William Sharp in Australia

In compiling an anthology of Gippsland poetry in the 1980s, I came across and republished a number of impressive poems written by a William Sharp. All I knew about him at the time was that he was a late-nineteenth-century London literary figure. Three decades later I was reading a ground-breaking book, Ireland’s Immortals by Mark Williams, an explanation of the role of the gods in ancient Irish myths. There to my surprise I came across, in Williams’s chapter on the Celtic Twilight in Scotland, the same William Sharp as himself and also in the guise of his alter ego, Fiona Macleod. Into this imagined Scots poetess Sharp poured much of the upwelling of Celtic consciousness which he felt possessed his being. Books by both Sharp and “Fiona Macleod” were influential during the decades around 1900, though at that stage the public did not know the connection; some suspected “Fiona Macleod” was William Butler Yeats in disguise. The Sharp-Macleod connection was revealed only after Sharp’s death in 1905.

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William Sharp, a Scot born in Paisley in 1855, was a student at the University of Glasgow when in 1872 he contracted typhoid. His health deteriorated, resulting in a neurasthenic episode, and in 1876 he embarked, aged twenty-one, on a recuperative trip to Australia. On his return Sharp married his cousin, Elizabeth Sharp, who became his muse and literary secretary, which complicates an already tangled story. How does this brief antipodean interlude fit into Australian poetry at the time, and what light does it throw on Sharp’s extensive later career?

Some of Sharp’s early poems were published in anthologies of Australian poetry in 1888 edited by Douglas Sladen who, like Sharp, had a short sojourn in Victoria. We know Sharp was based in Melbourne while in Australia, and visited the Aboriginal settlement at Lake Condah, the Murray River, Gippsland and the Australian Alps. Among his series of poems on rural scenes titled “Australian Transcripts” in Earth Voices (1884) is “Sunset Amid the Buffalo Mountains (N.E. Victoria)”:

Across the boulder’d majesty
Of the great hills the passing day
Drifts like a wind-borne cloud away
Far off beyond the western sky:
And while a purple glory spreads,
With straits of gold and brilliant reds,
An azure veil, translucent, strange,
Dreamlike steals over each dim range.

The perspective is of a long-range view, with brilliant colours fading away in the still late afternoon, nature in its sublime mood, generous, far reaching, open to all, but distant and out of reach. The poem conveys a mood of restful and dreamy contentment beyond the temporal, and beyond human activity. Its dominant mountain scenery closely parallels Nicholas Chevalier’s painting The Buffalo Ranges.

In contrast is Sharp’s poem “In The Fern (Gippsland)”:

The heathery fern-trees make a screen,
Wherethrough the sun-glare cannot pass—
Fern, gum, and lofty sassafras:
The fronds sweep over, palely green,
And underneath are orchids curl’d
Adream through this cool shadow-world;
A fragrant greenness—like the noon
Of lime-trees in an English June.

Here in contrast nature is in close-up, focused on the fairy dells and glades of the forest’s understorey. The scene has a subdued greenness, screened off from the wider world rather than opening out to it, as in the Buffalo mountains poem. The miniature world of the forest’s understorey produces a fanciful, evanescent semi-Celtic religion of nature. A close equivalent in painting is Fern Tree Gully, Mount Useful (c. 1865), also by Nicholas Chevalier.

In Sharp’s poems we often find an Arnoldian agnostic/religious meditation, mixed in with pre-Raphaelite wispiness, and a vague wondering about fate. These scenes appealed to a tension in Sharp’s personality: rational, masculine Christian strains competing with imaginative feminine pagan ones, with the latter increasingly coming to the fore. In those pre-Freudian and pre-Jungian times, the Victorians saw masculinity and femininity as on a spectrum, the polarities or particular emphases of the whole human person. The new freedom Sharp experienced in Australia released in him the more liberated aspects in his personality, represented in particular by the Celtic understorey rather than the hard God of his Presbyterian upbringing, a move common at the time among those with pronounced artistic sensibilities.

Sharp was not alone in his musings. In the regional history of South Gippsland The Land of the Lyre Bird, a local poet, Walter Johnstone, employed similar perspectives, which represented the Victorian age’s contrasting views of religion:

Never more shall I wander, awe-struck and subdued,
While the shades of deep night on the forest did brood.
And feel, when along those great aisles I have trod.

I worshipped alone in a temple of God …

Never more shall I see the green forest again
Wave free in the sunshine, droop sullen in rain;
No more shall I sway to each altering whim
The laughing, the tearful, the wanton, the prim.

