Muir Holburn - Selected Poems

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The curate sun upon his round of visits

In eighteen forty-eight might well deplore

The sundered hearths, the greetings of dissension,

The murmuring crowds, the wolf at every door.


In any street where two or more were gathered,

Enquiring minds would hasten to debate

No nice points, but the basic claims of dogma,

And maiden aunts would criticise the State.


It was not new of course that men should question

The accustomed and the accepted. Learned brains

For centuries had recognised the nonsense

And when they spoke were tortured for their pains.


More often they were silent and they prospered,

Deeming time’s traffickings a sordid fake,

Until a few began to speak, encouraged

By certain knowledge that the rest would wake


To general questing. So it surely happened.

Hunger and truth are often close connections.

The dumb cried out at last, their words begetting

The crucifixions and the resurrections.


Inelegant quarters of majestic cities

were suddenly ablaze with love and hope.

Men measured light and heat; plants and conceptions

Made a rich diet for the microscope.


No expert yet has stopped this itch from spreading,

Remote and winsome Sydney caught the germ,

Shrill manifestos, rainsoaked quayside meetings,

Satire and science struck at the infirm


Autocracy of soldiers, myths and statutes.

The land unknown, unused, the little ‘Joe’

Strutting the gutters – each was held a symptom

Of mortal muddle, not eternal woe.


So leichhardt’s spirited travels and Mort’s devisings,

The prosy wisdom of aggressive Lang,

The cry “No convicts here!” made rare with promise

That year when Lowe inveighed and Harpur sang,


Petty they thought her when her name connoted

A land for bunyip lord and convertite,

But she had mastered what the age demanded—

Impassioned thought, a detailed love of right.


So stood the colony that windy April

Two barques from Sydney bore a curious freight

Of fated and brilliant manhood pledged to fathom

The secrets of Cape York, to subjugate


Its vast disorderly darkness, to survey

Roads for our travel, slopes for grain to roam,

Sites for high harvests, whence might someday spring

Cities, philosophies, a people’s home.


Lavish their dream then, and the history primer

Lauds their devotion, yet their pilgrimage

Ending in torment, torment being fruitless,

Is dismally dismissed in half a page.


And with some justice for their records vanished.

Three men survived, but by the news they bore

No mind could profit: “’Tis a murderous country!”—

Expensive truth!—which all had guessed before.


Ten men had gone, one hundred likely sheep,

Horses and dogs, a rope-and-canvas bower,

A sheepfold, Leichhardt’s Overland Exploration,

A mountain barometer and a ton of flour.


The city sighed to learn the waste involved,

The Councillors voted that a plaque be set

In the populous church to mark their mournful finish

And whitehall sent its copperplate regrets.


And here the traditional narrative concluded

Which is only told that youth might be impressed

with its indebtedness to a wounded past.

The objective fact lies buried, unassessed


Beneath the sermonising and the awe.

What Kennedy discovered was not bounded

By heathen wrath, intractable terraine,

Or inimical climates. If he was confounded


By death’s exigencies, did he not invade

Another country too, finding its heart

(Surer than any who had sought before)

whose name is found on no official chart?







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