By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
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 most famous Banjo Paterson poem is – and we’ll come to that in due course).
But what are Banjo Paterson’s best poems? Below, we select and introduce ten of his most iconic poems, many of them written in the tradition of the popular ballad: songs designed to be performed for an audience, telling a story, and often dealing with ‘ordinary’ people, especially people from the Australian bush.
1. ‘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 …
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. ‘Clancy of the Overflow’.
I had written him a letter which I had, for want of better
Knowledge, sent to where I met him down the Lachlan, years ago,
He was shearing when I knew him, so I sent the letter to him,
Just ‘on spec’, addressed as follows: ‘Clancy, of The Overflow’.
This 1889 poem was originally published in The Bulletin, a Sydney newspaper. A city-dweller describes meeting Clancy, the title character, who worked as a shearer and drover.
The speaker of the poem has come to envy Clancy’s plain-spun, back-to-basics lifestyle, especially when he contrasts it with the ‘dirty’ city in which he himself lives.
3. ‘In Defence of the Bush’.
So you’re back from up the country, Mister Lawson, where you went,
And you’re cursing all the business in a bitter discontent;
Well, we grieve to disappoint you, and it makes us sad to hear
That it wasn’t cool and shady – and there wasn’t plenty beer,
And the loony bullock snorted when you first came into view;
Well, you know it’s not so often that he sees a swell like you;
And the roads were hot and dusty, and the plains were burnt and brown,
And no doubt you’re better suited drinking lemon-squash in town.
As the title and opening line of this 1892 poem suggests, Banjo Paterson wrote ‘In Defence of the Bush’ in order to put forward a particular view of life in the Australian bush.
Published in The Bulletin in July 1892, the poem was written in response to a poem by another noted Australian poet, Henry Lawson. Paterson disagreed with Lawson’s depiction of Bush life in Up The Country, and the ‘Bulletin Debate’ ensued, consisting of a series of poems by both Lawson and Paterson about what life in the Australian bush was really like.
4. ‘The Man from Ironbark’.
It was the man from Ironbark who struck the Sydney town,
He wandered over street and park, he wandered up and down.
He loitered here, he loitered there, till he was like to drop,
Until at last in sheer despair he sought a barber’s shop.
‘’Ere! shave my beard and whiskers off, I’ll be a man of mark,
I’ll go and do the Sydney toff up home in Ironbark.’
Another poem which appeared in The Bulletin in 1892, ‘The Man from Ironbark’ takes the opposite position of ‘Clancy’, and instead focuses on a Bushman who travels to the city.
However, a barber plays a practical joke on him, pretending to slash his throat while shaving him, so the man returns to Ironbark where shaving is not in vogue (and beards are): he thus returns to the place where he feels he belongs, far from the ‘civilised’ trappings of the city.
5. ‘Saltbush Bill’.
Now is the law of the Overland that all in the West obey —
A man must cover with travelling sheep a six-mile stage a day;
But this is the law which the drovers make, right easily understood,
They travel their stage where the grass is bad, but they camp where the grass is good …
Published shortly before Christmas 1894, this humorous poem proved so popular that Paterson wrote a number of other poems featuring Saltbush Bill. Bill is a drover of sheep, and when his flock start to roam across a squatter’s land, a jackaroo (or young shepherd) arrives to try to drove them back, and trouble ensues between the two men …
‘You come and see me, boys,’ he said;
‘You’ll find a welcome and a bed
And whisky any time you call;
Although our township hasn’t got
The name of quite a lively spot—
You see, I live in Booligal.’
This 1896 poem plays on a well-known Australian phrase: ‘Hay and Hell and Booligal’ was often used to refer to a place of the greatest imaginable discomfort. Hay and Booligal are two Australian towns, which were plagued by drought and other problems. Paterson used accounts of the rundown towns as inspiration for this poem.
7. ‘Mulga Bill’s Bicycle’.
’Twas Mulga Bill, from Eaglehawk, that caught the cycling craze;
He turned away the good old horse that served him many days;
He dressed himself in cycling clothes, resplendent to be seen;
He hurried off to town and bought a shining new machine;
And as he wheeled it through the door, with air of lordly pride,
The grinning shop assistant said, ‘Excuse me, can you ride?’
Appearing in the Sydney Mail in 1896, this poem is a tragic ballad (and most good ballads are tragic), in which the title character’s pride comes before a fall. He is so proud of his riding skills that he purchases what was then a fairly new invention: the bicycle. Things end badly, however …
Not by the straight and narrow gate,
Reserved for wealthy men,
But through the big gate, opened wide,
The grizzled figure, eagle-eyed,
Will travel through—and then
Old Peter’ll say: ‘We pass him through,
There’s many a thing he used to do,
Good-hearted things that no one know;
That’s T. Y. S. O. N.’
First published in the Australasian Pastoralists’ Review in December 1898, this poem is about James Tyson (1819-98), an Australian pastoralist regarded as Australia’s first self-made millionaire.
Tyson died eleven days before this poem appeared in print. The poem is not exactly an elegy (or poem of mourning and memorialising) in the traditional sense, but Paterson pays tribute to Tyson’s character and his good qualities.
Australia takes her pen in hand
To write a line to you,
To let you fellows understand
How proud we are of you.
From shearing shed and cattle run,
From Broome to Hobson’s Bay,
Each native-born Australian son
Stands straighter up today.
One of his most openly patriotic poems, ‘We’re All Australians Now’ is a later work, from 1915, emphasising the unity of the country after the many bitter and violent struggles to establish Australia as a nation.
10. ‘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’ …
Let’s conclude our pick of the best of Banjo Paterson’s 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 (and the music).
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 both in Australia and elsewhere.