Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Works of Desda

Our great-great-grandmother, Jane Davies, née Price, sometime Messiter, of Woodlands Cottage, St. Leonards, and, later, Leddicott, McMahon’s Point, North Sydney, published verses under the pseudonym “Desda,” and was also a semi-professional soprano. In 1859, following an engagement in Balmain, the music critic of the Sydney Morning Herald described Mrs. Messiter (as she was then) as “the Australian songstress.” Here, for the first time, are presented in full her surviving poetical works, with basic commentary. A work of fiction for children entitled The Rival Fairie ; or, Little Mamie’s Troubles, an Australian Story for Children followed, and was published in Sydney in 1871 by Edward Turner.

1. Australia

Land of beauty, love, and light,
Land of future power and might,
Boldly now assert their right,
Fair Australia!

Bid thy children guard thee well,
Make their hearts with pride to swell,
As of thee great deeds they tell,
Brave Australia!

Let thy foemen dare approach,
Let them on thy rights encroach,
None shall harm thee, none reproach,
Our Australia!

Maidens seek your sunny bowers,
Laurels bring, and twine ye flowers,
Chaplets for this shrine of ours,
Bright Australia!

Providence our country bless,
Guard her in her loveliness,
Make her fears grow daily less,
Aid Australia!

Heaven bless our Volunteers,
Mothers, weep ye joyous tears,
Brighter than all bright compeers,
Shine Australia!


First published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Wednesday, August 29, 1860, p. 5. “Let thy foemen…thy rights encroach”] The greatest source of unease in the Australian colonies in 1860 was the widespread fear of the eastward-looking Russian Empire in the aftermath of the Crimean War, while the signing of the Treaty of Peking between China and Russia also raised concerns about the possibility of a fifth column among Chinese coolies on the goldfields and elsewhere.

2. Cooey! An Australian Song

Roaming through the bush one day,
He saw a pretty maid.
Her eye was bright as sunshine,
Yet soft as evening shade.
Her look was sad, her gaze was wild, and often did she sigh,
And in a silv’ry, timid voice she uttered the wild cry;
And in a silv’ry, timid voice she uttered the wild cry:

Coo-ey, Coo-ey, Coo-ey, Coo-ey—Echo caught the strain;
Coo-ey, Coo-ey, Coo-ey, Coo-ey—it echoed back again.

Stealing from his hiding place,
He sought to know her fears,
And why she wandered lonely,
And shed those silent tears.
“Alas!” in sport the Nymph replied, “my friends I’ve left behind.
They’re Gipsying within this wood, but where I cannot find;
They’re Gipsying within this wood, but where I cannot find”:

Coo-ey, Coo-ey, Coo-ey, Coo-ey—Echo hears the cry,
Coo-ey, Coo-ey, Coo-ey, Coo-ey—its mocking tones reply.

Seeking then her missing friends,
They rambled as they could,
O’er flow’ry hill and valley,
Through tangled copse and wood.
And since that hour he’s blessed the star, that led the maid to rove.
A trusting heart, a loving wife, he found within the grove;
A trusting heart, a loving wife, he found within the grove:

Coo-ey, Coo-ey, Coo-ey, Coo-ey—Love has caught the strain,
Coo-ey, Coo-ey, Coo-ey, Coo-ey—it whispers back again.

By an Australian Lady, with music by Ernesto Spagnoletti,” c. 1859. “Cooey!” (also cooee, coo-ee)] According to the excellent Australian National Dictionary (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1988, p. 166), coo-ee originated as an Aboriginal cry, first recorded in 1790, when it was heard among Dharuk speakers in the neighbourhood of Port Jackson (Sydney).

3. Your Willy Has Returned Dear

Yes, Annie, I am here, love,

Home, home at last.

Then dry that falling tear, love,

And let your grief be past.

For while I press your lips,

And hold you to my heart,

I promise you, my Annie dear

We’ll never, never part.

I have feared for many days

Our ship would ne’er reach shore,

But now I’m safe at home, dear,

To leave you never more.

How wearily the moon’s waned,

Time crept away.

Yet, now that I’ve my home gained,

It seems but yesterday

I left you lonely here,

My bonny, bonny wife,

To battle singlehanded, dear,

With worldly cares and strife.

I have pictured oft your form

Sad weeping at the door

Now Willie safe at home, dear,

To leave you never more.

I thought of you each night, love,

Far o’er the deep.

