Thursday, 16 May 2013

Henry Kendall - The Last of His Tribe

One poem I reckon every school kid of my era must have studied was Henry Kendall’s, The Last of His Tribe.  I count this as one of my favourite poems – for its construction and for the content.  Henry Kendall was an Australian colonial poet (before federation).  At that time, any poetry audience in Australia looked more toward European works rather than embrace a home grown poet who wrote about the bush and then sometimes in a melancholy way.  Kendall never achieved the ambition and success he felt he deserved and appears to have been dealt harshly by critics and people in the literary world.  So many times you see that happen in the writing profession – like as if ‘they’ are up themselves – Bukowski, Norse, Les Murray, all seemed to have been treated the same way by the same type of people, so they held a healthy disdain for those ‘in’ the literary world.  Kendall’s private life was also rather tragic.  His mother suffered mental illness and he himself spent time in mental institutions (depression?).  He had to fend for his mother and sisters, but the sisters and their acquaintances bled him dry.  Broke, disturbed and terribly disenchanted, that’s how it seems for Henry Kendall.  But then long after his death there’s this poem that achieves popularity, acceptance and is studied in schools.  The poem is obviously about aborigines, and in 1870 something, definitely would not have been the thing you wrote about in your poetry, and especially not to appear sympathetic toward them.  In this and other of his writing, Kendall shows he was ahead of his time when it comes to conservation, racial tolerance and equality.  But what is the poem about?  At school it was a nice sing-songy beat about an old aboriginal man who’s got old and tired and is reminiscing about the good old days of hunting and plenty of tucker and women and dance.  That was at school.  Then years later I’m reading The Last of His Tribe, and it occurs to me that there’s nothing calm, comfortable or quaint about this poem at all.  The thought that occurred to me was, ‘they shot the bastard!’  I’m going to break this poem up to explain my take on it (note that I am not aware of this being the true interpretation; Henry Kendall is dead but I am sure he would nod his head in agreement).

The Last of His Tribe

(Henry Kendall, 1839 - 1882)

First, the title implies ‘he’ is the last one; all the others have gone; he’s the only one left; so the question is, what happened to them?  No young ones; no generations; no lineage – just ‘the last one!’

The poem is broken into three distinct themes – the first two verses speak of ‘his’ shame and broken spirit.  Verses 3 and 4 speak of his determination to do something about his fate (take action).  The last three verses speak of his suddenly being shot and dying.  Also note the structure of rhythm and rhyme that makes the poem so enjoyable to recite.

He crouches, and buries his face in his knees, (11 syllables; 5 feet iambic pentameter)
And hides in the dark of his hair; (4 feet)
For he cannot look up to the storm-smitten trees, (11 syllables; 5 feet iambic pentameter)
Or think of the loneliness there; (8 syllables; 4 feet)
Of the loss and the loneliness there. (8 syllables; 4 feet)
Who but a man who is prisoner and broken buries his face in his knees and hides in the dark of his hair?  This aborigine is in captivity and is sick with shame; so sick, he can’t bear to look up to the storm-smitten trees because it reminds him of all that’s been lost and the loneliness.  It’s quite possible that he’s just been captured – colonial police and trackers standing over him; he may be in leg irons and been beaten after a struggle.

The wallaroos grope through the tufts of the grass,
And turn to their covers in fear;
But he sits in the ashes and lets them pass
Where the boomerangs sleep with the spear:
With the nullah, the sling, and the spear. (9 syllables)
Wild game he used to hunt still come and act in the same way, but now he does not respond to them as he would have with his own instinctive mimic and step.  Why?  Perhaps he is not allowed to hunt anymore (hunting weapons banned by the white man because they could be too easily used as weapons of battle).  Perhaps it is a continuation of his shame for he has no reason to hunt anymore – nobody left to provide for and no reason to maintain his own strength – a willing to die.

