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English 11-12

The Ultimate Rosemary Dobson Guide | Common Mod: Texts and Human Experiences

Use this guide as a cheat sheet for your Dobson studies! We discuss key aspects of her context, explore common themes, and point out the common techniques. We also provide examples from every poem to help you get started!

Are you having difficulty breaking down Dobson’s poetry? Well, you came to the right place! Our Rosemary Dobson Guide will give you a brief summary of her key contextual points, and explain her most common themes and techniques with examples from all the set poems!

 

The Ultimate Rosemary Dobson Guide:

 

Who is Rosemary Dobson: Context

Many students overlook studying a composer’s context because they think it is irrelevant and a waste of time.

However, having a strong understanding of Dobson’s context will help you better analyse her poems.

You are able to understand the significance of particular creative decisions, figure out her message, and draw links between society and her poems.

They [students] may also consider the role of storytelling throughout time to express and reflect particular lives and cultures…
They make increasingly informed judgements about how aspects of these texts, for example context, purpose, structure, stylistic and grammatical features, and form shape meaning.

Source: NESA English Syllabus: Common Module – Texts and Human Experiences

If you want to read more about how to study for Common Module, read our Common Module: Texts and Human Experiences Guide.

 

Who is Rosemary Dobson?

Rosemary Dobson wrote, what was for her time, experimental poetry after World War II.

She is considered to be one of the great Australian poets who modernised Australian poetry during the 40s. Her techniques, style and themes strayed from traditions as she experimented with contemporary ideas.

Unlike other poets, her poems are very simple and clear. She said, “I really feel the necessity of the poetry being clear, so I can communicate something to people”

Her poems studied for the Common Module are:

  • Young Girl at a Window
  • Over the Hill
  • Summer’s End
  • The Conversation
  • Cock Crow
  • Amy Caroline
  • Canberra Morning

They were heavily influenced by her life events. Therefore, it is important that we examine her context to fully understand them.

 

World War II

The post-WWII period was an era of change and new possibilities. Life was simply not the same as it once were.

As such, you can see that many of her poems dealt with the themes of change. She explored the need for people to embrace change, instead of rejecting it.

Dobson also said that the post-WWII era gave people “a heightened sense of awareness, of being alive.”

This zeitgeist influenced her motifs and themes. She explored universal human values and ideas like change, the self, Time and death.

 

Patriarchal society

Womanhood and motherhood is a major theme in Dobson’s poetry. Dobson lived in Australian during the 1940s, where society was still mainly patriarchial. Women were given very few rights and were still mostly valued as housewives.

This heavily influenced some of the themes in her works, especially the poems that explore the restrictions of being a woman in society.

When Dobson began to have children, her poem’s themes shifted to themes of motherhood and domestication.

 

Nature & landscape

Dobson lost her father at a young age. Due to economic reasons, her mother and herself moved to the countryside to live.

This natural landscape heavily influenced her poems. Most of her early works are based on the natural landscape, and we see this motif translate throughout her works.

Dobson also had a strong interest in European cultures and landscapes. She spent a good period of her life travelling around Europe.

As such, the visual imagery of much of her poetry was also shaped by European landscapes.

blog-english-ultimate-guide-to-rosemary-dobson-nature

 

 

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Themes related to the Common Module

Themes are key to understanding how Dobson represents the human experience.

“Students deepen their understanding of how texts represent individual and collective human experiences. They examine how texts represent human qualities and emotions associated with, or arising from, these experiences…

Students explore how texts may give insight into the anomalies, paradoxes and inconsistencies in human behaviour and motivations, inviting the responder to see the world differently, to challenge assumptions, ignite new ideas or reflect personally.”

Source: NESA English Syllabus: Common Module – Texts and Human Experiences

 

As you can see from the syllabus, it is crucial that you analyse Dobson’s themes and determine what she said about the human experience. Do her views align or challenge mainstream ideas? Does she shine a light on overlooked human behaviours?

You will notice that some themes overlap with one another. When you are writing your essays, remember to find these links to create stronger arguments!

Now, let’s examine some common Dobson themes with examples from each poem.

Note: Not all poems will be analysed for every theme.

