By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Australia may be a ‘young’ country in terms of its expansion and written culture, although of course, its Aboriginal culture is among the oldest and most august in the whole world. And choosing ten of the best Australian poems, written by some of the most illustrious names in Australian literature, is by no means an easy task.
For instance, how many poems by Banjo Paterson, the author of the lyrics to Australia’s unofficial national anthem, should we include? And how many by A. D. Hope and Les Murray, two of the most widely anthologised poets outside of Australia? How many by Judith Wright, whose work is read and studied beyond the confines of ‘Down Under’?
The list that follows is, necessarily, not comprehensive. But we hope it will act as a ‘way in’ to the world of Australian poetry for the newcomer – and if you like some of the poems included here, we’d encourage you to check out more by these poets.
1. Banjo Paterson, ‘The Man from Snowy River’.
There was movement at the station, for the word had passed around
That the colt from old Regret had got away,
And had joined the wild bush horses – he was worth a thousand pound,
So all the cracks had gathered to the fray …
Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson (1864-1941) was an Australian ‘bush poet’, born near Orange in New South Wales to a Scottish father and Australian-born mother. His poems are best read aloud, as all true ballads are (or even sung, as the other poem by Paterson on this list – which we’ll come to in due course – frequently is).
Of course, the other thing a ballad needs is a good story, and this poem’s story is filled with adventure: it focuses on a horseback chase to recapture an escaped colt of a prizewinning racehorse. This colt has gone to live among the ‘brumbies’ (wild horses) in the mountains.
Paterson wrote this poem during the late nineteenth century, when Australia’s sense of its own national identity was being forged. It stands near, if not at, the beginning of the country’s journey of self-discovery.
2. Ada Cambridge, ‘After Our Likeness’.
Before me now a little picture lies—
A little shadow of a childish face,
Childishly sweet, yet with the dawning grace
Of thought and wisdom on her lips and eyes …
Ada Cambridge (1844-1926), later known as Ada Cross, was an English-born Australian writer who published three volumes of poetry as well as numerous novels, many of them serialised in Australian newspapers. No fewer than four Australian literary prizes are now named in her honour, and Cambridge Street, in Canberra, is named after her.
This poem is about the natural, divine innocence that the speaker of the poem notices in a baby’s face. We are all born pure and innocent, in the likeness of God: made in his image, as the Bible has it. But as we grow up, we become tainted by worldly temptations, sins, and other things – but the goodness and purity remain discernible in us to the very end.
The poem’s clever use of envelope rhyme (also known as enclosed rhyme), whereby each stanza is rhymed abba, mirrors the idea of us all returning to God’s purity and grace in the end.
3. Henry Lawson, ‘Up the Country’.
I am back from up the country — very sorry that I went —
Seeking for the Southern poets’ land whereon to pitch my tent;
I have lost a lot of idols, which were broken on the track,
Burnt a lot of fancy verses, and I’m glad that I am back …
The ‘bush ballads’ of Henry Lawson (1867-1922) are as famous in some quarters as those of Paterson, his contemporary. However, Lawson was also a gifted short-story writer, and his best poems can easily rival Paterson’s for their thrilling narrative and their sense of the colonial character of early Australia.
Published in The Bulletin magazine in 1892, this poem was part of Lawson’s attempt to capture the reality of life in the bush. Drawing on his own experiences, Lawson takes issue with Banjo Paterson’s account of bush life.
4. Dorothea Mackellar, ‘My Country’.
Mackellar (1885-1968) was born in Sydney. She’s another ‘bush poet’, and her work frequently draws on her experiences on her brothers’ farms near Gunnedah, New South Wales.
‘My Country’, her best-known poem, famously describes Australia as a ‘sunburnt country’. However, she began writing the poem in London, England (in 1904) and it was in London, in 1908, that is was first published. It has since become a quintessential poem about Australia.
5. Gwen Harwood, ‘In the Park’.
Harwood (1920-95) was a prolific poet whose work is highly regarded by readers and critics. Born in Brisbane, she later moved to Tasmania, where she worked as a lecturer. It was during her academic career that she became interested in the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, which influenced all of her work to some extent.
Of all of her poems, it is perhaps ‘In the Park’ that is the best-known and most widely studied and anthologised. This sonnet takes as its subject that perennial figure in Harwood’s poetry: the young mother.
6. A. D. Hope, ‘Australia’.
Alec Derwent Hope (1907-2000) was one of Australia’s greatest twentieth-century poets. He was also a noted critic. One American journal, not entirely undeservedly, branded him ‘the 20th century’s greatest 18th-century poet’ because of Hope’s Augustan love of form and reason in his work.
However, W. H. Auden was another, more recent influence on Hope’s poems. When he was asked what poets could do for Australia, Hope reputedly replied, ‘oh not much, merely justify its existence’. ‘Australia’ is a fine example of this.
Challenging the notion that Australia is a young country, Hope views the emptiness, the desert landscapes, and the tough survivalist instinct in Australia as all being indissoluble parts of its character. The major cities are like ‘sores’ which parasitically draw upon the rest of the country. This is not a poem of unmitigated praise – but then what Australian would want that?
7. Les Murray, ‘An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow’.
Leslie Allan Murray (1938-2019) was another prolific Australian poet: during his long poetic career he published nearly thirty volumes of poetry and also edited numerous anthologies.
Focusing on a man crying in the middle of the street, and exploring how various people turn from their daily lives to watch him, ‘An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow’ is set in 1960s Sydney, and showcases Murray’s down-to-earth, witty style.
8. Oodgeroo Noonuccal, ‘We Are Going’.
Oodgeroo Noonuccal (1920-93) was an Aboriginal Australian poet, political activist, artist, and educator, who campaigned for Aboriginal rights. But most of all, perhaps, it is her poetry for which she is now best-known, and in this free-verse poem, Noonuccal movingly portrays the impact on Australian Aboriginals that the arrival of English settlers had.
9. Judith Wright, ‘Eve to Her Daughters’.
This dramatic monologue sees the Biblical Eve transported to a post-nuclear landscape where man has succeeded in destroying the Edenic paradise of the world as we know it. Wright manages to weave in anti-war sentiments, feminist ideas, and some clever Biblical jokes, as Eve addresses her daughters and maintains, ‘It was not I who began it.’
Wright (1915-2000) was a poet whose work is politically informed and involved: she was also a noted environmentalist and campaigner for Aboriginal land rights.
10. Banjo Paterson and Marie Cowan, ‘Waltzing Matilda’.
Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong
Under the shade of a Coolibah tree
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled
‘You’ll come a Waltzing Matilda with me’ …
Where else to conclude our pick of the best Australian poems than with the lyrics to Australia’s unofficial national anthem? Paterson composed the lyrics to the song in 1895 while in the Queensland outback (among other places), although in 1903 Marie Cowan changed some of the words (as well as completely changing the music), so Cowan deserves a co-writing credit.
With its distinctive Australian slang (billabong, for instance; and the ‘matilda’ in the title refers to a bag of swag carried by Australian bushmen), the poem and song have developed an iconic status in the last century or so.