Australian Poem: 2008 series #6 — Henry Kendall

08 Feb

Now here is a poem I learned in primary school around 55 years ago!

The Last of His Tribe

HE crouches, and buries his face on his knees,
    And hides in the dark of his hair;
For he cannot look up to the storm-smitten trees,
    Or think of the loneliness there—
    Of the loss and the loneliness there.

The wallaroos grope through the tufts of the grass,
    And turn to their coverts for fear;
But he sits in the ashes and lets them pass
    Where the boomerangs sleep with the spear—
    With the nullah, the sling and the spear.

Uloola, behold him! The thunder that breaks
    On the tops of the rocks with the rain,
And the wind which drives up with the salt of the lakes,
    Have made him a hunter again—
    A hunter and fisher again.

For his eyes have been full with a smouldering thought;
    But he dreams of the hunts of yore,
And of foes that he sought, and of fights that he fought
    With those who will battle no more—
    Who will go to the battle no more.

It is well that the water which tumbles and fills,
    Goes moaning and moaning along;
For an echo rolls out from the sides of the hills,
    And he starts at a wonderful song—
    At the sound of a wonderful song.

And he sees, through the rents of the scattering fogs,
    The corroboree warlike and grim,
And the lubra who sat by the fire on the logs,
    To watch, like a mourner, for him—
    Like a mother and mourner for him.

Will he go in his sleep from these desolate lands,
    Like a chief, to the rest of his race,
With the honey-voiced woman who beckons and stands,
    And gleams like a dream in his face—
    Like a marvellous dream in his face?

Henry Kendall

First Paragraph from the Memoir of Henry Kendall by Frederick C. Kendall (1869):

Among the first white residents of New Zealand early in the last century, were four courageous English missionaries, who settled at the Bay of Islands. The leader of these pioneers was a clergy-man named Thomas Kendall who, after a long period of labour in Maoriland, and a subsequent sojourn in South America, retired in 1827 to New South Wales, where he received from the Government, in recognition of his services, a grant of land near Ulladulla, on the south coast. There he engaged in the timber trade, and lost his life by shipwreck on a voyage to Sydney. He left several sons, one of whom, Basil, the poet’s father, had led an adventurous seafaring life, serving at one time under that noted rover Lord Dundonald. Basil married in Sydney a Miss McNally, the grand-daughter of an Irish lawyer and playwright named Leonard McNally, who flourished in the days of Burke and Grattan. On a lonely farm near Ulladulla, where Basil and his wife had settled, twin sons were born to them on April 18, 1841, one of these being Henry Kendall, the future poet. The family afterwards removed to the Clarence River. In Basil Kendall a cultured mind and fine character were united with a delicate constitution, and after some years of misfortune and sickness, brightened for him only by the careful tuition of his children, he died in 1851, when Henry Kendall (my father) was ten years old. The children were cared for and schooled by relatives in Illawarra, where my father passed three impressionable years, in a district of surpassing beauty, entering into that communion with Nature which was to be the inspiration and essence of his song. When fourteen years old he was taken on a whaling voyage by one of his uncles for two years, an experience to be recalled only by two poems, “The Ballad of Tanna,” and “Beyond Kerguelen.” In 1857 my father, then a nervous, delicate lad of sixteen, struck out for himself in Sydney, finding work here and there. He next became clerk to a Grafton solicitor, James Lionel Michael. Himself a cultured book-lover and a versifier of no mean order, Michael encouraged the literary bent of the lad, who soon became more a friend than an employee. There was a well-selected library in the house, of the treasures in which my father freely availed himself. Early in the sixties his first poetical work began to appear in the columns of the Sydney press. The promise even then patent in his verse attracted the friendship of men like Henry Parkes, then Editor of the Empire, Charles Harpur the poet, Daniel Henry Deniehy, orator and critic, and Dr. Woolley of the Sydney University. A very favourable notice by The Athenaeum of some manuscripts which my father had submitted to that great arbiter of English letters emboldened him to compile a small volume, Poems and Songs, which was issues in 1862 by Mr. Clarke, a Sydney publisher. The most enduring work in this early volume is reprinted at the end of this present edition.

Very much a period piece, isn’t it? In the absence of actual Aboriginal people in Sutherland — such as there were being invisible or safely in La Perouse — this really did shape our childish vision. Sad, but they were a dying race.

While we now know better — and I am sure the poem would have played differently in country towns where Aboriginal people were rather more visible — the poem remains an interesting document in its own right. I would have to say that when compared with the rest of the poetry of its age — Tennyson, Browning and company — it is a rather poor thing too: but our own.

See also Indigenous Australians on Old Lines from a Floating Life, where I allude to this poem. On that page I also quote from Wayne King, Black Hours Sydney, A & R, 1996, pp. 39-43 and pp. 154-166.

My dislike of school grew when we were introduced to Australian history. We were told of how the exploits of the great British explorers were often impeded by the local Aborigines who were ‘barbarous savages’. I was the only Aborigine in my class, and it cut to the quick. With my olive skin, dark hair and black eyes, I stood out in that classroom. Were my fellow students looking at me with disdain for the impediment my people placed in the way of ‘civilisation’? Probably not, but I felt they were. And did the teacher spit out the words ‘barbarous savages’ invectively? I thought so. Alternatively, he spoke proudly of the mighty explorers who were the first men to discover Ayers Rock, the Murray River or the Blue Mountains. Not the first ‘white men’ but the ‘first men’. There was no way out, either: to pass the history examination at the end of the year you had to learn it.And there was no way out of high school either. Mum dug her heels in. Later I found out why she had been so insistent. She had wanted to go to high school but had not been allowed because of Queensland’s apartheid laws, which prevented Aborigines from attending high school. She had made up her mind that her children were not going to be denied the chance…

The two years passed and I was glad to leave school. Aborigines were always told that education was the key which would unlock the door to mainstream society. But I knew better. At sixteen [1964] I knew that education wouldn’t enable Aborigines to take their place in Australian society. Aborigines could’ve had PhDs and shat roses and it wouldn’t have mattered in Australia.

A cousin of mine had done what, in those days, was called Senior–four years of high school. After leaving high school, he got a job with the Commonwealth Bank. After a year in the bank, he was offered a transfer to a branch office in Rockhampton, two hundred miles away on the north coast of Queensland. It was the bank’s policy when transferring staff to find them accommodation. Several weeks passed and there was no mention of his transfer. Nearly two months passed before he decided to approach the manager, who explained that they were having difficulty finding him accommodation. When people who had replied to the bank’s enquiries found out he was Aboriginal, they withdrew their offer of accommodation…

We are right to be ambivalent and conflicted about our past, but also to be hopeful about the future.

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Posted by on February 8, 2008 in Australia, Indigenous Australians, OzLit, poets and poetry, Reconciliation


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