Zora Cross was born in Brisbane's Eagle Farm on May 18, 1890. She was educated at Ipswich Girls' Grammar School and then at Sydney Girls' High School. Zora loved poetry from childhood; her mother was a passionate advocate of literature and her father passed on an appreciation of Irish folklore and literary traditions. After studying at Sydney Teachers' College and working for a short period as a primary school teacher Zora supported herself by acting, singing, teaching elocution and writing journalism and poetry. She married in 1911 but chose not to reside with her husband, and the marriage ended in 1922.
Before the First World War Zora was best known as a writer of love poetry, including the volume Songs of Love and Life, the cover of which Norman Lindsay refused to illustrate because, he believed, women could not write love poetry. Zora was later known as a children's poet, and she experimented with several different forms and genres throughout her career to maintain commercial and financial viability.
Zora's brother Jack enlisted on 12 December 1916. He had just finished his final exams at Sydney High School and was enrolled to study medicine at the University of Sydney. He died 18 months later at the Royal Victorian Hospital in England from meningitis. Zora was close to her brother and her grief was immense, betraying itself in her body. She developed a growth on her eye from excessive tears that she did not allow doctors to remove.
Zora wanted to memoralise Jack in her writing as soon as possible, but the book she was working on was for chlidren, and the dedication she added, 'to all the young dead', seemed out of place. Zora seemed to grasp innately that the grief she was feeling, although extraordinary in her own life, had been made ordinary and everyday by the last four years of carnage. Jack's death was no different than the thousands of others who had died, none of whom would be remembered by history as anything more than one of a multitude.
When she was ready to address Jack's death in more depth, Zora felt that the only fitting memorial was an epic in the tradition of Alfred Tennyson's In Memoriam. She wanted the poem to illuminate the grief felt by sisters, but struggled with the composition and questioned whether she had the skill to complete it. The final poem, Elegy on an Australian Schoolboy, was published in a limited run in 1921. It struck a chord with readers and reviewers for its stark intimacy, so personal that it gave readers 'a sense of intrusion'. Its modernity is due, in part, to its deeply confessional tone, which removed all walls and barriers between the reader and the ugly, uncomfortable grief and anger of the poet.
That anger and bitterness resonated. Writing in the Australian Worker, Roderic Quinn noted that Zora 'succeeded in expressing the common mood of many voices of thousands and thousands of sisters...The sorrow, which cries out from every line of it...might have been written not in ink, but in tears.'
The poem illustrates that loyalty to family trumped loyalty to empire.
State Library of New South Wales