The 'Soldier Birds'

A poem by Henry Lawson

I mind the river from Mount Frome
To Ballanshantie’s Bridge,
The Mudgee Hills, and Buckaroo,
Lowe’s Peak, and Granite Ridge.
The “tailers” in the creek beneath,
The rugged she-oak boles,
The river cod where shallows linked,
The willowed water-holes.

I mind the blacksoil river flats,
The red soil levels, too,
The sidings where below the scrub
The golden wattles grew;
The track that ran by Tierney’s Gap,
The dusk and ghost alarms,
The glorious morning on the hills,
And all the German farms.

I mind the blue-grey gully bush,
The slab-and-shingle school,
The “soldier birds” that picked the crumbs
Beneath the infants’ stool.
(Ah! did those little soldier birds,
That whispered, ever know
That one of us should rise so high
And sadly sink so low?)

I mind the lessons that we droned
In books from Irish schools,
The canings and the keepings-in
For breaking bounds and rules.
Ah! little did the teacher dream
That one of us, perchance,
Might write in London to be read
In Germany and France.

I mind the days we played at camp
With billy-can and swag,
I mind the notes sent home by girls
When someone “played the wag.”
Ah! little did the master think
(Who’d lost the roving star)
What truants in their after years
Would play the wag so far.

I mind when first he gave to me
A pen and ink to write,
And, last, the “Fourth Class Forms” he made
I shared with Lucy White.
The other boys were other boys,
With cricket ball and bat,
They had a fine contempt for girls,
But they got over that.

The “rounders” where the girls came in,
The Tomboy and the rest,
The earnest game of Pris’ners’ Base,
The game that I liked best.
The kangarooing on the ridge,
And in the brown moonlight,
The “possuming” across the flats,
With dogs and gun at night.

The “specking” in old diggers’ heaps
For “colours” after rain,
The horse-shoes saved against the time
The circus came again,
And sold to Jimmy Siver-right,
The blacksmith on the flat;
The five-corners, the swimming hole,
Oh! I remember that!

I mind the holland “dinner bags”,
A book bag of green baize,
The bread and dripping, bread and meat,
And bread and treacle days.
The bread and butter swopped for meat,
The crumb we swopped for crust,
We’ve married, and divorced, since then,
And most old homes are dust.

It was the time, it was the place,
Australia’s hardest page,
When boys were cast for farming work
At fourteen years of age.
It was the time, it was the place,
The latter “Early Day,”
When boys ride home from old bark schools
And to the world away.

I’ve drifted through Port Said since then,
Naples and Leicester Square,
And Collins and Macquarie Streets,
I know the secrets there.
Ah me! The country boy and girl,
The country lass and lad,
As innocent as soldier birds,
Though we thought we were bad!

But, spite of all their daring truth,
And some work that shall last,
The bitter years of my brave youth
Are better in the past.
This does not call for bitterness,
Nor does it call for tears,
The purest little thing perhaps
I’ve printed here for years.

The railway runs by Mudgee Hills,
Old farms are lost or lone,
And children’s children sadly go
To schools of brick and stone.
Yet are the same. The Mudgee Hills
And Mudgee skies as fair,
And the little grey-clad soldier birds
Are just as busy there.

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