masculine and oppressive deity.  Alice is already enduring a living death, so Lawson suggests that the only way she can liberate herself from this torment is by dying- ‘Or send death to make thee free’.   Lawson is portraying Alice Gertler and Australia as almost the same damaged and pitiful entity.  Both are victims of corruption and violence, inflicted upon them by the masculine culture.

Lawson’s poetry provided the voice for the national dilemmas that were salient to women in the late nineteenth century, and she became a spokesperson against men’s repulsive treatment and violation of her colonial sisters.  The lifestyle of women that Lawson emphasized through her poetry was predominantly one of isolation and hopelessness, but she reconciled this pervasive anguish with an affinity and love for nature and the Australian landscape, which embraced and nurtured her.  The identity of Australian women that she presented through her poetry was one that was staunchly patriotic, intelligent and seditious, and maternal and feminine.   She strongly insinuated that women were the unacknowledged impetus behind the success of early Australia, which she encapsulated beautifully in her poem, ‘The Women of the Bush’:

And how I bless the pioneers,

The women lost to fame,

Who braved the bush for strenuous years

To make Australia’s name.

Ultimately, Lawson’s poetry demonstrated that women lived a life spiritually and psychologically independent to man.  She showed that that romanticized ideal of the liberated bushman was erroneous, and she provided a new, more tangible, dimension to Australian life and identity.  She subverted the weak, defenseless stereotype of the Australian woman, and firmly entrenched the colonial women in the history of Australia.

 

 

Bibliography

Cousins, S.  Drunken Selfish ‘Boors’?  Images of Masculinity in the Dawn. Hecate. 25 (1999): 85-96.

 

Lawson, L.  The Australian Bushwoman. Englishwoman’s Review, 1889.

 

Lawson, L. The Lonely Crossing and Other Poems. 1905. Dubbo, Review Publications, 1986.

 

Matthews, B.  Louisa. McPhee Gribble, 1987.

 

Ollif, L.  Louisa Lawson: Henry Lawson’s Crusading Mother.  Rigby Limited, 1978.

 

Pearce, S.  The Shameless Scribbler: Louisa Lawson. Working papers in Australian studies. Queensland University of Technology, 1992.

 

Rutherford, L. & Roughley, M.  Louisa Lawson: Collected Poems with Selected Critical Commentaries. University of New England, 1996.

 

Schaffer, K. Women and the Bush: Forces of Desire in the Australian Cultural Tradition.  Cambridge, 1988.