The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

XII. The Literature of Australia and New Zealand

§ 1. Charles Harpur

THE BRITISH settlement in Australia began only in the last quarter of the eighteenth century; and, in the intervening years, an increasing but still small population has been chiefly engaged in agriculture and commerce. The class of settler needed for the development of the country was not one, who, as in the settlement of the American colonies, could carry with him to a new land the traditions and civilisation of the old. The labour of laying the material bases of prosperity was, for long, too severe to leave time for intellectual cultivation; and the country has enjoyed but little of the leisure which is favourable to the practice of literature. Nevertheless, both the quantity and quality of English literature produced in Australia give evidence of the vigour which is characteristic of the Australian. If Australian life and thought has no background of inherited romance and legend, it has its own tales of heroism, its own strong colour and other incentives to literary expression. Nature, here magnificently beautiful and there desolate and terrible; the exploration of vast deserts; the conflict with drought and storm; the turbulent period of the gold-diggings; the free life in sparsely populated country; the prevalence of horses; the neighbourhood of the sea and, in recent years, the passionate assertion of democratic liberty—all these have furnished material for literature, and, especially, for poetry, with distinctive characteristics. Australian poetry shows a prevalence of swinging metres, which suggest the movement of horses or the roll of great waves. It consists largely of narrative and character-sketch. Much of it is genially humorous; together with a warm appreciation of heroism and devotion, it shows a delight in the odd types of character (and rascality) fostered by the conditions of life in a young country. Where it is serious, it frequently expresses a gloomy view of life, induced, perhaps, by the hardships and the uncertainty that attended the days of settlers, explorers and gold-diggers.

The earliest Australian poetry was rather an inheritance from Great Britain than a native growth. In 1819, Charles Lamb’s friend, Barron Field, who, in 1816, became judge of the supreme court of New South Wales, and remained in Australia till 1824, published in Sydney, for private circulation, First Fruits of Australian Poetry. In 1823, a born Australian, William Charles Wentworth, wrote in competition for the chancellor’s medal at the university of Cambridge a poem entitled Australasia, which was printed in London and shortly afterwards appeared in the first Australian newspaper, The Sydney Gazette. In 1826, another Australian, Charles Tompson, junior, published in Sydney his poems, Wild Notes from the Lyre of a Native Minstrel. The names of Australian fauna and flora and references to the aboriginal races are found creeping further into English verse in the poems of John Dunmore Lang, a presbyterian divine, who arrived in New South Wales in 1823 and took a prominent part in Australian politics. His Aurora Australis, published in Sydney in 1826, is Australian at least in so far as it applies inherited modes of expression to the beauties and characteristics of his adopted country. Lang was not afraid to write:

  • At length an occupant was given
  • To traverse each untrodden wild,
  • The rudest mortal under Heaven,
  • Stern Nature’s long-forgotten child!
  • Compatriot of the tall emu,
  • The wombat and the kangaroo!
  • The decade 1840–1850, preceding the rush to the gold-diggings, was an important period in the history of Australian poetry. The development of New South Wales brought about an increase in the number of newspapers, and the newspapers gave opportunities for the publication of verse. Encouragement came, also, from Sir Henry Parkes, who, having emigrated to Australia in 1839 at the age of twenty-four, was enabled by his eminent position in the political life of New South Wales to foster the production of poetry. Parkes was, himself, a poet of some merit. Of the five volumes of verse which he published in Sydney, the earliest was issued in 1842; the best is probably the second, Murmurs of the Stream, which came out in 1857; but poetry was to him the recreation of a busy life, and his power of lyrical expression was not cultivated as it deserved. Other poets of the period were Daniel Henry Deniehy, a graceful singer; Richard P. L. Rowe, a journalist whose miscellaneous writings under the pseudonym “Pete Possum” were very popular with Australian readers, and whose best poems show a subtle imagination and a delicate ear; Henry Halloran, a fluent and straightforward versifier, and J. Sheridan Moore, who sang in easy style of Australian scenes. The same decade, moreover, saw the publication of his first volume of poetry by one whose work deserves more particular attention.

    Charles Harpur may be considered the first distinctively Australian poet. He was a student of Wordsworth and of Shelley, and more than one of his lyric poems (for instance, that entitled Words) suggest that he had read the lyric poems of Blake. In this first volume, Thoughts: a Series of Sonnets, published in Sydney in 1845, there is little that might not have been written by one who had never seen Australia. The sonnets are well-performed exercises in poetry, not devoid of the commonplaces of poetical diction, and, in spite of some fervour and fine imagination, seldom rising above a moderate level of merit. As time went on, Harpur, who was Australian born and spent much of his life in the bush, came to trust more, for subject and for inspiration, to what he himself felt and saw in his own life and surroundings. He was the first Australian poet to give a worthy imaginative representation of Australian scenery and nature. The largeness of his vision and the simplicity of his emotion suggest life in an undeveloped and sparsely populated country; and, while he practised many forms of lyrical poetry, he found his most suitable medium in blank verse narrative and description. The Creek of the Four Graves is the poem on which his fame is most firmly established, and it is essentially Australian. His play, The Bushrangers, published in 1853, is not a good play; but the volume in which it appeared and the volume called The Power of the Dream, published in 1865, contain some thoughtful and learned verse.

    The rush for gold, which began just after the middle of the last century, brought to Australia a great quantity of new life and enterprise, which attracted thither a few men of intellectual attainments. Among these was Richard Henry Horne (who, while in Australia changed his second name to Hengist), the author of Orion, whose poetical works bear some traces of his seventeen years’ residence in Australia. Horne’s chief influence on Australian poetry, however, lay in the advice and encouragement which he gave to younger poets. The same is true of James Lionel Michael, who, soon after his arrival in Sydney, gave up the idea of gold-digging and began to practise his own profession of solicitor. Michael, a friend of John Everett Millais and a supporter of the pre-Raphaelite movement in English painting was a man of fine intellect, and himself a ready and musical poet. His long narrative and partly autobiographical poem John Cumberland, which was published in Sydney in 1860, flows easily along in varied metres, and, though an eccentric jumble of matter and manner, has qualities of grace and refinement; but poetry, and Australian poetry in particular, is less indebted to him for his own writings than for his fostering care of one of the two greatest Australian poets, Henry Clarence Kendall.