Sunday, 19 March 2017
A judge of poetry
Any polite biography would have to list Barron Field as lawyer, poet and scientist. He was a passable lawyer, most of the time, and well-informed on matters of science. His poetry was another matter, though there were some in England who admired what others called mere doggerel.
Still, when he published his First Fruits of Australian Poetry in Sydney in 1819, these were the first alleged Australian poems to appear in book form. When Barron Field edited and published his Geographical Memoirs on New South Wales  in 1825, it included two chapters (chapters 6 and 13) by Allan Cunningham. So Field could mix it with the best when it came to the sciences.
Yet if he was a passable scientist, Field was less skilled at taking Australian animal life into poetry. I cannot bring myself to offer more than one verse of his Kangaroo, which surely eclipses anything written by Erasmus Darwin or William McGonagall. We would get good poets in due course, but it would take time.
To describe thee, it is hard:
Converse of the cameleopard,
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.
— Barron Field
The problem for Australia’s earliest poets, Robinson, Field and Wentworth, at least, was that they were English-educated gentlemen, and their imagery had English roots. Still, Field did a decent job in two sonnets on Australian historical themes:
Note: In this sonnet, the barrack tow’r is the fort at Bare Island on Botany Bay.
I have been musing what our Banks had said
And Cook, had they had second sight, that here
(Where fifty years ago the first they were
Of voyagers, whose feet did ever tread
These savage shores) - that here on this south head
Should stand an English farm-hut; and that there
On yon north shore, a barrack tow’r should peer;
Still more had they this simple Tablet read,
Erected by their own compatriots born,
Colonists here of a discordant state,
Yet big with virtues (though the flow’ry name
Which Science left it, has become a scorn
And hissing to the nations), if our Great
Be Wise and Good. So fairest Rome became!
— Barron Field
On visiting the spot where Captain Cook and Sir Joseph Banks first landed in Botany Bay.
Here fix the tablet. This must be the place
Where our Columbus of the South did land.
He saw the Indian village on that sand
And on this rock first met the simple race
Of Austral Indians who presumed to face
With lance and spear his musket. Close at hand
Is the clear stream from which his vent’rous band
Refreshed their ship; and thence a little space
Lies Sutherland, their shipmate; for the sound
Of Christian burial better did proclaim
Possession than the flag, in England’s name.
These were the commelinae Banks first found;
But where’s the tree, with the ship’s wood-carved fame?
Fix, then, the Ephesian brass — ‘tis classic ground!
— Barron Field
One thing that people notice about Field is his name, which must provoke the question: what were his parents thinking? The answer is simple: they were thinking of his mother’s maiden name: she was born Esther Barron.