Imagining History #3: Exile's Farewell
Adam Lindsay Gordon (1833-1870)
The best known remittance man with Western District connections is the poet Adam Lindsay Gordon, who was sent out to Australia by his exasperated family in 1853. Gordon, both as a 20 year old young man and a poet, felt his rejection keenly. I have condensed three of his early poems associated with his journey to the other side of the world on the barque Julia.
They are To My Sister (composed on board ship at the London docks three days prior to departure), An Exile's Farewell (written during his passage when the vessel was about halfway to Australia), and Early Adieux (written after his arrival at Port Adelaide where he was to join the Police Force as a mounted trooper). In these verses the contradictory emotions of defiance and self-pity wrestle for primacy, but Gordon is often exhausted by the struggle and "takes relief in listless apathy".
AN EXILE'S FAREWELL
"The broad Atlantic's bed of foam,
Still breaks against our prow;
I shed no tears at quitting home
Nor will I shed them now...
Across the trackless seas I go,
No matter when or where,
And few my future lot will know,
And fewer still will care...
My parents bid me cross the flood,
My kindred frowned at me;
They say I have belied my blood
And stained my pedigree...
Adieu to kindred hearts and home,
To pleasure, joy, and mirth;
A fitter foot than mine to roam
Could scarcely tread the earth...
What fears have I? What hopes in life?
What joys can I command?
A few short years of toil and strife
In a strange and distant land...
My mother is a stately dame
Who oft would chide with me.
She saith my riot bringeth shame
And stains my pedigree...
Perchance my mother will recall
My mem'ry with a sigh,
When, like a nightmare's troubled dream,
I, outcast, pass away...
I seem to have a load to bear,
A heavy choking grief;
Could I have forced a single tear
I might have felt relief.
I think my hot and restless heart
Has scorched the channels dry
From which those sighs of sorrow start
To moisten cheek and eye...
Then let our barque the ocean roam,
Our keel the billows plough;
I shed no tears at quitting home,
Nor will I shed them now."
Gordon's conflicting emotions of rebellion and grief are not by any means inappropriate to a young man who has been expelled by his parents. In his mind the parallels of convict transportation may have been all too obvious. While his condition is not as grim in all respects, he is in reality being penalised for his behaviour, and that penalty sentences him to life in the remotest of colonies, without prospect or permission to return home. An ingrained sense of injustice will dog him for the next 17 years. This is a hurt suffered that he can never forgive, a wound that does not heal.
The next section involves the radical re-organisation of a much later poem. Thick-headed Thoughts is in three distinct parts and might be most usefully considered as the product of working through a hangover (or, in this case, three separate hangovers). Much of Gordon's verse is bedevilled by a moral imperative. Things are really crappy but a gentleman always ends on a cheerily optimistic note. So blatantly bad are these 'philosophical' conclusions that they can only be considered part of a poem by the reader discounting everything previous to them in that same poem. This is not always the case with Gordon, but where it occurs, radical surgery seems justified.
My version of Thick-headed Thoughts disregards the last verse as completely unconvincing in the context of the preceding verses, as well as reversing the order of the parts, so that part 3 is now part 1, 2 remains second, and part 1 becomes part 3. Disrupting Gordon's order is not routine, but in this instance I am trying to reveal what lies at the heart of this collection of verses, what really moved the poet at this time, what really motivated him to write that stuff at that particular time. And it almost certainly was not the Boy Scout motif that he chose as its ending.
'Tis a wicked world we live in;
Wrong in reason, wrong in rhyme...
Strength's a shadow; Hope is madness;
Love, delusion; Friendship, sham;
Pleasure fades away to sadness,
None of these is worth a d n.
There is nought on earth to please us;
All things at the crisis fail.
Friends desert us, bailiffs tease us...
I saw a donkey going down the road
The other day: a boy was on his back,
Who on the long-eared quadruped bestowed,
With a stout cudgel, many a hearty thwack;
But lazier and lazier grew the beast,
Until he dwindled to a step so slow
That I felt sure 'twould take him, at the least,
Full half an hour one blessed mile to go.
Soliloquising on this state of things,
'That moke's like me', I muttered with a sigh;
'He might go faster if he'd got some wings,
But Nature's made him better off than I;
For though I've all his obstinacy - aye! all -
His sullen spirit, and his dogged ways,
I've not one particle, however small,
Of that praiseworthy patience he displays.'
I've something of a bull-dog in my breed...
While life is in me I can fight and bleed,
But never the chastising hand caress.