Uloola, behold him! The thunder that breaks
On the tops of the rocks with the rain,
And the wind which drives up with the salt of the lakes,
Have made him a hunter again:
A hunter and fisher again.
Suddenly, he is stirred up with rage – stirred up by the spirits of nature, thunder that breaks, wind which drives, stinging salt of the lakes.  Suddenly, he is aroused to the man he used to be, hunter and fisher again.  He stands up; stands up proud; lifts his head out of his knees and out from the dark of his hair.
For his eyes have been full with a smouldering thought;
But he dreams of the hunts of yore,
And of foes that he sought, and of fights that he fought
With those who will battle no more:
Who will go to the battle no more.
The arousal is coupled with something he’s been brooding on for quite awhile, a smouldering thought.  A smouldering thought is perhaps coupled with a plot, a plan to take action.  But what action?  With his thoughts, of foes that he sought and fights that he fought, the action seems assuredly to be one of warrior revenge (whatever the consequences).  Though the smouldering thought may also have been coupled with a willing for himself to die, starve to death, suicide.  But then perhaps the spirits stir him to believe he is too good to die without a fight (implies that what he does next is contra to what was in his smouldering thought).
It is well that the water which tumbles and fills
Goes moaning and moaning along;
For an echo rolls out from the sides of the hills,
And he starts at a wonderful song: (4)
At the sounds of a wonderful song.
Why is it ‘well’ that the water goes moaning and moaning along?  Because it masks the rifle shot, an echo rolls out from the sides of the hills.  That is the precise moment they shot him!  And it is ‘well’, because he doesn’t know what’s really happened to him.  His head snaps back; he is jolted by the bullet, he starts! ………. at a wonderful song, sounds of …….
And he sees, through the rents of the scattering fogs,
The corrobboree warlike and grim,
And the lubra who sat by the fire on the logs,
To watch, like a mourner, for him:
Like a mother and mourner, for him.
In his loss of consciousness his vision becomes blurred, through the rents of the scattering fogs.  His thoughts rush jumbled and he relives all the preparations for battle, the noble death and the women who would be, mourner, for him, to wish him into the spirit world.
Will he go in his sleep from these desolate lands,
Like a chief, to the rest of his race,
With the honey-voiced woman who beckons, and stands,
And gleams like a Dream in his face –
Like a marvellous Dream in his face?
The last one left from his tribe is dying, will he go in his sleep.  And he is at peace, having acquitted himself well, showed courage and bravery, proud.  He is deserved to now go, from these desolate lands like a chief.  And in his final passing over he sees the vision of, a honey-voiced woman who beckons and stands ………. dream in his face.
I provide The Last of His Tribe without any real link to Henry Kendall.  I would love to do something using that five feet, iambic pentameter, but alas, keep practicing.  However, in keeping with tradition of my blog, I offer the following poem as my influence – an influence of reflection of how the aborigine must have hunted and walked this land to when the white man came.  My poem is, Creek at Creswell.  This is one of my very early efforts – not good, now I do feel for Henry Kendall.

1989.  HMAS Creswell is the Naval Officer’s training college situated on Jervis Bay.  I was posted to Navy Office in Canberra and would go over to Creswell once a month to conduct security courses.  The Navy chose a picturesque spot for the college.

Creek at Creswell


When I walk down to the creek
beside Creswell,
I see an aboriginal tribe,
living and hunting,
thousands of years ago.
The water runs slowly to the bay,
in pools it backs up,
the color of cold tea.
Bracken hangs over the path,
cool fronds of rain-forest fern.
Orange bell flowers,
decorate the vivid green bush.
The hunters strut warily,
up there,
where the sand juts out at the bend,
trees hang over to shade the water,
the white sand on the beach,
blazes in the heat,
a blue and orange bird startled,
bobs his head at the shadows,
feathers shine,
as if painted colors,
so rich, copied from,
silk clothes of a court jester.
Spears raised,
fish or wallaby maybe,
come down to the creek to drink,
only the trickling sound,
of water along the narrow sand channel,
but the hunters don’t come on,
stopped by the concrete block,
tumbled into the creek,
steel reinforcement rods,
point fingers,
fading them back
into the shadows.
                                                                     J.O. White


  1. Thank you for your time and effort

  2. Thanks heaps, you helped me a lot. Got full marks on my school essay. No I didn't steal your work. But thanks.

    1. You're welcome. I am grateful if I have contributed to your success in studies, your continuing love of poetry and our pursuit of truth.

  3. Thanks for this great analysis, very helpful!

    1. Thank you - I am glad you got some use out of it, and I am glad you thanked me.

  4. You are most welcome ..............

  5. Thanks heaps it really helped me

    1. Hey, thanks for your response - glad it helped.

  6. Random High Schooler27 March 2017 at 03:42


  7. I dare to disagree with your assumption that the old fella got shot.
    There is nothing in the vocab or meter that suggests this - no change of pace, nor startling recoil. Instead the sounds of the creek which are echoing from the surrounding hills lull him into reflection and memory. The echoes from the hills elude to echoes of the past. The bush has this anaesthetising influence.
    The poem is definitely melancholic but seeing conflict between black and white is looking at this through a modern lens. The war referred to is black on black ... not white on black.
    No doubt at all that colonisation led to this scenario, however, perhaps your Defence Force years have you seeing conflict and hearing shots fire in absentia. LOL