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

§ 3. Adam Lindsay Gordon

The influence of old ballads, of Macaulay, of Browning, of Swinburne and others is patent in Gordon’s metres and diction; it could scarcely be otherwise in the case of a poet with whom to read once attentively was to know by heart. But his poetry remains so personal in manner, and springs so directly out of his own mind and experience, that Kendall’s poetry seems by comparison the fruit of culture. Opinion is divided as to whether Gordon is a distinctively Australian poet. One good Australian authority says: “Beyond dispute Gordon is the national poet of Australia”; another says: “Gordon’s work cannot be considered as peculiarly Australian in character.” Unless the two statements are compatible, the popularity of Gordon’s poetry in Australia, and the number of quotations from his work which are current in Australian speech would seem to imply that the former expresses the truth. As mounted trooper, as horse-breaker, as steeple-chase rider, as livery-stable keeper, Gordon spent most of his Australian life among horses. He composed many of his poems while on horseback in the bush, and the rhythm of horsehoofs seems to beat in most of his metres. Not letters but horses were his trade; and he sings not the dreams of a remote spirit, but the joys and sorrows, the hope and despair, the energy and the weariness of the man of action, concerned in the common life of his place and period. To English readers Adam Lindsay Gordon’s poetry seems the very voice of Australia.

The reason of this is not any great prevalence of local colour in his writings. Most of his narrative and descriptive poems, such as The Sick Stockrider and Wolf and Hound, were written in the last year of his life, when his fame was achieved in Australia and rapidly growing in England. Apparently, his short sight prevented him from seeing many of the details of nature which give particularity to the descriptions of Kendall and other Australian poets. He was the poet of Australia because he was the poet of the sportsman and the adventurer. The youth whose wildness had unfitted him for English life found in the new country the proper field for his daring and high spirit. Partly owing to his own recklessness and extravagance and partly to a hereditary taint of melancholy, his life was unhappy, and he ended it by his own hand; but, in the saddle and out of it, he was adventurous, brave, “a thorough sportsman.” His poetry is the voice of men who lead adventurous lives, who fight gallantly against long odds, and take defeat almost as a matter of course. It is melancholy in so far as it despairs of success or reward; but it is joyous in its love of the fight for its own sake.

Gordon was a poet from his youth. On leaving England, in 1853, he wrote a poem of farewell to home which already showed his characteristic pride and definance. Some years, however, were to pass before he published anything of importance. In 1865, he contributed to Bell’s Life in Victoria what purported to be merely one of the riming tips for horse-races that were not infrequent in that journal, but was, in fact, a fine poem, in which his passion for horses, for the sea and for life alike found expression. More of these racing poems followed; contemporary racing in Australia and memories of hunting and steeplechasing in his youth at home supplied him with subjects during the remaining five years of his life. With the possible exception of Whyte Melville, whom he greatly admired and to whom he dedicated, in a beautiful poem, his volume Bush Ballads, Gordon is the only poet who has used sport as the medium for the expression of his views on life. All his gallant, despairing philosophy finds voice in these poems; and, where other poets have turned to tales of ancient heroism at sea or on the battlefield, Gordon turned to a race-meeting. On these sporting poems, rather than on his reflective poems or his dramatic narratives, Gordon’s popularity rests, not only in Australia but among English readers in all countries. And that popularity is deserved. The best of them have not only an irresistible fire and pace: Gordon, seeing sport as the best thing in life, could give dignity to its treatment, while his knowledge of poetry and his natural gifts made him a secure, if not an original, metrist.

Poems in Bell’s Life in Victoria and in The Australasian came frequently from his pen; and, in 1867, he collected some of them into a volume, Sea Spray and Smoke Drift. The same year saw the issue of a long poem, Ashtaroth, partly founded on Goethe’s Faust, which contains much that is characteristic of Gordon with very little that was of his best. In 1868, Marcus Clark persuaded him to contribute poems to The Colonial Monthly, and he began with the mournful poem Doubtful Dreams. In 1869, full of trouble, he found refuge for a time at a friend’s house, where he wrote his best dramatic lyrics, The Sick Stockrider, The Ride from the Wreck, Wolf and Hound and his most famous racing poem, How we beat the Favourite. In 1870, he published his volume Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes and, a few months later, died by his own hand.

Gordon occasionally handled old themes, and some of his ballads are stirring. Among his autobiographical poems, Whisperings in Wattle-Boughs, in which he looks back to his wild youth, is full of music and pathos. Many of his reflective poems finely express his ardent joy in activity and effort and his profound melancholy, although in these his metrical debt to Swinburne or another is more insistently noticeable than in his narratives or poems of sport. If Gordon is not a poet of the first rank, he is one in whom both the learned and the unlearned can take pleasure. His spirit of daring, of joy in the fight for the fight’s sake, would appear to be alive yet in Australia; and there is much of Gordon, though there is no imitation of Gordon, in the frank feeling and defiant gladness of the recently published Book of Anzac, over which the Australasian soldiers in Gallipoli have made English readers laugh and weep.

To the same period as Gordon’s poetry belong the comparatively few poetical works of Marcus Clarke, journalist, dramatist and novelist, who wrote some pretty lyrics and clever parodies, and the earlier work of two poets of considerable merit, Thomas Bracken and Arthur Patchett Martin. Martin’s lyrical poems are thoughtful and musical, tinged with the sadness of one who, in his youth, had high faith in freedom, but lost it as time went on. Bracken was a facile and rather sentimental poet, whose lyrics have more sweetness than strength. One of them, Not Understood, is widely known. Bracken was by birth a New Zealander, and not a few of his poems are based on Maori legends or history. The poet of the Maoris, however, is Alfred Domett, the friend of Robert Browning, who went to New Zealand in 1842 and lived there for nearly thirty years. Before leaving England, Domett had published poems, among them a long lyric on Venice (1839). His longest work, Ranolf and Amohia, he put forth after his return home in 1872. In a great variety of lyrical metres it describes the scenery of New Zealand and narrates a story of Maori life. Had these been Domett’s only objects in writing the poem, he would probably have left a better memorial of his undeniable poetic gift. His descriptions of the romantic scenery of the islands and the mythology and customs of the Maoris are often very beautiful and interesting. In the prefatory poem he says:

  • Well, but what if there gleamed in an Age cold as this,
  • The divinest of Poets’ ideals of bliss?
  • Yea, an Eden could lurk in this Empire of ours,
  • With the loneliest love in the loveliest bowers.
  • The answer he gives is convincing: but he had a further object which interfered with the success of his work. He wanted to talk about theism and positivism; and, though his philosophising is very interesting in itself, his disquisitions break the flow of his poem. Domett’s last volume, Flotsam and Jetsam, published in 1877, contains many beautiful descriptions of places which he had visited in his European travels, and some glowing expressions of his opinions and hopes.