Dobson study guide updated

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Dobson study guide updated


Texts and Human Experiences is the name of the new module that will be studied by students of English Advanced, English Standard and English Studies. It entails a study of how texts represent individual and collective human experiences, and requires students to examine the manner by which these texts convey human qualities, and emotions associated with, or arising with from experiences.

In order to explore human experiences and the associated effects they have on the human condition and ones’ identity, students will be required to consider the anomalies, paradoxes and inconsistencies in human behaviour and motivations, and associated literary techniques that allow such experiences to be communicated.

Rosemary Dobson context

Rosemary Dobson was an Australian poet born in Sydney during the early 20th century. Aged five, Dobson lost her father, and was raised by her mother, who, as a result of difficult financial and social circumstances, elected to move the family to the regional town of Mittagong in the Southern Highlands. Amongst rural surrounds, Dobson began to display early talents for her academic and creative endeavours, and wrote poetry with a landscape focus while still a young child.

Following her study of English at the University of Sydney, Dobson continued writing, and published several collections of poems which began to be influenced by a deep reverence for European art history, as well as Anglo culture more broadly, which Dobson would have been exposed to during her period of study. Concepts of art and mythology permeated her earlier work, with her poems containing multiple, rich layers of references and allusions.

After marrying and becoming a mother, Dobson’s later work would come to be influenced by motherhood and familial relations, and an attempt to express universal elements of the human condition – love, loss, and the tension between youth and ageing.

Analysis of poems

Young Girl at a Window

Young Girl at a Window begins with an imperative issued by the speaker of the poem regarding the persona of the ambivalent young girl, gazing out of a window, reluctant to pursue what lies beyond, either physically or metaphysically.

We gain an understanding that a significant transition has taken place, wherein the idiomatic ‘More than mortal swords are crossed’ and metaphorical ‘On thresholds at the end of day’, serve to indicate that a quarrel or a difficulty has taken place, leading to a necessary change in lifestyle. Crossing a ‘threshold’ refers to moving from one stage of life to another, often marriage or death, and in this poem, it is implied that the young girl has lost her innocence and faces oncoming adolescence, particularly when we consider the metaphor of ‘Time was killed and now lies dead’ which demonstrates that a grand event or occurrence, previously dictated by time, has died, ceasing the event. Essentially, the girl’s youth has seemingly died.

The poem continues to reinforce the symbolism of time dictating the lives and experiences of individuals, whereby the personification of time, the clock, the room and the light, indicate that it is often our surroundings that define who we are.

In the final stanza, the poem pivots, shifting from a pessimistic, to an optimistic tone that lays the groundwork for future self-actualisation. This is evidenced by an assessment of the imperative, ‘Over the gently-turning hills, travel a journey with your eyes’, whereby the persona must grapple with the challenge of overcoming a ‘hill’ of growth, albeit, hills with a ‘gentle-turn’ that inspires confidence for a more balanced future. Ultimately, the poem concludes through a symbolic tricolon of ‘grass, and sheaves and, lastly, snow’, which reinforces the image of the three stages of life – youth, middle-age, and old age, respectively – wherein there is a gradual deterioration over time, but it is a challenge the persona must face.

Over the Hill

In Over the Hill, Dobson explores the narrative of a workman’s journey home following a day completed at work. The poem begins with the workman climbing a hill and glancing at the sky, with the vivid imagery of the ‘lemon-coloured light’ of the sunset, constructing the motif of the landscape that is developed later in the poem.

Striding from ‘hill to hill’ (an extended metaphor of life’s endeavours), the workman stands resolute, and proceeds to ‘light his pipe’ with ‘unconscious insolence’ to life, symbolic of his laid-back and largely carefree approach.Dobson furthers this characterisation of the workman, in the imperative, ‘he could move mountains if he cared’, whereby her tone of ambivalence effectively characterises the archetype of the Australian workman – indifferent and simple.

The metaphor that concludes the poem, ‘but a mountain in the palm of one’s hand is a troublesome thing’, can be interpreted to be a reference to the difficulty of constantly grappling with life’s struggles, whereby it is a point of discomfort to have life’s issues in ‘one’s palm’.

