Introductory activities

Class activity: timeline. Rosemary Dobson’s life spanned a period of change that saw great developments in literary style and many contextual changes that would have some connection to her work. Create a timeline that places the following topics on the same plane.

  • Dobson’s personal chronology – life events
  • Australian historical events
  • International events
  • Literary movements and significant publications
  • Notes about Dobson’s contemporaries

Using the timeline as a discussion piece, make some predictions about what you might expect from Dobson’s work. These predictions, made by each student, should be recorded either on a shared document/web space or in
student workbooks. Students will revisit these predictions at the conclusion of the study of Dobson.

Australian poetry: traditional expectations. As Dobson is quite a different poet to many others who are included within the Australian canon, it is useful to explore the traditional expectations of Australian poetry so that Dobson’s differences are noticeable for students. In a class call-out, teachers could ask students if they know any famous Australian poets or poems. Students who have internet access might Google some of the instantly recalled poets’ work or poem titles that are known. In classes where this isn’t possible or preferable, teachers should have copies of poems such as ‘The Man From Snowy River’, ‘My Country’, ‘Homo Suburbiensis’, ‘South of My Days’, ‘The City Bushman’, and so on. (If students are quite unfamiliar with Australian poetry, or poetry in general, you might look to representations in other types of texts.) Once students are reminded of the content of some well-known poems, ask them to contribute statements of what we expect to find in Australian poetry about: landscape, gender, occupation, sentiments, other places/people/countries and identity. This might be done in smaller classes by students each writing their ideas on the whiteboard under each heading, or it could be done through a class wiki or Google document. When this is complete, a summary of each category will help form a list of general expectations about Australian poetry to which students can compare Dobson’s (and other poets’) work.

Shared investigation: form, structure and literary traditions. This unit of work, along with Rosemary Dobson’s poetry, requires students to be familiar with the form and structures of poetry. Dobson has been called a ‘classic’ poet due to her practice of writing within traditional forms and with reference to poetic masters from different periods to her own. Divide the class into small groups and allocate each group one of the following poets to research:

  • George Seferis
  • Pausanias
  • Li Po
  • Wang Wei
  • Vasko Popa
  • George Herbert
  • Wislawa Szynaborska
  • David Campbell
  • James McAuley
  • Philip Levine

Each group should research the poet it was allocated, using the questions below to guide investigation and to report findings to the class.

  • When and where did the poet live and write?
  • What were some of the poet’s most influential works?
  • What ideas and themes recurred in the works?
  • What forms and style of poetry did the poet mainly write in? Provide examples and explanations.

Students may wish to include any additional information as well.


Personal response on reading the text

Class reading exercise. Divide the class into groups of three and allocate a poem from the list below to each group.

  • ‘Out of Winter’
  • ‘In a Café’
  • ‘Disconnected’
  • ‘Young Girls at a Window’
  • ‘Moving in Mist’
  • ‘Letter to a Friend’
  • ‘Family Matters’
  • ‘Australian Holiday, 1940’
  • ‘The Artist, Lecturing’
  • ‘The News and Weather’

Each student should read the poem silently, then one from each group should read it aloud for the group, and after some discussion (and assistance from the teacher if necessary), complete the following statements:

  • This poem is about . . .
  • We think a central theme is . . .
  • A feature of this poem that stands out is . . .

Each group should read their poems and their statements to the class. Meanwhile the teacher should tabulate the class’s responses on the board using the table below. Once the table is complete, discuss the findings, looking for common topics, themes or techniques.

Poem About/Subject Themes Style



Outline of key elements of the text

Poetic devices: revision. Teachers should conduct revision of poetic techniques and terminology using activities they would employ teaching any poetry unit.

Synthesising task/activity

Reading practice: where do we find meaning? Using the information gathered through the activity above, students should begin to explore close readings of their allocated poems. Providing evidence or explanations for responses to a poem is a critical skill in literary studies.

Using the model of a Venn diagram, teachers should discuss ‘reading’, or the process of making meaning in a text, as a practice dependent on interpreting what we know and understand from:

  1. Our own knowledge or experience (Reader’s Context)
  2. Information about the writer’s world (Writer’s Context)
  3. The text’s construction (Text)

Each of these can be represented by a circle in the Venn diagram.

It is often thought that the area over which these three circles intersect is where ‘meaning’ is made, but sometimes our reading is influenced more by one of these aspects of reading or another.

