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 called (appropriately in my case) 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.

Cows by the infant Thaes
Cattle by the infant Thames (Photo Rob Conolly).

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.

Dairy heard Tasmania 1960s
Our dairy herd near Ulverstone, Tasmania  circa 1960s.

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.

The Australin poet Les MurrayAustralian poet Les Murray.
Les Murray (Photo by Craig Brown, Newspix)

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!

The rainwater tank, like a stack of banker’s ‘shillings’

Even in Tasmania there were stressful periods of prolonged, dry weather. I remember my father carting 44 gallon drums of water from a shrinking dam by draught horse and sled.

Murray’s perspective was 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.


Murray also wrote of the final days of the family’s crumbling, deserted farmhouse, and of his cousin removing material to make  cowshed gates.

Les Mjurray's father Cecil.
Murray’s father Cecil at the homestead in earlier days.
Les Murray's book On Bunyah

Les Murray died at Taree on April 29 2019, aged 80.

May he rest in peace.

For a review of On Bunyah, CLICK HERE.

  1. Pauline

    Oh my word, thanks for that, Ron. Not pedantic at all. Goodness know where I might have ended up!

  2. Congratulations! Your blog has been included in FRIDAY FOSSICKING in INTERESTING BLOGS at

    Thank you, Chris

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