On the contrary, extrapolating from the motif of landscape mentioned earlier, the line can be understood to be an allusion to the mining industry that characterises the Australian economy, whereby there is significant tension and juxtaposition between the beauty of the environment, and the burden or ‘troublesome’ nature of altering the landscape in pursuit of the workman’s typical activities. This conclusion is particularly poignant in the sense that Dobson rounds off the poem by indicating that the workman has put the mountain down after turning it slowly – he has realised the effect his activities have had on the environment and has withdrawn, presumably to continue on his way.

Summer’s End

Summer’s End is a poem with a cyclical approach that details the nuances of seasonal change on society.

The first half of the poem is largely framed by enumerating the numerous changes that accompany the end of summer, whereby the symbolic ‘cleansing of waters, the first wave of winter’ sweeps in the alliteration of ‘sun-hats and surfboards’, and rallies ‘children screaming at the water’s edge with the seagulls’, carrying them all ‘in with a curl and a crash to the tramline’.

The alliteration of ‘curl and a crash’ resonates with the audial sense of the responder, and serves to capture both the eternal relevancy of beaches and waves to the culture of Australian society, in addition to the immeasurable strength of water to ‘cleanse’ or elicit shifts in society with a powerful ‘crash’ – a metaphorical fall from grace.

Upon removing all remnants of summer lifestyle and casting them to the trams and buses to abscond from the beach, the wave recedes with a personified ‘sigh that hushes the houses’, which refers to the capacity of winter to silence the activity and enthusiasm of society.

The poem ultimately concludes with the imagery of the lonely mermaid who married a mortal ‘who weeps at the ends of the water’, whereby Dobson constructs an extended metaphor of the explicit dichotomy of summer and winter, in which the line, ‘where the sand is like knives to her feet’, demonstrates that a distinction exists between the two seasons, which cannot be crossed. Essentially, upon summer’s end, we cannot attempt to ‘bleed into’ the lifestyle of other seasons or experiences – we must come to terms with the conclusion of one phase of life, before beginning another.

The Conversation

The Conversation is unusual in the sense that it is of rigid structure, unlike many of Dobson’s other poems. It consists of four stanzas of six lines each (sextains), and serves as a testament to the wisdom that is associated with conversations that are had in old age – a point in time where individuals are perceived to have a greater awareness of the grand scheme of life.

The poem begins with the similie, ‘his old fist like a knotted branch’, which immediately grounds the poem’s subject matter as one related to wisdom, whereby the words ‘old’ and ‘knotted branch’, connote experience and resilience, particularly as the latter brings to mind images of gnarled olive trees that are revered for their lifespan of hundreds of years. The first stanza continues with Dobson detailing that the man she is speaking to is commenting on the state of the morning, whereby there is imagery in the observation that mist is ‘like white scoured wool’ that spreads about the hills and permeates the land.

In the second stanza, Dobson, utilising the first person, agrees with this sentiment but proceeds to claim that this mist will undergo a ‘comb and spin’, ultimately being converted to clouds that hang at the whim of the wind at night. Such descriptions are symbolic in the sense that they build on the initial observations of the man, and demonstrate a sense of continuity – the wisdom of the old man will be followed by new and further wisdom. This point is reinforced in the next stanza, whereby ‘observing by this gesture… I was quick to know’, which elucidates Dobson’s increasing perception of what the man is referring to, and indeed, building on his implications and observations.

Dobson concludes the poem by stating that the talk the pair shared was potentially futile in the sense that it was one only ‘children and fools may try’, before returning to claim that the old man was ‘wordless’ yet also ‘wise’ – he did not need words to convey his wisdom, and throughout the poem, he is seen only to use gestures to communicate. In this sense, the poem is commentary on the capacity of simple observations to define who we are, and what we value in the world.

Cock Crow

Cock Crow is a sombre poem regarding the immensities of the difficulties of motherhood and a sense of self amongst a family environment. Such adversities are often downplayed by mothers, and seemingly disregarded completely by others, as it is the societal convention to assume that all mothers adopt all aspects of motherhood holistically and with enthusiasm.

The poem begins with the persona declaring in first-person imperative, ‘Wanting to be myself, alone… I took the road, and at the bridge, Turned back and walked the way I’d come’, whereby we gain an understanding of the persona’s desire for time for herself to explore the nuances of her identity, yet being tied down by domestic duties, resulting in her increasing ambivalence regarding whether or not to leave her life’s responsibilities behind.

