A Note on Aileen Palmer's 'The Swans / The Wanderer'.
Subject: Australian poetry (Works)
Australian poetry (Criticism and interpretation)
War poetry (Works)
War poetry (Criticism and interpretation)
Authors, Australian
Women poets
Author: Rodriguez, Judith
Pub Date: 05/01/2010
Publication: Name: Hecate Publisher: Hecate Press Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Women's issues/gender studies Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Hecate Press ISSN: 0311-4198
Issue: Date: May-Nov, 2010 Source Volume: 36 Source Issue: 1-2
Topic: NamedWork: The Swans / The Wanderer (Poem); The Swans / The Wanderer (Poem)
Persons: Named Person: Palmer, Aileen; Palmer, Aileen; Palmer, Aileen
Geographic: Geographic Scope: Australia Geographic Code: 8AUST Australia
Accession Number: 246529816
Full Text: Reading Sylvia Martin's article 'Aileen Palmer: Twentieth Century Pilgrim: War, Poetry, Madness and Modernism', (1) I found that Palmer's sonnet 'The Swans / The Wanderer', quoted by Martin, (2) at once recalled John Manifold's 'The Sirens', which became available to Australian readers in the 1948 Selected Verse:

Martin notes that in 1945, on her return to Australia, for a talk on poetry Palmer chose the work of Louis Aragon, John Cornford and John Manifold. (4) (Manifold in the next decade was recommending the poetry of both Cornford and Aragon.) Perhaps from her time in London but also as a Communist with continued contact with Stephen Murray-Smith, she probably knew Manifold himself as well as his poetry.

It seems likely that her sonnet was written in answer to his, since his cloud-cuckoo arty vision is negated by her: 'Odysseus heard the sirens; they were singing / no luscious music, but an air-raid warning ...' She goes on to depict people seeking underground shelter to sleep during the Blitz, and an Odysseus whose long sea-faring enables him simply to shut out the menace of the sirens. She takes up his mention of swans to hear their calls as prophetic alarms, but the traveller (Manifold, or 'men'?) 'put them down at first as merely charming, / and some of it seemed nonsense they were singing...'. (According to the OED, 'put them down' has doubled the meanings 'wrote them down as/classified them' and 'disparaged, humiliated them' since 1400; indeed Palmer sees a 'put-down' here.)

Palmer echoes Manifold's placing of the Homeric figure amid a twentieth-century war context--her air-raids to his pylons and radios. But his mood is upbeat, hers sombre, and her final lines carry a rebuke beyond mere impatience with Manifold's characteristic hearty-male sketch of the (very 1940s) sirens. Is she accusing him, or more generally a male critic, of scant regard for women's poetry? 'Their tones were deep and ringing, / but ... some of it seemed nonsense they were singing. / Odysseus tried to close his busy mind, / not guessing they might sing for all mankind.'

The question arises whether Manifold in his sonnet meant to glance at the undeniable increase in women's writing. He appears to pose a lighthearted question: what siren song could enchant all hearers? Answer: a vision of egalitarian prosperity in a rural, technology-supported society: Soviet-propaganda utopia! His mariner considers the girl presenters briefly ('charming'!), then passes on to the 'bloody serious' emergency of the moment. (This chimes with A.D. Hope's description, in his 1983 Preface to a later selected poems, of Manifold the Australian Oxford undergraduate as 'the unheard of combination of the 'aesthete' and the 'hearty'.) (5)

Palmer insists that Odysseus's understanding of the song he hears is defective. He is 'uncaring', over-confident of the need for his own skills; sexual flippancy and contempt have made him deaf to the signficance of the voices of his time. Reading the poems as a debate makes Palmer's a claim for the importance of women's writing.


(1) Hecate 35, 1-2, 2009, 94-107.

(2) Sylvia Martin, 'Aileen Palmer--Twentieth Century Pilgrim: War, Poetry, Madness and Modernism', Hecate, 35, 1&2, 104-5.

(3) Selected Verse. Dennis Dobson Limited, London, 1948, 75.

(4) Martin, 99.

(5) On My Selection: Poems by John Manifold/Chosen by the Author/With a Preface by A.D. Hope. Bibliophile Books, Adelaide, 1983, 6.
Odysseus heard the sirens; they were singing
   Music by Wolf and Weinberger and Morley
   About a region where the swans go winging,
   Vines are in colour, girls are growing surely
   Into nobility, and pylons bringing
   Leisure and power to farms that live securely
   Without a landlord. Still, his eyes were stinging
   With salt and sea blink, and the ropes hurt sorely.
   Odysseus saw the sirens; they were charming,
   Blonde, with snub breasts and little neat posteriors,
   But could not take his mind off the alarming
   Weather report, his mutineers in irons,
   The radio failing; it was bloody serious.
   In twenty minutes he forgot the sirens. (3)
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