Like Sharp, Johnstone lamented the forests’ clearing which destroyed the delicate understorey. Another local poet, Nellie Clerk, pursued similar themes:

Far to west and to north, great clearings stretch forth;
Herds and flocks and fat pastures revealing,
’Twixt dead trees that stand grey and gaunt o’er the land
With bare arms to heaven appealing.

There axes and fire have wrought my desire,
Before them the matted scrub sweeping;
But armies of these ghostly eucalyptus trees
For years their sad guard will be keeping.

Here the tragic contrast is between the “fat pastures” and the “dead trees” which have been sacrificed to produce such bounty. 

This was not just a matter of a person’s own consciousness, but was linked to a wider panorama, which encompassed the remote past of one’s own and other races. Sharp wrote a poem, “The Last Aboriginal”, about the death of a remnant Aborigine, and supposedly of the disappearance of his race. Douglas Sladen claimed that apart from the poems of Adam Lindsay Gordon, “no poem written in Australia has achieved such a wide popularity in England”. The dying Aborigine calls up for Sharp “the memory of a vanished race”, when Australia was once, eons ago, like the Celtic race, in a more favourable position: “exultant in its noon / when all our Europe was o’erturned”. Now the tables had been turned. The dying Aborigine’s “inner speech” casts “a curse upon the whites who came / and gathered up his race like sheaves”. He laments his own passing from a scene neither he nor his race will ever experience again:

He knows that now
He too must share his race’s night—
He scarce can know the white man’s plough
Will one day pass above his brow.

The Australian poet Henry Kendall had earlier written a similar poem, “The Last of His Tribe”, equally well known in his own country:

For his eyes have been full with a smouldering thought;
But he dreams of the hunts of yore,
And of foes that he sought, and of fights that he fought
With those who will battle no more—
Who will go to the battle no more.

The Aborigine reflects nostalgically on a worthwhile past that will never return. There exists a poem in the same vein attributed to Peter, an Aborigine from Victoria’s Western District. Those sympathetic to the fate of the Aborigines at the time believed that in acknowledging their plight, they were, in the sentimental phrase of the times, “smoothing the pillow of the dying race”. (In fact the race, though severely diminished, was not dying out.)

In the wider nineteenth-century reappraisal of the origins of races, the discovery of the Australian Aborigines and the recording of their customs were crucial. They were seen as living examples of those older and fading races that were attracting so much attention and admiration in Europe. The Australian writings of Howitt and Fison, and of Spencer and Gillen, on Aboriginal customs were extensively used by thinkers like Sir James Frazer, Durkheim, Freud and Jung. At the very time of their suppression, for a moment before supposedly going underground, the Aborigines supplied vital material to weaken the assurance of the dominant culture. The Aborigines themselves had their own ideas of going underground and achieving resurrection. Tasmanian Aborigines believed the souls of their dead went to an island in Bass Strait, where they survived in the guise of ghostly white men. The Aboriginal notion of a white spirit beyond death was conveniently fitted into the contemporary Victorian mythology of the revenant figure.

It was common in the nineteenth century to reflect on allegedly dying races, as for example the last of the Mohicans in the US, and the last Tasmanian here. A marble statue of a dying Gaul, one of the conquered Celtic/Gaulish people of Galatia in Anatolia, was similarly seen as emblematic at the time. Bryon wrote of it:

I see before me the Gladiator lie.
He leans upon his hand—his manly brow
Consents to death, but conquers agony,
And his drooped head sinks gradually low—
And through his side, the last drops, ebbing slow …

The notion of a dying Aboriginal race in Australia stimulated Sharp to place his own Celtic race in a similar context, and by a great imaginative effort to try to reveal its passing culture.

Sharp returned to London to a long and varied literary career. For a Scot there was an obvious precedent to his invention of “Fiona Macleod”. In the mid-eighteenth century his fellow Scot James Macpherson had invented texts, which also used the name “Fiona”, purporting to be from the ancient Celtic warrior and seer Ossian. This seems to have given Sharp, who was familiar with the “Ossianic” writings, the idea of recreating ancestral voices via his own imagined Fiona. Ossian and Sharp’s “Fiona” were revenant figures, who like King Arthur, Cadwallader and Barbarossa in other realms, would one day, it was fondly hoped, reappear after centuries in limbo to reclaim their rightful dominion, and to continue the history of their race. Macpherson’s Ossian and Sharp’s Fiona Macleod were revenants retrojected into the past as ancestral voices which could in turn be retrieved. As Mark Williams points out in Ireland’s Immortals, as authors they invented ancestral voices, while at the same time analysing them in their other role as contemporary commentators.

