Kangaroo - The 100 Days Project: Day 5
The Very First Australian Poem
Barron Field, portrait by Richard Read, c.1820, State Library of New South Wales
by Barron Field
mixtumque genus, prolesque biformis.
– Virgil, Aen. vi.
Thou Spirit of Australia,
That redeems from utter failure,
From perfect desolation,
And warrants the creation
Of this fifth part of the Earth,
Which would seem an after-birth,
Not conceiv'd in the Beginning
(For GOD bless'd His work at first,
And saw that it was good),
But emerg'd at the first sinning,
When the ground was therefore curst; –
And hence this barren wood!
Tho' at first sight we should say,
In thy nature that there may
Contradiction be involv'd,
Yet, like discord well resolv'd,
It is quickly harmonized.
Sphynx or mermaid realiz'd,
Or centaur unfabulous,
Would scarce be more prodigious,
Or Pegasus poetical,
Or hippogriff – chimeras all!
But, what Nature would compile,
Nature knows to reconcile;
And Wisdom, ever at her side,
Of all her children's justified.
She had made the squirrel fragile;
She had made the bounding hart;
But a third so strong and agile
Was beyond ev'n Nature's art;
So she join'd the former two
In thee, Kangaroo!
To describe thee, it is hard:
Converse of the camélopard,
Which beginneth camel-wise,
But endeth of the panther size,
Thy fore half, it would appear,
Had belong'd to some "small deer,"
Such as liveth in a tree;
By thy hinder, thou should'st be
A large animal of chace,
Bounding o'er the forest's space; –
Join'd by some divine mistake,
None but Nature's hand can make –
Nature, in her wisdom's play,
On Creation's holiday.
For howsoe'er anomalous,
Thou yet art not incongruous,
Repugnant or preposterous.
More graceful or ethereal,
Was never follow'd by the hound,
With fifty steps to thy one bound.
Thou can'st not be amended: no;
Be as thou art; thou best art so.
When sooty swans are once more rare,
And duck-moles the Museum's care,
Be still the glory of this land,
Happiest Work of finest Hand!
Barron Field (1786-1846), second son of Henry Field, surgeon and apothecary, and Esther, née Barron, was called to the Bar in June 1814 and in 1816 was appointed as a judge of the Supreme Count of New South Wales. A promising legal mind, he was also a friend of Charles Lamb, through whom he became acquainted with William Wordsworth, Robert Southey (the poet laureate) and others. Field and his newly-wedded wife Jane Cairncross arrived in Sydney in 1817 on the female convict ship Lord Melville, to a grant of 2000 acres near Cabramatta and a salary of £800 per year. In 1819 he published his First Fruits of Australian Poetry (in which ‘Kangaroo’ appears), the first collection of poetry to be printed (by the government printer) on this continent (if not quite the first poems to be written here). Lamb recorded that both Wordsworth and Coleridge were much taken with the poem, though (like Field as a judge in NSW) it has had a mixed reception, perhaps in some part owing to its rhyming of ‘Australia’ with ‘failure’.* Field left the colony in 1824, in large part through having fallen foul of John Macarthur, much-vaunted ‘founder’ of the Australian wool industry. Subsequently Field became Chief Justice of Gibraltar.
* It is the humble opinion of this author that, awkward as its versification indisputibly is, a great deal can be said in this poem’s defence. See David Brooks, ‘Field’s Kangaroo’, in Kenyon Review 39.2 March/April 2017.