Australian Literature Week 4: The Early Colonial Period

Such a range of diverse talents in the first half of the 19th Century in Australia. Today we looked at Australia’s first international best-selling author Watkin Tench who climbed to fame with his A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson (1793). This recounts the capture of the Aboriginal “Manly” who eventually settled into being something of a celebrity with a big heart: “the gentleness and humanity of his disposition frequently displayed themselves…” This account was a far cry from the poem we read from Eliza Dunlop, one of the first female writers in the colony to express profound sympathy for the way Aboriginals were being treated. Her poem “The Aboriginal Mother” is a beautiful, sensitive monologue presenting the voice of one of the Aboriginal women who managed to escape the onslaught of the Myall’s Creek massacre. The mother laments the fact that the child will now have no-one to teach him the traditions that his father would have imparted:

Now who will teach thee, dearest

To poise the shield, and spear….

To breast the river in its might;

The mountain tracks to tread?

Reply- the dead, the dead!

We looked also at the extraordinarily evocative descriptive writing of Louisa Anne Meredith in her Notes and Sketches of New South Wales (1844) in which she describes all the horrible discomforts of living in Sydney, but also describes the amazing beauty of the landscape, its flora and bird life:

“Often they [the parrots] rose close before us from the road, like living gems and gold, so vividly bright they shone in the sun; and then a party of them would assemble in a tree, with such fluttering, and flying in and out, and under and over; such genteel-looking flirtations going on , as they sidled up and down the branches, with their droll sly-looking faces peering about, and inspecting us first with one eye, then with the other, that they seemed quite the monkeys of the feathered tribes.”

Wow, what a sentence! Doesn’t it just capture all the elements that make up the lorikeets around Sydney: their spectacular beauty, their capricious movements, their cheekiness…


Amongst quite a few other early writers (Charles Sturt, Frank the Poet, Barron Field, Henry Kendall and Catherine Helen Spence) we spent most of our time savouring the evocative poetic language of Charles Harpur. In his poem “A Midsummer Noon in the Australian Forest” he manages to capture the magic of stillness, along with the miraculous impressions of the life of nature. He presents, powerfully his awe and wonder at the miracle of the Australian bush. Few Australian poets, even today, have his grasp of the way sound and sense can come so closely together:

Only there’s a droning where

Yon bright beetle gleams the air- 

Gleams it in its droning flight

With a slanting track of light, 

Till rising in the sunshine higher,

Its shards flame out like gems on fire. 



So here are a few blog questions that you might like to consider for the Early Nineteenth Century in Australian Literature:
Before you begin have a look at some of those great blogs that have been posted in the past few weeks by your peers:

Now try any one of the questions:

1/ Take a line from any poem that we have looked at this week and use this as a starting point for your own poem
2/ Feel your way into the skin of Charles Harpur and write your love letter to “Rosa”. Use some of the images in Harpur’s love poems if they suit your mood. 
3/ Write a letter to Catherine Helen Spence, commending her for her bravery in releasing women from stereotypes.
4/ In a brief paragraph (or a short poem) compare the landscape of Sydney Harbour as presented by Louisa Anne Meredith with the landscape of Sydney as you know it. 
5/ As usual, create your own subject, basing it where possible on your own experience with reference to literature studied in the unit so far. 

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: