Monday musings on Australian literature: Memory of the World and Dorothea Mackellar

Memory of the World Logo

By UN [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

If you’re an Australian, did you know that last week seven new entries were added to the UNESCO Memory of the World Australian Register?

If not, let me start at the beginning … with UNESCO’s Memory of the World programme. Established in 1992, it’s the documentary heritage equivalent of the World Heritage Site programme which protects physical sites of natural and cultural significance. It’s a significant programme, particularly for those of us who support libraries and archives.

Briefly, it’s a multi-pronged programme aimed at saving and preserving the world’s documentary heritage, but the most visible activity is its international register of “documents, manuscripts, oral traditions, audio-visual materials, library and archival holdings of universal value”. You can find out more on the official website.  To date, there are five “works” from Australia on the register. The first two added were the Mabo Case Documents and Captain Cook’s Endeavour Journal.

However, there are, of course, more “documents” that countries like Australia would like to register. Some of these might eventually make it to the international list, but some might only ever be of national, not universal, interest. For both these types of documents we luckily have the Australian Memory of the World committee which manages an Australian register – in addition to proposing nominations to the international register. The current chair of the Australian committee is Ros Russell, whose novel Maria returns I’ve reviewed here and who was on one of last year’s Canberra Writers Festival panels that I wrote up.

There are now 57 items on the Australian register, the last seven inscribed at a ceremony in Canberra last week. Knowing of my blog and interest in promoting Australian literature, Ros emailed me last week asking if I’d be interested in publicising one of these latest additions. Would I? Did she even need to ask? Of course I would … and so here goes …

Wide Brown Land sculpture

Wide Brown Land (National Arboretum)

Many of you – particularly my Australian readers – will have guessed from this post’s title what this particular addition is, and they’d be right, Dorothea Mackellar’s poem “Core of my heart (My country)”. This poem starts:

The love of field and coppice
Of green and shaded lanes,
Of ordered woods and gardens
Is running in your veins.
Strong love of grey-blue distance,
Brown streams and soft, dim skies
I know, but cannot share it,
My love is otherwise.

But, the verse which most Australians know by heart is the second one:

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror
The wide brown land for me!

According to the notes accompanying the inscription, Mackellar, who was born in Australia in 1885, wrote the first draft sometime between 1904 and 1908 during a trip to England, and finalised it for publication in 1908. These notes conclude with this assessment:

Regarded by many as Australia’s quintessential poet, Dorothea Mackellar’s most iconic works offer powerful statements of fervent patriotism and connection to the land, captured as Australia was coming of age as a nation and on the brink of participation in global warfare. In the century since its creation, ‘My Country’ has had an almost immeasurable impact on the collective consciousness of Australians, especially within the sphere of literary culture and, for many, remains the ultimate expression of the centrality of the land to Australian identity. A wonderful poet of light and colour, commenting towards the end of her life, Mackellar made her own assessment of the significance of her poetry: ‘I did say more or less what I wanted to say, and that’s the satisfaction.’

Not only is this a worthwhile addition to the Australian list for the reasons given above but, as Ros pointed out, it’s the first literary work on the Australian register and it’s by a woman! Woo hoo! Not that I’m competitive or anything, but it is always encouraging to see a woman’s achievement recognised.

Now, I did a little search of Trove – of course – and found an article on Dorothea Mackellar by critic Bertram Stevens whose Golden treasury of Australian verse I featured in a Monday Musings last year. The article, written in 1919, came from his series, Some Australian Writers. He says of “Core of my heart” that ‘love of country has seldom been expressed more beautifully, or in language more simple and sincere’ and he comments particularly on her love of and ability to describe colour. He writes that in her poems about the Australian landscape she ‘helps many of us to realise the value of the gift of colour in Australia, which was so often considered sombre and melancholy — a “haggard continent,”* in fact.’

To conclude, I’ll share some of Canberra writer Adrian Caesar’s inscription ceremony address, which Ros sent me. He started by acknowledging the important work done by cultural institutions in ‘collecting, preserving and exhibiting documents of historical, political and cultural significance’. He noted the ‘repeated budgetary attacks’ on these institutions and said

it is more imperative that ever to stridently insist upon the lasting relevance of the documentary record. It is unfortunate, too, that the incursions of post-modern relativism by tending to suggest that all history is fiction has played into the hands of those who seek to benefit from what we have heard recently referred to as ‘alternative facts’. In the increasingly Orwellian world of political doublespeak, the preservation of documents to which empirical method might be applied, and from which ‘facts’ may be adduced, seems more vital than ever to our ability to understand our past and chart our future.


