POEM: BELLAMBI’S LAKE (& ANALYSIS)

BELLAMBI’S LAKE
Tired out and quite weary; sick of the strife
Of this hard, bitter war, this fierce battle of life,
I wandered about through wood and through brake,
Till I found myself near Bellambi Lake.
 
It is true that the heart its own bitterness knows;
What stranger will care for its throbs or its throes?
Indeed, it’s a solace to some when they try
To hug their own sorrows, when no one is nigh.
 
I thought of my loved ones that were, and are not,
When we stood all together on this very same spot.
It was well we knew nothing of what was in store,
‘Twould have marred all the joys in those gone days of yore.
 
I felt quite alone, like an old withered tree,
With a leaf scarcely left that might shelter a bee;
My boughs have been gradually lopped one by one;
Thus, despoiled of my branches, I stand here alone.
 
Now a murmur came up from the blue looming sea,
And the weirdlike Gobburras laughed loud on the tree;
While a glamour unearthly seemed stealing around,
And broke up the silence, before so profound.
 
A strange feeling came o’er me; I felt something near,
And the winds were all whispering loved names in my ear;
I started, and trembled, I looked round, afraid,
As I fancied a hand on my shoulder was laid.
 
Pale shadowy phantoms stood round me in tears,
I knew them – the ghosts of departed dead years;
Ah! yes, we were part of your substance, they said,
But despised and neglected from you we have fled.
 
Now we dwell in the limitless spaces,
Far away in the ether sublime,
Where is no upward or downward,
Nor record or limit to time.
 
I stood up and looked round, there was nought to be seen,
It was only a part of a hideous dream;
I looked down at my dog, and saw with surprise,
There were tears in his loving, pathetic brown eyes.
 
This thought gave me comfort – his friendship is true;
And the true friends we find in this world are but few;
We could not exist on this earth without some,
So the love of a dog is far better than none.
 
I turned to the mountain, ‘neath which stood my home;
To this ghoul-haunted lake, never more will I come.
My dog understood, and walked briskly behind,
So I shook of this glamour, threw care to the wind.
(Illawarra Mercury, September 6, 1884)
_________________________________________________
AN ANALYSIS OF “BELLAMBI’S LAKE”
In 1884 when this poem was published, the Illawarra was an extremely inaccessible and isolated region, and one of the isolating factors was the body of water to the east. Today’s Illawarra region, as defined by the State Government through the Illawarra Region of Councils, consists of five local government areas, three of which are bounded on the east by the (Pacific?) ocean. In 1884, the more-restricted Illawarra was contained entirely in the east by the ocean and in the west by the escarpment. Water is always close by in the Illawarra. Water is all-pervasive; its proximity and adjacency to the Illawarra contributes to the region’s sense of place. The ocean and beaches are major defining factors of the Illawarra’s regional identity – now, as they were in 1884. Today, water is a tourist magnet. In the nineteenth century it was a challenging barrier.
 
The body of water in “Bellambi’s Lake” can be read as a mirror from which reflections of the narrator’s past radiate. The poem is a lament, and the “boughs” that “have been gradually lopped one by one” is a reference to those of Melinda Kendall’s children who have died by 1884. There was the stillborn daughter born eight months after her wedding in 1835 (named Melinda), her son and Henry’s twin Basil Edward, who died in 1874 in his thirty fifth year, daughter Mary Josephine, who died in 1881 at the age of thirty four, and Henry (Thomas Henry), who died in 1882 aged forty three. At the time this poem was published, only two of her children were still alive: daughters Christina Jane and Edith Emily. Edith Emily had married in 1867 and no longer resided in the Illawarra, and Christina Jane lived in Sydney. It was at Christina’s home in Glebe that Melinda Kendall died in 1893. In 1884, the poem’s reference to “my loved ones that were, and are not,” (including her husband Basil, who died in 1852 and her father Patrick McNally, who died in 1880) highlights the position of this woman in her sixty-ninth year, isolated by loneliness and geographic location.
 
In 1891, seven years after this poem was published, the population of Bellambi Village near the lake (actually a lagoon, at least in the twenty first century) was only 204. Today, the trip from Fairy Meadow (where this poem was written) to the centre of Sydney takes about one and a half hours by freeway and road, with at least half that spent negotiating the suburban sprawl from Engadine. In 1884, the countryside between Sydney and the Illawarra was wilderness. Direct road access to Sydney from Bulli Tops wasn’t available until 1876 (only eight years before this poem appeared) and that option was only for hardy bushmen and experienced horse riders. The trip took a couple of days. All roads previous to that one were for people who were willing to pay a subscription to use them, and they were “bridle tracks” that only went to the top of the escarpment. The road to Sydney from there was a 70 mile trip via Appin and Campbelltown that took at least two and a half days on horseback (three and a half by carriage) because of the dense bush and intervening rivers, hills and gorges. Even as late as 1917, the escarpment was a formidable barrier, as this description of the trip down Bulli Pass shows:
 
“Fredericks acted as a brake by holding on behind as I led the horse down the steeper pinches. We stopped at every bend in the road to wipe the perspiration from our faces.”1
 
The railway didn’t come through from Sydney until 1888 – the trip to Sydney in 1884 was still best done by boat, and it was not without its dangers. Freight steamers were regularly transporting coal, milk, butter, blue metal, cedar, tallow and wheat, and steerage was available for passengers – there is no available evidence of exclusive passenger vessels at that time travelling between the Illawarra and Sydney.
1 Edwin James Brady, 1917. The South Coast, Australia Unlimited. Melbourne: George Robertson & Co. 219. In this adventure story the narrator and his companion journey by horse and cart from Sydney to St George’s Basin via Appin and Bulli, recreating similar journeys they had made in their youth. It takes them half a day to reach Appin, a full day to reach Bulli from Appin, and another full day to travel from Bulli to Spring Hill, near Wollongong.
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2 thoughts on “POEM: BELLAMBI’S LAKE (& ANALYSIS)”

  1. Excellent blog and local Illawarra history. This post is incredibly informative. I grew up in the Illawarra. Lived in both Bellambi and Fairy Meadow at different times. I shall subscribe to your blog.
    Best wishes
    John Larkin

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19th-century Australian writer, pioneer, teacher. The site of the rambling research of Mr Knox's offsider.

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