Wednesday 16 November 2016

The Sick Stockrider by Adam Lindsay Gordon

First published in 1870, The Sick Stockrider was one on the classic poems referenced in Australian Classics by Jane Gleeson-White.

During #AusReadingMonth I hope to revisit a couple of these classic Australian bush ballads. I had never heard of The Sick Stockrider before, so I was very curious to see what the fuss was all about.

It was made into a silent movie way back in 1913 and is one of the few movies from this time to survive intact.

It's themes of mateship and laconic acceptance are dear to the heart of many Australians.

Gordon was born in the Azores in 1833, but came from old Scottish stock. His family soon moved back to England where Gordon finished his schooling. During his teen years he began to run a little wild (spending too much time and money at the pub and the racetrack apparently), so his father packed him off to Australia with various letters of introduction.

The 'remittance man' populated many of our early colonial areas - places like Australia, America, Canada and India were popular choices for the English to pack off their wayward sons and daughters. A regular payment from home sustained these black sheep in the hope that they would stay away!

Judith Wright's poem Remittance Man (1946) was one I studied at school and remember fondly. She explored the bittersweet nature of being a remittance man. Now that I've triggered the memories it may have to be my next #AusReadingMonth poem!

But now - back to Gordon.

His imminent departure/expulsion caused him to pen a poem to his sister which began,

Across the trackless seas I go, 
No matter when or where, 
And few my future lot will know, 
And fewer still will care. 
My hopes are gone, 
my time is spent, 
I little heed their loss, 
And if l cannot feel content, 
I cannot feel remorse.

When he arrived in Adelaide, he chose not to use any of his father's letters of introduction; instead Gordon found himself a job with the mounted police for a couple of years before heading bush to become a horse breaker and steeple chaser. A poetic adventurer!

He married Margaret Park in 1862. Three years later he was elected to the South Australian parliament. However, none of these careers really stuck. His boundless energy and fearlessness didn't know where or how to settle.

He moved his family to Ballarat to start a new business venture, but suffered a serious head injury after falling from a horse.

The death of his only daughter as a baby, as he was recovering from this injury, seemed to affect him deeply. They sold up and moved to Brighton. Despite the danger and risk to his health, Gordon kept returning to horse racing and steeple chasing. Early in 1870, he had another serious fall which aggravated his existing injuries.

Sadly, a few months later, thanks to money problems and legal disappointments, Gordon committed suicide near Brighton Beach.

Photo courtesy of VirtualSteve from Wikipedia

It turns out that Gordon also penned a once famous verse (part of his poem, Ye Wearie Wayfarer) that found it's way into generations of Australian autograph books - including my own!

My Pop was my very first 'autograph'. He was famous in our family for his ability to recite very long poems that he learnt in his childhood, so it was no big surprise that his autograph of choice was in verse:

Life is mostly froth and bubble 
Two things stand like stone: 
KINDNESS in another's trouble, 
COURAGE in your own

Gordon was once considered to be our National Poet - with his underdog, devil-may-care attitude he epitomised the good-natured larrikin that was becoming the iconic Australian character of the time.

In 1932 a statue of Gordon was erected in Melbourne (above). It stands in Gordon Square, Spring St. A bust of Gordon was also unveiled in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey in 1934.

The Sick Stockrider - Charlie Hammond (1870-1953)
Image courtesy of The State Library of Victoria.

HOLD hard, Ned ! Lift me down once more, and lay me in the shade.
Old man, you've had your work cut out to guide
Both horses, and to hold me in the saddle when I sway'd,
All through the hot, slow, sleepy, silent ride.

The dawn at 'Moorabinda' was a mist rack dull and dense,
The sunrise was a sullen, sluggish lamp ;
I was dozing in the gateway of Arbuthnot's bound'ry fence,
I was dreaming on the Limestone cattle camp.
We crossed the creek at Carricksford, and sharply through the haze,
And suddenly the sun shot flaming forth ;
To southward lay 'Katâwa,' with the sandpeaks all ablaze,
And the flush'd fields of Glen Lomond lay to north.
Now westward winds the bridle path that leads to Lindisfarm,
And yonder looms the double-headed Bluff ;
From the far side of the first hill, when the skies are clear and calm,
You can see Sylvester's woolshed fair enough.
Five miles we used to call it from our homestead to the place
Where the big tree spans the roadway like an arch ;
'Twas here we ran the dingo down that gave us such a chase
Eight years ago—or was it nine ?—last March.

'Twas merry in the glowing morn, among the gleaming grass,
To wander as we've wandered many a mile,
And blow the cool tobacco cloud, and watch the white wreaths pass,
Sitting loosely in the saddle all the while.
'Twas merry 'mid the blackwoods, when we spied the station roofs,
To wheel the wild scrub cattle at the yard,
With a running fire of stockwhips and a fiery run of hoofs ;
Oh ! the hardest day was never then too hard !

Aye ! we had a glorious gallop after 'Starlight' and his gang,
When they bolted from Sylvester's on the flat ;
How the sun-dried reed-beds crackled, how the flint-strewn ranges rang
To the strokes of 'Mountaineer' and 'Acrobat'.
Hard behind them in the timber, harder still across the heath,
Close beside them through the tea-tree scrub we dash'd ;
And the golden-tinted fern leaves, how they rustled underneath !
And the honeysuckle osiers, how they crash'd !

We led the hunt throughout, Ned, on the chestnut and the grey,
And the troopers were three hundred yards behind,
While we emptied our six-shooters on the bushrangers at bay,
In the creek with stunted box-tree for a blind !
There you grappled with the leader, man to man and horse to horse,
And you roll'd together when the chestnut rear'd ;
He blazed away and missed you in that shallow water-course—
A narrow shave—his powder singed your beard !
In these hours when life is ebbing, how those days when life was young
Come back to us ; how clearly I recall
Even the yarns Jack Hall invented, and the songs Jem Roper sung ;
And where are now Jem Roper and Jack Hall ?

Aye ! nearly all our comrades of the old colonial school,
Our ancient boon companions, Ned, are gone ;
Hard livers for the most part, somewhat reckless as a rule,
It seems that you and I are left alone.

There was Hughes, who got in trouble through that business with the cards,
It matters little what became of him ;
But a steer ripp'd up MacPherson in the Cooraminta yards,
And Sullivan was drown'd at Sink-or-swim.

And Mostyn—poor Frank Mostyn—died at last a fearful wreck,
In 'the horrors', at the Upper Wandinong ;
And Carisbrooke, the rider, at the Horsefall broke his neck,
Faith ! the wonder was he saved his neck so long !
Ah ! those days and nights we squandered at the Logans' in the glen—
The Logans, man and wife, have long been dead.
Elsie's tallest girl seems taller than your little Elsie then ;
And Ethel is a woman grown and wed.

I've had my share of pastime, and I've done my share of toil,
And life is short—the longest life a span ;
I care not now to tarry for the corn or for the oil,
Or for the wine that maketh glad the heart of man.
For good undone and gifts misspent and resolutions vain,
'Tis somewhat late to trouble. This I know—
I should live the same life over, if I had to live again ;
And the chances are I go where most men go.

The deep blue skies wax dusky, and the tall green trees grow dim,
The sward beneath me seems to heave and fall ;
And sickly, smoky shadows through the sleepy sunlight swim,
And on the very sun's face weave their pall.
Let me slumber in the hollow where the wattle blossoms wave,
With never stone or rail to fence my bed ; 
Should the sturdy station children pull the bush flowers on my grave,
I may chance to hear them romping overhead.

The Sick Stockrider by Frank Mahony 1896
Image courtesy of Art Gallery of NSW.

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