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Ursula Clinton

IT IS A STORY of childhood, this tale of my first love for literature and first original song. I hope, on that account, that you will not think it too childish, too trivial.

It really goes back many years before I was born for its introduction. Heredity played some part in it. My love for poetry and music was partly an inheritance. So also was the urge to compose. Environment fostered both, and I came to love and create literature. To God's inspiration and protection I owe the rest.

Probably some of my ancestors shouted their own war songs at the Battle of Hastings, and others, on whom I prefer to dwell, plucked Irish harps in the ancient bardic days as they made up their songs of Finn McCuill and Deirdre of the Sorrows. But I can only trace the singing gift surely back to the pioneering days of Australia when my grandmother, Hannah Lynch, a young Limerick woman who had lost her material inheritance through
family disaster, came out to live with cousins in Geelong, Victoria, and married an Irish gold miner, Peter Mackin Clinton, who, in the romantic fashion of the 1850's, had left his uncle's ship, on which he was being trained for a sea career, in order to try his luck at world-famed Ballarat. They went to dwell at Illabarook on the gold diggings south of Ballarat.

She took with her a sweet soprano voice which soon became the admiration of the newly-settled district. It had worn out before I was of an age to remember it, but I have often been told. of its beauty by old residents of my native township, Illabarook. Her songs, however, were the songs of others. The pioneering experience did not fan in her the creative fire of song. Instead, it passed it on to her fourth child, my father, Stephen Clinton.

He did not exercise his gift till manhood years, and then he did so secretly. I was twelve or thirteen years of age and had been writing prose and verse openly and confidently for a few years before his initials were discovered by an alert friend in a Victorian magazine. Taxed with the authorship of a poem, he confessed to it, and to others, and soon an amazed family learnt his secret. He continued, however, to use initials or pen names. He did not publish any book.

Always a lover of beautiful sounds and sights, when he married, he surrounded his home with an infant forest of a few acres. The place already had growing on it stunted sheokes, blackwoods and other Australian trees which the stock running over it, when it was part of thc local common, had eaten down.

Rejoicing at my father's kindness in protecting them with a fence, they soon regained their primal beauty and size. To them were added, as the years went on, little trees of many different species. Most of these were Australians-about fifty different kinds of wattles, blue, sugar, crimson flowering and lemon-scented gums (eucalypts), wild cherries and others. There were also some beautiful foreigners-pines, cedars, tree lucernes and holies and the trees and human children grew up together, the former soon leaving the latter well behind. The little wildflowers, too, became braver when released from fear of cattle and horses. In the spring they rioted everywhere in the forest paddock, and the grasses grew tall spears to further protect their little colorful friends. It was a very Australian place. The garden flowers were almost outcasts.

The winds came with their aeolian harps in the sheokes and pines, and the wild Australian birds came to sing part songs to their accompaniment, and to dance when the boughs danced. Green and golden honey-eaters there were, hanging upside down after the flowers that climbed in our windows, and magpies warbling at dawn and moonlit midnight. The harmonious and grey thrushes honoured us, and the pallid cuckoo repeated his chromatics all the spring day. Blue wrens vied with the wildflowers and parrots with the crimson flowering gums. Rich sunsets glowed between dark trunks and moonlight gave blue mystery. Stars hung in the branches of tall, slim trees, and rain brought out the sweet faint bush scents.

In this exquisite Eden my brother and I and, later, my sister grew up. Small wonder that we were children of fancy and faerie. When we played at school with other children our games were the conventional community games, but when we entered our own little world, imagination was the predominating force. The forest acres were inhabited by folk of our own creation.

When it rained and indoors we must remain, we danced and acted impromptu plays. And we read-how we read!-children's books by the dozen, among them my favorite, Gum Tree Brownie, a collection of Australian fairy tales by Tarella Quin, illustrated by the well-known Australian fairy artist, Ida Rentoul, and Ethel Turner's more human Australian children's stories. There were also the breath-taking books of my father's library of which we were given the freedom. There were no books in it to injure us. My father was a school-master-and a Catholic-and knew how to nourish the child mind. Being a poet also, he knew how to nourish the poet's mind. I fell in love with Shelley and Keats, Coleridge and Shakespeare, Tennyson and that mediaeval who sang:

"Sumer is i-comen in,

Gaily sing cuckoo."

And I was very responsive to the Australians, Kendall especially. His "Bell-birds" and "Septembcr in Australia" sang through my mind for days at a time. Kendall's world was so like our world.

When I was seven, I began to learn the piano. As soon as I had gained a little musical skill, rhythm and melody captivated me and my mind created imagery which the music suggested.

Dancing was another beloved recreation. On moonlight summer nights before going to bed, we loved to sing and dance out on the grass in our magic garden. Our parents were only too glad to encourage our artistic trends. My mother (she was born Mary Cogan, a New Zealander) loved dancing and all the bright and happy things of life, and my father was hoping for us to show signs of literary talent. On one entrancing night the moon so bewitched one little ten year old dancer that she slipped into metre and rhyme spontaneously-and realized with a thrill what she had done. She had composed her first poem.

It was followed by others composed in a similar way, and soon her brother Leo was following her example. (His poetic urge, however, seems to have been lost since his University years.) Her sister Veronica, then a babe, grew up with a like devotion to verse-making and reading, but later, when a life of illness was sent her by God, she deliberately put aside her literary activities to concentrate on spiritual perfection. She died in hcr twenties, the nearest being to a saint that I have ever known, and she always was, and will be, one of my dearest inspirations and helps.

