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Will H. Ogilvie
Poet and Author from the Scottish Borders


Will H. Ogilvie (21 August 1869 – 30 January 1963) was a Scottish-Australian narrative poet and horseman, jackaroo, and drover, and described as a quiet-spoken handsome Scot of medium height, with a fair moustache and red complexion.

INTRODUCTORY NOTE

An introduction to a book by a living writer is usually either an ineptitude or an impertinence. It cannot be pleaded that these lines are exempt from the double charge, and I invite those who are acquainted with Mr Will H. Ogilvie’s work to leave them unread and pass on to the book itself. They will find there matter more worthy of their attention. But having on more than one occasion expressed my admiration for Mr Ogilvie’s work, and having been asked to write an introductory note to this book, I proceed to set down a few facts about Mr Ogilvie’s career which some people may care to know, and a few remarks about what he has done in the way of writing which may possibly induce others to turn to his earlier books for themselves.

It is a grave though inevitable consequence of the present over-production of printed matter, when it is almost a distinction not to have one’s name upon the title-page, and when the few good books run a greater risk than at any other time in the world’s vii history of being swamped by the torrent of the bad, that a writer whose books are read and talked of in the back blocks of Australia, in the farms of California, and in the lumber camps of Canada, should yet remain comparatively unknown in this country. This has hitherto been Mr Ogilvie’s fate. Recognition, indeed, he has received, but no such recognition as his genius—it is a big word, but no lesser will serve —entitles him to, or as men with a tithe of his claims enjoy. His three volumes of verse, Fair Girls and Grey Horses, Hearts of Gold, and Rainbows and Witches—the last of which has been issued in this country by Mr Elkin Mathews—have had a circulation in the Colonies which would make most contemporary poets and their publishers rub their eyes.

Mr Ogilvie belongs to the intellectual kinship of Stevenson—the Stevenson of Across the Plains. A Scot of the Border, he was born near Kelso and received his education at Kelso High School and later at Fettes College in Edinburgh. At the age of twenty he went out to Australia and spent the next eleven years of his life there doing most things and gathering a rich harvest of experience. Riding “buck-jumpers,” overlanding with sheep and cattle, and generally going through the rough apprenticeship of an Australian sheep station is an unusual training for the career of letters, but there is many a writer who would give much to have had the experience. It taught Mr Ogilvie to see the world as it is, swept the cobwebs of convention and habit out of his brain, if indeed they ever lodged there, and gave him the feeling for Nature’s moods and the insight into the characters of her creatures which characterise his work. Like Melampus:—

“For him the woods were a home, and gave him the key
Of knowledge, thirst for their treasures in herbs and flowers.
The secrets held by the creatures nearer than we
To Earth he sought, and the link of their life with ours.”

For, to quote again from Meredith, “the taking of rain and sun alike befits men of our climate, and he who would have the secret of strengthening intoxication must court the clouds of the south-west with a love’s blood.” Mr Ogilvie’s life has been an open-air life, not laboriously gathering emotions at second-hand from books, but going out to pursue them with quickening blood and something of a reckless disregard of consequences. One can see this spirit, this feeling of companionship with “the browsers, the biters, the barkers, the hairy coats of field and forest” in the pages of My Life in the Open.

To adventure succeeded expression, and Mr Ogilvie returned to Scotland in 1901 and gave himself up to literature. He worked at journalism with success, but the wander-lust was still over him and he went to Iowa three years later to take up a post in the State Agricultural College for which the knowledge of farming he had gained in Australia had well fitted him. Two years ago he came back from America and now lives in Scotland, having resumed his old trade of journalism.

As a poet Mr Ogilvie has pleased the public better than the critics. This is quite unorthodox. The poet should, so some people think, at first find an audience fit, though few, and then gradually win his way to the admiration of the multitude. But Mr Ogilvie’s public, though not “few,” is undoubtedly “fit.” It is a public of men who have been in tight places and are able to recognise the feeling, of boundary-riders and back-blockers, of men unspoiled by culture who spend their lives in the open air, who feel the thrill of primitive things, those rude elemental forces and passions to which Mr Ogilvie goes for his inspiration. Lest anybody should be led into the belief that Mr Ogilvie is an inferior artist I quote the poem, “A Dreamer of Dreams,” exquisite in its feeling and masterly in its command of technique.

“The song-thrush loves the laurel,
The stone-chat haunts the broom,
But the sea-gull must have room
Where the white drift spins ashore,
And the winds and waters quarrel,
With the old hate evermore.

You clear with scythe or sabre
A pathway for your feet,
I move in meadow sweet
By the side of silent streams,
And you are lord of labour
And I am serf of dreams.

You fill the red wine flagon
And drink and ride away,
To the toil of each new day;
But I quaff till dawn be pale,
To the knight, or dame, or dragon
Of a dream-spun fairy-tale.

You win your chosen maiden,
With a bracelet for her wrist,
Lightly courted, lightly kissed,
She is yours for weal or woe,
But my heart goes sorrow-laden,
For a dream-love long ago.

Let our pathways part for ever,
I am all content with mine—
For when Ups are tired of wine
As the long dead dreamers tell
There are poppies by the river,
There is hemlock in the dell.”

Writing several years ago Walter Bagshot put his finger on the great want in contemporary literature. “The reason why so few good books are written,” he says, “is that few people that can write know anything". In general an author has always lived in a room, has read books, has cultivated science, is acquainted with the style and sentiment of the best authors, but is out of the way of employing his own ears and eyes. He has nothing to hear and nothing to see. His life is a vacuum. ... He sits beside a library fire, with nice white paper, a good pen, a capital style, every means of saying everything, and nothing to say.” Not the least of Mr Ogilvie’s merits is that he is one of the few who have escaped the curse. He has been in touch with the raw elements of life; the peril of sudden death has faced him; the exultation of conquest has stirred his blood. His, too, is that quiet and long-continued communion with Nature, both living and inanimated which invests with so singular an interest every member of what he calls in this book “the noblest profession in the world,” the men who go out to their toil and their labour until the evening, digging into the fruitful bosom of good old Mother Earth.

A. W. E.

My Life in the Open
By Will H. Ogilvie (1908) (pdf)

The Australian and Other Verses
By Will H. Ogilvie (1916) (pdf)

Whaup o' the Rede
A Ballad of the Border Raiders by Will Ogilvie (1909) (pdf)


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