ACT News


On waxing lyrical

Alas, nobody seems to have written a poem about 2007's Comet McNaught, the most sparkling comet seen in Australian skies in recent years. But one day in the early 1860s Charles Harpur had his poem about a comet published in a Braidwood newspaper.

This year is the bicentennial of the birth of Charles Harpur, born 200 years ago last week (January 23, 1813). For Canberra Harpur enthusiast Paul Eggert and others Harpur is ''our earliest recorded native-born poet of real distinction''.

Importantly, for this parochial little column, Harpur lived for some time in our constituency, in Braidwood. While there he contributed original poems to Braidwood's newspapers. Last week Eggert organised, at University House at the ANU, a commemorative lunch on Harpur's 200th birthday at which some of the poet's greatest hits were read.

Here are a few lines from Harpur's To a Comet. It was inspired by the Great Comet of 1843 (a dazzling brute of a thing, never since matched by any comet for size and brilliance, so bright it was easily visible by day let alone at night) but, Eggert fancies, was first published at last in a Braidwood newspaper in the early 1860s. Harpur kept the clipping and it is in his yellowing papers in the Mitchell Library.

Harpur has a street named after him in my poetical suburb of Garran, where as reported in Tuesday's column, residents of Ingamells Street (named after poet Rex Ingamells) have just become the first Canberrans to have a street party in honour of the person the street is named after. Robyn Archer, the ukuleletrix and creative director, Centenary of Canberra, has asked all Canberrans to do this. It would be cool and cultured if the residents of Harpur Street in exclusive (Upper) Garran celebrated the deserving Charles Harpur.

What Harpur's saying, beautifully, in To a Comet is that those of us ogling the comet today will be dead and gone next time it comes. And yet, he fancies, it's a consoling thought for us that the next generation to marvel at it will be brighter, better and wiser than we yokels.


To a Comet

Thy purpose, heavenly Stranger, who may know/But Him who linked thee to the starry whole?

In thy last/Bright visitation, even thus thou saw'st/The young, the lovely, and the wise of Earth,/A buried generation, - crowding out/In wonder, to behold thee passing forth/Beyond the signs of Time - and then to know/In all the awful vastitude of heaven/Thy place no more: so, when the flaming steps/Of thy unspeakable speed, which, of itself,/Blows back thy hair,* shall carry thee once more/Out of our vision, all the eloquent eyes/Now opened up in welcome - eyes by love/Made tender as the turtle's, or that speak/The fervent soul and the majestic mind,/Fast closed in darkness shall have given for aye/Their lustre to the grave, ere round the sun/Thou driv'st again thy chariot of fire!/But eyes as beautiful and loving - yea,/More radiant in their wisdom from a more/Enlarged communion with the soul of Truth,/Shall welcome thee instead mysterious stranger,/When thou return'st anew.

*By the comet's ''hair'' Harpur means the Great Comet's phenomenal ''tail'' of dust and gas, estimated to be 200 million miles long, streaming behind it.