Is there an Australian out there who doesn’t like Banjo Paterson? Who can’t sing “Waltzing Matilda”, or quote a line or two from “The Man from Snowy River” or “Clancy of the Overflow”? While some of the 12 titles chosen for publication by Sydney University Press in its first set of Australian Classics Library might be surprising, the selection of A.B. Paterson’s The man from Snowy River and other verses should not be. Indeed, Peter Kirkpatrick writes in his introduction to this edition that “You’re about the read the most famous book of Australian poetry ever published”. As well as having been published in entirety many times over the more than 100 years since it first hit the streets in 1895, its poems have also appeared in collected works editions and too numerous to count anthologies. This then is not really the sort of book a reviewer “criticises” in the traditional sense of the word.
Perry Middlemiss, at the appropriately named Matilda, recently reprinted an 1895 Brisbane Courier review of the first edition. This review makes it clear that many of the poems were already well-known and quoted “all over Australia”. And nothing, I’d say, has changed in the intervening century or so! Why is this? In Derek Parker’s new biography, Banjo Paterson: the man who wrote Waltzing Matilda, Paterson is quoted as saying:
Poetry is older than civilisation … and it will make men laugh or weep or fight better than any acting or speech-making. Of course, this only applies to real poetry, and not to the verse that most of us write. There is a great difference between poetry and verse, and when a man speaks of real poetry, he should always take his hat off.
So Banjo, it seems, didn’t make great claims for art…I’m not so sure about that.
Paterson was 31 when this collection was published. Many of the poems had been published in The Bulletin, whose editor, according to Peter Kirkpatrick, wanted his readers in the lead up to Federation in 1901 “to imagine the kind of nation Australia might become”. Paterson was an important tool in his vision-making armoury. This provides an interesting hook from which to view the poems. What is the Australia and what are the values that Paterson espouses?
Paterson was born in the country but at the time of writing these poems was a city solicitor. Many of the poems, though, romanticise the country over the city, such as “the foetid air and gritty of the dusty, dirty city” versus “the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended” (“Clancy of the Overflow”). And many, in a similar vein, champion the underdog – the working man versus the toff or boss. It’s not always simple black and white though. If you only knew Paterson from his well-known poems like “The Man from Snowy River”, “Clancy of the Overflow” and even “The Geebung Polo Club” you would be forgiven for thinking his view of the bush and bushmen was romantic. This is not completely so, though. Paterson in fact chronicles human behaviour in all its diversity. Alongside the hardworking drovers and shearers (albeit some with a touch of cunning) like “Saltbush Bill” and the characters in “A Bushman’s Song” and “The Droving Days”, there are the easily duped “Man from Ironbark”, the rogue Ryan who is helped to escape the law by his loyal girl in “Conroy’s Gap”, and the cheating horse-owners whose attempt to sell off a poorly performing horse comes back to bite them in “Our New Horse”. Having read William Lane’s The workingman’s paradise I was tickled to see a reference to shearers and unions in “A Bushman’s Song”: “‘We shear non union here,’ says he. ‘I call it scab’, says I”.
Many of the poems are humorous: there are characters whose gullibility lets them down as in “Johnson’s Antidote” and others who fail in their attempts at trickery (often to do with horse-racing). Paterson lauds ingenuity, but not when it is deceitful. There are also the nostalgic poems yearning for the romance of the simpler past (before money and business got in the way), such as “On Kiley’s Run”. And then, of course, are the tragic ones, speaking directly of the hardships of life. The saddest has to be one of my childhood favourites, “Lost” (“Though far and wide they sought him, they found not where he fell;/For the ranges held him precious, and guarded their treasure well”). Another is “Only a Jockey” about a 14-year-old jockey who dies in a training accident (“What did he get from our famed Christianity?”).
While all the poems are rhyming, Paterson uses a great variety of rhythms and rhyming schemes to match the tone of his “verse” – from the heroic, romantic and elegaic to comic. There’s also intertextuality (such as Clancy appearing in “The Man from Snowy River”) and a good deal of irony. I like the self-conscious story-telling in poems like “Conroy’s Gap”:
And that’s the story. You want to know
If Ryan came back to his Kate Carew;
Of course he should have, as stories go,
But the worst of it is, this story is true:
And in real life it’s a certain rule,
Whatever poets and authors say
Of high-toned robbers and all their school,
These horsethief fellows aren’t built that way.
Not all the poems work equally well – some are a little awkward and clumsy – but, taken as a whole, recognising the spirit in which they were written, they present an intriguing insight into late 19th century Australia and values, and make entertaining reading as well. Whether you call it poetry or verse, I take my hat off to Banjo!
The Man from Snowy River and other verses
Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2009
(Review copy supplied by Sydney University Press)