In 1965, a 78-year-old woman gave an interview to the Sydney Morning Herald from her nursing home bed.
In it, she discussed a poem she’d written almost 60 years earlier. The woman was celebrated Australian poet Dorothea Mackellar. And the poem? “My Country”.
A bush poet in the suburbs
Dorothea Mackellar was born on 1 July 1885 at Dunara, Point Piper’s oldest surviving house, just across the water from Darling Point. The third child of Charles and Marion Mackellar, she was christened at All Saints’ Woollahra as Isobel Marion Dorothea Mackellar.
Dorothea was homeschooled and travelled widely with her parents, becoming fluent in many languages, including German, French, Italian and Spanish. She would later travel with her father and serve as his interpreter.
The family moved in many circles, mixing with people in Sydney, London, and at the family’s country properties near Gunnedah and in the Hunter Valley. It was at one of these country properties where a young Dorothea is said to have experienced “droughts and flooding rains”, dancing barefoot in the water as the heavens opened and the parched earth was finally soaked.
A writer is born
Dorothea had always written as a child. When she was 19 and living in the UK, she had her first poem published in the London Spectator. That poem was called “Core of My Heart”.
The poem’s first verse describes the English landscape and the typical beauty of the green and pleasant land. It references “green and shaded lanes”, “ordered woods and gardens” and “soft dim skies”.
But these were not the things Dorothea longed for. She was, in short, homesick. And the poem’s second verse famously reveals this.
“I love a sunburnt country”
The verse that would become so well known to many Australians is in fact the second verse in “Core of My Heart”, which we now know as “My Country”. It opens with the iconic line “I love a sunburnt country”.
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After its initial London publication, the poem was then published in the 1911 collection of Dorothea’s work, The Closed Door. After this success, Dorothea published three more books of verse and three novels. Her writing was also published in the Sydney Bulletin, the American magazine Harper’s, Bush Brother, Sunday Times and The Australasian and Sunday Mail. And her work was translated into many languages, including French, German, and even Japanese.
Family obligations and Darling Point
Although she was engaged twice, Dorothea never married. Instead, she devoted herself to her family. It’s believed she wrote little after her father’s death in 1926. After her mother died in 1933, Dorothea moved to Cintra, a neat, late 19th century two-storey home at 155 Darling Point Rd. Dorothea divided the next 30 years between Cintra and another property she owned at Church Point on Pittwater, in northern Sydney.
In that 1965 interview, Dorothea expressed her hope of moving from the nursing home, where she had lived for a number of years, back to Cintra. But it was not to be.
On New Year’s Day 1968 she was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for her contribution to Australian literature. She died just two weeks later. Her funeral was held at St Mark’s in Darling Point and her ashes interred at Waverley cemetery. The poem she considered her finest, “Colour”, was read at her funeral.
Described by one critic as “a lyricist of colour and light”, Dorothea Mackellar never actually considered herself a poet, stating simply that she had “written some amount of verse”.
Photo credit: Wikipedia