 

The self (and our internal conflicts)

Many of Dobson’s poems discuss the search for the ‘self’. This often comes with internal conflicts. However, not all of her poems deal with internal conflicts.

Young Girl at a Window: “More than mortal swords are crossed / On thresholds at the end of day;”

The image of ‘swords are crossed’ connotates Medieval conflicts, where 2 soldiers would cross their sword in a fight. Also, the terms ‘mortal’ and ‘thresholds at the end of the day’ indicates that the persona is approaching the end of a stage in life. Therefore, the persona is conflicted about moving on to the next stage in her life; womanhood.

Over the Hill: “He could move mountains if he cared… But a mountain in the palm of one’s hand / is a troublesome thing, so he lets them lie / Or lifts one, looks at it and quiets the trees”

The mountains represent the obstacles he has faced in life. He has reached a point in his life where he is comfortable with his sense of self. Therefore, he doesn’t attempt to “move [the] mountains”. However, he still acknowledges that these obstacles have shaped his identity today, as he “lifts one, [and] looks at it” in a respectful manner.

Summer’s End: “Walks on the beach in the moonlight the lonely mermaid / who married a mortal: who weeps at the edge of the water:

The mermaid is stuck in the liminal space between 2 worlds. She is unable to find her place in the world because she is unwilling to accept the changes in life.

The Conversation: The man says: “That mist like white scoured wool / Is teased and spread about the hills”, and the persona replies with “The wind will comb and spin / That fleece of mist to thread of cloud”

Here the ‘white scoured wool’ represents the pure self. The man says that is ‘teased and spread about the hills’, meaning that an individual’s sense of self is lost and scattered. However, the persona replies that the fleece will return to the thread of cloud, implying that there is a chance for individuals to find their true self and return to where they truly belong.

Cock Crow: “Between the lit house and the town, / I took the road, and at the bridge”

The imagery of liminal space (‘between the lit house and the town’ and ‘at the bridge’) indicates that the persona is conflicted between 2 decisions in her life; domestic duties (‘house’) and her personal freedom (‘the town’).

Amy Caroline: “At twilight, at the meditative hour / Perched on the piano-stool, in semi-dark / She liked to strum the songs learnt long ago”

The whole poem lists the selfless act her grandmother does for others. However, near the end of the poem, we finally see the grandmother do something for herself. This ‘semi-dark’ visual imagery represents the conflict between two aspects of her life; societal expectations of women and her own personal desires.

Canberra Morning: “The driver’s got a book by / Satre in his pocket”

Satre is an existential philosopher who believes that life has no meaning unless you give it meaning. As such, this indicates how individuals are always on a quest to find themselves and a purpose in life.

blog-english-ultimate-guide-to-rosemary-dobson-self

 

Change

Dobson discusses ‘change’ in different ways in her poems. She explores the inevitability of change, the desire for change and the changing interpersonal relationships.

Young Girl at a Window: “Over the gently-turning hills… And this journey you must go”

The ‘gently turning hills’ represent the undulating changes in life. Furthermore, the imperative voice in ‘this journey you must go’ indicates that all humans will go through changes in life; it is inevitable.

Over the Hill: “His eyes lit windows facing west / To take the lemon-coloured light”

The west is where the sun sets, representing how the man is facing his death. This represents how he is willingly accepting the change in his life, instead of fighting it.

Summer’s End: “After the summer season, with the miraculous / Cleansing of waters in the first wave of winter”

The ‘cleansing of water’ represents the new stage in an individual’s life. The visual imagery holds connotations that everything from the past is wiped out.

The Conversation: “As I was quick to know / That over the hills lay China / And both of us should go”

China represents hope and new changes. As such, Dobson is highlighting her desire to seek new opportunities.

Cock Crow: “Three times I took that lonely stretch, / Three times the dark trees closed me round,”

The persona desires for change; to find her own passions instead of being tied to her familial responsibilities. However, she is indecisive about this; hence, she walks up and down the path ‘three times’.

Amy Caroline: “She was sorry / She never had a jinker and a horse / To drive about the roads in, of her own.”

The regretful tone in the last few lines of the poem highlights that an individual’s inability to seek change and break free from society’s ideals has led them to live a life full of regret.

