Early Tuesday poem: ‘Pen: 60th birthday’ by Emily Mary Barton

November 14, 2015

‘Pen’ —60th Birthday

FROM youth to age, in calm and storm, in fine and cloudy weather,
My harmless little pen and I have safely jogged together.
When first I grasped his tiny staff, one Christmas long ago,
He lisped: “Come let us make a rhyme about the frost and snow.”
“Ah, foolish babes!” the nurse cried out, and snatched his tiny wing;
“The world is full of sweeter songs than you can write or sing.”

At school he was a sturdy wight, although I held him badly,
And many a page of classic prose we canter’d over gladly;
In leisure hours, on sunny days, he whisper’d in my ear;
“O, let us sing of all that’s bright and beautiful and dear.”
“Write not, sing not, misguided pen,” the teacher wise exclaimed,
“Or write me but the names of those whose poetry is famed.”

Then, for a time, he frisk’d about, in incoherent fashion,
Longing to tell a tragic tale of hopeless love and passion;
“Wait yet,” I cried, “till time shall show if love be sweet or bitter.”
Poor Pen (he lost his feathers then) gave but a mournful twitter.
Love, when he came, was sweet and shy, and would not be portray’d;
He brought his own low melodies, and sang them in the shade.

Then Pen began a diary of household joy and sorrow,
And, steel-clad, plodded on his way for many a busy morrow.
From lists and bills he sometimes turned, at evening, with regret,
To say: “The poetry of life is hanging round me yet.”
“Put down that pen,” the babes cried out; “O, mother, do not write,
But sing us just one little song before we say ‘Goodnight.”‘

The babes grew up, and faithful Pen, their copies duly set,
And we, for daughters’ eyes retraced the lines where first we met;
Ere the first brood had taken wing, another race began,
And Pen and I forgot the verse while teaching boys to “scan.”
So let it be, we acquiesced. “More useful we have been
Than had our verses lived and died in ‘Fraser’s Magazine.”‘

And yet not so; we linger still; the gentle hand of age
Has swept across the blotted book, and turned another page;
A blessed blank for Pen, who still delights in rhyme and jingle;
No worldly cares need now intrude, no household duties mingle;
The eye is dim, the ear is dull, the limbs on sofa prone,
But Conscience whispers, with a smile, “Our time is now our own.”

The mental stream thro’ flow’ry meads delights no more to flow,
But, filter’d through the ash of life, its drops are clear and slow;
Baptised in these to higher aims, and willing to the end,
Pen yet may take a prize or two to help a needy friend.
For nights of rest and peaceful days a weak thanksgiving raise,
And may his latest struggle be an humble song of praise.

Emily Mary Barton


This poem by Emily Mary Barton was first published in the volume Straws on the Stream in 1907. The poet lived from 1817 to 1909.

Born in England, she arrived in Australia in 1839, was married and had eight children. The effects on her writing are mentioned directly, if lightly, in stanzas four and five above. Barton was from a relatively wealthy background, which is probably the only reason that her voice is still with us today.

Today we still see how writing is squeezed between other concerns, and how some people like the idea of a capital ‘L’ literature that floats above the merely domestic, born from Jupiter’s inky, or bytey, thigh. This poem by Barton is a reminder of how the ability to write, and even, therefore, to have a chance to be considered for publication, let alone be read and reviewed, are inextricably linked with the mundane world.

This Barton’s grandson is much better known; his name was Andrew Barton Paterson, known to us as Banjo Paterson.

If you would like to read more of this ‘other’ Barton, you can go to the Australian Poetry Library. It is probably worth noting, in the context of this piece, that less than one-third of the poets represented at the APL are women. Women are not, so much, ‘…those whose poetry is famed.’ Perhaps this is changing, although statistics on reviews of books by women in the world’s major journals are still often quite depressing, if one thinks about which books are being regarded as ‘worthy’. And writers are also marginalised based on ethnic origin, as if only one type of person ever writes Real Literature.

A beguiling question is whether anyone now writes poems celebrating their computers, as Emily Mary Barton does her pen? Somehow, I think the great ‘Ode In Praise of My Device, Upon Which I Write Stuff’, has yet to be written.

Read the works of the other Tuesday Poets by pressing here.


I am posting early as I didn’t want a light-hearted tanka about Paris up as the opening post at the moment, given the appalling murders that have been committed there. I particularly urge you to read the blog of Tuesday Poet Rethabile Masilo,who lives in Paris, and who has posted a poem about these events.

Thoughts? Carrots? Sticks? Comments? Go ahead!

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