Monday musings on Australian literature: The sheep’s back

As a baby-boomer, I grew up knowing that Australia “rode on the sheep’s back”, that our economy, in other words, was based on the wool trade. It’s not quite so now – though wool is still an important product – but I was reminded of the saying last weekend as we were introducing a young American to a little bit of country Australia. We were, in fact, focused on one of our wine regions, but it was the sheep that she particularly noticed.

Sheep among the vines at Stanton and Killeen

Sheep among the vines at Stanton and Killeen, Rutherglen

This made me think about sheep in Australian literature/culture. How do (did) they feature, given the role that they’ve played in our “wealth for toil”. Rather negatively, in fact. Horses and cattle-droving are romantic, and often feature in Australian outback novels and ballads, with a sense of heroism (as in “The man from Snowy River”). Sheep and shearing don’t quite cut it in the same way. They too can be romanticised, but more in the “rough diamond” category rather than the “heroic” one.

One of the best known Australian songs/ballads to feature sheep is “Click go the shears” which describes the hard work of the shearer, the various roles played in the shearing shed (the “boss”, the “tar-boy”, the “old shearer”, the inexperienced “snagger”) and the drinking at the pub when it’s all done. The other, more famous song featuring sheep is of course “Waltzing Matilda” about the swagman who steals a sheep (the “jolly jumbuck”) to eat. The song, written by Banjo Paterson, was probably inspired by the hardships endured by shearers during and after the Great Shearers’ Strike of 1891. It depicts the class division in Australian society between the “battler” (or working-class man) and the “squatter” (or, landowner).

And this reminds me of a novel I reviewed early in this blog’s history, William Lane’s The workingman’s paradise, a social realist novel which explored both urban poverty  (Sydney) and rural hardship (Queensland shearers). The novel is set in Sydney, but the plight of the shearers is a major theme. Another, much later novel, Jeremy Chambers’ The vintage and the gleaning, is set in the vineyards of northeast Victoria (where this post’s photo was taken) but is narrated by Smithy, who had been a shearer for 47 years before becoming a vineyard worker. Smithy rues his years of hard-drinking (see “Click go the shears” above!) and its impact on his health. A third Australian work to focus on the rough, hard side of the shearer’s lot (alongside its mateship aspects) is the movie Sunday Too Far Away. Hard drinking features here too, in a story about shearers fighting to retain their bonuses against the threat of non-union shearers.

There are other “takes” on sheep, however. One is the film Babe, that was filmed in Australia but based on English writer Dick King-Smith‘s children’s novel, The sheep-dog. It’s a romanticised pastoral story about a pig that herds sheep like a sheep-dog. King-Smith’s (English) sheep are intelligent and manipulative, quite different from the typical description of sheep in Australian literature. Another, more interesting depiction, though, comes from Jeanine Leane’s Purple threads which I reviewed earlier this month. In that review I commented on Leane’s use of sheep symbolism. Her book is set in a sheep farming area. The narrator sees her indigenous family’s practice of adopting the black sheep that are spurned by the farmers as reflecting Jesus’ teachings about charity and inclusiveness. It’s pretty obvious, I suppose, but I liked the way she makes her point by mixing Christian symbolism with something symbolising anglo-Australia’s encroachment on her people’s country.

But I can’t resist returning to Banjo Paterson, my favourite bush poet, to close today’s post. He wrote a piece called “The merino sheep”, which you can read online. He describes the sheep as a “dangerous monomaniac” whose “one idea is to ruin the man who owns him” and concludes with:

The hard, resentful look on the faces of all bushmen comes from a long course of dealing with merino sheep. The merino dominates the bush, and gives to Australian literature its melancholy tinge, its despairing pathos. The poems about dying boundary-riders, and lonely graves under mournful she-oaks, are the direct outcome of the poet’s too close association with that soul-destroying animal. A man who could write anything cheerful after a day in the drafting-yards would be a freak of nature.

Oh dear … and I thought it was caused by heat, aridity and remoteness!

Anyhow, if you are Australian, I’d love to hear of other references to sheep in our literary (or cultural) life that have struck you (as my discussion here is brief and limited). And, if you are not Australian, does this post inspire any thoughts about ongoing motifs in your own national literature?

43 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: The sheep’s back

  1. Hi, I’m Indian, I guess the motif for our literature would be cows. They are so much a part of the urban and rural scape that it is impossible to find an outdoor scene in which they aren’t chewing cud peacefully in the background 🙂
    Very interesting observations about sheep in literature. Do visit my book blog. And if you like it, do follow!

