Section 10 [The Foundations of Culture in Australia, by P. R. Stephensen, 1936]

[Editor: This is a chapter from The Foundations of Culture in Australia (1936) by P. R. Stephensen.]

§ 10

A poetry competition

The two different cultures, English and Australian, found an early definition and contrast in the celebrated Prize Poem for the Chancellor’s Medal at Cambridge University in the year 1823. The subject of the poem was prescribed as Australasia. There were twenty-five competitors for the prize, which was won by W. Mackworth Praed, an Englishman who had never left England. The second prize was awarded by the judges to William Charles Wentworth, an Australian born and bred. Wentworth had been born in New South Wales in 1791, son of d’Arcy Wentworth, surgeon and police magistrate of the colony.

Young William Charles Wentworth was one of the very first Australian-born whitemen. At the age of seven he went to England for a few years, to school, and then returned to his native land. At the age of twenty-one he crossed the Blue Mountains with Blaxland and Lawson, opening the way to the western plains. Three years later he went to England, and matriculated at Cambridge, thus becoming eligible to enter for the Chancellor’s Prize Poem. As soon as he arrived in England, he published A Statistical, Historical, and Political Description of the Colony of New South Wales, which we are told “did much to dispel the gross ignorance that had prevailed up to that time in the mother country concerning Australia.” Wentworth, in brief, knew what he was writing about in his poem submitted for the contest. He knew a great deal more about the subject than did any of the other competitors — or the judges !

It is interesting to compare the two poems, Praed’s and Wentworth’s, to try, if possible, to understand on what principles the judges awarded a preference to Praed. The judges, we may assume, were English professors, with prejudices, if any, similar to those of Professor Cowling.

We need not here consider whether or not Wentworth’s second-prize poem was inferior in the qualities of “pure” poetry to Praed’s winning effort, though many would perhaps still consider it so and agree with the Cambridge judges.

Both poems were written in stilted couplets, in the highfalutin style of the period, the verses decked with classical allusions. Praed’s winning poem runs smoothly and sweetly, and tells us precisely nothing about Australasia. Wentworth’s poem is in parts impassioned and fiery, full of exact knowledge about Australasia. Praed is genteel and refined, Wentworth is shouting and vigorous. Praed’s poem is purely “literary” and bookish; Wentworth’s poem is from life direct. I should like to illustrate my arguments by quoting both works in full, but must be content here with extracts from each.

I quote the poems substantially because they illustrate, in a condensed manner, the fact that Australia is antipodean to England, and vice versa, in literary concepts: a fact which should be obvious to anyone with a sense of intellectual geography. Praed’s poem is a contribution to English literature. Wentworth’s poem was one of the first contributions to Australian literature.

P. R. Stephensen, The Foundations of Culture in Australia, W. J. Miles, Gordon (N.S.W.), 1936, pages 36-37

Editor’s notes:
antipodean = of or relating to Australia or New Zealand; normally used by Europeans to refer to Australians or New Zealanders, or items from those two countries, however, the term is also used by the inhabitants of Australia and New Zealand to refer to themselves (“antipodean” also refers to two things that are direct opposites, including two places or areas which are on opposite sides of the world; hence the origin of its usage regarding Australasia)

“Wentworth had been born in New South Wales” = William Charles Wentworth was born on the ship Surprize when it was anchored in Cascade Bay, Norfolk Island, after the ship’s journey from Sydney [see: John Neylon Molony, The Native-born: The First White Australians, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South (Victoria), 2000, page 95]

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