Dreamtime by Oodgeroo Noonuccal
“Dreamtime” by Oodgeroo Noonuccal is an impassioned address to the Aboriginal spirits of the past who fearlessly resisted the invaders. The term “Dreamtime,” also referred to as “The Dreaming” is connected with Australian Aboriginal beliefs. One of the interpretations of the word denotes “ancestral past.” It represents Aboriginal concepts of Everywhen during which ancestral figures of heroic proportions and supernatural abilities inhabited the land. Noonuccal alludes to the spirits from her ancestral past in order to seek a happier life for all the indigenous people of Australia.
- Read the full text of “Dreamtime“
At the beginning of the poem, Noonuccal’s speaker, one of the aboriginal people, laments the loss of sacred cultural ceremonies such as the Bora and Corroborees. These ceremonies have gone due to the invasion of Europeans. Now, the people, with their heavy hearts, seek their ancestral spirits to take them out from this situation. Furthermore, they seek strength and wisdom from their heroic acts to resist the blow on their culture. According to the speaker, when one race dies, so dies the land. Hence, the people now do not want to live in a land that is not theirs. So, they pray to the “Mother of life” and spirits to hear their cries and lead them to a happy life.
Structure, Form, & Rhyme Scheme
“Dreamtime” is a thirty lines long poem and all the lines are grouped into a single stanza. It is written in free verse as it does not contain a regular rhyme scheme or meter. However, there are a few instances where Noonuccal makes use of rhyming. For example, “Corroborees” rhymes with “ceremonies”. The structure of lines is also unconventional. They do not contain a set number of syllables or words per line. Noonuccal uses end-stopped lines for stylistic line-ending and sometimes uses enjambment. Besides, this piece is written in the lyric form and written from the perspective of the aboriginal people of Australia.
Poetic Devices & Figurative Language
Noonuccal uses the following poetic devices in her poem “Dreamtime”:
- Repetition: The poet uses repetition of phrases or lines for the sake of emphasis. For instance, there is a repetition of the line “That once was ours” twice.
- Enjambment: It occurs in a few instances between the transition of lines. This device can be found in “May your spirits go with us/ From this place”.
- Allusion: There is an allusion to the sacred Aboriginal ceremonies such as the Bora (a ceremony of initiation) and Corroborees (a sacred ritual).
- Metaphor: In the line “Turned to dust on the land”, the poet compares the loss of sacred ceremonies to the process of turning into dust.
- Apostrophe: “Oh spirits from the unhappy past” contains an apostrophe. It is also present in lines 26, 27, and 30.
- Anaphora: It occurs in lines 4-5, lines 11-12, and lines 26-27. In each instance, the device is used to create a connection between the lines as well as for creating a resonance of ideas.
This poem taps on the themes of cultural loss, mourning, and ancestral wisdom, and the past. The main theme of this piece is the loss of cultural values after the invasion of Australia. Noonuccal’s speaker talks about how the invaders made them forget their identity. Due to this, they seek courage and wisdom from their ancestors to make them stronger. However, in the last few lines of the poem, the speaker says that she does not wish to fight back. When the people of land dies, so does the land. The country they visualize as theirs is not theirs now. For this reason, she prays to the spirits to take them out of this alien land that once was theirs.
Line-by-Line Analysis & Explanation
Here, at the invaders …
… was ours.
The first line of the poem begins with a reference to the European invaders. After they settled in the speaker’s country (Australia), it has become their “talk-talk” place. The phrase “talk-talk” refers to the colonizer’s language that is now the official language of the colony. Ironically, the speaker and her people are now strangers in their own country. So, they come with their sorrowful hearts to the “Dreamtime”, a reference to the heroic ancestral figures.
In the following lines, Noonuccal refers to the Bora ceremony and the Corroboree. Bora is an initiation ceremony of the Aboriginal people. During the rites, the youths are initiated into manhood by performing sacred rituals. The “Bora ring” is the site on which the ritual is performed. A corroboree is a dance ceremony that may take the form of a sacred ritual or an informal gathering. These sacred ceremonies have all gone after the invasion. The poet repeats the phrase “all gone” (an example of a palilogy) to portray her sadness and nostalgia.
A human body turns into dust after death. Likewise, those ceremonies, a representation of Australian aboriginals’ collective identity, have turned to dust on the land that once was theirs. In this way, the first section depicts the condition of the inhabitants after the colonizers settled in their homeland.
