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This review is taken from PN Review 172, Volume 33 Number 2, November - December 2006.

PIONEER VOICES Hell and After: Four Early English-Language Poets of Australia, edited by Les Murray (Fyfield Books) £ 9.95

This rewarding anthology follows its predecessor, Fivefathers (1994), in offering the best of Australian poetry to a wider anglophone readership. Where that volume brought together work by early- and mid-twentieth-century poets (among them Kenneth Slessor and Francis Webb), Hell and After introduces so-called 'pioneer' voices, those of Francis McNamara, Mary Gilmore, John Shaw Neilson and Lesbia Harford. Les Murray has writ-ten a somewhat rambling introduction to the book and provides useful background material for each of the four poets.

Australian literature begins, diabolically, as it were, with scenes from convict life. A transport from Ireland, Frank McNamara (1811-1880) produced balladry and satire in protest against the excesses of Australia's penal system; but it is for his recently authenticated poem 'A Convict's Tour to Hell' that he is now deservedly best known. Here McNamara confronts his earthly persecutors, whom he portrays languishing amidst fire and brimstone. For all that, as Murray keenly observes, the poem is remarkably lighthearted and devoid of real malice.

The work of Mary Gilmore (1865-1962) is much more intimate, dealing generally with domestic subjects and private feeling. Raised in the bush, and active in the founding of the Australian Labor Party, Gilmore went on to become a national celebrity, as famous for her forceful opinions as for her poetry. Unfortunately the very strength of her character often intrudes on her genuine lyrical capabilities. A poem such as 'Second-hand Beds', for example, is marred by unpleasant Victorian earnestness ('how would you feel?' etc); ...


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