Dorothea Mackellar, 'Core of My Heart' (My Country)
In February 2017, in a double first, Dorothea Mackellar’s poetry notebook ‘Verses 1907-1908’ has become the first Australian literary archive to be added to UNESCO’s Australian Memory of the World register; Mackellar, regarded by many as Australia’s quintessential poet, is also the first Australian woman to have her literary work so honoured.
Early in 1908, a young Dorothea Mackellar (1885-1968) sat down to write out the final draft of a poem she had been working on for four years. ‘Core of My Heart’ (later ‘My Country’) would become the poet’s most iconic achievement as a writer, marking a pinnacle in her literary career and creating a lasting landmark in Australia’s literary heritage.
Poetry has played an important part in the founding of literature in Australia, and the works of Dorothea Mackellar are among our nation's most important examples of literary heritage. Already a young woman of some accomplishment when she began to write poetry, Mackellar had long resented the tendency, at this time, for Australians to refer to England as ‘home’. In an interview in 1967, Mackellar described her reasons for writing this her most iconic verse, saying ‘...a friend was speaking to me about England...she was talking about Australia and what it didn't have, compared to England. And I began talking about what it did have that England hadn't...’
Addressing her most famous poem to English readers, Mackellar’s inspiration for her most iconic verse came directly from her childhood experience of life on the land, and reflected the spirit of ardent nationalism which had ignited with Australian Federation in 1901.
From 1898 to 1901, the Mackellar Family owned ‘Torryburn’ station on the Allyn River, near East Gresford, in the NSW Hunter region. While holidaying there as a girl, Mackellar had witnessed the breaking of a drought. In later life, the poet recalled how, after the rain, the grass began to shoot across the parched, cracked soil of the paddocks and, as she watched from the verandah, the land to the horizon turned green before her eyes.
Mackellar wrote the first drafts of ‘Core of My Heart’ (later ‘My Country’), Australia’s best loved and most quoted poem, in England between 1904 and 1908. The only known manuscript version of the poem in its original final form was recorded in Mackellar’s notebook, ‘Verses 1907-1908’. The 'Core of My Heart' manuscript is unusual in that it records the poem exactly as it was originally written down by young Dorothea, who is known to have worked up her initial ideas, revising the text of her poems in letters to family and friends, before transcribing a ‘clean’, final draft of her work into poetry notebooks, like this one, which she compiled chronologically each year. This slim bound volume is particularly significant as it contains a unique archive of the poet’s creative output in her breakthrough year.
Mackellar made revisions to ‘Core of My Heart’ prior to its first printing on 5 September 1908 in The Spectator (p.7), in which minor alterations to several lines in the second stanza are apparent. She continued to refine the text of her poem, including changing the title to ‘My Country’, resulting in slightly different versions appearing in subsequent re-printings of the poem.
The impact of the debut of this work on Australian literary culture was immediate. ‘My Country’ found its mark with readers of all ages and levels of society, fanning nascent nationalism in the post-Federation and pre-war eras. Mackellar’s poem voiced powerful statements of fervent patriotism and connection to the land, just as Australia was coming of age as a nation and on the brink of participation in global warfare. Through this single literary work, generations of Australians have come to cherish the poem’s lyrical expression of Mackellar’s relationship to, and love of, the land, as well as the author’s articulation of pride in her identity as an Australian.
In the century since its creation, ‘My Country’ has had an almost immeasurable impact on the collective consciousness of Australians, especially within the sphere of literary culture and, for many, remains the ultimate expression of the centrality of the land to Australian identity. Resilience in the face of natural disaster, as described in Mackellar’s iconic verse, has come to be seen as part of the Australian national character, and in the 21st century, ‘My Country’ remains in the collective consciousness of Australians.
A wonderful poet of light and colour, commenting towards the end of her life, Mackellar made her own assessment of the significance of her poetry: ‘I did say more or less what I wanted to say, and that's the satisfaction.'
The original manuscript draft of the poem ‘Core of my Heart’ (later ‘My Country’), which forms part of Dorothea Mackellar’s ‘Verses 1907-1908’, has been digitised.
If you are interested to find out more about Dorothea Mackellar, please have a read of the Story - My Country - Dorothea Mackellar.