I saw by fancy’s light, love,

Our little ones asleep,

Their mother’s gentle form

Bent o’er each cherub fair,

And I breathed a husband blessing

And a father’s earnest prayer

And I prayed to him above

To grant the trip soon o’er

And guide me safely home, dear,

To leave you never more.

Lyrics by Desda, set to the music of Ernesto Spagnoletti, c. 1859. The scenario of an absent seafaring husband and father was, of course, a familiar one in Sydney, though it does not appear ever to have been experienced by Desda herself.

4. The Dog Nuisance

To the Editor of the Herald.

SIR,—Smarting under great vexation, caused by some prowling curs destroying a portion of my favourite poultry, and committing other depredations, the following lines suggested themselves to me, descriptive of the wrongs I have suffered through the abominable canine nuisance, which I trust some legislative enactment will soon eradicate.

I remain, yours obediently,


October 22nd.

The glory of the day hath fled,
The shades of night creep darkly on,
Hushed is the sound of nature’s voice,
To rest, the feathered world hath gone.
The moon, all stately, soars on high
And timid stars yet faintly peep;
The evening breezes whisper low,
And lull the little flowers to sleep.

Roosting in their rustic perch
Undisturbed by care or fear
Sleep six hens of varied hues,
And a bold young Chanticleeer,
Little kens that noble bird
What the fates have stored for him,
Thoughts of danger he has none,
No fore-warning shadows dim.
A gay and gallant bird is he;
See how proudly heaved his breast
As his blood-red comb he tucks
‘Neath his downy wing to rest.

Blushing and beautiful rose the bright morn,
Tipping with sunshine each hillock around
Drying the tear-drops let fall by the night,
And kissing to life the flowers on the ground
Wrapt in sweet slumber, dreaming, I lay,
Visions of gladness around me at play,
Visions of paradise, glimpses of earth,
Sunshine and fragrance, music and mirth.
But dark is the change that o’ershadows my dream,
Fleet as a thunderbolt veileth the light,
Gone are the sounds of enchantment and bliss,
Faded the hues, evanescent and bright.
Borne on the air comes a heart-rending scream—
‘Tis fancy no longer, no longer a dream;
‘Tis the cry of my “chuckies”—their voices I know,
And cold to my heart does the thrilling blood flow.
With tresses disshevelled, with garments awry,
To the scene of distress—to the hen-house I fly.
And ne’er from remembrance that hour can I blot,
For there stood the gallant, his hens “the were not.”

Mute and alone stood the pride of his house,
All ruffled his plumage, dejected his mien;
He listens in vain for the voice of his mate,
“The light of his harem” no longer is seen,
Scattered and gone are those beautiful hens.
Princess, and Phillipet, Blind-eye, and Speck,
My poor gentle Gold-wing no more I behold,
And Spit-fire no longer her sister can peck,
Frantic and fuming I rush from the spot,
With vengeance and fury I burn—
Gone! gone are my “chuckies,” but where are the foes!
I seek them at every turn,
Over the green sward, into the bush,
Through highways and byeways I frantically rush,
I search every corner, I search but in vain,
And weeping and weary I seek them again.
And now does a scene meet my wondering sight,
And all that was mystery turneth to light,
For “Dogs” of all colours, of every size,
Before me all snarling and growling arise.
There were dogs that were yellow, and dogs that were white,
Grey dogs, and brown dogs, and dogs black as night,
Dogs that had great ears, dogs that had small,
Some dogs had long tails, and some none at all.
At the sound of the whip to their kennels they fly,
And o’er a few feathers I sit down and cry.


October 22

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Friday, October 25, 1861, p. 2. “Dog Nuisance”] A bill for more effectually abating the Nuisance occasioned by Dogs” was introduced into the Legislative Assembly of New South Wales in September 1863, but the whole issue of savage and/or wild dogs was debated ad nauseam in the colonial press throughout the 1850s and 1860s. Desda’s was therefore merely one of hundreds of voices raised against the outrage. “chuckies”] from chucky, n., and chuck, n. 1 “A familiar term of endearment, applied to husbands, wives, children, close companions,” and/or 2. “Chick, chicken, fowl,” somewhat curiously in northern English dialect (OED). “Phillipet”] the origins and/or meaning of this name are obscure, although it may be related to philip, meaning sparrow, and conceivably to Catullus’s dirge over a dead sparrow, though Desda does not seem to have bothered much with Classical allusion. Alternatively it could be a cheerful attempt at Phillibhit or Philibhit, the city in modern Uttar Pradesh where Sir Colin Campbell crushed part of the Indian Mutiny in 1858. “Spit-fire”] The term is recorded in the early seventeenth century, and means, of course, hot-tempered. “whip”] Though her tresses were disshevelled and her garments awry, Desda nevertheless took the trouble to arm herself, as much to assert her presence to the owners of the offending kennels as to keep the dogs themselves at bay. Splendid. Well done.

