On The Mitchells
The following article was written by the editor for The English Review, a UK journal for A-level English Literature students. A slightly modified version of it was published in Vol. 17, No. 2, Nov. 2006. Reproduced with permission.
Jason Clapham shows how Les Murray's sonnet "The Mitchells" is interesting for students of post-colonial literature as well as those exploring what the sonnet can do
There are certain poems that are difficult to write about because they are so easy. This is not usually the case with Les Murray's work: dense and outspoken, his poems lend themselves readily to detailed analysis and discussion. But "The Mitchells" is different: on first glance it seems to be no more than an affectionate description of two men taking a lunch break in the outback.
Celebrating something without giving it away
One way to approach poems such as these is to start not with language and form but with the key question the reader is left with. In this case, what is it about the Mitchells that the poet thinks is worth writing about? There is an interesting humility about the men, choosing to boil their water in a "prune tin" and wear an "oil-stained felt hat" even though one of them "has been rich". Then there is the curious delayed response of the second Mitchell, who would look up "with pain and subtle amusement" before repeating an identical phrase, "I'm one of the Mitchells". In fact, these two features are related: the faint, understated humour at work here is reminiscent of a quality Murray associates with "deeply Australian" traits of "restraint" coupled with the "sardonic".
Seen in the light of Murray's comments, the poem appears to be a study of Australian rural culture, even a celebration of it. Some years before writing this poem Murray expressed a "paradoxical" desire to "celebrate something without giving it away", and this poem appears to do that. There is a festive quality about the "unthinning mists of white // bursaria blossom", both in their appearance and in bursaria being another name for The Christmas Bush (as it flowers in the Australian midsummer).
The fact that the bees are described as working a "shift" creates a connection between their work in the Australian florabursaria and wattlesand that of the men working the land, while the second Mitchell holds leaves in his hand as he gives his name, creating a strong association between the men's identity and the land they farm.
The poem as a sonnet
It therefore might seem odd for Murray to choose the sonnet, a quintessentially European form, with resonances (for us) of genteel love games and the Elizabethan court. Taking a post-colonial approach, commentators such as Ashcroft would not be surprised: as he says in The Empire Writes Back, Les Murray
faces two directions, wishing to reconstitute experience through an act of writing which uses the tools of one culture or society and yet seeks to remain faithful to the experiences of another. (59)
The "Mitchells" does at first seem to support such a reading. A cursory glance at the poem establishes the traditional division into octave and sestet, with the octave further divided into two quatrains (at least visually). More important, perhaps, is the sense of a volta in the unexpected switch to urban in the final line, "Sometimes the scene is an avenue". As in a traditional sonnet, this line effectively alters the meaning of the sonnet as a whole: the urban "avenue" suggests that this "pair" of men represent something broader than a particular rural culture, they represent Australia itself.
We might read this as an irreverent post-colonial "subversion" of the genre. Murray has replaced the urbanity and confident virtuosity expected of the sonnet with plain speaking ("I am seeing this") and an awkward hesitation ("raise / I think for wires The first man, if asked "). Instead of aristocratic amours, this sonnet cheerfully presents workmen eating "big meat sandwiches out of a Styrofoam / box with a handle". There might be something indecorous about the pronounced caesurae that slice through four lines, and about the four enjambed lines of the octave; the thirteen, fourteen and sixteen syllable lines seem to struggle against the confinement of the sonnet "box". In "The Quality of Sprawl", a poem published shortly after "The Mitchells", the poet seems to describe this spirit of irreverence as quintessentially Australian:
Sprawl is doing your farming by aeroplane, roughly ...
Sprawl occurs in art. The fifteenth to twenty-first
lines in a sonnet, for example.
Sprawl gets up the nose of many people ...
So "The Mitchells" can be read as Murray working against the sonnet form, provoking the "centre", trying to free himself of it.
Beyond this, however, such readings are too limiting to allow us to discover much of interest about the poem. It is worth reminding ourselves that the octave-sestet structure of the sonnet dates back to pre-colonial Europe, beyond Dante to Lentini in early 13th century Italy. It could be argued that Murray is doing what poets have always done, importing foreign genres and adapting them to local language and experience (the English sonnet tradition began this way, with Wyatt in the sixteenth century). Seeing Murray as a sort of Janus, with one eye on the poetic genres of the "centre" and the other on the marginal "Otherness" of Australian experience is simply inaccurate. As he remarks in his introduction to Hell and After, Murray feels he has struggled throughout his career against "the narrow national protectionisms which still impede much poetry in English from reaching its natural public across the whole Anglophone world". Post-colonial readings, many of them emanating from the "centre", seem to constitute one such "protectionism", as they leave Murray with a secondary status.
The Vernacular Republic
Language is what "The Mitchells" is really about. The reader is immediately struck by the lack of literary pretension right from the opening four words of the poem, and the language of the whole poem seems to imitate the qualities of directness, reticence and humour discernable in the speech it includes. There is little that could be described as "non-standard" English, grammatically speaking, but the attempts to capture the cadences of Australian speech are unmistakable. This is particularly apparent on hearing Les Murray read this poem; listen, for example, to the elongation of the /a/ sound of the word "handle" and the lack of any sort of subordinating pause around the phrase "I think" in the third line.
