James Brunton Stephens

(17 June 1835 – 29 June 1902 / Borrowstounness, on the Firth of Forth, Scotland;)

A Son of the Soil


Said the Preacher “All is Vanity!”—appending as a reason
That the things we find our pleasure in are bound to pass and pall;
But it seems to me that whatso'er endureth for a season
Isn't half as vain as whatso'er hath never been at all.

When you find that what you've hitherto been wont to make a boast of
Must be numbered with the ejects that from muddled brains proceed—
When you find that in respect thereof there isn't ev'n a ghost of
Fact to back it up—ah, then, you may cry “Vanity,” indeed.

From my tend'rest years I've plumed myself on being an Australian—
An Australian pure and simple, of the most authentic brand;
Scotchman, Englishman, and Irishman alike to me were alien;
I was sibber to King Billy through our common mother-land.

To the pride of local genesis my being was surrendered,
The worthiest of immigrants I looked upon with scorn
As exotic interlopers under foreign skies engendered,
Though transplanted to my country fifty years ere I was born.

What although they wove the fabric of Australia's starry banner
From the fibre of their being till the tissue was complete,—
'Twas for us, the young, to wave it in our own emphatic manner
In the face of all things ancient, European and effete!

“Ours the fitter hand to hold the reins,” I sedulously boasted;
And whenever at the festal board occasion would allow,
“Australia for the Australians!” with a hip-hooray I toasted . . . .
And to-day I learn I'm no more an Australian than a Chow.

Would to heav'n I'd been content to play the “Native” single-handed,
Nor sought to be enrolled in that accursèd A.N.A., *
But the vain ambition seized me to be registered and branded
As an organised Australian—and I gave myself away.

Not long to crush my fondest pride the ruthless Council tarried;
Yester eve I made my overtures, the answer came at morn—
“Dear Sir, at last night's meeting 'twas unanimously carried
“That a person born at Battersea is not Australian-born.”
“At Battersea?” “At Battersea?”—Unwitting of objection
I had hardly even looked at my certificate of birth,
Which, now “Returned herewith,” brought dimly back to recollection
A tale of my nativity on t'other side the earth.

How my mother (rest her soul) by wayward appetences fretted
Cried aloud for the Old Country and a breath of English air;

How my father, ripe for holiday, her last caprice abetted. . . . .
And I, a mere expectancy, went them unaware.

And though the self-same year in shining dells of myrtle found me,
Where the wattle shed its perfume and the lories flashed their gems,
And the white acacia blossoms flaked the verdure allaround me—
I had been born in London, on the Surrey side of Thames.

Oh, vanity of vanities, the birth I made a boast of!
Oh, unsubstantial eject of an inadvertent brain!
And the self-confounding sentiment I made so brave a toast of
Gr-r. I danced on my certificate—and even that was vain.

* * * * *
I have slept upon the question. I have faced the problem squarely
At the favoured hour of wisdom when the darkness turns to grey.
I have reckoned up “nativity” impartially and fairly,
And I've come to the conclusion they are fools, the A.N.A.

If begotten of and from the soil, what lack I to be native?
What matters where my skin first felt the chill of mundane airs,
If my origin was here, in this alluvium procreative
Whose substance reached me through two generations of forbears?

That an accidental deviousness in time of incubation
Should make my whence irrelevant, and pin me to Whereat—
Do they really mean to play on me with calm deliberation
A pyramidal, orbicular absurdity like that!

But no matter. Let them hug their narrow canons of admission:
The A.N.A. are not the only natives in the land.
There is yet another outlet for my dominant ambition;
I will hie me to King Billy; he will take me by the hand.

He will lead me to his tribe, on slight preliminary payment;
As a resurrected ancestor my status shall be fixed;
As a native of the natives I will rid me of my raiment;
I will rub me with goanna grease and charcoal intermixed.

I'll adorn my head with feathers, and to decorate my body
I will grave it o'er with diagrams, and fill the grooves with clay.
I will capture me a lubra by the suasion of a waddy—
And who'll be native, then, my high and mighty A.N.A.?

* Australian Natives' Association.

Submitted: Wednesday, March 03, 2010

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