Monday, May 9, 2016

breaking away into the wide world

“[W]e have been homesick practically all the time.” Thirty years homesick: why is she here, Ada Cambridge? Richer, she would have gone home. De Quincey doesn’t imagine that his other self in Canada is homesick; it is difficult to picture when you are not in it; being like the true temperature of snow. “Doubtless, if we had settled in an English parish, we should have bewailed our narrow lot,” Cambridge writes, “should have had everlasting regrets for missing the chance of breaking away into the wide world.” You can’t believe it, reading the rest of this chapter. Writing doubtless, she means, I doubt. Now she remembers the place where she would have lived with her clergyman if they had stayed, a “beflowered house,” “a tiny hamlet of a parish […] that haven of dignified peace and ease.” “[M]an is content with his lot; harmony is achieved,” says Virginia Woolf while she is describing the life of the Rev. James Woodforde of Weston Longueville in her Two Parsons essay, from The Common Reader: Second Series, 1935.

Surely, surely, then, here is one of the breathing-spaces in human affairs — here in Norfolk at the end of the eighteenth century at the Parsonage. For once man is content with his lot; harmony is achieved; his house fits him; a tree is a tree; a chair is a chair; each knows its office and fulfils it. Looking through the eyes of Parson Woodforde, the different lives of men seem orderly and settled. Far away guns roar; a King falls; but the sound is not loud enough to scare the rooks here in Norfolk. The proportions of things are different. The Continent is so distant that it looks a mere blur; America scarcely exists; Australia is unknown. But a magnifying glass is laid upon the fields of Norfolk. Every blade of grass is visible there. We see every lane and every field; the ruts on the roads and the peasants’ faces.

“[O]ur parishioners dropped curtseys to us on the road,” recalls Cambridge, ”and” – not straight-faced – or straight and not at the same time – “felt honoured beyond measure when we went to see them.” In de Quincey, “Profound solitude cannot now be had in any part of Great Britain […] in England it is possible to forget that we live amongst greater agencies than those of men and human institutions. Man, in fact, ‘too much man,’ as Timon complained most reasonably in Athens, was then, and is now, our greatest grievance in England. Man is a weed everywhere too rank. A strange place must that be with us from which the sight of a hundred men is not before us, or the sound of a thousand about us.” His islands are noisy with humans, but the birds in Australia are either quiet or crying out inhumanly, if songs can be taken as, in some way, human.

They are rhymes rudely strung with intent less
Of sound than of words,
In lands where bright blossoms are scentless,
And songless bright birds;
Where, with fire and fierce drought on her tresses,
Insatiable Summer oppresses
Sere woodlands and sad wildernesses,
And faint flocks and herds.

That poem is the source of the songless birds and scentless flowers in the first chapter of Cambridge's book. It is A Dedication: to the Author of ‘Holmby House’,* by Adam Lindsay Gordon, whose marble bust is in Westminster Abbey and whose old cottage features an extensive variety of local craft work of the highest quality in the Ballarat Botanical Gardens near Lake Wendouree. If The Boscombe Valley Mystery was published in 1891 and Gordon died in 1870, then it is possible that he lived in Ballarat at the same time as the murderer Black Jack. “His only daughter died while he was in Ballarat and although a daredevil on a horse and an accomplished rider he led a tragic life. His poetry with its rolling rhythm survives him,” states the webpage for the Adam Lindsay Gordon Cottage at In 1889 Banjo Paterson wrote a patriotic poem against Gordon’s birds and flowers.

"A land where dull Despair is king
O'er scentless flower and songless bird!"
But we have heard the bell-birds ring
Their silver bells at eventide,
Like fairies on the mountain side,
The sweetest note man ever heard.

