Saturday, June 16, 2012

Bell-Birds - Henry Kendall - Analysis

By channels of coolness the echoes are calling,
^            -        ^     -        ^   -            ^      -      ^  -
And down the dim gorges I hear the creek falling:
It lives in the mountain where moss and the sedges
Touch with their beauty the banks and the ledges.
Through breaks of the cedar and sycamore bowers
Struggles the light that is love to the flowers;
And, softer than slumber, and sweeter than singing,
The notes of the bell-birds are running and ringing.

The silver-voiced bell birds, the darlings of daytime!
They sing in September their songs of the May-time;
When shadows wax strong, and the thunder bolts hurtle,
They hide with their fear in the leaves of the myrtle;
When rain and the sunbeams shine mingled together,
They start up like fairies that follow fair weather;
And straightway the hues of their feathers unfolden
Are the green and the purple, the blue and the golden.
October, the maiden of bright yellow tresses,
Loiters for love in these cool wildernesses;
Loiters, knee-deep, in the grasses, to listen,
Where dripping rocks gleam and the leafy pools glisten:
Then is the time when the water-moons splendid
Break with their gold, and are scattered or blended
Over the creeks, till the woodlands have warning
Of songs of the bell-bird and wings of the Morning.

Welcome as waters unkissed by the summers
Are the voices of bell-birds to the thirsty far-comers.
When fiery December sets foot in the forest,
And the need of the wayfarer presses the sorest,
Pent in the ridges for ever and ever
The bell-birds direct him to spring and to river,
With ring and with ripple, like runnels who torrents
Are toned by the pebbles and the leaves in the currents.

Often I sit, looking back to a childhood,
Mixt with the sights and the sounds of the wildwood,
Longing for power and the sweetness to fashion,
Lyrics with beats like the heart-beats of Passion; -
Songs interwoven of lights and of laughters
Borrowed from bell-birds in far forest-rafters;
So I might keep in the city and alleys
The beauty and strength of the deep mountain valleys:
Charming to slumber the pain of my losses
With glimpses of creeks and a vision of mosses.

Henry Kendall (1838 - 1882)

The rhyme, rhythm, alliteration and iambic bounce give this poem a flowing musicality. For me it is a poem of reflective nostalgia on a childhood identified with the bush – enforced by the change in mood in the last stanza. A time remembered perhaps before Kendall went away as a cabin boy on a boat when 15 years old – and written when back in Australia and living a city life. (Interestingly he was born near Ulladulla, NSW - it would be very bush at that stage - and access by boat)
A good biography of Henry Kendall is on the following site: : Australian Dictionary of Biography
Comprehensive details on the life and times of Henry Kendall have been given by Judith Wright in her book ‘Preoccupations in Australian Poetry’.
Kendall was influenced and a friend of Charles Harpur and this link is explored in detail in the above book …

When Harpur died in 1868, the social climate in Australia had changed a great deal since his birth. With the colony no longer a rubbish-tip for England, but a promising young producer of wealth, with increasing population and increasing self-confidence as her isolation lessened, Australia seemed well on the way to becoming what Harpur had hoped she would be, a nation in her own right.

Many Kendall admirers might suggest that Kendall became the ‘first Australian poet’. Judith Wright states that …

 … looked at hard and honestly, he is scarcely to be called an interpreter of Australia at all. He is, however, something quite as important, the poet of his own desperate struggle and final self-mastery.

A comment from Perry Middlemiss  (from … ) 
By any criteria Henry Kendall's "Bell-Birds" must rank as one of the most popular poems written in Australia's literary history. Austlit, "The Australian Literature Resource", lists 32 entries in its publication history; possibly ranking only with Dorothea's Mackellar's "My Country", Paterson's "Waltzing Matilda" and one or two others in its universality. And yet it is not a poem I remember from my childhood - the Paterson and the Mackellar certainly, but not this one.
There is a lovely lilting feel to this work. The rhymes generally read as occurring naturally (though a query may be made against "sedges/ledges" in the first verse - I don't know why?), and the flow and rhythm are reminiscent of a warm, lazy spring day.
If, as seems reasonable, Kendall wrote this a year or so before its publication in his collection, Leaves from Australian Forests, in 1869, then he was probably living in New South Wales at his happiest. This was prior to his disastrous sojourn in Melbourne, the death of his young daughter and his descent into bankruptcy and mental illness. There appears to be no despair or despondency in this work, only the wonder of nature and joy of life.
A note on Bellbirds - according to Wikipedia, Bellbirds are so-called "because they feed almost exclusively on the dome-like coverings of certain psyllid bugs, referred to as 'bell lerps', that feed on eucalyptus sap from the leaves", and not because of their distinctive tinkling, bell-like sound.


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  2. Great! Amazing! Beautiful! Exhilarating! Great but I didn't quite get it......

  3. Great! Amazing!!!!! Beautiful!!!!!!!!!!!!! Exhilarating!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Great again but I didn't quite get it because I'm an idiot......

  4. one of australias greatest pieces of poetry that is perhaps missed by overseas visitors,and maybe sometimes ignored by our own locals learnt whilst in high school,and I fell out of it until hearing it in the gosford region at in laws property and rekindled took an over seas visitor to liverpool regional museum by georges river where they are there in all their glory in a parkland setting spent hours park is free go see