5. The Relief of the Distressed

Arouse! Australia’s daughters!

Let us strive with heart and hand

To cheer the weeping, weary hearts

Now sobbing through the land.

We’ll waft them messages of hope,

And bid them not despair,

And send them help substantial

To mitigate their care.

Oh! list not to the craven cry

That charity at home begins.

Remember that her cloak is large,

And all need shelter from their sins.

Let each give cheerfully her mite,

And though the mite be small

‘Twill help to warm the cheerless hearth

And swell the gathering ball.

Mountains are formed of atoms;

The floods of drops of rain;

And if we work together,

And work with might and main.

We’ll lighten the burden of many a heart,

And help the yoke to bear.

And send the quickening flush of hope

To drive out pale despair.

Who would not wear a shabby glove?

Or a luxury forego,

When the price of superfluity

Would lessen another’s woe;

Would help to raise some drooping form

Or hush an infant’s wail,

Or call the rosy hue of health

To cheeks now wan and pale.

Oh! women of Australia

Your hearts are warm and brave;

Then weary not in doing well,

Stretch forth a hand to save.

And ye, dear little children

Come forth a mighty throng,

And wake to life our sympathy

With heart uplifting song;

Sing, for the poor and homeless,

Sing, for the young and old,

Sing, for a meal for the supperless,

For little ones blue and cold.

And surely we shall reap reward,

When many a prayerful one

Shall bless Australia’s daughters

For the good that they have done.


Woodlands, North Shore, July 4th, 1867.

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday, July 6, 1867, p. 5. “Now sobbing through the land”] On June 1, 1867, the Hawkesbury River broke its banks and unleashed an enormously destructive flood. In a matter of days the river rose 21 yards above its normal level. This was the worst natural disaster yet to afflict the colony.

6. Fairy-Brisk’s Song

Wake, little Mamie! the sun shines bright,
And the bees are abroad in its golden light;
The birds are beginning to build in their bowers,
And the breath of the morning is scented with flowers.

Wake! for the voice of the rivulet calls,
As it wendeth its way to the waterfalls.
We’ll gather the ferns from its moss-covered sides,
And drink a cool draught as onward it glides.

Wake! for there’s joy in the brisk morning air,
Brightness and gladness and love everywhere;
In the song of the birds, in the sun’s cheerful beam,
In the sigh of the breeze, in the murmuring stream.

We’ll seek the lone haunts where the Waratah grows,
And the woodlands are gay with the bright native rose;
All nature is stirring with life and with glee,
Then wake, little Mamie, and wander with me.

The Rival Fairies; or, Little Mamie’s Troubles: An Australian Story for Children, by Desda. Sydney: Edward Turner, Publisher, Hunter Street [1871], p. 23. “Mamie”] Desda’s second marriage to John Davies produced two daughters, (1) Susan Compson, our great-grandmother, b. June 25, 1863, and (2) Mabel Annie Mason, b. October 10, 1864. Although the character of Mamie was a composite of both, the name far more closely resembles that of her youngest child. “Waratah”] “A name for Australian shrubs of the genus Telopea (N.O. Proteaceæ), esp. T. speciosissima and T. oreades, which bear crimson or scarlet flowers in terminal clusters” (OED). “native rose”] i.e. Boronia serrulata.

7. Drowsy-Wing’s Lullaby

Sleep, Mamie, sleep!
While softly I sing to thee.
Sleep, and bright fairyland visions
I’ll bring to thee.
Day hath scarce shaken the dew from her wing;
Sleep, till she’s rosy and bright,
Till the sun hath crept up from behind the tall trees,
And the orchard grows warm in his light.
Sleep, Mamie, sleep.

Sleep, Mamie, sleep!
Naught shall molest thee, love;
Sweet be thy slumber, and safe
Thous shall rest thee, love.
Wet hangs the dew on the bushes and ferns,
And coldly the morning wind blows.
Sleep till the birds and the bees are about,
And the butterfly kisses the rose.
Sleep, Mamie, sleep.

The Rival Fairies, p. 24.

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