Oh spirits from …
… wisdom in your memory.
In these lines, the speaker invokes the spirits of the past to hear their painful soliloquies. If they do not listen to their cries now, the present generation will also turn to dust for the lack of guidance.
The speaker and others from her community do not mean to disturb the resting souls. They come to mourn their passing. Their ancestors paid the price through their lives and sacrificed themselves for the sake of saving their country. When invaders split their blood, they are the ones who came forward, resisted, and died.
The present generation is in need of their assistance badly. They can find inspiration in their historical past, their cultural heritage, and the stories concerning the bravery of their ancestors. Those anecdotes will give them strength and make them wise in the struggle of protecting their identity.
The legends …
… was ours.
According to the legends, the Aboriginal race is the soul of the whole of Australia. So, when the people die, so dies the land. It is a metaphorical reference to the death of a culture. A country is nothing but a mere landmass without its people. When invaders came there, they not only made the indigenous people forget their heritage but also killed those who resisted. In this way, Australia became a land of an alien culture. Noonuccal describes it as the death of her country.
So, her persona does not want to stay in this country any further. She wants to leave this place along with the ancestral spirits. In the following line, the poet invokes the “Mother of life” to lead them to a happy life. They cannot live in this entanglement of sadness. The speaker wants to get back to the past when their life was happier.
Oh mother …
… Let it be so.
In the first two lines of this section, Noonuccal invokes the spirits of the “mother of life” and their ancestors again. She urges them to listen to the cries of their unhappy people. The last two lines contain a repetition of the line “let it be so.” Here, the speaker is referring to her wish to leave the land that once was theirs. She also wishes to get back to the past when their lives were happier. By invoking their spirits, she urges them to fulfill the wish of her people.
Oodgeroo Noonuccal read “Dreamtime” on the steps of Parliament House Canberra on 27 March 1970. Noonuccal, also known as Kath Walker, was an Aboriginal Australian political activist who campaigned for the rights of her people. She was the first Aboriginal Australian to publish a book of poetry. In this poem, she looks back at the colonial history of Australia. She chiefly centers her thoughts on the loss of cultural values, heritage, and sacred ceremonies after the European invasion. The country that once was theirs is not theirs anymore. It is now dominated by an alien culture where the speaker does not find a place to fit in.
Questions and Answers
The title of the poem “Dreamtime” is a reference to the religio-cultural worldview in Australian Aboriginal beliefs. It is used to represent Aboriginal concepts of Everywhen during which the heroic ancestral figures with supernatural abilities inhabited the land. In the poem, this term is used to refer to the “ancestral past” of the Aboriginal people.
According to the poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal, the land of a particular race dies when the people inhabiting the land die or lose their cultural values. In this way, she brings home the fact the country now the Aboriginal people are living in is not theirs. Their country exists only in the “Dreamtime”.
The title of this piece refers to the ancestral past of the Australian Aboriginal people. Through this poem, the poet wishes to return to the past in order to be happy again.
The poem was read on the steps of Parliament House Canberra on 27 March 1970. Noonuccal wrote this piece prior to this event.
The phrase “talk-talk” refers to the language of the colonizers. According to the speaker, now their country is “the invaders talk-talk place”. It means the people have to talk in the colonizers’ language after the invasion.
Bora is an initiation ceremony of the Australian Aboriginal people. The word “bora” is a reference to the site where the ritual was performed. Refer to Judith Wright’s “Bora Ring” for clarity.
Explore More Aboriginal Poems
- “Aboriginal Australia” by Jack Davis – This poem is about the colonial atrocities in Australia.
- “Spiritual Song of the Aborigine” by Hyllus Maris – It celebrates the identity of the indigenous people of Australia and how they are spiritually connected to their land.
- “Bora Ring” by Judith Wright – This poem is about a speaker’s lamentation on the loss of indigenous values and customs, such as Bora ceremony after the European settlement.
- Check out Dreamtime: Aboriginal Stories (1994) — This book is about the poet’s childhood and her pride in her heritage.
- About Aboriginal Dreamtime — Learn about the indigenous concept of Dreamtime or The Dreaming.
- A Brief Aboriginal History — Read about the history of Aboriginal people and their culture.
- About Oodgeroo Noonuccal — Learn about the poet’s life and works.
- An Interview of Oodgeroo Noonuccal — Read the poet’s interview in which she talks about the cultural change in Australia.