The first published version of this poem bore the more grandiose title "Dedication, Written Last, for the Vernacular Republic" (1974). Although this was replaced, Murray used the idea of a "vernacular republic" for his 1976 edition of selected poems, where the Australian vernacular is held to be key to understanding Australian identity. It is "the matrix [of Australian] distinctiveness" he says, "[w]e are a colloquial nation", a "vernacular republic".
The poem dignifies Australian speech, presenting it as beautiful in its own way and worthy of being immortalised in the high art of the sonnet. In his review of The Macquarie Dictionary (the first dictionary of Australian English), Murray says
how much larger and richer our dialect is than many had thought ... gently but firmly shifting our linguistic perception, so that our entire language is henceforth centred for us, not thousands of miles away, but here where we live.
His poetry might be said to have a similar effect.
Nearly everything they say is ritual
In the third to last line of the poem, the reader is struck by an apparent disjunction between the second man announcing that he is "I'm one of the Mitchells" and our being told that one of the men "has been rich / but never stopped wearing the oil-stained felt hat". When we look at the following line the logic becomes clear: "Nearly everything / they say is ritual", the purpose of their speaking is, like many rituals, to express a sense of identity and belonging, and the hat serves also as a badge of identity. Indeed, the speaker persistently fails to distinguish one man from the other - what is important is the fact that they are both Mitchells, not their differences or Christian names.
It is worth noting that the name Mitchell, like the name Murray, is strongly associated with the Scottish settlers of Australia (Les Murray's own family arrived in Sydney from Scotland in 1848, fleeing poverty caused by the highland clearances). By declaring that they are Mitchells, the men are honouring their "lost" Gaelic roots, an important constituent of Australian identity: as Murray has said, "Many [Austrialians'] attitudes, even their turns of phrase, are only really comprehensible in terms of that lost inheritance". The poem as a whole can be seen as a sort of "clanship" ritual, like a number of other Murray poems, namely "Four Gaelic Poems", "A Skirl for Outsets" and "Elegy for Angus Macdonald of Cnoclinn" which concludes
.. Even the claim I make at times
to write Gaelic in English words
would make you sniff (but also smile),
but my fathers were Highlanders long ago
then Borderers, before this landfall
The Scottish theme is arguably continued in the ritualised actions of the men. The very act of brewing tea and eating together by a campfire is ritualistic, and peculiarly Australian. But many would be also be reminded of a better known bush tea drinker:
Oh! there once was a swagman camped in the Billabong,
Under the shade of a Coolabah tree;
And he sang as he looked at his old billy boiling,
"Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?"
Less well known, perhaps, is that this celebration of Australian experience and "unofficial national anthem" as it is sometimes called, was written by a poet also from New South Wales, of Scottish descent, and that the tune for "Waltzing Matilda" is actually a Scottish folk tune.
Who is seeing this?
One of the interesting features of "The Mitchells" is the positioning of the poem's speaker. At the opening of the poem he describes what he is "seeing", apparently at some distance or hidden in the wattles, close enough to hear the bees humming around it mingled with the mens' voices and the bubbling of the water. He seems unsure of the nature of the work they are undertaking and, as if seeking clarification "overhear[s]" a comment by "one" of the men (he is unsure which). The remainder of the poem is presented first in the conditional, as the speaker has an imaginary conversation with "the pair", perhaps because he is no longer able to hear, and then he makes an observation that could sounds made at a distance: "one has been rich / but never stopped wearing his oil-stained felt hat".
So who is the speaker? The speaker's observation of the men seems to stand in for the reader's, his fascination prefigures our own. Like him, we live predominantly urban lives, amongst "avenues" rather than wattles, and watch this ritual and drama of this scene played out with a sense of nostalgia for the certainty with which they would answer the question left unspoken in the poem: who are you?
Ashcroft, B. (2002) The Empire Writes Back, New Accents
Longley, M. (2004) Snow Water, Jonathan Cape
Matthews, S. (2001) Les Murray, Manchester University Press.
Murray, L. (2003) New Collected Poems, Carcanet.
Murray, L. Hell and After (2005), Carcanet. [Read the Introduction]
Williams, H. (2005) Collected Poems, Faber.
Jason Clapham teaches English at St Edward's Oxford
After completing the article I had the opportunity to ask Les Murray about the poem. Here are some of the remarks he made in his fax of 22 March, 2006.
On title of the poem:
"I stuck with the longer and mightier title for a little while, quickly coming to the conclusion that it was too large a title for that short poem The poem felt more comfortable with its less grandiose name "The Mitchells": that's a surname with some resonance in Oz, partly from the splendid white Major Mitchell cockatoo, partly from the real surname of Dame Nellie Melba [soprano], partly from the venerable Mitchell Library in Sydney etc. etc. though I was mainly thinking of Joe Michell, an itinerant working in Henry Lawson's short stories. The poem did stand as a sort of epigraph to Ethnic Radio [see Bibliography], in which the ethnicity I meant was an Australian one."
On the sonnet form:
"As to my attitude to the sonnet back then, I dimly recall preferring the Petrarchan to the Shakespearean because the Petrarchan tended to integrate the last six lines into the poem, even after a strong volta, while a Shakespearean one might be no more than 12-lines with a pat concluding couplet, like the rhymed couplet that often the end of a scene in one of the plays. But I was never very steamed up about all that, and I can't recall being very political about subverting the sonnet form, if indeed that's what I did. Maybe I was grinning to myself just a little thoughI was still at war with the dimensions of Empire and Posh back then "