As the “unhistoric races” of Europe went under, they sought to keep themselves alive through the power of myth, in compensation for the actual power they were losing. Now these long-suppressed races were reviving, finding their native voice again and seeking their place in the sun. On the successful model of German and Italian nationalism and reunification, Poles, Czechs, Jews, Serbs, Greeks, Irish and other nations strove to resurrect their race’s fortunes as they aspired to independence. The Roman empire and the Christian Church had both eliminated religions that worshipped in the open, in natural settings like hilltops, groves and wells. The British Empire was at its height in the nineteenth century, but Sharp was a member of one of the many dissident minorities which challenged the Victorian consensus. He preferred the local, nature gods of the grove to the official religion of the imagined community of the British Empire. In his essay “Feeling into Words”, Seamus Heaney writes of the “tail-end of a struggle between territorial piety and imperial power”. As Yeats understood: “Things reveal themselves passing away”.

As a young Scot in his mid-twenties, moving south to England, Sharp was assailed by the dominant fashions—London’s centrality, Britannia ruling the waves, but also Arnoldian “Dover Beach” tremors of decline. In Edinburgh he had been part of Patrick Geddes’s local circle, which published the magazine the Evergreen, in an attempt to establish a living Scots Celtic heritage, just as the Irish had. Sharp was in touch with Yeats; both were prominent figures in the 1890s Celtic Twilight movement, and members of the occult Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Some people at the time thought the mysterious Fiona Macleod was an alter ego of Yeats himself. Yeats perceptively liked Sharp’s writings, but not Macleod’s.

During his career Sharp had three muses. His first was Edith Winder, a fellow writer in Edinburgh’s Celtic circle, who inspired the Macleod oeuvre. His next was his cousin and wife, Elizabeth Sharp, whom he married in 1884; she dutifully performed the roles of partner, editor, amanuensis and keeper of the flame after his death. The third was his “Fiona Macleod”. Sharp’s sister Mary acted as secretary for the Fiona Macleod industry, copying out in her own handwriting Fiona’s ethereal “correspondence” to keep the subterfuge alive. Williams concludes that Sharp was part of the “new paganism” of many Victorian and Edwardian writers preoccupied with the luminous associations of landscape and classical deities in their chafing against the constraints of Christianity.  

On his return to England until his death in 1905 at the age of fifty, Sharp threw himself into London literary life, publishing in his own name literary biographies, books of his own poetry, poetry anthologies, works of prose fiction, books of criticism of art and literature, and miscellaneous titles, a total of twenty-six volumes in all. His inspiration came gushing forth in an unstoppable torrent. As Fiona Macleod, his last muse, who made her debut in 1894, he published another dozen volumes in the last decade of his life. Altogether he published thirty-eight books in twenty-three years, a formidable literary record. His books under both names were readable, and popular at the time. After his death two more books by Fiona Macleod, and a five-volume edition of his Selected Writings, edited by his wife, appeared. The real author of the Fiona Macleod outpourings became known, as we have seen, only after Sharp’s death.

Remarkably there was at the same period as Sharp another author, James Bonwick, with a somewhat parallel career. Bonwick had come out from England and had a long and distinguished career in Australia from 1841 to 1869 as a teacher and a historian of early Victoria and Australia, publishing many books. One was The Last of the Tasmanians (1870), on the theme that Sharp later made his own. Bonwick collected historical documents, which became the basis of the series Historical Records of New South Wales and later Historical Records of Australia. After returning from Australia to England, Bonwick published in 1894 Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions. Bonwick’s book has the same weaknesses and qualities as the Sharp/Macleod oeuvre: he cherry-picked what he wanted to find, conflating different time periods and different religions, mixing literary creation and commentary, and reconstructing his own gods. In a similar vein, later in the same period, D.H. Lawrence, despairing of European civilisation, sought to resuscitate the lost gods of the past, in Cornwall, in southern Italy and, in his novel Kangaroo, in Australia. 

Patrick Morgan lives in Gippsland. His recent books include A Mass-Kit in the Saddle Bag: The Gippsland Catholic Church and Community and Living Memory: Selected Essays 1964–2014, both published by Connor Court.


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