Song of the Future. See also, CJ Dennis, The Golden Whistler, 1933. “Literary nationalists have always been indignant with Adam Lindsay Gordon for referring, inaccurately, to Australia’s ‘bright birds’ as songless:” Roger Covell, Australia’s Music, 1967. The Cambridges migrated in the same year that A Dedication was published, in Gordon’s book Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes, which was also the year of his death, at the age of thirty-seven, on the day after publication, when he went away privately with a gun and killed himself in a grove of bayside tea-trees. “At last, one morning in December 1839, the Rector took his gun, walked into the beech wood near his home, and shot himself dead,” Woolf wrote in Two Parsons. The parson in that sentence of course is not Woodforde. Whenever I think of that essay I remember the words, “and shot himself.” Ada Cambridge sailed overseas in April; Bush Ballads was printed on the 23rd of June (and A Dedication had not been printed before, because it was the actual dedication page of the book) meaning that Cambridge did not come to Australia believing that the birds would not be able to sing, even though the first chapter of Thirty Years in Australia leads you to believe that she did. Her corrective statement, “none of which, actually, is the rule,” is not a record of a discovery, it is a mode of alignment with pro-Australian literary forces.

*Holmby House: a Tale of Old Northamptonshire, 1860, was written by G. J. Whyte-Melville, 1821-1878. One of Gordon's favourite writers, according to Henry Kendall's A Memoir of the Life of Adam Lindsay Gordon: the Laureate of the Centaurs, 1892. When Gordon mailed Whyte-Melville a copy of his book Sea Spray and Smoke Drift, 1867, the other man sent a letter to say that if he rode as well as he wrote then he would "put him up in any steeplechase for which I had a likely winner."


  1. canada - england - australia: but no america? doesn't fit the design, somehow, i guess, maybe because of the short history of the latter... i was thinking about what might be different, growing up or living with the innate knowledge that one's people have lived in the same area for thousands of years, like the natives in australia - it must be a strong sense of some sort, existing in a place wherein you're constantly aware, as a part of your being, that your forebears have lived in the same place in the same way for uncounted eons. i can well understand "dreamtime". maybe racial attitudes derive somehow from jealousy, or the envy experienced by those "short-timers" who genetically know that before and after their lives, eternal vacuity reigns, and the small spark that tries to be, in the darkness, is all that they can ever know...

  2. And no South Africa either, and none of them want to go to New Zealand, but these poor people can't plan to migrate everywhere. They'd be worn out.

  3. off topic: i was musing this morning while weed eating about how data flows into the brain and as fast or faster, disappears through forgetting; like a river of information flowing through. maybe we aren't really here, only endless data streams traveling from one locus to another. maybe after computers get big enough they'll start to forget also...

    1. Does it disappear, I wonder, or does it just become inaccessible (if so, is that the same thing? If an event comes back to you in a converted form, in a dream is that 'remembering'?).

  4. even in flowing water, there are back eddies and dead spots; maybe large portions of grey matter are actually detritus washed up from the data flow... ( i know you know i'm not totally serious - but i do seem to like fantasizing and speculating: ideas spring up like tree branches. or mimic long term evolutionary patterns, for that matter...)

  5. This is good, all of it. "This is not where I imagined I'd be. This is not how I imagined it would be. Where would I be if I hadn't come here? I imagine that I imagine that otherwhere better than I imagined thiswhere." etc. I find all of this sort of thinking highly attractive and interesting. The basic question of Where Am I and How Did I Get Here, and the normal regrets of making any choice at all, losing all the other possibilities, the disappointment of reality. All the mistaken ideas, in books and brains, attempts to correct mistakes, etc. Keep them coming.

    1. Cambridge's regrets are especially sharp because she traces them back to a single decision, a "wild idea," done "rashly," uninformed; stupid -- and I should have said no -- is the idea that hovers over all of these descriptions of homesickness, leaving her mother, missing her sister -- living in the bush, not interested in the businesslike requirements of her husband's religious vocation, or else unpiously amused -- but she can't say it, I should not have married him. "I knew nothing whatever of Australia when I rashly consented to marry a young man who had irrevocably bound himself to go and live there, and, moreover, to go within three months of the day on which the wild idea occurred to me."

  6. when you believe you've mastered the material, THERE WILL BE A TEST!!! (haha)

    1. Which you will never pass, and there will be no grading and no results. Just the test.