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Eliza Hamilton Dunlop, rediscovered

By Cherie Baird

Cover of Eliza Hamilton Dunlop featuring a painted portrait of the author

I must admit that before I started interning at Sydney University Press, I had never heard of Eliza Hamilton Dunlop. Even being someone who majored in literature, I had no idea who she was or what she’d written.

When I finally did read Dunlop’s poetry and a little about her, I was incredibly moved. Her voice is clear: she reads as unashamed to relay her emotions and her choices, unafraid to delve deep into her grief and her discomfort. Importantly, she chose to use the public space she had carved for her poetry in order to protest against injustices she refused to turn away from. More than one of her poems brought me to tears.

As I learnt from dipping into Eliza Hamilton Dunlop: Writing from the Colonial Frontier, Dunlop was an Irish-Australian writer who lived between 1796 and 1880. She was born in Ireland and experienced tragedy at a young age; she was raised by her grandmother after her mother died and her father moved to India for work. When Dunlop later visited India to see her father, she found he had died while she was travelling.

After marrying her second husband, David Dunlop, she moved with him to Australia. Dunlop had published several poems in Ireland and India, and this continued in her new home: she published work in the Australian, the Maitland Mercury, the Empire and the Australian Town and Country Journal, among other newspapers. Some of her poems were set to music by Isaac Nathan.

Since Eliza Dunlop was rediscovered by Elizabeth Webby in the 1960s, much of the conversation around her has focused on how she engaged with Indigenous culture in the Wollombi region, learning from the Darkinyung, Awabakal and Wonnarua peoples. This is for good reason – Dunlop transcribed and translated Indigenous songs, and her efforts have since been used for the reclamation of Indigenous languages.

Dunlop’s poetry is equal parts nostalgic and political. Much of her work describes grief: the loss of a child, loved ones, severed connections to place, and departure from friends. She speaks through an astoundingly empathetic lens, tapping into a level of feeling that is often disregarded, by those in her time and ours.

While the two poems ‘The Aboriginal Mother’ and ‘The Two Graves’ are likely the best known of her work, the poem of Dunlop’s that struck me the deepest was ‘To My Friends / Inscribed to the dearest of any’. It begins:

Friends, do ye think – thus far apart,
      That still, to homeward feeling true,
The faithful magnet of my heart
      Its trembling index turns to you?
 
Friends, do you think what memories press!
      Thick-coming thoughts, that erst had power
With rainbow-tints, each hour to bless,
      ’Circling your minstrel in her bower.
 
Say do you think – in days of yore
      What happy influences bound
Our day-dreams; by Port Stewart shore?
      And on the Causeway’s classic ground!

 

The poem goes on, with Dunlop alluding to memories and places she remembers fondly, and how difficult it is to be parted from her friends and her homeland. It concludes:

True, nature’s bounties largely flow:
      Her rarest treasures crown our care!
But oh! what aching void may grow
      ’Mid blessings! it were bliss to share.

 

Then think my friends; when poet’s strain
      Sings of the vine and orange grove.
That one, beyond the southern main
      Looks back to Erin’s links of love.

 

This particular poem expresses with clarity the emotion inherent in the experience of missing a friend or a place. More than that, it impressed upon me an earnest sense of dual gratitude and pained yearning, the core of what it’s like to have felt connection and chosen to give it up. The depth of Dunlop’s expression of feeling – in this and all her work – and the skill with which she translates it into lyrical poetry, can certainly still be felt even across the chasm of time.

Without a doubt, it’s both a shame that Dunlop’s work was forgotten for so long and a triumph that it has been rediscovered. Aside from her compelling sense of her own artistic voice and rhythm, Eliza Dunlop was a writer who received much criticism during her lifetime for acknowledging the cruelty she saw done to those around her – and she continued to do so in spite of it.

Eliza Hamilton Dunlop: Writing from the Colonial Frontier, edited by Anna Johnston and Elizabeth Webby, is available now.