[Editor: This introduction to The Golden Treasury of Australian Verse (1909) by Bertram Stevens gives a brief history of Australian literature and poetry, from the founding of the colony in New South Wales in 1788, up to about 1900.]
As the literature of a country is, in certain respects, a reflex of its character, it may be advisable to introduce this anthology with some account of the main circumstances which have affected the production of Australian poetry.
Australia was first settled by the British a little more than a century ago, so that we are still a young community. The present population, including that of New Zealand, is a little under five millions, or about the same as that of London; it is chiefly scattered along the coast and the few permanent waterways, and a vast central region is but sparsely inhabited as yet. All climates, from tropical to frigid, are included within the continent, but the want of satisfactory watersheds renders it peculiarly liable to long droughts and sudden floods. The absence of those broad, outward signs of the changing seasons which mark the pageant of the year in the old world is probably a greater disadvantage than we are apt to suspect. Here, too, have existed hardly any of the conditions which obtained in older communities where great literature arose. There is no glamour of old Romance about our early history, no shading off from the actual into a dim region of myth and fable; our beginnings are clearly defined and of an eminently prosaic character. The early settlers were engaged in a hand-to-hand struggle with nature, and in the establishment of the primitive industries. Their strenuous pioneering days were followed by the feverish excitement of the gold period and a consequent rapid expansion of all industries. Business and politics have afforded ready roads to success, and have absorbed the energies of the best intellects. There has been no leisured class of cultured people to provide the atmosphere in which literature is best developed as an art; and, until recently, we have been content to look to the mother country for our artistic standards and supplies. The principal literary productions of our first century came from writers who had been born elsewhere, and naturally brought with them the traditions and sentiments of their home country.
We have not yet had time to settle down and form any decided racial characteristics; nor has any great crisis occurred to fuse our common sympathies and create a national sentiment. Australia has produced no great poet, nor has any remarkable innovation in verse forms been successfully attempted. But the old forms have been so coloured by the strange conditions of a new country, and so charged with the thoughts and feelings of a vigorous, restless democracy now just out of its adolescence, that they have an interest and a value beyond that of perhaps technically better minor poetry produced under English skies.
The first verses actually written and published in Australia seem to have been the Royal Birthday Odes of Michael Robinson, which were printed as broadsides from 1810 to 1821. Their publication in book form was announced in The Hobart Town Gazette of 23rd March, 1822, but no copy of such a volume is at present known to exist.
The famous “Prologue,” containing the lines
“True patriots all, for be it understood
We left our country for our country’s good,”
which was said to have been recited at the first dramatic performance in Australia, on January i6th, 1796 (when Dr. Young’s tragedy “The Revenge” was played by a company of convicts in Sydney), for a long time erroneously ranked as the first verse produced in Australia. It was printed in what is known as Barrington’s “History of New South Wales,” published in London in parts during 1802-1803. The notorious George Harrington was then in New South Wales; and had nothing to do with the “History” or the “Prologue.” The lines first appeared in a volume called “Original Poems and Translations chiefly by Susannah Watts,” published in London in 1802, a few months before the appearance of the compilation called Barrington’s “History.” In Susannah Watts’ book the Prologue is stated to be written by “A Gentleman,” and is printed under the following heading: “The newspapers having announced that a theatre was to be opened at Sydney Town, Botany Bay, and Plays to be performed by the convicts, this Prologue is supposed to have been spoken by the celebrated Mr. B-rr-ngt-n [sic] on that occasion. 1801.”
Mr. Barron Field, Judge of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, printed in Sydney in 1819 his “First Fruits of Australian Poetry,” for private circulation. Field was a friend of Charles Lamb, who addressed to him the letter printed in “The Essays of Elia” under the title of “Distant Correspondents.” Lamb reviewed the “First Fruits” in The Examiner, and one wishes for his sake that the verses were more worthy. The first poem of any importance by an Australian is William Charles Wentworth’s “Australasia,” written in 1823 at Cambridge University in competition for the Chancellor’s medal. There were twenty-seven competitors, and the prize was awarded to W. Mackworth Praed, Wentworth being second on the list. Wentworth’s poem was printed in London in the same year, and shortly afterwards in The Sydney Gazette, the first Australian newspaper. After an historical and descriptive account of the country, the poem concludes with the following prophecy:
“And, O Britannia! shouldst thou cease to ride
Despotic Empress of old Ocean’s tide; —
Should thy tamed Lion — spent his former might, —
No longer roar the terror of the fight; —
Should e’er arrive that dark disastrous hour.
When bow’d by luxury, thou yield’st to pow’r; —
When thou, no longer freest of the free.
