As a Baby Boomer I grew up with little exposure to Australian literature. It was all English boarding school stories, Enid Blyton and Charles Dickens. My early knowledge of poets was limited to those represented in a primary school textbook, Poems for Pleasure; Blake, Longfellow, Wordsworth, Coleridge etc. I fell in love with their verse and became something of an Anglophile. This explains how my partner and I came to be walking the Thames Path early one morning in rural Wiltshire. The journey led to my book All Along the River; Tales From the Thames.
Downstream at Cricklade the path took us through a farmyard, where our steamy breath mingled with that of cows waiting to be milked. I experienced an overwhelming surge of nostalgia, remembering my childhood on a dairy farm in north west Tasmania.
In the poem The Burde of Itys, by Oscar Wilde, a milkmaid leaves her lonely bed to follow the same daily ritual as the herd.
‘……the heavy-lowing cattle wait,
Stretching their huge and dripping mouths across the farmyard gate.’
It was this poem that came to mind as I watched the milking cows by the river Thames.
Several years later I discovered the Australian poet Les Murray.
His work was a revelation. For the first time I read poems reflecting my own experience. He wrote of the hardships on the land, especially drought, which our farmers are facing as I write. In the poem Rainwater Tank he compares the ridged galvanized tank to a ‘banker’s roll’ of stacked shillings. A croaking frog in a drying puddle calls ‘Debit…Debit!’
Murray’s perspective was (and is) as an insider; informed and intimate. He grew up on a small dairy farm at Bunyah in northern New South Wales. Oscar Wilde was of course a city bred outsider, describing a scene that illustrated the rigid social order of 19th century England. In 20th century Australia it was not a servant girl who rose at daybreak, but Les Murray’s parents…. and later, my own. Here are the first verses from Murray’s poem Infant Among Cattle; Oh my word, ‘heel-less skiddy shoes’ . What a perfect image of those patient cows, negotiating steaming manure on concrete as they entered the bails.
When I read the following stanza I see my mother carefully cleaning the separator in the dairy as my father sluiced the yard… in a far too slapdash fashion she always thought.
Even in Tasmania there were stressful periods of prolonged, dry weather. I remember Dad carting 44 gallon drums of water from a rapidly shrinking dam by draught horses and sled.
From Cowshed Gates by Les Murray.
Les Murray died at Taree on April 29 2019, aged 80.
May he rest in peace.