Teachers should provide students with the following instructions:

  • Cut out three circles, each with a diameter of 10 cm.
  • Allocate one circle to each of the contexts described above (Reader’s Context/Writer’s Context/Text’s Construction) and write each title on one of the circles.
  • Consider each idea you have about the text and classify it into the appropriate circle, writing the idea onto the circle.
  • Once your ideas are exhausted, consider how the circles relate to each other. Do they overlap at some point? Are they entirely separate? This relationship is your ‘reading’.
  • Use the circles as a guide of how to express your understanding of the text. Use the titles of the circles to help describe what you understand and what is leading you to that understanding.
  • Assess which ideas are most influential to your reading. Which circle informs your response the most?
  • Write a summary of your reading as a formal exercise in class or at home.

Having students practise this articulation of ‘reading’ will be important throughout the Australian Curriculum: Literature course, so this might be an activity that you return to, and hence provide students with more permanent or laminated circles.

The writer’s craft including such elements as:

  • Imagery and art: vision and perspective. Dobson’s interest and involvement in visual art, as well as poetry, can be clearly seen through her treatment of vision, light and perspective in her written work. Not only are these central themes in her work but she also creates a sense of each aspect through language.
  • ‘The Eye’: vision and glimpses. Seeing is an important motif in Dobson’s work. Multiple examples of imagery that deal with sight, and what can be seen or perhaps only half glimpsed, fill her work. As a class, explore the poem ‘The Eye’ as an example of this.
    • Highlight all the words in the poem related to sight and seeing. Identify which are symbols and which are examples of imagery.
    • Consider the use of simile and metaphor in the poem. Circle the examples and discuss what types of comparisons are used.
    • Comment on how the use of imagery and symbolism communicates ideas about the fabric of self, what is seen and what is left unseen.

Once this has been completed as a class, ask students to complete the same process with ‘The Other Eye’ as an individual task.

  • Art detective: in the periphery. Not only is Dobson’s work influenced by visual style, she also referenced many artists and their work in her poetry. She uses the images created by another as a world to inhabit and explore, and often the persona of the poem is a peripheral figure within an artwork by a European master. As a class, read ‘The Raising of the Dead’, ‘The Bystander’, ‘Detail from the Annunciation by Crivelli’, ‘The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian’, ‘Painter of Antwerp’ and ‘Child with a Cockatoo’.
    • Try to locate the artist and/or artwork that the poem is responding to.
    • What examples of imagery within the poem help provide clues for the artistic reference?
    • What ideas about people or figures in art do you gain from each poem?

Consider how this is different to ‘Ghost Town: New England’ or ‘The Artist, Lecturing’. How does Dobson separate the artist heritage of Europe to the artist of Australia?

  • Title analysis. The title of every work of literature has great significance, but when it comes to the condensed form of poetry the title often delivers a lot to the audience about subject, theme and style. Many of Dobson’s titles are extremely visual, similar to an artistic study; for example, ‘The Mother’, ‘The Wildwood’, ‘The Tiger’, ‘The Midnight Reader’, ‘Cherry-picking’, or even ‘Australian Holiday, 1940’ could be a family snapshot labelled in an album of photographs. Students should each choose a title that appeals to them visually and explore the poem, commenting on the imagery that is constructed and its connection to the title.
  • Individual research task: allusion. Dobson’s work relies on the reader’s understanding of the many allusions to mythology, literature and art that are made. Students should choose one example of a poem that employs this device, research the reference and write a summary of their reading of the poem, as informed by an understanding of the allusion.
  • Persona/voice activity. The personas within Dobson’s work are all quite varied but there is a unified voice. Teachers should choose a selection of poems that play with this aspect of the work and analyse how the persona is constructed and the voice communicated.
  • Symbolism and motif: ‘cross-pollination’. Natural and domestic imagery act as important symbols within Dobson’s work. Sometimes these symbols work in a similar way across numerous works, as motifs. Water is an important motif often representing renewal or cyclical change, whereas trees and plants, and particularly flowers and pollen, represent translation and the transmission of ideas and inspiration: cross-pollination. Separate the class into four groups, each studying a different poem: ‘Translations Under Trees’, ‘Poems of the River Wang’, ‘The Good Host’ and ‘Exchanges’. Enlarge copies of each of these poems for the group to analyse and annotate, looking for references to this motif and other examples of symbolism. Once all groups have completed this annotation, ask them to compare their readings, either through a class presentation or jigsaw process.


