A short biography of Australian radical poet, feminist and ecologist Marie EJ Pitt, written by PD Gardner. We reproduce the article in its original form, although readers should be aware that although it is stated Pitt was an anarchist, she was a member of the Socialist Party, and abhorrent racist views she held, like opposition to interracial relationships, are not mentioned.
Marie E.J. Pitt poet, socialist, feminist, ecologist and anarchist was born at Bullumwaal - a gold mining town north of the Gippsland town of Bairnsdale in 1869. From there the family took up a small selection at Wy Yung. Her formative years were spent in and around Bairnsdale and Wy-Yung. Pitt later recalled how her upbringing influenced her later politics; "Having only a bush school education, I was naturally thrown on my own resources a great deal, and because of this I am absolutely independent in thought, and belong to no particular school of thought." 1
In 1893 she married and followed her husband, a miner, to various mining camps on the west coast of Tasmania. In a brief article on Pitt John Adams noted; "As a woman amongst so many men, she began to become extremely interested in women's rights and became well known for her views on the subject."2 She was active in workers politics and was elected Vice President of the Workers Political League at Mathinna. In 1905 she returned to Melbourne and became immersed in a number of social and political movements. She was closely associated with the Victorian Socialist Party at this time and editor of their journal The Socialist.
In 1911 Horses of the Hills, her first book of poetry, was published. In 1925 The Poems of Marie E.J. Pitt appeared and in 1944 the Selected Poems of Marie E.J.Pitt was issued. Her poetry falls into two fairly distinct types - the romantic and somewhat nostalgic lyrical ballad and the angry and sometimes bitter political poems. Whilst the former poems have dated badly (in Hail and Fairwell (1971) Chester Eagle mocked the ballad Bairnsdale for its 'archaic sentimentality') the latter are often as valid as when they were penned. The poem "Women : a reply" expressed her concerns for equality of women. "Doherty's Corner" expresses her concern for the environment "There's no bush today at Doherty's Corner,/ Only strange green hills and the glint of a far bay... "# with a tinge of melancholy and regret.
One reviewer of the 1924 volume spoke of her work in glowing terms; "Few Australian poets have a wider appeal than Marie E.J. Pitt. Her passionate love of nature and of her native country is reflected in all her writings. For rhythmic quality and graceful construction her verse compares more than favourably with that of most other Australian writers..."**
However conservative novelist and short story writer Hal Porter was more concerned about her politics than her ballads. In his book Bairnsdale(1977) he noted: " ....her batch of very melodious and regret tinged lyrics about Bairnsdale had endeared her to those who would have reeled back in dismay from her politics and her way of life had they known about them".
In later years she lived in a de facto relationship with poet and parliamentary draftsman Bernard O'Dowd. Pitt seems to have had differing opinions with O'Dowd over a number of issues including World War 1 on which she took a strong pacifist line. This opinion is strongly reflected in her anti-war poem "The Mercy" which questioned the glory of war and attacked the hallowed icons of both Gallipoli and the Anzac. She wrote:
"Oh, was it dream, or was it trance,
or was it I was there
And saw Hell's host of devils dance
on bloody Sari Bair?"
This poem was published in her 1925 collection but as far as I am aware has not been published since.
Both Pitt and O'Dowd were strong supporters of the Unitarian church from the 1920s onwards. But as a Christian her view of Jesus was that of
" ....Christ the Anarchist with fearless heart of youth,
Who laid his manhood down to keep the gates of truth!"
Many of her political poems are concerned with workers rights. Since she was both the daughter and the wife of working miners and since she lived both her childhood and much of her adult life in a state of poverty or near poverty this is quite understandable. Thus such poems as "The Heathen of Today", "Anathema" and "The Enslavement" are good examples of this genre. But perhaps the best example of her stinging sometimes bitter politically oriented verse and her concern for workers rights is "The Keening". In this poem she begins: "We are the women and children/ Of the men that ruined for gold, ....Husbands and sons and brothers/ Slain for the yellow dross." There follows direct attacks on:- the state and statesmen as "Traitors and false that pander to the spillers of human life,..", capitalists as the "fat blasphemers / Whose poppet heads mock the sky." and the organised church "Ye who whimper of patience,/ Who slay with a looselipped lie..."
"The Keening" ends defiantly:
"We are the women and children
Of the men that ye mowed like wheat;
Some of us slave for a pittance -
Some of us walk the street;
Bodies and souls, ye have scourged us;
Ye have winnowed us flesh from bone:
But, by the God you have flouted,
We will come again for our own."
Marie Pitt died in 1948 and in that year a small brass bas relief was unveiled in the Bairnsdale library by her companion Bernard O'dowd. [Incidentally a few weeks before his own death O'dowd expressed a firm belief in anarcho-communism]. Aside from this small monument which still hangs in the foyer of the library and the hard to get slim volumes of poetry there is little left of the legacy of Marie Pitt. Contemporary poet Laurie Duggan referred to her cryptically as "Bairnsdale's poet - who wrote/ 'You are my morning city still'/ an anarchist..."(The Ash Range 1988) However the quite readable paperback by Colleen Burke Doherty's Corner. The life and work of poet Marie E.J. Pitt (1985) is probably accessible from your local library. This brief biography and reprint of a fairly large selection of poems, gives an interesting and accurate account of the poet's life, times and trials.
1. J.Adams M.EJ.Pitt Article in the 1964 Gan magazine.
From: Mountain Echoes No 7, February 1996
Published in Five Years of Mountain Echoes (2001) by P.D. Gardner available from Ngarak Press
P.D. Gardner, a regional historian who lives in East Gippsland, can be contacted via Ngarak Press
P.O Box 18 Ensay Victoria Australia
Taken from http://www.takver.com/history/pitt_marie.htm
Available writings by Marie E.J. Pitt
The Sydney University SETIS archive has available in PDF format: Selected Poems by Marie EJ Pitt , Melbourne and Sydney Lothian Publishing Co. Pty. Ltd. 1944
Marie Pitt's defacto partner from 1920 until her death in 1948 was Bernard O'Dowd, poet, parliamentary draughtsman and anarchist.