He then discussed the poem. He talked of the value of having access to original manuscripts, discussed the poem’s cultural relevance and importance to Australian life, analysed its meaning including addressing the problematic issues of “patriotism and nationalism”, and explained his preference for the original title “Core of my heart”.

He concluded that the inscription of this poem’s manuscript to the Register:

leads us both to a contemplation of the circumstances of its composition and to the power of its potential ongoing contribution. For surely in this its first completed form, it might lead us and students of the future to think about our relationship to land and landscape, and not only to use that to assert our independence from England, but also to seek an empathetic understanding of Aboriginal notions of country. Instead of ‘us’ and ‘them’, it seems to me that love of landscape, love of country as it is articulated in Mackellar’s poem might provide a bridge towards healing rather than a chasm between colonisers and colonised.

Nicely done, eh? And thanks to Ros for the heads up.

NOTE: The original manuscript draft of the poem has been digitised and can be viewed online.

* Referencing, I presume, the poem “Written in Australia” by New Zealand-born Arthur H Adams.

16 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Memory of the World and Dorothea Mackellar

  1. “i have a dream…” that someday, people will talk about preserving the literature and records of planet earth, for the maintenance of historical truth throughout the solar system… or galaxy… nice to see that a first step has been taken, tho,,, nice post, tx

  2. Yay the first literary work is by a woman! She had very nice handwriting too which might be a weird thing to say, and she was probably just casually writing too.

    • Oh not weird at all, Stefanie, nice handwriting is always a joy – and much easier for researchers. Though this being her final draft, as I think if us, it might have been a little more than her casual hand.

    • Thanks Ros… I loved doing it, so thanks for bringing it to my attention. I suspect the programme overall is not well known – because although I knew of it, I have heard little of it through formal channels – so let’s hope this raises a little more awareness.

  3. I know this poem well, as most Australians (of a certain vintage) do, but my thoughts about it have changed dramatically since I read Stan Grant’s memoir late last year. He is rather scathing of the way white people love and identify with McKellar’s poem, because he believes it fails to acknowledge the native inhabitants of that “wide brown land”. This piece on The Guardian explains it a bit better:

    • I’ll read that kimbofo. Thanks for sharing. Adrian Caesar in his talk argued that it could be used as a point of sharing across the cultures regarding “country”. That would take talk and openness and acceptance of the different ways we “love” Australia – and non-indigenous Australians not arrogantly assuming their (our) love is special and somehow the “real” one wouldn’t it?

  4. The five items on the World register are historical rather than literary. It would seem to me that there are a number of instances of Aboriginal record keeping that might also be included, particularly the records on the Burrup Peninsula, thousands of years old, which we will lose soon due to the co-sited gas plants.

    • Yes, Bill, that was Ros’ point – i.e. that it was great to finally see something literary on the list. On the Australian list there are several indigenous records, including three of the seven new additions, one being audio recordings of Fanny Cochrane-Smith, the last fluent speaker of a Tasmanian Aboriginal language. I’d like to have mentioned that too in my post above but sometimes you can spread a post too thin I think. I might explore this another time – because, after all, it is language.

      Records on the Burrup Peninsula – do you mean paper records? If you are talking the actual art etc itself at the peninsula, and I think you might be, that would be a physical site and a candidate for UNESCO World Heritage Site (or an Australian National Heritage Site). Memory of the World is about documentary “objects” I guess you could say rather than (immovable) physical sites, if that makes sense.

      • I was trying to make a point about the distinction between documentation and things. Documentation is seen as civilized while artifacts and places are primitive. But how else would Aboriginal documentation survived except as rock art? My understanding is the oldest parts of the Burrup are older even than the oldest middle eastern clay tablets. (Isn’t it interesting how ‘we’ are happy to claim the middle east when it suits us?).

        • I’m not sure I agree completely with that dichotomy – though there has been a big element of that in the past I’m sure. I would think that the majority of today’s heritage experts and promoters are more nuanced in their understanding than that. Unfortunately that doesn’t mean every individual site is going to be listed. Burrup sounds worthy of it though from the little I know.

    • It is isn’t it Ian … and it does capture the paradox of the the landscape, “beauty” and “terror”, because it can be very forbidding, particularly if you don’t know what you are doing.

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