To some proud victor bend’st the vanquish’d knee; —
May all thy glories in another sphere
Relume, and shine more brightly still than here;
May this, thy last-born infant, then arise.
To glad thy heart and greet thy parent eyes;
And Australasia float, with flag unfurl’d,
A new Britannia in another world.”
In 1826 there was printed at the Albion Press, Sydney, “Wild Notes from the Lyre of a Native Minstrel” by Charles Tompson, Junior, the first verse of an Australian-born writer published in this country. There was also published in Sydney in 1826 a book of verses by Dr. John Dunmore Lang, called “Aurora Australis.” Both Lang and Wentworth afterwards conducted newspapers and wrote histories of New South Wales, but their names are more famous in the political than in the literary annals of the country. At Hobart Town in 1827 appeared “The Van Diemen’s Land Warriors, or the Heroes of Cornwall” by “Pindar Juvenal,” the first book of verse published in Tasmania. During the next ten years various poetical effusions were printed in the colonies, which are of bibliographical interest but of hardly any intrinsic value. Newspapers had been established at an early date, but until the end of this period they were little better than news-sheets or official gazettes, giving no opportunities for literature. The proportion of well-educated persons was small, the majority of the free settlers being members of the working classes, as very few representatives of British culture came willingly to this country until after the discovery of gold.
It was not until 1845 that the first genuine, though crude, Australian poetry appeared, in the form of a small volume of sonnets by Charles Harpur, who was born at Windsor, N.S.W., in 1817. He passed his best years in the lonely bush, and wrote largely under the influence of Wordsworth and Shelley. He had some imagination and poetic faculty of the contemplative order, but the disadvantages of his life were many. Harpur’s best work is in his longer poems, from which extracts cannot conveniently be given here. The year 1842 had seen the publication of Henry Parkes’ “Stolen Moments,” the first of a number of volumes of verse which that statesman bravely issued, the last being published just before his eightieth year. The career of Parkes is coincident with a long and important period of our history, in which he is the most striking figure. Not the least interesting aspect of his character, which contained much of rugged greatness, was his love of poetry and his unfailing kindness to the struggling writers of the colony. Others who deserve remembrance for their services at this time are Nicol D. Stenhouse and Dr. Woolley. Among the writers of the period D. H. Deniehy, Henry Halloran, J. Sheridan Moore and Richard Rowe contributed fairly good verse to the newspapers, the principal of which were The Atlas (1845-9), The Empire (1850-8), and two papers still in existence — The Freeman’s Journal (1850) and The Sydney Morning Herald, which began as The Sydney Herald in 1831. None of their writings, however, reflected to any appreciable extent the scenery or life of the new country.
With the discovery of gold a new era began for Australia. That event induced the flow of a large stream of immigration, and gave an enormous impetus to the development of the colonies. Among the ardent spirits attracted here were J. Lionel Michael, Robert Sealy, R. H. Horne, William Howitt, Henry Kingsley and Adam Lindsay Gordon. Michael was a friend of Millais, and an early champion of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Soon after his arrival in Sydney he abandoned the idea of digging for gold, and began to practise again as a solicitor. Through Sheridan Moore he became acquainted with Henry Kendall, a lad of eighteen who had already written some promising verses, and gave him work in his office. Later on he removed to Grafton on the Clarence River; where Kendall joined him. Michael, discerning his promise, encouraged him to write, and most of Kendall’s early verses were sent from Michael’s office to Parkes, who printed them in his paper The Empire. Kendall left Grafton in 1861; and his first volume, “Poems and Songs,” was published in Sydney in October, 1862. It was not long before he recognised the extreme weakness of most of its contents, and did what he could to suppress the book. In the meantime he had sent specimens of his best work to the London Athenaeum, and wrote a pathetic letter to the Editor, which was printed in the issue of 27th September, 1862, together with some of the poems and a most kindly comment. Kendall soon wrote again, sending more poems, and received encouraging notices in The Athenaeum on 19th September, 1863, 27th February, 1864, and 17th February, 1866. These form the first favourable pronouncement upon Australian poetry by an English critical journal of importance. Their stimulating effect upon Kendall was very great. From the indifference of the many and the carping criticisms of some of the magnates here, he had appealed to one of the highest literary authorities in England, and received praise beyond his wildest expectations.