Canberra Morning: “Morning: such long shadows / like low-bellied cats”

Cats usually represent new beginnings because of their 9 lives. As such, Dobson implies that every day is a new opportunity for change and rebirth.

blog-english-ultimate-guide-to-rosemary-dobson-change

 

Perspective

Perspective is an important theme in Dobson’s poems. She illustrated how different perspective on life, events, and the self affects how the individual approaches ‘change’ or deal with ‘inner conflicts’.

Young Girl at a Window: “Since Time was killed and now lies dead / Or Time was lost. But someone saw”

Saying ‘Time is killed’ has a sense of finality; the persona is attempting to reject the inevitable stages of womanhood. However, the next line in the following stanza ‘Or Time was lost’ illustrates a change in perspective; the persona believes that her conflict is temporary and she will embrace this change soon enough.

Over the Hill: “A match against the friendly stars… With quite unconscious insolence”

The man is approaching his death, as represented by the ‘stars’. We understand that he is very calm and accepting of this death as the stars are ‘friendly’ and he is filled with ‘unconscious insolence’. This highlights how an individual’s perspective on confronting events ultimately shape how they experience life.

Summer’s End: “Dreaming by the fire I called myself, watching / For a child to run back through Time to a picnic”

The persona refuses to change her perspective and accept life’s changes. Therefore, she can only ‘watch’ and be an observer to life because she is no longer in sync.

The Conversation: “Having such talk as only  / Children and fools may try / That excellent old madman / Wordless and wise, and I”

Dobson identifies that others may believe that conversation between the persona and the man is childish and stupid. However, she personally believes that the conversation was ‘wise’. Therefore, it highlights how individuals are able to learn more from experience if they have an open mindset.

Cock Crow: “Thrice for me / I heard the cock crow on the hill / And turned the handle of the door / Thinking I knew his meaning well.”

The three cock crows is an allusion to Peter’s betrayal of Jesus (‘Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times’). The persona is aware that she is betraying someone. However, the line ‘Thinking I knew his meaning well’ shows that there is ambiguity as to whether she betrays her family for leaving them, or she betrays herself by returning to the constricting motherhood. This allusion heavily relies on her perception of the crow’s message; one that we will never certainly know.

Amy Caroline: “[She] held her head / On one side like a sparrow, had a bird’s / Bright eyes”

The sparrow is a biblical allusion; they are seen as valueless because they’re so small. However, ‘not one of them is forgotten by God’ (Luke 12:6). This implies that an individual’s self-worth is determined by how they perceive themselves, not society.

Canberra Morning: “Life gets better / As I get older / Not giving a damn”

This line shows how one’s perspective on the world and themselves influence their experience of life.

blog-english-ultimate-guide-to-rosemary-dobson-perspective

 

Womanhood / Motherhood

Dobson is known for discussing the challenges of being a woman in a mostly patriarchal society. She explores the coming of womanhood in her earlier poems before she shifted to the challenges and pleasures of motherhood once she had children of her own.

Young Girl at a Window: ‘Young Girl at the Window’ and ‘Lift your hand to the window latch’

The title ‘Young Girl at a Window’ introduces the premise of the poem. The window symbolises the threshold between childhood and womanhood. So, the imperative voice in the first line of the poem, directing her to ‘lift her hand to the window latch,’ illustrates that it is time for the persona to enter womanhood.

Cock Crow: “My mother and my daughter slept / One life behind and one life before”

The persona desires to liberate herself from her familial responsibilities (‘one life behind’) and find her own personal passions (one life before).

Amy Caroline: “She had / Eight children, little money, many griefs. / She was sorry”

Dobson explores how patriarchal society affects a woman’s life. Women are oppressed from pursuing their own passions, as they are simply valued as mothers and housewives, instead of an individual woman.

blog-english-ultimate-guide-to-rosemary-dobson-motherhood

 

 

Dobson techniques

You must analyse Dobson’s techniques to examine how she exrepresents the human condition in her poetry. These techniques reveal underlying meanings and messages.

“Students appreciate, explore, interpret, analyse and evaluate the ways language is used to shape these representations in a range of texts in a variety of forms, modes and media.”

