Dorothea Mackellar was born Isobel Marion Dorothea Mackellar at Point Piper in Sydney, NSW on 1 July 1885. Her parents were Sir Charles Kinnaird Mackellar, a notable Sydney physician, and Marion Mackellar (nee Buckland). She had three brothers, Keith, Eric and Malcolm.
“My Country” is a poem about Australia, written by Mackellar at the age of 19 while homesick in the United Kingdom. After travelling through Europe extensively with her father during her teenage years, she started writing the poem in London in 1904 and re-wrote it several times before her return to Sydney. The poem was first published in The Spectator in London on 5 September 1908 under the title “Core of My Heart”. It was reprinted in many Australian newspapers, such as The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, who described the ‘little poem’ as striking the right note of “…the clear, ringing, triumphant note of love and trust in [Australia].” The poem quickly became well known and established Mackellar as a poet.
Her family owned substantial properties in the Gunnedah district of New South Wales and a property (Torryburn) in the Paterson district of the Hunter Region. The poem is believed to have been directly inspired by witnessing the breaking of a drought when she was at Torryburn; “My Country” uses imagery to describe the land after the breaking of a long drought. Of ragged mountain ranges possibly refers to the Mount Royal Ranges, and the Barrington Tops.
In later life, Dorothea Mackellar recalled how, after the rain, the grass began to shoot across the parched, cracked soil of the paddocks and, as she watched from the verandah, the land to the horizon turned green before her eyes.
A woman of independent means, she published poetry and other works between 1908 and 1926 and was active in the Sydney literary scene of the 1930s. Four volumes of her collected verse were published: The Closed Door (published in 1911, contained the first appearance of My Country); The Witch Maid, and Other Verses (1914); Dreamharbour (1923); and Fancy Dress (1926). In addition to writing poems, Mackellar also wrote novels, one by herself, Outlaw’s Luck (1913), and at least two in collaboration with Ruth Bedford. These are The Little Blue Devil (1912) and Two’s Company (1914).
In the New Year’s Day Honours of 1968, Dorothea Mackellar was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for her contribution to Australian literature. She died two weeks later in Paddington, New South Wales after a fall. She is buried with her father and family in Waverley Cemetery overlooking the open ocean.
In an interview in 1967, Mackellar described her reasons for writing the poem: “Not really a special reason. But a friend was speaking to me about England. We had both recently come back from England and she was talking about Australia and what it didn’t have, compared to England. And I began talking about what it did have that England hadn’t, that you couldn’t expect to know the country to have. ‘Cause, of course, there are lots of wonderful things, especially in the older parts, but they’re not the same, and, of course, the people who came here first… I’m not blaming them for it. But it was so different to anything they’d known, they didn’t understand.”
The first stanza, lesser-known, refers to England, and the fact that the vast majority of Australians of that era were of British birth or ancestry. The second stanza describes Australia and is amongst the best-known pieces of Australian poetry.