Speaking for the dead: Writing and the Unknown Australian Soldier
Australian Association of Writing Programs
School of Arts and Humanities
One third of the 60,000 Australians killed in the 1914-1918 war were unable to be identified. Known collectively as the ‘Unknown Soldier’ they were reburied in the postwar years with the inscription ‘Known unto God’. In 1993, the remains of one Australian killed on the Western Front were exhumed, repatriated and interred in the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial. In 2007, Archie Weller published a poem titled the ‘Unknown Soldier’ (Weller 2007) which gives a name, voice, history and character to the soldier-larrikin and anti-hero whose bones lie there, effectively challenging former prime-minister Paul Keating’s eulogy which insists ‘We will never know who this Australian was’ (Keating 1993). Weller deploys prosopopoeia, which has been described as the ‘fiction of the voice-from-beyond-the-grave’ and a ‘master trope’ of poetic discourse. His verse undercuts notions of the sacred associated with the Unknown Soldier and creates presence from absence, making explicit a key motive of imaginative writing. This paper speculates on the potency of the ‘unknown’ and the way that texts like tombs assist concealment and revelation, remembering and forgetting, resurrection and erasure.