Dorothea Mackellar and Andrew McLean, My Country (Omnibus 2010)
I’ve always vaguely resented this poem. ‘I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains’, it seemed to my young self, consigned the lush east coast of North Queensland to some non-Australian limbo. So I was happy to learn that Dorothea Mackellar wrote it as an exercise in reverse cultural cringe while living in England, that there was an opening verse that went on about ‘field and coppice’. I was delighted in a schadenfreude kind of way years ago when I came across a letter from Dame Mary Gilmore in the School Magazine files replying to a request for permission to reprint the poem: the Dame explained loftily that it was unlikely that she had written a poem with such hackneyed images and dreary rhythms. I passed that splendid letter on to the Department of education’s Historian, and hope it is preserved under glass somewhere, but it was unfair. It turns out the poem was just waiting for Andrew McLean to illustrate it.
Penny bought our copy at the Orange Grove Markets this morning to read to Mollie. When I joined them after walking the dog, Penny asked me to have a turn at reading it – I don’t know how many times they had already been through it. Mollie was attentive all the way through, and as far as we could tell enjoyed the book. So did I. It has to be one of the best presentations of a poem. Ever. Andrew McLean’s landscapes are superb: the soft English countryside, the drought stricken farmland, the flood plain, the ringbarked gum trees ‘tragic to the moon’, the lush rainforest (yes, it’s there – just not in the only stanza that is usually quoted). The Grand Dame may have been right about the imagery and the rhythms, but there’s something wonderfully complex in the profession of love for an environment so full of challenge and suffering.
I love Andrew McLean. I will look out for this. Do you know, my main acquaintance with the poem is as a long-ago candidate for the Australian national anthem, set to music? In the years before the referendum that installed the boring and pompous Advance Australia Fair over the totally excellent Waltzing Matilda all the school children were made to learn all three candidates, one of which was I Love A Sunburnt Country set to a rather anaemic tune. I sound like I’m in a bad mood, but I’m not — this is just my national anthem rave. The subject makes me all prickly.
Truly, if the tune had been a musical equivalent of Andrew McL’s illustrations, it would have, as they say, totally rocked as a national anthem.
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