The poem continues in the second stanza with the repetition of the earlier motif of ‘three times’ to establish that the persona has attempted to depart from her commitments, with the symbolism of the night ‘absolving [me] of bonds’, elucidating that it is only at night, amongst the dark when she is not visible, that the persona feels liberated from her mother and daughter.

Pivoting in the fourth stanza, the persona indicates that she ‘knew myself’ only upon being ‘separate and alone’, but nevertheless acknowledges that ‘love grows about the bone’ – an extended metaphor that captures the fact that the persona’s strength and resolve stems from her familial connection to her mother and her daughter, the love that defines her very ‘bones’.

Dobson concludes the poem with a biblical allusion to the motif of the cock crowing, which served to remind Peter not to betray Jesus. Much like Peter, the persona is confronted with the choice of taking the easy way out of the stresses of her life, juxtaposed by the tension of her love for her family. The final line of the poem, the emotive ‘thinking I knew his meaning well’, further establishes the internal dilemma of the persona.

Amy Caroline

Amy Caroline is a personal anecdotal poem written in free verse, in which Dobson utilises the first person in order to reflect on the life of her grandmother, as well as her characteristics and idiosyncrasies.

The poem opens with the declarative statement, ‘my grandmother, living to be ninety’, before proceeding to detail notable instances that have come to frame Dobson’s laudatory perception of her grandmother, with the poem noting, for instance, that she ‘used to set an extra place for strangers’, coupled later in the poem with the ‘she put out food for lizards’.

Dobson furthers her recollection in her description of the juxtaposition between her grandmother’s ‘thin house’, and its ability to speak ‘aloud of every kind of weather’, whereby despite the unassuming appearance, her residence, and by extension, her herself, have numerous stories to tell regarding the human experience.

Dobson rounds off the poem’s treatment of fundamental human experiences with the tricolon, ‘eight children, little money, many griefs’, coupled with the emotive ‘she never had a jinker and a horse to drive about the roads in, of her own’, which serve to establish that despite the generosity and general high-spirit of some individuals, there is often an underlying sense of injustice and deficiency experienced.

Ultimately, the poem implies that a sense of sacrifice is central to our memory of past experiences and individuals.

Canberra Morning

Canberra Morning is an observational poem delivered in first-person by Dobson as the speaker, wherein she details her perception of the meagre occurrences of day-to-day life in suburban Canberra.

The poem begins somewhat ominously by establishing the image of the shadow, whereby ‘low-bellied cats creep under parked cars’ and ‘stealthily flatten the grasses’, juxtapose darkness with the responder’s traditional perception of the morning as a time of brightness and light, subverting our expectations.

In the second stanza, Dobson gives us an account of the hustle and bustle of students preparing to catch the bus for school in the morning. Dobson captures the tone of the occurrence in the symbolism of the ‘starling’ (a bird), wherein the children are behaving in a manner consistent with a flock of noisy birds, as highlighted in ‘a flock of starlings: school-children, chatterers’, which appeals to the responder’s audial sense in order to establish a shared distaste for the loudness being produced.

The poem continues by detailing the qualities of the bus driver, and begins with an allusion to the French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Satre. Despite the driver carrying around a book by the niche writer, Dobson characterises him as nothing more than a typical man, who ‘listens moodily to the Top Forty’.

Dobson concludes her observations by cynically stating that her life has improved as a result of her age, whereby she is able to view the world ‘slantwise’, and ‘not give a damn’ about the lives, experiences and routines of others. Returning to the beginning wherein the responder’s expectations of light are challenged by apparent darkness, so too is the reader challenged at the conclusion of the poem, as we are seemingly told to display little interest in the world that surrounds us.

Key concepts from the rubric

  • Rubric statement: In this common module students deepen their understanding of how texts represent individual and collective human experiences. They examine how texts represent human qualities and emotions associated with, or arising from, these experiences

This statement requires students to consider how texts fundamentally represent human experiences are they are experienced by individuals, as well as groups or societies at large. In order to that in the context of Dobson’s poetry, we need to consider what experiences she is detailing, in order to make an assessment of what qualities or emotions she is seeking to convey.