Text and meaning

Themes: Handout (PDF, 213KB)

Synthesising tasks/activities

1. Group presentation (Receptive mode).

In groups of three, students should select three or four poems that they feel are connected through ideas/themes, forms/structure or poetic devices. In approximately five minutes groups should explain the connections between the poems, using close references to support comments and observations.

2. Individual written response: close reading (Receptive and Productive modes).

As an in-class assessment, provide students with a copy of ‘Autobiographical’. Without studying the poem in class, students may take the poem home to read, analyse and annotate it, then bring it to class the next day. At the commencement of the lesson, provide the following written prompt: In a formal essay response, explain how literary conventions work to reveal ideas about what can be glimpsed or seen through a life.

Teachers might alter the conditions of this task if they feel it is appropriate.

Ways of reading the text 

  • Reading through genre: elegy. Exploring Dobson’s use of the genre of elegy establishes a generic reading practice that students will find helpful to their study. To explore this reading practice, teachers should first explain the aspects of this form, especially structure, metre, tone and subject. Once students have an understanding of these features, conduct a class study of ‘The Continuance of Poetry: Twelve Poems of David Campbell’, dividing the poems so that two or three students study a poem, but individually rather than as a group. Students should note the employment of the genre’s features and annotate the poem. Once this is completed, they should join with others who have studied the same poem and compare their observations. Finally, as a class, summarise Dobson’s use of the genre. (To practise interpretative response writing, have students write this summary as an informal task.)
  • World literature. American literature scholar Wai Chee Dimock describes a concept of ‘deep time’ as a literary time frame which is a long history of the world, unobstructed by national literatures or political boundaries. This space connects writers and texts that come from the same conceptual origin. Reading Dobson’s work as part of a wider world context demonstrates the broad thematic engagements of the work, as well as the global subject matter and contextual aspects. Exploring the employment of mythology narratives or figures in poetry might be an area to explore in this context and W. B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney might be two poets that would be accessible examples for teachers to include in their teaching program.


Comparison with other texts

  • Contextual comparison: Australian contemporaries. Dobson is often compared to her Australian contemporaries based on shared context. For this reason it is often other female writers of the same generation, such as Gwen Harwood and Judith Wright, who are most commonly connected with her, and she can also be compared to Vivian Smith due to the use of the elegiac mode. Many of Dobson’s male contemporaries make fitting comparisons, most notably A. D. Hope and David Campbell. Studying Dobson’s work as part of a comparative study with one of these contemporaries would make a challenging but rewarding program. Alternatively, asking students to complete an investigative task where they study the context of one of these poets and one of their poems (allocated by a teacher) could also broaden the study of Dobson’s poetry.
  • Dobson’s other contemporaries: classical poets. Dobson described herself as a ‘flexible traditionalist’ and Joy Hooton explained that she was ‘intensely conscious of the voices of the past but equally open to the diverse voices of the present’. As an extension task individual teachers could allow students to explore the poets of different eras and heritages referenced in Dobson’s work. The focus of this comparison should be the poetic forms of poems.
  • Li Po: close comparative study. Widely acknowledged as an influential source, Li Po’s life and Tu Fu’s poetry provide unique connections between Dobson’s poetry and a broader world literature concept described above: ‘deep time’. American literature scholar Wai Chee Dimock describes a concept of ‘deep time’ as a literary time frame which is a long history of the world, unobstructed by national literatures or political boundaries. This space connects writers and texts that come from the same conceptual origin. Compare Tu Fu’s ‘Thoughts of Li Po at the World’s End’ and one of Dobson’s elegiac poems through the topic ‘Describe how both of these poems communicate ideas of friendship and love.’ See the task below for a further exploration of this approach.

Evaluation of the text

  • Australian enchantment. Australia has always been a concept of the imagination as much as it is a geographical entity. From Indigenous conceptions of origin to European fascinations with a great south land ripe for discovery, a series of good and bad enchantment stories have created Australia within the world’s imagination. Dobson’s poetry fits within this tradition of enchantment also. There is an element of secrecy or elusiveness in her depiction of the Australian landscape, something that cannot be fully glimpsed or understood, and the land certainly cannot be inscribed but instead rejuvenates after people’s attempts to alter it. Reading examples of Dobson’s writing such as ‘Over the Frontier’ and ‘Family Progress’ provide opportunities to explore her work as an example of a representation of Australia.

Teachers should use this study of representation as a launching point for a creative response with students constructing a poetic representation of a place they feel connected to.

