Friday, August 16, 2013

I Wish I'd Written This

Tasmanian Magpies

By A.D. Hope (1907-2000)

Ethiopia! They used to say,
Fluting at dawn through pure, clear rills of sound,
The magpies of that earlier day,
Ethiopia! Ethiopia! From all around.
Dulcimer of no Abyssinian maid
Was ever so plangent or so doucely played.
Ethiopia, Ethiopia!
Echoes went through me of Mount Abora.

Another country, another age! I still
Hear them at early morning in the trees;
The same pure grace notes, the same exquisite trill,
The lilt, the liquid ease,
But not the enchantment of that warbled name;
The magpie dialect here is not the same;
The magic syllables have gone
That brought me full awake and roused the sun.

Lost Ethiopia. Is that loss in me?
Monaro magpies bursting into song
Soar through new cadences, fresh jubilee;
But in an unknown tongue
Rejoice. Can it perhaps be true
That I have lost those languages I knew 
In boyhood, when each bird,
Stone, cloud and every tree that grew
Spoke and I had by heart all that I heard?

Alec Derwent Hope is one of the most renowned of Australian poets — for his wicked wit, his unashamed erotica, his insistence on formal rather than free verse, and above all his brilliance. He was both loved and revered in his lifetime, and was a friend and mentor to a number of other poets. I didn't know him well personally — we lived in different cities and only once appeared on the same poetry festival program, by which time he was a sort of 'elder statesman' of Australian poetry, though unpretentious in person — but we had mutual friends with whom he was popular.

He worked as an academic and was also known as an astute, if sometimes stinging critic. Further details of his life and distinguished career can be found at the Wikipedia link on his name, above, at PoemHunter and at Australian Poetry Library.

You can read further samples of his work at Famous Poets and Poems, or a comprehensive selection at Australian Poetry Library. One Tony Vaughan-Johnston gives a splendid reading of five of Hope's poems on Youtube. Some of his books are still available on Amazon.

And why would I wish to have written this particular piece? The Australian magpie (pictured), which is a different species from the European and Asian magpies, has a most beautiful song which I love to hear. Our literature refers to 'carolling magpies' and their 'liquid notes'.

I grew up in Tasmania, and Hope is quite right in everything he says about the Tasmanian magpies' particular call.

So, in posting this poem, I am both indulging and alleviating a touch of homesickness.

Poems and photos used in ‘I Wish I’d Written This’ remain the property of the copyright holders (usually their authors).


  1. Oh, what a beautiful poem, Rosemary. I am going to search out a recording of the sound of the Australian magpie so that I can hear it. I have my own fondness for Tasmania as well.....and also would return in a heartbeat.


    2. Mary, thanks for thinking of Youtube. Unfortunately none if their examples is very like the glorious sound of a magpie in the wild, but this one comes closest:

      Hope makes the point that Tasmanian magpies have a slightly different arrangement of the characteristic call. There is a point at which a magpie just opens its throat and this glorious (no other word for it) music pours forth, the notes spilling over each other. It sounds like rejoicing. In Tasmania, one can hear in it the word 'Ethiopia', syllable by syllable. (In Tasmania the boobook owl, named for its call, is known as a mopoke because that is closer to the sound; and when I was a child, the bird known as Joe Whitty always whistled to me: 'You're pretty!')

    3. Thanks, Rosemary. I had THOUGHT that what the poet meant was that the magpie sound was like the sound 'Ethiopia.' I had seen the video you shared above as well...very beautiful sound. That you for sharing further explanation as well.

    4. Oh! It sure helps to know this, because ... because. I had gone to Mary's link and listened for something revealing and having found little but external beauty, stayed outside the intent of this poem. Rosemary, please make a recording so that we can all hear what you and Hope heard.

  2. I hope the link above leads to the video of the magpie on You-tube. Quite beautiful. But now I am confused about the poem, Rosemary. I thought the magpie would say something like "Ethiopia," but it does not. Thus I am confused as to what Ethiopia means in the poem. Could you explain?

  3. Such a wonderful piece Rosemary--I did not know this poet at all--so a double thank you!

  4. Makes me want to tour Tasmania and see/hear for myself. When I hear the word Ethiopia I instantly think of dehydration and famine--not a good context for this poem, although the poet also speaks of loss. Your commentary is a great recommendation.

  5. I can only imagine how wonderful it is to hear this bird. Tasmania sounds like a glorious spot. Wonderful to have spent your childhood there, Rosemary. Loved the poem, especially his closing lines.

    1. Yes, in Tassie the natural world made it a very nurturing and inspiring place to grow up.

  6. He is the clever bird noticing their language! I enjoyed reading his words and you being our guide and pointing out his unique voice!
    Thank you Rosemary~


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