The Wallaby Track [poem, 22 June 1877]

[Editor: A poem published in Portland Guardian, 22 June 1877.]

The Wallaby Track.

My old cowhide boots they are shabby and worn,
My trousers are ragged, my jumper is torn,
My billycock hat is an object forlorn,
My hair is unkempt, and my beard is unshorn.
And why is it so in this fair land of gold,
Whose green swelling bosom holds riches untold?
Why should I suffer from hunger or cold?
And why don’t I grow rich as I know I grow old?
I will tell you, because, with my swag on my back,
I keep roaming about on the “Wallaby Track.”

When first I came out here, thirty-one years ago,
My feelings were manly, my heart all aglow;
But now Hope’s bright flame in my heart is burnt low,
For I’ve no one to care for, and nowhere to go.
When I sit by my fire in the cold morning air,
And break my night’s fast with a swagman’s rude fare,
I think of the riches of which I’ve no share;
I think of life’s joys which to me are so rare;
Then, with billy in hand, and my swag on my back,
I ramble away on the “Wallaby Track.”

Like the white yeasty froth on the ocean-wave’s comb,
Of the waters of life I am merely the foam;
As useless as it, through the country I roam,
Without one single spot I can think of as home.
I know that by some folk this land is called free,
But in all of Australia, broad though it be,
There’s not one ingleside where a seat’s kept for me,
Nor one face that grows brighter my presence to see,
As, weary and sad, with my swag at my back,
I come trudging along on the “Wallaby Track.”

They call me “sundowner,” but what’s in a name,
Unless there’s attached to it some honest fame?
’Tis little I care now, for life’s weary game
Has crushed my ambition and weakened my frame.
What matters it now that in youth I could gaze
On the future made joyous by Hope’s golden rays?
Since naught’s left but regret for my past erring ways,
No prospect ahead but to finish my days
With the sky above and the earth at my back,
In some faraway spot on the “Wallaby Track.”

Oh! young men who come out to this fair Southern clime,
Draw a moral from this and be warned in time;
If you live fast in your youth you’ll be old in your prime,
If you cling to the worldly you’ll miss the sublime;
If you spend your evenings in some gay music hall,
Or go to the Demi-monde fancy dress ball;
If you drink and play billiards, and gamble, you’ll fall
Into debt, into crime, you’ll be pushed to the wall,
And the last scene of all, with your swag on your back,
You’ll die a mendicant’s death on the “Wallaby Track.”

Harrow, 13th June, 1877. T. R.



Source:
Portland Guardian (Portland, Vic.), 22 June 1877, p. 1 of the “Supplement to the Portland Guardian”

Another version of this poem, with a number of minor variations, under the title of “The Sundowner”, was published in the Portland Guardian and Normanby General Advertiser (Portland, Vic.), 20 March 1871, p. 4.

Editor’s notes:
billy = a metal pot or tin (usually with a wire or steel handle), used for boiling water over a camp fire (also known as a “billy can”)

billycock = (also spelt “billy-cock”) a rounded hard-topped hat with a small brim, classically black and made of wool felt; said to have been called a billycock, or billy-cock, after William Coke, who designed it (although some evidence now suggests that it may have been designed by Edward Coke), hence it is also known as a “Coke”; commonly known in England as a “Bowler”, after the hat-makers William and John Bowler of London (another theory is that it was named after a hat-maker named Beaulieu, with the name corrupting to “Bowler”); in the USA it is known as a “Derby”, possibly relating to the fashion of wearing hats at the Kentucky Derby
See: 1) Beverly Chico, Hats and Headwear Around the World: A Cultural Encyclopedia, Santa Barbara (California): ABC-CLIO, 2013, pages 61-63 (accessed 14 March 2014)
2) “Bowler hat”, Wikipedia (accessed 14 March 2014)
3) “Is it a Bowler, or a Derby?”, MillineryTechniques.com (accessed 14 March 2014)
4) “How the bowler hat got its name”, Look and Learn, 23 February 2011 (accessed 14 March 2014)
5) Maureen Katemopoulos, “The History of the Derby Hat”, eHow (accessed 14 March 2014)
6) “The Bowler”, Christys Hats (Christys’, London) (accessed 14 March 2014)

demi-monde = (French) “so-so society” (literally “half-world”) a class of people on the fringe of respectable society or a circle of people living in their own world as an isolated part of society; women considered to be of dubious morality, particularly women supported by wealthy lovers; prostitutes or relating to prostitution (also spelt “demimonde”)

gay = happy, bright, carefree, lively, or merry; brightly-coloured or showy (not to be confused with the later meanings of “gay”, regarding homosexuals or homosexuality, or regarding something being bad, lame, pathetic, rubbish, or stupid)

ingleside = fireside

mendicant = beggar; characteristic of or relating to begging (may also refer to a religious person, such as a monks, who historically did not own personal property, or who live on alms)

naught = nothing; zero; failure, without result; lost, ruined (older meanings are: ruined, useless, worthless; morally bad, wicked)

rude = primitive, raw, or rough, or in an unfinished state or natural condition (not to be confused with the modern usage of “rude” as someone being discourteous or ill-mannered)

sundowner = a swagman, or tramp, who walked from station to station, ostensibly to look for work, but with no intention of doing any, who would deliberately time his arrival at a farm or stations late enough in the evening, or at sundown, so that they could ask for food and lodging, but with little to no risk of being asked to perform some work in exchange

swag = a swagman’s bundle, being a number of personal belongings rolled up in a blanket, and hung from the shoulder; also known as a “bluey”, “drum”, or “Matilda”

wallaby track = to be on the wallaby track was to tramp the country roads as a swagman; in The Old Bush Songs (1905), Banjo Paterson says that the term relates to “A nomad following the track of the wallaby, i.e., loafing aimlessly”

Comments

  1. Who wrote this poem?

    • The exact name of the author is unknown.
      A 1871 version was credited to “I. A. T.” (Portland Guardian and Normanby General Advertiser, 20 March 1871, p. 4 – which gives its source as the Australian Journal), http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article65424434
      A 1877 version was credited to “T. R.” (in the Portland Guardian, 22 June 1877, p. 1 of the supplement), http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article63338680
      A 1893 version was credited to “E. T. Irving” (in The Bird O’ Freedom, 16 September 1893, p. 3), http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article207806663

      However, it is not uncommon for poems to be credited to the person who sent them in to the newspaper (presumably either giving themselves the undeserved credit, or mistakenly being credited by newspaper staff); the most accurate attribution is likely to be found in the earliest available publication of the item, although that cannot be guaranteed.

      At this stage, the earliest located publication of this poem is that credited to “I. A. T.” in 1871.

      If you are particularly interested, you could look up the earlier version in the Australian Journal, which is available in the National Library and the State Library of Victoria:
      The Australian journal: a weekly record of literature, science and the arts, Melbourne: Clarson, Massina, & Co., 1865-1962
      http://catalogue.nla.gov.au/Record/1936160

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