The Stakes of Settlement: Fences in Ned Kelly and Michael Farrell

By | 1 August 2021

One of the peculiarities of Farrell’s Writing Australian Unsettlement is the amount of attention it devotes to Ned Kelly’s infamous Jerilderie Letter (written 1878, first published in 1930). The letter helps inaugurate Farrell’s study even as it causes it to dither; for a book so dexterous in its movements and so light on its feet, it’s strange that it should start with a stutter step, its attention returning to Kelly after a half-chapter pause. Farrell shifts his focus, of course: in the first chapter, he’s interested in the figure of the writer as both hunter and hunted (with the author/dictated speaker of the Jerilderie Letter juxtaposed alongside the author/dictated speaker of Bennelong’s ‘Letter to Mr Philips, Lord Sydney’s Steward’); in the second, he expatiates upon the ‘poetics of the plough’ in Kelly, drawing on the conventionalized connection between the turning of pen in composing verse and the path carved out by the plough in upturning the soil (boustrophedon) to map out a correspondence between the violence of colonial law enforcement and the ferocity of Kelly’s lineation.1

When teaching the Jerilderie Letter to second-year undergraduates, I have found Farrell’s chapters indispensable in breaking up the patina of familiarity that has come to encrust both the letter and the figure of its helmeted author (who, like the Eureka Flag, has been claimed rather potently as a totem of white working-class nationalism). Farrell says some vivid and suggestive things about ‘the earthiness of (Kelly’s) farm vernacular’, which in its faecal fixation conjoins a ‘fertile imagination’ to ‘verbal diarrhoea’.2 As his critical account helps us see, the letter was a more successful weaponization of agricultural detritus than the armour would ever be.

But there is one moment where, I think, Farrell rather uncharacteristically, sells Kelly a little short. In extolling Kelly’s mastery of ‘the hyperbolic image,’ Farrell quotes the following passage from the letter:

And when Wild Wright and my mother came they could trace us across the street by the blood in the dust and which spoiled the lustre of the paint on the gatepost of the Barracks Hall.

Farrell goes on to remark that ‘this description … may well have been literally true, but it is all part of Kelly’s stylistic tendency to pile up imagery and incident, without allowing a listener, or an absorbed reader, to stop and question the veracity of the narrative.’

To turn Farrell’s unobtrusive metaphor back on itself: this description seems a singularly arresting one rather than a moment designed to evade arrest. It quite literally pauses the narrative in a forensic aftermath, almost inviting the reader – here the proxy of Wild Wright and Kelly’s mother – to take on an interrogative role vacated by the state authorities, a role whose prerogative it is to ‘stop and question’.3

In other words, if the authenticity of this narrative raises suspicions, it has, I want to suggest, less to do with its propensity towards hyperbole than its neatness as allegory. Let me give the quotation again in context (retaining its original lineation):

I got him across the street the
very spot where Mrs O’Briens Hotel
stands now the cellar was just

dug then, there was some brush fencing
where the post and rail was taking
down and on this I threw big cowardly
Hall on his belly I straddled him 
and rooted both spurs into his thighs
he roared like a big calf attacked
by dogs and shifted several yards
of the fence I got his hands at the 
back of his neck and tried to make
him let the revolver go but he stuck
to it like grim death to a dead
volunteer he called for assistance
to a man named Cohen and Barnett
Lewis, Thompson Jewitt, two blacksmiths
who was looking on I dare not strike
any of them as I was bound to keep
the peace or I could have spread
those curs like dung in a paddock
they got ropes tied my hands and
feet and Hall beat me over the head

with his six chambered colt revolver
nine stitches were put in some of the 
cuts by Dr Hastings And when Wild
Wright and my mother came they could
trace us across the street by the blood
in the dust and which spoiled 
the lustre of the paint on the 
gate post of the Barracks, (…)4

The passage that Farrell quotes comes at the tail end of the first graphic depiction of violent resistance to the colonial authorities, whose purported legitimacy the letter rides as hard as Kelly rides Hall. It’s interesting to note the prominence given to fencing paraphernalia in this episode, which is bracketed by ‘the brush fencing/ where the post and rail was taking down’ at one end and ‘the gate post of the Barracks’ at the other. The outlaw’s physical domination and humiliation of the law enforcement officer is also signified by ‘the several yards of the fence’ that get ‘shifted’ in a carnivalesque inversion of the domestication spectacle that is the rodeo (presented here as a case of human-animal husbandry gone wild).

