Student Question

How would you summarize Oodgeroo Noonuccal's poem "Then and Now"?

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"Then and Now" by Oodgeroo Noonuccal laments the destruction of Aboriginal culture and land due to European colonization. The poem contrasts the speaker's happy, natural childhood with the industrialized, impersonal modern city. It expresses nostalgia for a simpler, pre-colonial time and resentment towards forced integration into European ways. The tone is both melancholic and critical, highlighting the loss of indigenous heritage and identity.

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Odgeroo Noonuccal was a member of the Noonuccal aboriginal people of North Stradbroke Island (Minjerribah in the Noonuccal language) in Queensland, Australia.  She was born in 1920, and lived most of her life at a time when the European settlers in Australia were very hostile toward the aboriginal peoples, taking their lands and abolishing their customs, forcing them to abandon their native cultures and join the “white” workforce.  Her early life, therefore, was one of integration, though as an aboriginal woman few opportunities were available to her, and often she worked unskilled jobs for meager wages.  In the 1950s she became a poet, and dedicated much of her life afterward to activism and pursuing equality for the indigenous peoples of Australia.

This is the context in which her poem “Then and Now” should be read and understood.  The poem is written from the point of view of an Aboriginal woman, who is lamenting the forceful destruction of her native lands to make room for the settlers’ industrialization.  Dreams of the speaker’s tribe, carefree and happy, are “shattered by rushing car,/by grinding tram and hissing train.”  The imagery in the poem juxtaposes a time when, the speaker says, “I had nothing but happiness,” with the negative transformation of her natural world into the ugly, paved world of smoke-belching factories brought by the Europeans when they claimed the land as their own.

In the second verse the speaker recalls landmarks and memories, places where children played or where crops were grown, and contrasts these locations with what they have become: parking lots and office buildings, totally impersonal structures with no emotional or historical value.  The speaker mourns the loss of the aboriginal culture:  “No more woomera, no more boomerang/No more playabout, no more the old ways.”  The poem is sad and wistful, longing for life before it was complicated by the coming of the Europeans, and the speaker laments her own forced integration among them, mocking the way she is regarded by those around her:  “Isn’t she lucky to have a good job!”  What is luck, when her own history has been splintered and burned down to nothing but memory?  What is luck, when she is forced to live our her life in a foreign world in which she will forever be a stranger?

So in short, the poem is about the loss of the aboriginal culture from the point of view of an indigenous woman, and the speaker laments her forced integration into the European way of life through the juxtaposition of her happy childhood in a natural world with the dreary, impersonal, industrialized environment of a modern city.

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I have been told to describe the tone of the poem "Then and Now" by Oodgeroo Noonuccal.

The tone is nostalgic and melancholy. The speaker remembers a simpler and perhaps more peaceful time before European colonization in Australia. The boomerang and woomera were Aboriginal weapons: artifacts associated with this previous period in Australia's history. The speaker affectionately recalls this time before European colonialization and industrialization. This was a time when people were freer, more in touch with nature and, according to the speaker, happier.

This is a common theme in Romantic poetry. The nostalgia is for a pre-industrial or pre-civilized time when people were concerned with the simplicity of live: not so concerned with the rapid pace of historical progress. This historical nostalgia is analogous to the personal nostalgia for the simplicity and wonder of childhood. This is also a theme common to many Romantic poems. So, this poem is nostalgic and melancholy.

But its tone is also resentful because it is a lament about the European colonization of Australia. Noonuccal was an Australian poet and activist for Aboriginal rights.

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