Response to Judith Rodriguez's note on Aileen Palmer's 'The Swans / The Wanderer'.
Subject: War poetry (Works)
War poetry (Criticism and interpretation)
Authors, Australian
Women poets
Author: Martin, Sylvia
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; Rodriguez, Judith; Manifold, J. S.; Manifold, J. S.
Geographic: Geographic Scope: Australia Geographic Code: 8AUST Australia
Accession Number: 246529817
Full Text: I thank Judith Rodriguez for extending and illuminating my reading of Aileen Palmer's poem by drawing attention to John Manifold's poem 'The Sirens'. Palmer may have met John Manifold in London--she did meet John Cornford--although I have found no direct reference to their meeting. She respected his poetry, particularly 'the colloquial, apparent simplicity of his expression within the frame-work of traditional verse-forms'. (2) She was to emulate this style, which was consistent with their communist politics of writing poetry for the ordinary people.

Palmer wrote 'The Swans / The Wanderer' in hospital in 1948 and she refers to poems by John Manifold several times in her manuscript '20th Century Pilgrim', written while she was receiving treatment there. While she does not specifically mention 'The Sirens' in the manuscript, she does refer to 'the sheaf of Manifold (only in typescript)' on the chair by her bed that she 'had used a great deal at some times', indicating that, possibly through her parents, she may have had access to copies of his poems before publication. (3)

The sonnet Palmer wrote is clearly a response to Manifold's but, as Rodriguez observes, negates his vision, transforming the sirens' 'luscious music' into an air-raid warning siren. In the sextet, she takes up Manifold's reference to swans and makes them stand in for the bird-women of Homeric legend. This final section carries, I agree, a rebuke to Man[ifold]'s 'sexual flippancy' and over-confidence. Curiously, Manifold lists [Thomas] Morley among the composers whose music his sirens are singing. When I first read Palmer's sonnet, I was reminded of the music of another composer of the late sixteenth century English Madrigal School, Orlando Gibbons. Does Palmer reference his madrigal 'The Silver Swan', who 'When death approach'd, unlock'd her silent throat'? Palmer's warning of the consequences of refusing to listen to women's voices echoes the warning in Gibbons' last line: 'More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise.'

The 'deep and ringing' tones of the swan-sirens give them an authority that subverts the conventional feminine timbre. The Southerly reviewer of Palmer's collection World Without Strangers? (which contains 'The Wanderer') commented that 'Miss Palmer--elder daughter of Nettie and Vance--has an incisive, at times, even insistent voice, and she speaks in the confident tone of a politically aware and intellectually alert twentieth-century woman.' (Lear would hardly say of either of the women under review 'Her voice was ever soft/ Gentle and low, an excellent thing in woman'. (4)) Ironically, Palmer wrote that sonnet in a psychiatric hospital, where she had no voice, 'as one of those things that people in mental hospitals write to recover from what they are going through'. (5)

In her 1948 poem, Aileen Palmer shifts the sirens from their traditional position as 'Other' to the Odyssean poet/hero and gives them a voice that is more than 'charming'; thus, as Rodriguez points out, making 'a claim for the importance of women's writing'. Nearly three decades later, Margaret Atwood wrote a poem that is every bit as 'upbeat' in tone as Manifold's 'The Sirens', but her 'Siren Song' ('Shall I tell you the secret/and if I do, will you get me/out of this bird suit?') is written from the point of view of the sirens themselves, who are thoroughly bored with the position to which the male poets have relegated them. (6)


(1) 'The Swans', Dear Life, self-published, 1959, 24; 'The Wanderer', World Without Strangers?, Melbourne, Overland, 1965, 22.

(2) Aileen Palmer Papers, NLA MS6759, Box 7, Series 4/22, 'Poets of Liberation', 1945.

(3) Aileen Palmer Papers, NLA MS6759, Box 7, Series 4/22, '20th Century Pilgrim'.

(4) S.E. Lee, 'Writer and reader. Six Voices of Australian Poetry', Southerly, 25:2, 1965, 136.

(5) Aileen Palmer Papers, NLA MS6759, Box 4, Series 4/7, 'My Apprenticeship', 'Pilgrim's Way'.

(6) Margaret Atwood, 'Siren Song', Selected Poems, Oxford University Press, 1976, 195.
Odysseus heard the sirens: they were singing
   no luscious music, but an air-raid warning
   across the dark, that scared some people, bringing
   beds to the holes they'd sleep in till the morning
   with some security, perhaps. Uncaring
   Odysseus went his way to sleep securely
   (no matter where--he'd been so long seafaring,
   and when he was required they'd call him surely).
   Odysseus heard the swans: it was alarming
   the song they sang: their tones were deep and ringing,
   but put them down at first as merely charming,
   and some of it seemed nonsense they were singing.
   Odysseus tried to close his busy mind,
   not guessing they might sing for all mankind. (1)
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