In Cock Crow, for instance, following our understanding of the poem’s key themes of maternity, femininity, and the capacity of solitude to shape our identities, we can proceed to examine what human qualities and emotions define these themes, and by extension, experiences relating to these themes. As the persona experiences conflicting commitments, key emotions she might be experiencing include insecurity and uncertainty. Upon establishing this, we can then respond to the requirements of the rubric statement by exploring the techniques Dobson has used to convey these emotions, and how this representation is achieved efficiently. To this effect, the biblical allusion of the cock crowing, as a method Dobson has used to convey the psychological tension of the persona

In other words, what we are attempting to do is to narrow our field of analysis, in order to develop increasingly more nuanced responses to questions. Begin by identifying the experiences, then consider the emotions and qualities that frame the experience, before ultimately supporting your point with techniques as demonstrated in the pyramid below:

  • Rubric statement: Students explore how texts may give insight into the anomalies, paradoxes and inconsistencies in human behaviour and motivations

This statement requires students to consider how anomalies, paradoxes and inconsistencies provide us with a holistic understanding of the human condition, as by definition, being human is intensely complex and often marred by experiences that don’t fully ‘make sense’.

Extending the example of Cock Crow, there is a fundamental paradox in the fact that the persona seeks solitude to develop her sense of self and to seek self-actualisation, and yet, feels the need to remain loyal to her mother and daughter. It is this inconsistency in her behaviour and motivations that humanises her, as being human is not as systematic as might be thought. As a result, we can a deeper understanding of the text, as well as ourselves, particularly as we bring our own emotional experience to our reading of the text.

  • Rubric statement: Students make increasingly informed judgements about how aspects of these texts, for example context, purpose, structure, stylistic and grammatical features, and form shape meaning

This statement requires students to craft their responses to Dobson’s poetry in the context of poetic structure and techniques, and analyse how the composer’s choices have influenced the conveyance of meaning.

In the case of Young Girl at a Window, for example, the stylistic choice of utilising first person imperatives, aids the poem’s capacity to carry a didactic tone, that instructs both the persona and the responder on overcoming adversity for greater self-development. This approach furthers the conveyance of the key theme, as well as the overall human experience of adolescence.

Sample question and answer:

To what extent do composers explore the anomalies and inconsistencies of human experiences in their texts?

The complexities of human experiences render our motivations subject to the influence of anomalies and inconsistencies, whereby the manner in which individuals behave and respond to complex situations, is invariably shaped by the demands of being human, and often lacks clear determination and resolve. Rosemary Dobson’s suite of poetry resonates with this notion, whereby she makes poignant use of a didactic poetic style in order to construct personas that respond to the dynamics of life in varied, inconsistent manners, because the very nature of life, requires a multiplicity of unconventional responses. In Canberra Morning, Dobson utilises the first-person voice in order to comment on the minutiae of daily life, whereby as the speaker, Dobson critiques the idiosyncrasies of individuals such as the bus driver. Utilising a literary allusion to philosopher Jean-Paul Satre, Dobson juxtaposes high and low culture, by framing the driver as nothing more than an everyman, who ‘listens moodily to the Top Forty’, despite his faux-appearance of being an intellectual. Additionally, Dobson frames the influence of anomalies on human behaviour in the first stanza of the poem, whereby she subverts the audience’s expectations in the sense that the ominous image of the shadow, whereby ‘low-bellied cats creep under parked cars’ and ‘stealthily flatten the grasses’, juxtapose darkness with the responder’s traditional perception of mornings as light-filled times, particularly in the bush capital of Canberra. Ultimately, Dobson executes a tone of cynicism at the conclusion of the poem, whereby the line, ‘not give a damn’, is representative of the inconsistency that shapes how certain individuals behave. Despite our general expectation that in response to the human experience of day-to-day affairs, individuals would be motivated to respond positively and enthusiastically, Dobson embodies a metaphorical anomaly that holistically permeates the poem’s attitude towards life, by symbolically rejecting such positivity. This notion is also evident in the poem Cock Crow, whereby despite the traditional expectation that mothers adopt motherhood with enthusiasm rather than apprehension, Dobson once again conveys the anomaly of factors that influence how humans behave. The poem, for instance, begins with the persona declaring in first-person imperative, ‘Wanting to be myself, alone… I took the road’, which highlights the inconsistency between what society demands of women, and how certain women, such as Dobson, may be motivated to behave differently, in response to the adversity and uncertainty of human experiences.


Rosemary Dobson’s poetry has an enduring relevancy to our understanding of human experiences as it explores concepts and issues that are fundamental to what it means to be human. Students can build on key themes explored in her poetry but considering emotions and qualities that frame the persona’s within the poems, as well as by ensuring that their essays consider poetic techniques holistically.

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