Lydia O’Neil (1892-1974)

The last balladeer? 

Lydia O’Neil enjoyed her 15 minutes of fame over a few months in 1936, when she was briefly at the centre of a battle between modernist and traditionalist poets. But for more than 30 years on either side of

Dinkum Aussie

that controversy, she produced widely read, much admired poetry for the readers of Queensland. 

As one article about her put it, she was a Queenslander by adoption. She was born Lydia Macrae Dunham, in Pennsylvania, USA in 1922. She began to publish poetry by the age of 14, and short stories from her early 20s[1]. She travelled widely, married, and settled in Queensland in 1920. 

Almost as soon as she arrived, O’Neil began submitting poems for publication, mainly in the Daily Mail (one of the forerunners to the Courier Mail), and later, in The Bulletin, The Courier Mail, The Telegraph and The Rockhampton Bulletin. From her arrival in Australia, much of her work concentrated on local settings, particularly those of the Wynnum area, where she lived until the late 1920s. 

Though she had only been in Queensland for 3 years, her work was sufficiently well known for it to be featured in Stable and Kirwood’s A Book of Queensland Verse [2](1924). In the same year her only book of verse, Dinkum Aussie and other poems[3] appeared.  Though it was published 2 years after the appearance of The Wasteland, it’s a strictly formal collection, featuring work from the US, from her travels around the world, and topical poems about Queensland and Queenslanders. 

Dinkum Aussie was not universally well received. The anonymous reviewer in the Brisbane afternoon daily, The Telegraph noted, ‘the exigencies of rhyming seem to have contributed to a disturbance of balance in the lines’[4]. HA Kellow, normally the most generous of writers, called her a ‘devotee of the creed of Kipling and Noyes’[5]. He noted half-mockingly that ‘Miss O’Neil loves to write of … of bonny jackaroos, of lean brown men nursed in a lean brown land’ and that ‘everywhere… there is the will to make the beautiful and to see all things at their best’[6].  Some of what he says is true. ‘Queensland’ featured on this site, owes so much to The Road to Mandalay,  as to be almost a parody. But there are also glimpses in her work of a slightly more nuanced poetic talent: 

And I shall think of you where I am going,

And dream of you beneath an alien sky.

The wind across the lonely highlands blowing 

Answers, ‘Goodbye!’

                                    From Leave Taking 

And O’Neil kept publishing poems: in the mid 1930s was a fixture in the poetry pages of the Courier Mail. She published widely on topics that attracted the interest of her readers: drought (When the Drought breaks), the landscape (Spring Creek), life in the country (Little Towns), Love (The Will is Made) and politics (Spain Revolts),

It was in those pages that she won her brief period of fame. It seems that other authors became jealous of her success, limited as it was. On 25 August 1936, the Courier Mail’s letters column contained what seems to be the first shot, a letter from P.  Stanhope Hobday, the President of the Queensland Authors’ and Artists’ Association (now the Fellowship of Australian Writers).  Mr Hobday, a painter, asked the snob’s question ‘are the public competent to judge what is good: or should publications serve to educate them of the best in the Arts?’[7]

Then something that looks very much like jealousy cuts in:

Your esteemed journal might render a still further service our writers if the consideration which you have extended to Lydia O’Neil could be extended to embrace in the same regular way, the verse of other Queenslanders. Among the members of my association are the best known Queensland poets…’[8]

This was just the start of it. Letters flooded in, in admiration of O’Neil’s work. And then on 22 August, ‘Lover of Poetry’ from Canungra Valley wrote: 

I see that you have published appreciations of the jingles appearing in your paper by Miss Lydia O’Neil. It has shocked me, as a lover of poetry, to see a reversion to this primitive form…The jingle is on the same level as the aboriginal cave drawing.’[9]

O’Neil replied twice, the first time in verse: 

For Queensland folk are loving folk, of plain and rugged ways, 

And please the Lord, I’ll walk with them through all my earthly days, 

And speak with them in common speech, and laugh with them, and cry – 

So if my jingles give you hurt, I pray you pass them by![10]

O’Neil then turned to prose to tell her critics to find other vehicles for their work: 

May I suggest that the obvious course is to offer those contributions to other editors, just as I have always done, and repeat the procedure until a check arrives instead of a rejection slip, It must be a very poor poem or story indeed that cannot find a haven somewhere. [11]

And she continued to publish verse up (and presumably receive cheques) until at least 1954[12]

There is a grain of truth in what the critics said about her poetry. But that doesn’t make them any less accessible or enjoyable today.  The salient feature of the poems in Dinkum Aussie, is their overwhelmingly positive attitude. The title poem is a fine rhythmic piece of verse in the spirit of CJ Dennis, and ‘Queensland’ is musical, if not particularly original. 

The poems of the 30s, however, show a distinct development. ‘Little Towns’ (1938) sees the good and the bad of country towns:

Yet little towns are cruel towns, 

With stern Mosaic[13] codes:

He must not look for mercy there,

Who walks the wider roads,

His name shall be a morsel , then, 

For every tongue to toss:

Yes little towns are cruel towns- 

They nail you to the cross![14] 

 And Spring Creek, featured on this site, is a fine pastoral lyric. 

More sophisticated poets than O’Neil, appreciated her work. The modernist Brian Vrepont wrote

As a versifier who claims a trifle of discrimination I applaud her as a very sweet singer. I think it unwise to condemn her simple directness or the more complex expressions of poets who sing of depths subjectively rather than objectively. Rhymed verse, blank and free form, as sympathetic forms for expressing truth and beauty. [15] 

In other words, there is a place for everything.

 

Only Book to buy: O’Neil, L.M.D, Dinkum Aussie and other poems, Brisbane, Watson Ferguson, 1924.

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[1] See, for example ‘A popular lady’ In Munsey’s Magazine, October 1919, pp149-156. http://www.unz.org/Pub/Munseys-1919oct-00149?View=PDF accessed 10 September 2017.

[2] Brisbane, Queensland Book Depot, 1924

[3] Brisbane, Watson Ferguson, 1924.

[4] A book of verse. In ‘The Telegraph’, Brisbane, 2 August 1924, p10. 

[5] Kellow, H.A., Queensland Poets, London, George, G. Harrap, 1930, p246.

[6] Ibid

[7] Public taste in the arts -is it a reliable guide? In the Courier Mail Tuesday 25 August 1936 p12.

[8] Ibid

[9] Jingles or poetry? The Courier Mail, Saturday 22 August 1936, p 7.

[10] To an Unknown Critic, by Lydia M O’Neil.  Courier Mail, 29 August 1936, p21. 

[11] The writing of verse, Courier Mail, 12 September 1936, p14.

[12] A Royal Welcome,  the Telegraph, Brisbane, 8 March, 1954, p 19.

[13] Ie the laws of Moses, not of the New Testament.

[14] Little Towns in the Courier Mail Saturday 15 January 1938, p23.

[15] ‘A local songstress’ the Courier Mail, Wednesday 2 September 1936, p13.