Sunday, August 3, 2014

ground where now we stand

If I had to choose a piece of Bathgate's scenery I would pick the contrast between the colours of the swans and the pelicans in The Sydney Exhibition, 1879, “The only fleet a flock of dusky swans, | Which, near some fearless white-plumed pelicans | Swam stately on the quiet water's breast” -- only I want the contrast jammed closer, eg: “For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds” (Shakespeare, Sonnet 14, the line itself turning on the word “turn”), “fruitful strifes and rivalries of peace” (Tennyson, Idylls of the King), or in Hill's Funeral Music, “fastidious trumpets,” even “grim fatuous clown,” from First Dog On The Moon's cartoon about Joe Hockey, the closeness that is also part of jokes and jump cut edits, things close together seeming exciting by proximity, proximity being the arena in which events take place, change wrought, attacks carried out; the possibilities fly open; the poem should be shocked by the surprising contrast of white and black animals on the water.

Note that the colours haven't been mined any further by the author, who, in this narrative scene, is envisioning the First Fleet coming to Botany Bay, obvious, you'd think, obvious, the “poor native black” standing there a little way earlier in line six, looking at him, asking to be transposed into the swans, but does Bathgate think that way? Is that what “fearless” next to “white-plumed pelicans” is trying to do? The British have come and they are fearless, etc, to lead on from the earlier description of “the first daring English wand'rer” in line two?

A century complete has scarcely passed
Since the first daring English wand'rer stood
Upon this favoured ground where now we stand.

Bathgate is so gentle I can't tell. Question though: why does he give the pelicans credit for being fearless, on that quiet bay without the swans threatening them or the ships coming too close, or any other thing trying to attack? Does the act of water-riding seem terrifying in and of itself, to the mind of Alexander Bathgate, even if the water is quiet, and therefore is this act always performed either fearfully or fearlessly, in that same mind?

It is brave to be stately when your entire activity threatens you; and you are like an aristocrat getting into a tumbril.

Or else the absence of fear in these pelicans is so incredible to Bathgate that it doesn't need to be justified by any poem, even if he is the author of that poem. It is a royal majesty. Explanation is beyond the point. It should exist. It should have a lovely, pure existence. It should be possible to detect an incredible, impossible purity behind the word "fearless."

When John Donne discusses God in his Sermons he considers the rights of kings.

Donne was not a king any more than Bathgate was a pelican. So I see that the normal existences of alien beings can be a source, either of wonder or of speculation, since Bathgate is wonderstruck without speculating and Donne speculates without seeming wonderstruck.

There is no reason in the poem for the pelicans to be fearless and no reason either, for the wand'rers to be daring. Australia is not only "favoured," it is furthermore a “fairyland of flowers and bright-hued birds” where the “calistemon's flaming brush-like plume, | Meet and delight the adventurer's eye.” “Daring” becomes synonymous with “inexperienced.” When is it brave, entering fairyland? When you don't know that it's fairyland.


  1. The Pelican was a symbol for Christ in England for a long time (Elizabeth, I think, added it to her royal crest), so if the pelicans represent the coming of the white Europeans, they'd be fearless because, you know, good Christian English explorers are always fearless. Maybe that's too coarse an explanation, especially as I haven't read the poem.

    That's a good observation at the end, the anticipation of danger (whether it exists or not) is a large part of bravery. Or perhaps of foolhardiness (my partner works with mountain climbers and other risk sport types; the idea that one is doing something frightening is a principal attraction to the sport).

    1. Feeding the little ones with blood from its breast: oh of course.

      Any connection between the pelicans and the "daring English" deserves to work, because this is a poem and the connection would be poetic, but regressively stashing idea away is not Bathgate's style; in fact it's so far from his style that I can't draw the connection at all unless I construct my own tangents, like that post, and the only reason I do it, is that I want it to be so, not because the poem wants it to be so. Bathgate wants to be clear and classical. (He's clear and classical everywhere else.)

      "... and sailing near, a white-plumed pelican,
      Fearless as those the English queen did love
      And put upon her banner. England's sons
      Fearless too, did come close in their ship ..."

      -- would be closer to the way he writes.

      The whole book is online at the Internet Archive: