I have just been re-reading some of these fantastic nineteenth century Australian poems. Charles Harpur’s “Midsummer Noon in the Australian Forest” and “The Creek of the Four Graves” are amonst my favourite. Harpur’s landscape is very like that of John Glover in its powerful, majestic, awe-inspiring mood. And Harpur wields his words like Glover wields his paint-brush; every nuance of mood and tone is exctracted through his long rolling sentences, his sonorous word choice, his clever rhymes and his atmospheric similes. He really gives a taste of what it was like to experience our landscape 200 years ago. Who needs time-travel, when have such a fantastic “living” interpreter as Charles Harpur. His protege was Henry Kendall and it is amazing to see how within a mere 20 years so much has changed. Kendall’s poem “A Death in the Bush” is like the next stage of European colonization. Here is the story of the bushie (the shepherd) who is struggling to maintain his flocks against a backdrop of hostile landscape. The story has not changed that much in the last 200 years. Kendall’s poem is equally awe-inspiring and mythic in its resonances.
Next I came to Lawson and Paterson. This is in interesting pairing. Lawson, inspired by radical labour politics is concerned to undermine the idealized view of the landscape promoted by the likes of Paterson. For Lawson, the Patersonian view of the bush is inaccurate because it distorts the real conditions of those who have to live in the bush to earn their living. These poets, taken together, give a fascinating insight into both the landscape and politics of the end of the 19th Century in Australia. Lawson’s “Up the Country” is a blistering attack on those who falsify the image of the bush through their lack of real concern for the human issues facing Australia in the 1890s:
I am back from up the country, up the country where I went…
I have shattered many idols out along the dusty track,
Burnt a lot of fancy verses- and I am glad that I am back.
I believe the Southern poet’s dream will not be realized
Till the plains are irrigated and the land is humanized…
“Up the Country” page 309 in “Australian Verse”