  2. The one that first springs to mind is The Ballad of Desmond Kale, by Roger McDonald, which is all about 19th century sheep farming. It’s quite good, actually.

  3. I absolutely love the first chapter in Nevil Shute’s “The Far Country” in which a couple from the Western districts of Victoria finally get a decent paycheck – wool was a pound for a pound for a brief time in the ’50s – and head off to Melbourne for a wonderful spend up including a very “frivolous” painting to go over the mantelpiece!

    • Oh good memory, Judith. I’ve read that book, but I don’t recollect the details of it at all. (I loved Shute as a teenager) That would have been written at the height of the wool boom! And they bought some art. Good for them. I’m assuming your “frivolous” relates to the fact that it would not have been seen as the sensible, practical thing to do with a bit of extra cash…

      • John’s dead right, Magwitch worked in sheep and other jobs. “I’ve been a sheep-farmer, stock-breeder, other trades besides, away in the new world,” he says to Pip. “When I was a hired-out shepherd in a solitary hut, not seeing no faces but faces of sheep till I half forgot wot men’s and women’s faces wos like, I see yourn.”

        • Thanks DKS for confirming … And quoting that. Interesting, the use of shepherd. Is its term used still? Itconjuresup green fields and shepherds resting undertreeswhile thrift sheep gambol about them. Not Magwitch’s life it seems and probably a romantics pastoral rather than a truth anywhere!

  4. No I’m not inspired about anything, but I can tell you that I was surprised one day by an Aussie sheepshearer here in America who was lost. He was asking for directions. So..evidently, they export for work.

  5. As one with little experience of or thoughts about sheep, I’ve changed recently because of my passion these days for knitting and spinning. My experience with sheep was only in the UK–sheep roaming freely around a a tourist site in the Orkneys, an early-morning taxi ride from a meeting somewhere on the River Dee into Aberdeen for a flight home. Now I debate the merits of merino versus blue-faced Leicester or Polworth xand my online friends with small farms often have (or want to have) a sheep or two with the other fiber animals — alpacas, llamas, goats, angora rabbits.

    • Thanks Susan for adding the knitter’s perspective. Fascinating how our perspectives change, isn’t it? You probably know about alpacas being used as guard animals for sheep … doubly useful critters.

      Another fibre over here is possum … often blended with merino. It’s beautifully soft. Have you come across it?

      • I forgot the point of the taxi ride up the Dee (or it got trashed accidentally on the iPad). It’s 5 am of a summer morning. The taxi is the only vehicle on the road. Suddenly the driver breaks, jumps out of the car, picks up a sheep by the side of the road and plops it back over the fence, and is back in the car speeding toward Aberdeen before I realize what’s going on.

  6. The U.S. has sheep but it is not a very large industry. Here it is cattle and in literature and film, the cowboy, riding the range and bringing the herds to market while fighting weather, “injuns” and thieves.

    • Oh yes, thanks Stefanie … cowboys! American westerns were the stuff of my childhood. I wonder why sheep didn’t take off over there? And how much of it is serendipity/historical?

  7. And off course there is The Shiralee by Darcy Niland, a wonderful book. Young Buster, who travels with her father as he seeks work as a shearer. Not so much about the sheep, but the people who worked as shearers and their lives.


    • Oh good one … this is my mea culpa, I haven’t read book, but I should have recollected it. It’s good because I wanted to talk about the role of sheep in our culture so this book fits perfectly.

  8. Sue, you got my brain ticking, and then I remembered Dusty by Frank Dalby Davison. Dusty is a sheep dog, and the story brings a few tears.


    • Great Meg … keep ‘m coming.

      I actually have an old copy of this book at home here, picked up from some second hand place. I read his Man-shy many years ago. I have a feeling I read Dusty too, but it doesn’t ring a strong bell.

      • Okay here are some more: The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough – basically a romantic story set on a Sheep Station. Henry Lawson’s the Drover’s Wife, a dramatic short story. Also his poem The Ballad of the Black Sheep. It is a powerful poem, and though not about sheep it is about being the ‘black sheep’.