The child Ursula soon bcgan to experiment in prose. Short stories were written and illustratcd with fearsome drawings, that showed imagination if no beauty of line. Later, in about her fifteenth year, came a more ambitious project, a novel with a
sociological bias-"Saved from the Slums." It now provides amusing reading, but was taken very scriously by school-girl friends at the time of its composition. It had a definite rcligious note in it, as had many of my childhood poems though in some other ways I was, as you may have thought, inclined to the pagan.

My first appearance in print, apart from letters to children's pages of newspapers, was when, in my fifteenth year, I sent a poem to Mary Gilmore, an outstanding Sydney poet, for criticism. She publishcd it in the Womcn's Page of The Austmlian Worker (her page), commented on it favourably and wrote me a special letter of encouragement for which I shall always have rcason to thank her.

About this time a great break occurred in my life which entered a very important formative phase. I was sent to board at a convent, Loreto Abbey, Mary's Mount, Ballarat, a beautiful place with a reputation for genuine Catholic culture. My four years there influenced. my literary and spiritual development very much. The true significance of my religion began to dawn on me. The sensitive influence of understanding nun teachers and the spiritual graces from daily Communion made of me a new personality. My English teacher, an Australian, Mother Mary Michael Gibson (God rest her soul!) took me through entrancing worlds of literature. She also gave me a firm and logical grounding in Christian doctrine and Scripture. With a day divided into definite, inescapable tasks, there was no time for verse-making. What little was done was stolen from sleep time. But I was absorbing impressions most necessary to me, observing and contemplating, and from my school days I took treasures invaluable and never-ending.

I passcd on to the University of Melbourne to study for an Arts degree. At St. Mary's Hall, the Catholic Women's hostel of Newman College, I came under the influence of another great nun of the same order, an Irishwoman, Mother Mary Patrick, I.B.V.M., herself a writer well known to many Catholic circles of Melbourne, an artist also, and an ardent Sinn Feiner. (These were the early 1920's.) She introduced me to the wonders of Irish literature, including the works of the Sinn Fein poets. At the Hall, Newman College (the Catholic College) and the University proper, I also met several students, Catholic and non-Catholic, with whom I naturally became friendly. I won a prize offered by the Newman College Magazine for a poem "Sursum Corda." (It appears in my book.) Archibald Strong, lecturer in English and well-known Australian poet, was the adjudicator.
This achievement confirmed my resolution to continue with creative writing, and when P. I. O'Leary, literary editor of the Melbourne Advocate showed an interest in my work, I began to feel my literary feet. His keen criticism and kindly advice have always been appreciated by me.

On graduation, I took up a teaching career, and most of my life has been spent in various secondary schools of the Victorian Education Department. For some time, however, I was on the staff of the Department's Publications Branch, writing for The School Paper, a children's monthly magazine produced for the various grades of primary school. Apart from that experience, my writing has been done in my leisure.

In my early twenties, I joined the editorial committee of The Horizon, the monthly organ of the Catholic Women's Social Guild. With this I have been associated ever since, first as a children's page editress; later, when I was in country districts, as contributor, and then, when I returned to the metropolis, as general editress. For fourteen years I have edited this little paper through lean years and fat, but I really think that I am now due to be retired. The work has all been honorary-and arduous though interesting, and necessary. Often it has meant putting aside my verse-making, and I have been tempted to desert it, but when the workers in the vineyard are scarce, what is one to do?

Since my childhood days it had always been my dream to publish my poems in book form. Because I was poor, the dream had to wait till 1931 when I braved the depression itself with my volume, Read in a Fire. I was happy to have as my publisher Frank Wilmot who, under his pen name "Furnley Maurice," had published several books of verse himself. He died in 1 942 nationally acclaimed as a great Australian poet. Nettie Palmer, one of our foremost Australian literary critics and essayists, gave me sage advice and help in preparing my book.

There is material in my note-book for another book of verse -two or three books-but their publication is still a future dream. Shall I brave the rigours of war as I braved the depression? Perhaps! But where find time to prepare these books? To my Horizon duties I have added another duty-leadership of the Writers' Guild of the Paraclete Arts Group, a Melbourne Catholic Action Society. Perhaps there is needed someone to drag me off to a hermit's cave and leave me there to publish a volume of verse or starve.

And now my message to the young Catholic writers of the world. The Church needs you, maybe as never before. You must dedicate your talents to God's service and hers and lean back on prayer and the Sacraments to strengthen your resolution. And you must fit yourselves technically for your writing. Your noble thoughts are of little use unless you can express them artistically and clearly to attract your readers' attention, appeal to their reason and inflame their hearts. And do not be afraid to give yourselves wholly to the service of your Leader, Christ. There are too many people of our time trying to bargain with Him. They will give Him so much of their time, no more. Place all at His disposal. He may give some of it back to you, but He may not. In either case, however, He will give you a spiritual peace that the world cannot give and would you not prefer to co-operate with Him in saving millions of souls rather than be a best-seller writer who has helped to destroy millions?

Originally published by Walter Romig in The Book of Catholic Authors Volume Three, copyright 1945

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