Fiction Essays

Fiction Essays

Australian Literature: Cultural Cringe

Australian writer and critic Arthur Angell Phillip’s coined the term ‘Cultural Cringe’. The term has served an important historical notion – in reference to, how Australia has seen itself in its formation of an Australian literary space. Subsequently the ‘Cringe’ has had two main effects: Australian writers centring Britain’s thoughts on Australian literature, as a gesture of seeking validation – and Australia as a country deficient in, intellectual capital at a high level. In this essay the Cultural Cringe will be used as a framework to examine Barron Field’s poem ‘Kangaroo’ and Dorothea Macheller’s poem ‘My country’

According to Rollo Hesketh, Arthur Angell Phillip’s defines the term Cultural Cringe as ‘Australia’s inherent lack of faith in their own culture’ (Hesketh, 2013) therefore including Australia’s lack of faith is its own literary landscape. In his essay ‘The cultural critic’, Phillip argues that ‘The Cringe’ focuses on its ability to create needless comparisons – that of using England as a standard to judge Australia on. The dissemination of beliefs with reference to English literature helped develop, Australia’s inferiority complex – as exemplified through Barron Field’s poem ‘Kangaroo’. The piece is a poem exploring Australia. He writes about the kangaroo as a key Australian symbol. He refers to Australia as ‘an after birth’ and ‘not conceived in the beginning’. Further describing the ground as ‘crust’ and ‘barren wood’. Such language refers to Australia as a country without cultural history. Thus illustrating the principles surrounding the ‘Cringe’. The poem is a five-stanza sonnet with a rhyming pattern. 

‘From perfect desolation, 
And warrants the creation’   

A.A Philips, believes in Australia’s own subjectivity through his unapologetic stance of the need to be subjectively Australian – to see the emergence of ‘cultural nationalism’ (Phillips, 1950) Such belief elevates Australians cultural capital and weakens the British lens. Field’s ‘Kangaroo’ illustrates his untrustworthiness with reference to his description of the Australian symbol, the kangaroo, when he makes mention of – nature combining the ‘fragile squirrel’ and the ‘bounding hart’ into the kangaroo. As such, this incorrect description makes visible the subjectivity of the British cultural lens. 

In the poem ‘My Country’, Poet Dorothea Mackellar poetically explores and describes her love of Australia. She begins the first stanza by poetically describing England as a country of ‘ordered woods and gardens’. Further descriptions of England as a country with ‘soft dim skies’ personifies England’s ordinary landscape. The poet ends the first stanza by stating her ‘love is otherwise’ – Australia. Moreover, she poetically describes Australia as a land of ‘Sweeping plains, of ragged mountain ranges’ and continues with how she loves Australia’s ‘far horizon and ends the stanza by belonging to ‘the wide brown land’. By her admission of the uniqueness of Australia’s landscape, and her love of Australia, Dorothea Mackellar inverts the comparison Phillip problematizes in his essay by making Australia a standard of its own. (Hesketh, 2013) Mackellar’s declaration of love of ‘sunburnt’ Australia follows Philips appeal for an unapologetic cultural and literary framework. The poem consists of 6 stanzas’ that follows a rhyming pattern ensuring the second and fourth line rhyme, as well as the sixth and eighth line rhyming. She uses iambic pentameter in this poem in addition to using other poetic devices such as alliteration, metaphor, and personification to craft the poetic imagery created in the poem. 

Barron Field’s poem ‘Kangaroo’ illustrates the ideologies Phillip problematizes in his exploration of the Australian psyche in relation to England’s perception of the Australian, as a reader. Whereas Dorothea Mackellar’s poem ‘My Country’ achieves Phillips desire to depict a literary canon that is subjectively Australian. 

 References:

  • Phillips, A 1950, ‘The Cultural Cringe’, Meanjin, vol. 9, no. 4, pp. 29 – 31.

  • Moore, D 2005, 'Cultural Cringe in Academe: Studying Literature in the 1940s', Australian Literary Studies, vol. 22, no. 1, pp. 90-93.

  • Hesketh, R 2013, A.A. Phillips and the ‘Cultural Cringe’: Creating an ‘Australian Tradition’, Meanjin, vol. 9, no. 9, pp. 92 – 103.

  • Henderson, I 2009, ‘“Freud Has a Name for It”: A. A. Phillips’s “The Cultural Cringe”’, Southerly, no. 2, p. 127.