When I began researching the life of my grandfather Ernest Clive BUCK (1895-1974), I asked my dad Tom and my uncles Ron and Mick if they could tell me some of the things they remembered about their dad. They recalled that “BUCK” as he was known, was a hard-working bloke, he was a builder by trade and also worked as a fisherman on Tuggerah Lakes. He would often sit on his verandah in the afternoon with his friends who dropped by and they would tell tall tales.
Uncle Mick remembered the lines of a poem BUCK knew by heart and would often recite when friends and family were gathered:
It’s all very well to write reviews, and carry umbrellas, and keep dry shoes, and say what everyone’s saying here, and wear what everyone else must wear; but tonight I’m sick of the whole affair. I want free life, and I want fresh air;
From the words above I thought the poem was about Alaska, the great white north, but when I started to research the lines I found it was a poem by an Englishman called Frank DESPREZ (1853-1916). Desprez’ ballad-like poem, Lasca, is about a fiery Mexican girl and her cowboy sweetheart caught in a cattle stampede in “Texas down by the Rio Grande.” The next few stanzas in the poem confirm the cowboy theme:
I want free life and I want fresh air;
And I long for the gallop after the cattle,
In their frantic flight, like the roar of battle,
The mêlée of horns, and hoofs, and heads
That wars and wrangles and scatters and spreads —
The green beneath and the blue above,
And dash and danger, and life and love —
Lasca used to ride,
On a mouse-gray mustang close by my side,
With blue serape and bright-belled spur;
I laughed with joy as I looked at her!
Little knew she of books or of creeds;
An Ave Maria sufficed her needs;
Little she cared, save to be by my side,
To ride with me, and ever to ride,
From San Saba’s shore to LaVaca’s tide.
She was as bold as the billows that beat,
She was as wild as the breezes that blow;
From her little head to her little feet
She was swayed in her suppleness to and fro
By each gust of passion; a sapling pine
That grows on the edge of a Kansas bluff
And wars with the wind when the weather is rough
Is like this Lasca, this love of mine.
The full poem is about 12 stanzas long and full of passion, excitement and danger. You can read the epic ballad of Lasca by clicking here Cowboy Poetry at the Bar-D Ranch.
Lasca was first published in a London magazine in 1882, it was very popular in many parts of the English-speaking world including Australia. It was reprinted often during the next 50 years, sometimes in an abridged format to fit a magazine column or with a publisher’s deletions and changes. In 1919 an American newspaper claimed that ‘there is scarcely an American who has not read the poem, recited it, or committed it to memory’.The 1919 silent film called Lasca made by Universal Pictures appeared in theatres in Australia in mid-1920. Granddad would have been 25 years-old, two years back from the war, and may have taken a girlfriend to the cinema to see the well-known story of Lasca played out on the big-screen. I wonder if the movie was as exciting as the poem?
The promotional blurb for the film billed it as “A Dramatic Tale for Lovers”:
A beautiful story within a story. A tale so rich with romance and so wonderfully told as to challenge the admiration of all photo play lovers. The narrative of a Spanish girl whose wondrous character enriches the memory of all heroic souls. As beautiful as the fairest flower, As fragrant as the scented dew of a June morning. Story by Percy Heath—adapted from the poem by Mr. F. Desprez. A picture you’ll love. SEE IT with your family.
Universal Pictures reprised the storyline in 1931 for their film Lasca of the Rio Grande which starred Johnnie Mack Brown as Miles Kincaid a Texas Ranger, and Dorothy Burgess as the dance hall singer Lasca. In this version all characters survive the cattle stampede but Lasca loses her life then she steps in to save the man she loves from being killed by his rival, the bandit Santa Cruz, played by Leo Carillo.
A search of Australian newspaper archives reveals Frank Desprez’ Lasca was a stand-out favourite in this country. It evokes the spirit of the frontier and outback much like our great Australian bush-ballads such as Banjo Patterson’s The Man From Snowy River and Clancy of The Overflow, and also Dorothea Mackellar’s My Country. Granddad BUCK would have learnt the poem while he was at school. Lasca was often recited with passion at school poetry competitions, at distinguished literary evenings, as well as on less formal occasions such as a gathering of friends on the BUCK family’s verandah.
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Sources: A comprehensive history of the poem and its author Frank Desprez at Cowboy Poetry at the Bar-D Ranch; Kirkpatrick, Peter. Life and Love and ‘Lasca’ [online]. Sydney Studies in English, Vol. 36, 2010: 127-149. ISSN: 0156-5419. [cited 16 Aug 13]; Australian Poetry Archive; official Dorothea Mackellar website.