It never rains: Brisbane, January 2011
Poetry, said Auden, makes nothing happen. Usually it doesn't, but sometimes a poem gets quoted in a national argument because everybody knows it, or at least part of it, and for the occasion a few lines of familiar poetry suddenly seem the best way of summing up a viewpoint. Just such an occasion has occurred recently in Australia. By the time the heavy rains first hit Queensland early this year, the theory of Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming (CAGW, to borrow the unlovely acronym) was ceasing to exercise unquestioned thrall in the minds of Australia's progressive voters. But spokespersons for the Green party clung on to it, encouraged by the fact that the theory, in its Climate Change form, was readily applicable to any circumstances.
Before the floods, proponents of the CAGW view had argued that there would never be enough rain again, because of Climate Change. When it became clear that there might be more than enough rain, the view was adapted: the floods, too, were the result of Climate Change. In other words, they were something unprecedented. Those opposing this view — those who believed that in Australia nothing could be less unprecedented than a flood unless it was a drought — took to quoting Dorothea Mackellar's poem "My Country", which until recently every Australian youngster was obliged to hear recited in school. In my day we sometimes had to recite it ourselves, and weren't allowed to go home until we had given evidence that we could remember at least the first four lines of the second stanza, which runs like this.
I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror —
The wide brown land for me.
The first four lines of the stanza are the bit that everybody knows, partly because they are so addictively crafted, and partly because they fit the national experience of what Australia's geography and climate are actually like. In any household, the seniors (known in Australia as "the wrinklies") remember the droughts and the flooding rains of their childhood. I myself remember the Maitland floods of the early 1950s. The whole of the central seaboard of New South Wales was under water. I can remember rain you couldn't see through: right there in my southern suburb of Sydney, the creek flooded the park, and the lake in the park spilled into the bottom of our street, prompting the construction of a galvanised iron canoe in which three of us sailed to what would have been certain death if the contraption had floated for more than a few seconds.