Rich assessment tasks

Productive mode task: comparative review writing. See the notes above and after completing the activities, have students complete the following task.

Study Tu Fu’s ‘Thoughts of Li Po at the World’s End’ and one of Dobson’s elegiac poems. Once you have uncovered a number of comparisons between these texts, write an article for the online publication The Conversation explaining the importance of comparison to understanding poetry.

Assessment criteria E D C B A
Addresses task/question
Formulates clear thesis/purpose throughout the task
Writes with appropriate knowledge of target audience,
selecting appropriate vocabulary and tone
Uses written conventions appropriate to the genre
Demonstrates knowledge of poetic form and style
Writes with control of poetic terminology
Constructs clear and logical overall structure
appropriate to task
Demonstrates complex understanding of text’s ideas
Expresses sophisticated ideas through the
construction of the article
Incorporates appropriate references

Receptive mode task: elegiac mode. After studying the mode of elegy, students should write a definition of the form using one of Dobson’s poems, as well as ‘O Captain, My Captain’ by Walt Whitman, ‘Elegy Written in a Church Courtyard’ by Thomas Gray and ‘To an Athlete Dying Young’ by A. E. Housman for examples of the features of this form. The definition should be at least a page in length and clearly show how structure, metre, tone and subject are employed in this form.

Assessment criteria E D C B A
Demonstrates understanding of the texts
Demonstrates understanding of conventions and form
Supports point of view with effective evidence,
examples, reasons
Identifies and evaluates conventions and their impact
on audiences
Evaluates the impact of elegy as a form
Identifies and analyses values, beliefs or viewpoints
(embedded perspectives) promoted in the text
Reflects on, extends, endorses or refutes others’
interpretations/points of view and responses to the text
Writes clearly, coherently and with effect
Sustains and controls purpose throughout the task
Demonstrates appropriate referencing skills


Synthesising core ideas

  • Students should revisit the predictions they made about Rosemary Dobson’s work in the Timeline activity. Considering these earlier thoughts, students should write an evaluation of the accuracy of the predictions with detailed references to their study of particular poems.
  • Individual comparative task. Dobson was known as a consistent and balanced poet; her themes and poetic style were similar throughout her career. Test this premise by comparing three poems – one from the beginning, one from the middle and one from the end of Dobson’s career – that have a connecting idea or style.

Rich assessment tasks

Creative production
Images were a critical aspect of Rosemary Dobson’s personal and professional life. Her own artworks became cover art for her own and other writers’ publications, and she studied with eminent Australian artist Thea Proctor. Through studying Dobson’s works relating to artworks and artists, students have explored the importance of vision, seeing, light and perspective to her poetry. Using some or one piece of Thea Proctor’s artwork as a starting point, students should create a poem that explores a singular idea or theme. Accompanying the poem should also be an explanation of the connection sought between the image and poem, as well as the attempted poetic style and construction. Some suggested Thea Proctor works are: The SwingThe Yellow Glove, The RoseThe Tame Bird and Lighting the Candles.

Written response (Productive mode): essay
Write a discursive essay using the following prompt: Dobson’s ‘search for something only fugitively glimpsed’ is a constant trait of her poetic works. Discuss this statement with reference to at least two poems by Rosemary Dobson.

This essay should be between 1200 and 1500 words in length and students should be given class time to plan and draft their essay and seek advice from teachers. The essay should be completed at home.

Oral response (Receptive mode): tutorial discussion
Conduct a tutorial discussion between students and teacher, exploring the following quote by Joy Hooton:

‘Looking back at what is now more than six decades of published poetry, the reader is struck first by a remarkable consistency but secondly by a remarkable variety. Perhaps balance is the keynote here: consistency balanced with variety, reserve with passion, past with present, tradition with innovation, wit with compassion, ancient myth with contemporary life, domesticity with culture, and above all Australia with Europe.’

Task instructions:

    • Students should be given an opportunity to prepare for this discussion and create notes to aid their participation in the discussion.
    • Each student is expected to contribute points to the discussion and pose questions to others.
    • Students should attempt to answer questions from other participants.
    • Control of expression and use of literary terminology should also be a focus for students.

Teachers should consider how much structure the class requires for this discussion to occur. If students are unfamiliar with this style of contribution, it might be helpful to practise tutorial-style discussions before using this as an assessment task. It could also be helpful for some students for a minimum number of contributions to be set, or topics allocated to each student.