The prominence of these fences challenges one of the initial taxonomic moves made by Farrell, who places the letter in the tradition of the anti-pastoral or counter-pastoral as formulated by John Kinsella (after Raymond Williams). But I want to suggest that it might be more apt to describe this moment as demonstrative of the counter-georgic or the georgic grotesque. If the fence has been under-appreciated in the criticism of Australian poetry, part of this may have to do with the overwhelming attention given to the pastoral over its more ‘advisory, even cautionary’ cousin (in the words of Kinsella): the georgic.5 Though these two genres (kept separate in the rota Virgilii whereby the aspiring poet would, on the model of Vergil’s career, start with pastoral and work through georgic to arrive at the fullest stage of maturation in composing epic) were eventually fused by the Romantics, the georgic – with its emphasis on labour, subsistence, and pedagogy – is more directly suited to the temper of the colonial nation-building enterprise.

(On a side note: residues of the georgic are highly pronounced in prose romance stories, in which the so-called ‘Australian girl’ is both the nation’s finest flower and its most capable gardener.6 That labour and love fit hand in glove means that these stories never quite reach the pitch of epic, the grandeur of which relies on the dramatic struggle between eros and pietas.)

Where the georgic is all about up-building (architectural and moral) as suggested by that most famous of fence poems, Robert Frost’s ‘Mending Wall’ (a ‘modern georgic’ as Ezra Pound had it – modern, perhaps, in its suggestion of the groundlessness of project), what we get in the Jerilderie Letter is an appetite for the destruction of its results. There are few episodes in nineteenth-century colonial Australian writing that so vividly and unabashedly dramatize the process of ‘unsettlement’. Kelly presents a systematic disassemblage and spoliation of the pillars (both literal and metaphoric) of settler life, from its locales of civilian leisure (‘Mrs Obrien’s Hotel’) to its sites of executive power (‘the Barracks’). In place of these static markers of settler society, Kelly invokes the ‘spread(ing)’ of ‘dung in a paddock’ and the ‘traces’ of ‘blood/ in the dust’ – biological markers of territory that speak to a more nomadological model of belonging as well as to a more unvarnished transcript of frontier violence and toil. Interestingly, the belatedness of Wild Wright and Kelly’s mother’s arrival on the scene lends a retrospective pathos to the episode by appearing to efface the distinction between bush and town: their movements are guided not by the arbitrary signposts of the civil state, but rather by the semiology of the wild, following Kelly’s trail of blood like hunter-trackers in pursuit.

That the ‘lustre of the paint/ on the gate post of the Barracks’ gets spoiled by Kelly’s blood is not so much over-blown as a little too neat a symbol for unsettlement. It seems almost too perfectly choreographed (one can imagine a film version of the letter tendentiously zooming in to linger on the flecks of blood on the gate post). Nevertheless, what abides is the sense of a larrikin outsider who can see through and perhaps even momentarily cast off the fabric of colonial life however heavy – who can knock its fences, gate posts, hotels and barracks out of place however firmly they are planted into the ground.

  1. Michael Farrell, Writing Australian Unsettlement: Modes of Poetic Invention, 1796-1945 (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2015), 13-62. Hereafter, Writing.
  2. Writing 55.
  3. Writing 55.
  4. This transcription follows the lineation of the manuscript page. See the photographic reproductions of pages 8 to 10, online.
  5. John Kinsella, ‘Is There an Australian Pastoral?’, The Georgia Review 58.2 (2004): 347-68; 358.
  6. See The Anthology of Colonial Australian Romance Stories, ed. Ken Gelder and Rachael Weaver (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2010).
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