Friday, September 14, 2007

The Poetry of Mary Gilmore - The Saturday Tub

Each Friday Neil (Ninglun) writes about an Australian poem or poems. I have fallen into the habit of writing a companion piece where I know something about the poet.

This Friday Neil featured two poems by Dame Mary Gilmore (1865-1962), a writer I know a little about. As always, please read Neil's post first.

As Neil noted, Mary Gilmore occupies a special post in Australian history, general as well as literary. You can find out more about her life from the short Australian Dictionary of Biography entry.

Neil notes that she was a Utopian then a Communist just about all her life, but paradoxically became a Dame of the British Empire (1937) and has her face on our currency. As part of the paradox, her friendships extended well beyond the notional left. One was my grandfather, David Drummond.

I do not know when they met. I do know that Mary Gilmore was an inveterate letter writer who was always looking for support for her causes and who, understandably, wanted to promote her writing. I think that they first met when David Drummond became NSW Minister for Public Instruction (Education), a role he was to hold throughout most of the 1930s.

They wrote often. I remember one of my Aunts talking about a visit to see Mary Gilmore in the little flat she had in Kings Cross.

In 1948 Angus & Robertson published Mary Gilmore's Selected Verses. Drummond wrote to her to say how much one poem, The Saturday Tub, had 'hit him'.

The poem is a nostalgic look at childhood. The writer, dreaming back by the fire, is thrown

... back where I used to be,

in eighteen hundred and something three,

Still in my place for the old bath tub,

Flannel and soap, a rub-a-dub-dub!

Standing in a line by the fire, the children take their turn

To stand in tub the size of a churn,

It was, 'where's the flannel?" and, "Mind the soap!"

Slither and slide, and scuffle and grope

Then, bath finished,

When each little shirt went over each head,

"Gentle Jesus" and "Our Father" said

It was "quick with a kiss!" and "Now they run!

And off into bed with you, everyone!"

The warmth, happiness and security in the poem is unmistakable.

For Mary Gilmore, the poem probably related to her early childhood on the farm. For David Drummond whose later childhood was neither happy nor secure, I think that the poem 'hit him' because it reminded him of the early days on the little farm at Liverpool outside Sydney.

In September 1895 (Drummond was then five), his mother's aunt wrote to his father:

.. we were so delighted to hear that you and your darling boys are well ... and oh we were so pleased to get a letter each from them ... and to hear that they help their father on the farm - and little David will have to look over you all ... tell David that he is to let us know what is the name of his kitten in your next letter.

So, to return to Neil's theme, here we have a woman who in many ways encapsulated what was called the old left position in Australian thought, but whose friendships could reach across the divides to a Country Party politician from the New England populist tradition, the tradition from I still write.

If I had to chose a single word to summarise the common element that united them, that word would be the word I used in the title of my post on David Drummond's early life, David Henry Drummond and the Importance of Compassion.

A sense of compassion was central to both.


Anonymous said...

Well, that is an amazing connection, Jim. I think Mary Gilmore's poetry deserves to get revived interest.

Jim Belshaw said...

Perhaps not so surprising, Neil. The Australia of Mary Gilmore's time was a much smaller Australia in population terms, making cross-links easier.

A political-academic family like mine was likely to know, know of, a much wider range of people at a personal rather than media level than would be the case today.

The Australian world has got bigger, but also shrunk in some ways, simply because it is more fragmented and complex.

As one measure, my own daughters know a far smaller cross-section of people than I did at the same age.

Helen goes to a university of what, 18,000?, internal students. She might know, I am only guessing, 40-50 students.

There were 1,200 at UNE when I was there, nearly all residential. So some one who was active in student life as I was knew pretty much the entire student body. Sydney was bigger, but the overall pattern was the same.

I can't write more now, it is Clare's 18th tonight (another change, the importance of 18th birthdays), but it is probably worth writing something on this at some point.

Anonymous said...

I liked the reflective tone in your post. Your observations about an small Australia were tinged with a writer's melancholy. May I say - conjures up images of people being swept along by a river and only one observer on the banks to see what is happening.

Jim Belshaw said...

What a nice comment, anon. I like the analogy.