Source: NESA English Syllabus: Common Module – Texts and Human Experiences

So, let’s examine Dobson’s most commonly used techniques in her poems:

 

Motif: Death

Dobson usually explores the theme of death to represent the ending of a stage in someone’s life. This motif relates to themes of change and perspective.

Young Girl at a Window: “More than mortal swords are crossed” and “Since Time was killed and now lies dead.

Over the Hill: “His eyes’ lit windows facing west” and “A match against the friendly stars”

Summer’s End: “Gum-leaves and blackberries burnt on the fire with an autumn”

Amy Caroline: “At twilight, at the meditative hour”

 

Motif: Nature

Dobson’s childhood in the countryside has influenced her use of nature in her poems. She tends to use nature to represent different aspects of life like its inevitability or adversities.

She usually creates a calm atmosphere surrounding nature, which contrasts with the motif of death. However, sometimes, her use of nature can be harsher in some of her poems.

Young Girl at a Window: “Over the gently-turning hills… Through grass and sheaves and, lastly, snow.”

Over the Hill: “Dredges home at dusk”, “Strides from hill to hill”, “Match against the friendly stars”, “He could move mountains if he cared” etc.

Summer’s End: “Cleansing of waters”, “Walking on the beach”, “Gum-leaves and blackberries”

The Conversation: “His old fists like a knotted branch”, “They valley’s bales are full” and “That over the hills lay China”

Cock Crow: “Three times the dark trees closed me round,” and “And love that grows about the bone.”

Amy Caroline: “For wrens beside the pepper tree”, “The household water for geraniums” and “At twilight, at the meditative hour”

 

Motifs: Time

Dobson is known for using motifs of Time in her poems. She personifies Time; therefore creating a sense that Time is capable of acting on its own, instead of being a simple concept.

So, let’s see which poems use these motifs of time:

Young Girl at a Window: “Since Time was killed and now lies dead. / Or Time was lost.” and “While in the clock against the wall
The guiltless minute hand is still:”

Summer’s End: The poem plays with time. Dobson uses flashbacks to explore the effects of time on memories.

blog-english-ultimate-guide-to-rosemary-dobson-time

 

Allusions (literary, religious, historical etc)

Dobson uses allusions to add a layer of meaning to her work.

Cock Crow: “Thrice for me / I heard the cock crow on the hill,” and “The night absolved me of my bonds

Religious allusion to the Denial of Peter; Jesus says “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times”. The term absolve refers to the forgiveness of sins.

 Amy Caroline: “[She] held her head / On one side like a sparrow, had a bird’s / Bright eyes”

The sparrow is a biblical allusion referring to how every sparrow is valued by God, even if humans don’t. (Luke 12:6).

Canberra Morning: “The driver’s got a book by / Satre in his pocket”

Satre is an existential philosopher who believes that life has no meaning unless you give it one.

 

Meter, structure and rhythm

Dobson tends to use rigid structures when discussing the rigidity of life and society. However, she does break from this rigidity to explore other themes.

Young Girl at a Window: Every stanza contains 6 lines and ends with an iambic tetrameter couplet.

Over the Hill: The poem is written as one long stanza. Most of the poem follows an octameter until it approaches the end of the poem, where the metre becomes unreliable.

Summer’s End: This poem is divided into 2 long stanzas that are titled “1. After the Summer Season” and “2. PIcnic”. It is written with an irregular meter and does not follow any structure.

The Conversation:  The poem is made of 4 stanzas of 6 lines. It doesn’t follow a metrical pattern but the 4th and 6th line of each stanza always rhymes.

Cock Crow: It is highly structured and rigid; the poem is made of 5 stanzas of 4 lines, all written in tetrameter.

Amy Caroline: The poem is written as one long stanza with an irregular metrical pattern.

Canberra Morning: The poem has a rigid structure with 5 stanzas of 5 relatively short lines. However, the lines do not follow a metrical pattern.

 

Want to improve your Dobson analysis?

The HSC Trial Prep Course will help you get on top of the Common Module in time for your Trials! Learn more.

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Written by Tammy Dang

Tammy is a former student of Matrix and is now studying Law / Media (Screen and Sound Production) at UNSW. She is a Digital Content Writer for the Matrix Education blog. Tammy aspires to become a Young Offenders Lawyer in the future while continuing to create art.

 

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