Rosemary Dobson

Rosemary Dobson    1920 – 2012 #


Born to a British father and an Australian mother, one of two daughters, Rosemary had a troubled childhood.  Her father died when her older sister, Ruth, was seven and she, five.  The mother moved in with various family members.

Rosemary Dobson was a painter and a poet, during one of the most contentious periods of Australia’s cultural wars; modernism and conservatism, and nativist or European traditionalism.  While she accepted the invigorating and energy of the modernists, she preferred *“order, discipline, spareness, and reserve” . * While she acknowledged the cultures of indigenous peoples, she preferred to write about European influences, especially the paintings of the medieval and Renaissance.  However, Dobson is Australian in its tact, its avoidance of absolutes and its openness.  The continual shifts of light and shadow , which characterise the shade of gum trees – the giving and withholding of understanding.

*“Poetry is a privileged vocation.  There is something that eludes one… a search for something only furtively glimpsed, a state of grace which one once knew or imagined or from which one was turned away. Surely everyone who writes poetry would agree that this is part of it – a doomed but urgent wish to express the inexpressible”.  *(echoing Eliot)

This is how Rosemary depicted her early impressions of her mother:

The Widow Under the fine straw of her wide-brimmed hat #

* Turned back, bright eyes and dark-brown hair
And so much innocence and timidity…
Yet when he came, despite his foreignness
Of life lived elsewhere, sure in mind and will
She “gave her heart”, in the old phrase, at once
Receiving in exchange his to protect,
Sustain, support, and very soon to lose.*

*Firm at his death she grew in firmness, moved
With two small girls from house to rented house
Each time diminished. Yet she wrote each week
By surface mail to his family
Reporting on her pledge to rear the two
By precepts he’d enjoined. They in reply
Wrote with affectionate concern, and sent
Books “for the nursery”. She must have smiled. *

Another vignette also shows an aspect of their mother with her sister their Aunt Molly:

***                    Who***

*          Mother and Aunt Molly walked ahead*

*          And suddenly Mother stopped and threw back her head *

*          And laughed and laughed there in the dusty road*

*          We were amazed to see our Mother laugh.* 

When  a paternal Aunt from England came to visit, she arranged for their mother to become house mistress at Frensham boarding school in Mittagong with both girls attending classes.  Both girls became successful academically. Ruth was one of the first females to join the Diplomatic corps.  Rosemary became a successful painter and poet.

**Dobson frequently ponders life’s experiences by looking at others.  In the next poem she fosters Kahlil Gibran’s **philosophy: “Your children are not your children…. they come through you but not from you…Youu may give them your love but not your thoughts…   The twentieth century adopted a philosophy of nurturing children in a less authoritarian or regimented manner.  In the 1960’s **Bob Dylan in The Times they are a’C***hanging * sang: *“Your children are beyond your command”. *** **

An African proverb goes:  *“It takes a whole village to raise a child”.  *Conversely it takes a whole society to allow children to be abused.  A family, community and country is judged by how they treat their children.

** Child of Our Time**

The world is yours, and you must take

Your making, breaking, shaping way:

That instant when the cord was cut

Ended my brief imperial sway.

* *

Mine only was the being shaped

In darkness and in solitude

Moving upon the tides of dream,

Unknown yet known beatitude.

* *

All that is done. Now every step

You take is further still from me

Along your destined path to death,

Light, darkness or eternity.

* *

Child of an age beyond my dreams,

My comprehension, watch, or care,

Where do you go who may set foot

Upon some distant, radiant star?

* *

All women who since time began

Have trembled for an eager child

Feared dangers fixed and bounded by

The narrow circuit of the world.

* *

I see the wounded moon, I fear

The travelling star, the mushroom cloud,

Beneath the perilous universe

For you, for you, my head is bowed.

Poet’s who write about how poetry is written deal with Metapoetry.  T. S. Eliot, Ted Hughes, Robert Frost and many others write about the forces that inspire them to resort to the hard effort of shaping your concerns into form.  All poets acknowledge the inexpressible.

 Over the Frontier

The poem that exists

* will never equal the poem that does not exist*

Trembling, it crosses the frontier at dawn

From non-being to being

Carrying a small banner

Bearing a message

Bringing news of the poem that does not exist

That pulses like a star, red and green, no colour

*Blazing white against whiteness. *

James McAuley on Dobson:  “Art defeats time by arresting things within its short duration – though we have it, we have it only in the mode of Art; not in actuality”.   The Duke in My Last Duchess , having a portrait of his former wife has  a permanent representation of her that only he controls, but he, unremorsely, lacks the real one.

***                    The Mirror***

Jan Vermeer Speaks

Time that is always gone stays still
A moment in this quiet room.
Nothing exists but what we know,
The mirror gathers in the world,
Time and the world. And I shall hold
All summers in a stroke of gold.

Twilight, and one last fall of sun
That slants across the window-sill,
And, mirrored darkly in the glass
(Can paint attempt that unlit void?)
All night, oblivion, is stayed
Within the curtain’s folded shade.

Upon the table bread and wine.
The earthen pitcher’s perfect curve
Once spun upon the potter’s wheel
Is pivot of the turning world,
Still centre where my peace abides,
Round moon that draws all restless tides.

There, it is done. The vision fades
And Time moves on. Oh you who praise
This tangled, broken web of paint,
I paint reflections in a glass:
Who look on Truth with mortal sight
Are blinded in its blaze of light.
**      **

Artists attempt to capture a moment of time for posterity.  Painters and poets attempt to depict the essence of reality, rather than just its surface appearance - the tensions of life - stillness and movement - yet arrested in permanence. The artist, Vermeer, insists he can: hold/ All summers in a stroke of gold.

The silence of a painting can evolve into eloquence.  The reference to Vermeer encaspulates the similarity of poetry and painting.  The poem may owe something to Robert Frost’s Nothing Gold Can Stay.

Dobson is Australian in the continual shifts of light and shadow , which characterise the shade of gum trees – the giving and withholding of understanding.

A.D. Hope talks about her “passionate serenity” being hard won. 

                    Life gets better

As I grow older

Not giving a damn

And looking slantwise

At everyone’s morning.** **


The next poem could be seen as an adaptation of Shakespeare’s seven ages of mankind from *As You Like It. * Based on a tram ride up William Street, Sydney, it could also be a series of paintings - a tapestry or mosaic. It begins with a young child too small to reach the door knocker, moves to a young woman observing young soldiers (Americans overpaid, over sexed and over here?)  an older woman waiting for anyone, to the final one of death and desolation.

One Section

***          ***At the first doorway a child with a jug held carefully,

The cat with its back arched to a query, and the knocker

A little too high for her hand.

* *

At the next a girl who leant on the iron railing

In a parroty dress with eyes on the tipsy soldiers –

Hands full of bottles and roses, buying a paper.

* *

At the third, with the curtain bellying out from behind her

A woman waiting for something, or nothing – in slippers,

One hand to her eyes to shade the dazzle from a distance.

* *

Will you believe what I saw in the late afternoon from the tramway,

Going up William Street from the Past to the Future?

Who can deny it is death in the final doorway?

* *

Shut, shut with the wind blowing from inside,

The bulb removed from the socket under the lampshade,

*And the Vacancy notice swinging loose in the window.   *(1944)

Dobson returns to the issue of dying in 

***          Grieving***

Friends die one after another

Each time a darker disorder

A ceaseless banging of shutters…..      

Rosemary Dobson became one of Australia’s most accomplished poets.  She died in 2012, at the age of 92.

Excerpted from the** National Library of Australia, *A Celebration of Rosemary Dobson* by Joy A Hooton