You say the stroke was well intended.
You mention 'It was meant to do me good.'
'That may be.'
'You deserve it.'
'Then take it kindly.'
'No---I never could.'"
This version is blacker, certainly. But it also reveals a prickly character, someone who is unlikely to receive gracefully those lessons that Life/God/Universe so liberally bestows on him. Gordon's default response is "No matter what, I'll do it my way." He is not some fey figure who was consistently unlucky in life. He has some agency. He is bloody-minded. He is alive. But he sees things differently to those who do not share his perverse, and peculiarly alcoholic, perspective. And according to that perverse, alcoholic, way of thinking, all his setbacks and disappointments make perfect sense. They accumulate around him like trophies from honourable defeats. He is determined not to learn life's lessons, not to adjust his attitudes and actions to suit the ways of the World/God/Society. It is, after all, very personal. Gordon is at the centre of his own universe, looking out. It is all about Him and Obstinacy is his rock. He will go down with his ship.
The next and final section comes from a letter written in 1868 by Gordon to his rich friend and benefactor, the squatter John Riddoch of Yallum Park. Encouraged and financed by Riddoch to take on the Craig's Hotel Livery Stables at Ballarat, Gordon took little more than twelve months to go broke. The letter is written after the clearing sale of his effects to meet the demands of creditors. Gordon is understandably depressed by his circumstances but old habits die hard and he tries to rally his feelings with the sentiment of "Well, things could be worse". But as the letter goes on each rally becomes progressively weaker, until he can no longer muster the emotional energy even to pretend. He senses that he is nearing the end and for once he is relatively honest about the extent of his drinking.
MY DEAR RIDDOCH
I gave up the stables on the first of this month.
I have paid altogether 350 pounds for rent.
Let me tell you some good news now before I go to the bad.
I have had some money left to me by the deaths of my father's first cousin,
and of my grandmother.
I ought to have received it long ago.
It is not much, but it will set me straight...
I have been awfully bothered about money difficulties;
but I think I have now paid off everybody but you and Lawson the mortgagee.
Getting in the money that is still due to me here is very difficult.
But I have sold off everything,
and though many things were sacrificed,
I did not do so badly after all...
When I lost the Ballarat Hunt Cup on Maude I thoroughly gave in,
and refused to ride Cadger for the Selling Steeplechase,
saying that it was no use.
But Mrs Gordon said
(she has more pluck in her little finger than I ever had in my whole body)
'Don't give in like that, old man;
you've gone too far to back out now,
and no one else can ride the horse.
It's only a small stake, but every shilling is of consequence to us now.'
So I rode Cadger and won.
Then Viking won the hurdle race.
So I didn't do so badly.
You have no idea how sick of horse-racing and steeple-chasing I now am;
but when a man gets so deep in the mire, it is hard to draw back.
I have to ride three races in Melbourne next Saturday,
though I am scarcely fit to ride a donkey at present.
I do not fancy I shall have any luck,
but my luck can't possibly be worse than it has been.
I would like never to see a horse again,
let alone ride one.
The stables have been very badly managed,
and Mount, though a well-meaning fellow,
has a head worse if possible for business than mine.
But after that fall of mine I was bound to leave
the books entirely in his hands,
and a pretty mess he made of the accounts.
I could hardly have done worse myself.
Since that heavy fall of mine I have taken to drink.
I don't get drunk,
but I drink a good deal more than I ought to,
for I have a constant pain in my head and back.
I get so awfully low-spirited and miserable,
that if I had a strong sleeping-draught near me,
I am afraid I might take it.
I have carried one that I should never awake from.
You will perhaps be awfully shocked, old fellow,
to see me write in this strain;
but I am not exaggerating, at least.
If I could only persuade myself that I am a little mad,
I might do something of that sort.
I really do feel a little mad at times, and I begin to think I have had
more trouble than I can put up with, I could almost say
more than I deserve,
though this would probably be untrue.
When I parted from my wife on the pier and saw the steamer take her away,
I felt sure I would never see her again;
and when I got back to Ballarat,
and went into the empty house,
I was very low-spirited.
I used to smoke all night long.
I could not sleep, and had to take
a stiff nobbler in the morning.
But I got through my work somehow,
and settled up all my business...
Yours very truly
A. LINDSAY GORDON."
Early on the morning of 24 June 1870, after having failed to rouse his local publican for a morning nobbler, Gordon took his rifle along Brighton beach and, in a patch of Ti-Tri scrub, lay down and shot himself.