        • Ah yes, The thorn birds. And The drover’s wife is a good one – and interesting too. I came across a poem called The shearer’s wife about a woman whose husband clearly droves and shears … I guess they’re seasonal occupations, something I’m not sure I’d really taken in before. Here’s the second verse:
          “There’s hay to stook, an’ beans to hoe,
          An’ ferns to cut in the scrub below,
          Women must work, when men must go
          Shearing from shed to shed.”
          (by Louis Esson)

  9. You might be able to find Ivan Doig’s novel Dancing at the Rascal Fair, set largely among immigrant Scots sheep ranchers in Montana. There is also his memoir, In This House of Sky, largely about his father, who managed sheep ranches in there. It is true, as Stephanie says, that cattle are bigger in the American economy and popular imagination. But many sheep are raised in the US, eastern and western

    Homer has quite a few mentions of sheep–usually being sacrificed, stolen, or eaten. And the epithet “shepherd of the people” is tossed in there and there, applied to such as Agamemnon.

  10. I expect there to be sheep in Patrick White’s ‘Happy Valley’, which I am looking forward to reading when it is republished next month. ‘The Tao of Shepherding’ by John Donnelly touches on a different Australian perspective: a Chinese, kidnapped and sent to New South Wales to work as a shepherd.

    • Oh yes, Jennifer … I’m looking forward to reading Happy Valley too. And thanks for the Donnelly recommendation … sounds like a really interesting take (particularly given our history).

  11. I ve the chambers book the publisher sent it me last year I ve not got to it yet Sue ,I like some rural books having grown up in or near the countryside ,all the best stu

  12. Shepherds still exist. I was reading, weeks ago, an article about a Greek politician who had punched one of his opponents in a television debate, and the journalist who had the job of explaining to an English-speaking audience who is was, told us that he had cornered “the shepherd vote.” Either this journalist was joking, or there are parts of the world where shepherds are so numerous that people recognise their voting habits. If he was joking then it was the only joke in the article; I don’t think it was a joke.

    I believe that the romantic ideas about shepherds in modern (I mean, from about the 1400s onwards) Western literature came from the pastoral contrasts of ancient Greeks and Romans, not from actual observation of actual shepherds in actual situations of extreme loneliness and scruffy poverty and not knowing any face except the face of a sheep unless the owner of that face’s name was Pip, in which case he see them there as plain as ever I see you on them misty marshes. And I can’t think of any Australian sheep, aside from the ones that have already been mentioned, but the English poet John Dyer, who was around the time of Wordsworth, Coleridge, etc (Charles Lamb who had him over for meals called him an enthusiastic and dopy sweetiepie) wrote a georgic called The Fleece, four books long, about the British wool trade. The Union Jack is waved and waved and the world is conquered by superior fluffiness. But Dyer had farmed and his practical descriptions of sheep -rearing sound sane and detailed.

    “For cumbent sheep ; from broken slumber oft
    They rise benumb’d, and vainly shift the couch
    Their wasted sides their evil plight declare :
    Hence, tender in his care, the shepherd swain
    Seeks each contrivance. Here it would avail
    At a meet distance from the sheltr’ing mound
    To sink a trench, and on the hedge-long bank
    Sow frequent sand, with lime, and dark manure,
    Which to the liquid element will yield
    A porous way, a passage to the foe.
    Plough not such pastures ; deep in spongy grass
    The oldest carpet is the warmest lair,
    And soundest : in new herbage coughs are heard.”

    • There is one Australia-sheep book I wish I could read, but Las Vegas is short of it — The Lamb Enters the Dreaming by Robert Kenny, a non-fiction about the introduction of Christian missionaries and farming stock to the Aboriginal world. Has anyone here read it; can anyone describe?

    • Thanks for fleshing all that out DKS … particularly the bit about Dyer.

      As for that book, not surprised Las Vegas is short of it! Sorry that I can’t help, but it sounds intriguing doesn’t it?

  13. There is a beautiful painting by Hans Heysen, “Droving into the Light” and can be seen at:…3…4…


    • Oh thanks for that Meg. There’s the Tom Roberts Shearing shed one but I haven’t seen this before. I like the description of it on the NGA site: “Although this large painting ostensibly deals with the droving of sheep, it chiefly celebrates the magnificence of Australian eucalyptus trees. Nevertheless, the combination of a nationalistic gum-tree motif with a theme of end-of-day homecoming is symbolic of a new age: a unified Commonwealth of Australia had been created and was still in the process of formation. Droving into the light is one of Australia’s greatest Federation pictures.”

      Love the gum trees. They certainly are dominant.

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