Meanwhile the colony of Victoria, which began its independent career in 1851, had been advancing even more rapidly than New South Wales. The Argus newspaper had been in existence since 1846, and other periodicals sprang up in Melbourne which gave further scope to letters. The Australasian was established in 1854, and soon became the most important literary journal in Australia. Adam Lindsay Gordon, who had landed in Adelaide in the same year as Henry Kingsley — 1853 — published a little book of verse in 1864 at Mt. Gambler, S.A., and began to contribute verses to a Melbourne sporting paper in 1866. These were printed anonymously, and attracted some attention; but a collection of his ballads — “Sea Spray and Smoke Drift” — brought very little praise and no profit. Marcus Clarke came to Melbourne in 1864, and soon afterwards began to write for The Argus and other papers. About the same time the presence of R. H. Home, the distinguished author of “Orion,” in Melbourne lent a lustre to that city, which was for the time the literary centre of Australia. Home corresponded with Kendall, and contributed to a paper edited by Deniehy in Sydney — The Southern Cross (1859-60). He was the presiding genius of the literary gatherings at Dwight’s book-shop in Melbourne, and no doubt exercised a beneficial influence upon the writers around him.
In 1870, after a series of crushing disappointments, Gordon committed suicide. His dramatic end awakened sympathy and gave an additional interest to his writings. It was soon found that in the city and the bush many of his spirited racing ballads were well known. The virile, athletic tone of his verse, which taught
“How a man should uphold the sports of his land
And strike his best with a strong right hand
And take his strokes in return” —
and the practical philosophy, summed up in the well-known quatrain —
“Life is mostly froth and bubble,
Two things stand like stone;
Kindness in another’s trouble,
Courage in your own” —
appeal strongly to Australians. Gordon’s work cannot be considered as peculiarly Australian in character; but much of it is concerned with the horse, and all of it is a-throb with the manly, reckless personality of the writer. Horses and horse-racing are especially interesting to Australians, the Swinburnian rush of Gordon’s ballads charms their ear, and in many respects he embodies their ideal of a man. There are few Australians who do not know some of his poems, even if they know no others, and his influence upon subsequent writers has been very great.
Brunton Stephens, who came to Queensland in 1866, wrote there a long poem called “Convict Once” which, when published in London in 1871, gained high praise from competent critics, and gave the author an academic reputation. A little book of humorous verses issued in Melbourne in 1873 almost immediately became popular, and a later volume of “Miscellaneous Poems” (1880), containing some fine patriotic utterances as well as many in lighter vein, established him as one of our chief singers.
The first important poem from New Zealand — Domett’s “Ranolf and Amohia” — was published in London in 1872. Domett spent thirty years in New Zealand. He wrote a good deal of verse before leaving England and after his return, but “Ranolf and Amohia” is the only poem showing traces of Australasian influence. It is a miscellany in verse rather than an epic, and contains some fine descriptions of New Zealand scenery.
The death of Kendall in Sydney in 1882 closed what may be regarded as the second literary period. He had published his finest work in “Songs from the Mountains” (1880), and had the satisfaction of knowing that it was a success, financially and otherwise. Kendall’s audience is not so large as Gordon’s, but it is a steadily growing one; and many readers who have been affected by his musical verse hold the ill-fated singer in more tender regard than any other. He lived at a time when Australians had not learned to think it possible that any good thing in art could come out of Australia, and were too fully occupied with things of the market-place to concern themselves much about literature.
Several attempts have been made to maintain magazines and reviews in Sydney and Melbourne, but none of them could compete successfully with the imported English periodicals. The Colonial Monthly, The Melbourne Review, The Sydney Quarterly, and The Centennial Magazine were the most important of these. They cost more to produce than their English models, and the fact that their contents were Australian was not sufficient in itself to obtain for them adequate support. Newspapers have played a far more important part in our literary world. The Australasian, Sydney Mail and Queenslander have done a good deal to encourage local writers, but the most powerful influence has been that of The Bulletin, which was started in Sydney in 1880. Its racy, irreverent tone and its humour are characteristically Australian, and through its columns the first realistic Australian verse of any importance — the writings of Henry Lawson and A. B. Paterson — became widely known. When published in book form, their verses met with phenomenal success, and Paterson’s “The Man from Snowy River” (1895) has already attained a circulation of over forty thousand copies. It is the first of a long series of volumes, issued during the last fourteen years, whose character is far more distinctively Australian than that of their predecessors. Their number and success are evidences of the lively interest taken by the present generation here in its native literature.
Australia has now come of age, and is becoming conscious of its strength and its possibilities. Its writers to-day are, as a rule, self-reliant and hopeful. They have faith in their own country; they write of it as they see it, and of their work and their joys and fears, in simple, direct language. It may be that none of it is poetry in the grand manner, and that some of it is lacking in technical finish; but it is a vivid and faithful portrayal of Australia, and its ruggedness is in character. It is hoped that this selection from the verse that has been written up to the present time will be found a not unworthy contribution to the great literature of the English-speaking peoples.
Bertram Stevens (ed.), The Golden Treasury of Australian Verse, London: Macmillan and Co., 1909, pages xvii-xxviii