Source of book: I own this
This book is a Wordsworth Poetry Library paperback that was one of several my wife found for me a number of years back.
Andrew Barton “Banjo” Paterson was originally an Australian solicitor (the lower level of lawyer in the British system) when he started writing poems under the name of “The Banjo” for a literary magazine. He gained significant popularity over the next decade and a half, and eventually left the law for a career in journalism and writing. He was a correspondent during the Boer War, and later, failing to get a similar gig, became a volunteer ambulance worker in World War One. He continued to write - poetry, stories, essays, and journalism - throughout his life, but was able after the war to mostly retire to his estates in Australia.
The poems are instantly recognizable. Many - indeed most - are in some variation of the Ballad Stanza, and roll off the tongue very easily. It isn’t strict meter, however, and he often uses a skillful breaking of the rules to emphasize a particular idea or moment, while keeping the verse from becoming monotonous.
His poems generally are about stories of the Australian Outback. Horse racing, sheep herding, outlaws, dogs, colorful characters, and the beauty of the wilderness become the subjects. For the most part, the poems could be considered more toward the entertaining end of the spectrum than the profound, although there are definitely some transcendent moments. But that is okay. Stories told in poetry and song date back to the dawn of human civilization, and have been the way that humans have shared their culture for far longer than the written word. The cadence and rhythm make the stories stay in the brain, and the song assists in the tale.
Because the poems are often long - stories take time to tell - I won’t be quoting many in full. However, most of these are in the public domain, and are easy to find online, for those who want the full experience. This post is about his first collection, The Man From Snowy River and Other Verses. There are two more collections in my book, which I hope to review in the future.
One exception to the rule is the short “Prelude” which opens the collection, and is a pretty darn good description of Paterson’s art - and his intent in writing.
I have gathered these stories afar
In the wind and the rain,
In the land where the cattle-camps are,
On the edge of the Plain.
On the overland routes of the west,
When the watches were long,
I have fashioned in earnest and jest
These fragments of song.
They are just the rude stories one hears
In sadness and mirth,
The records of wandering years —
And scant is their worth.
Though their merits indeed are but slight,
I shall not repine
If they give you one moment’s delight,
Old comrades of mine.
I would definitely recommend reading the title poem of course. However, I will skip specifically quoting it. I will, on the other hand, give a bit of “An Idyll of Dandaloo,” a story about a city stranger who had the gall to win a horse race against the locals - and got run out of town on a rail for his trouble. The opening two stanzas are a great description.
On Western plains, where shade is not,
'Neath summer skies of cloudless blue,
Where all is dry and all is hot,
There stands the town of Dandaloo --
A township where life's total sum
Is sleep, diversified with rum.
Its grass-grown streets with dust are deep;
'Twere vain endeavour to express
The dreamless silence of its sleep,
Its wide, expansive drunkenness.
The yearly races mostly drew
A lively crowd at Dandaloo.
The contrast of rural and urban is a recurring theme. The next poem combines this with...guess what? Horses of course. I also might add, the combination of humor and tragedy which can be found throughout Paterson’s works.
The Geebung Polo Club
It was somewhere up the country, in a land of rock and scrub,
That they formed an institution called the Geebung Polo Club.
They were long and wiry natives from the rugged mountain side,
And the horse was never saddled that the Geebungs couldn't ride;
But their style of playing polo was irregular and rash --
They had mighty little science, but a mighty lot of dash:
And they played on mountain ponies that were muscular and strong,
Though their coats were quite unpolished,
And their manes and tails were long.
And they used to train those ponies wheeling cattle in the scrub:
They were demons, were the members of the Geebung Polo Club.
It was somewhere down the country, in a city's smoke and steam,
That a polo club existed, called `The Cuff and Collar Team'.
As a social institution 'twas a marvellous success,
For the members were distinguished by exclusiveness and dress.
They had natty little ponies that were nice, and smooth, and sleek,
For their cultivated owners only rode 'em once a week.
So they started up the country in pursuit of sport and fame,
For they meant to show the Geebungs how they ought to play the game;
And they took their valets with them -- just to give their boots a rub
Ere they started operations on the Geebung Polo Club.
Now my readers can imagine how the contest ebbed and flowed,
When the Geebung boys got going it was time to clear the road;
And the game was so terrific that ere half the time was gone
A spectator's leg was broken -- just from merely looking on.
For they waddied one another till the plain was strewn with dead,
While the score was kept so even that they neither got ahead.
And the Cuff and Collar Captain, when he tumbled off to die,
Was the last surviving player -- so the game was called a tie.
Then the Captain of the Geebungs raised him slowly from the ground,
Though his wounds were mostly mortal, yet he fiercely gazed around;
There was no one to oppose him -- all the rest were in a trance,
So he scrambled on his pony for his last expiring chance,
For he meant to make an effort to get victory to his side;
So he struck at goal -- and missed it -- then he tumbled off and died.
By the old Campaspe River, where the breezes shake the grass,
There's a row of little gravestones that the stockmen never pass,
For they bear a crude inscription saying, `Stranger, drop a tear,
For the Cuff and Collar players and the Geebung boys lie here.'
And on misty moonlit evenings, while the dingoes howl around,
You can see their shadows flitting down that phantom polo ground;
You can hear the loud collisions as the flying players meet,
And the rattle of the mallets, and the rush of ponies' feet,
Till the terrified spectator rides like blazes to the pub --
He's been haunted by the spectres of the Geebung Polo Club.
Again, I could have quoted any number of the ballads, and they are generally similar in style, although the stories differ.
The next poem is another one that is unusual for the collection. It is shorter, a more “conventional” poem rather than a ballad, and has an interesting use of the “feminine” rhyme at the end of the second and fourth lines. Paterson had a fondness for the feminine rhyme, as well as for the use of anapests in various places in his lines. I picked this one, however, because I like it’s portrayal of ambition - something that we here in the United States tend to deify. People who are “go getters,” who “make their own luck,” who “pull themselves by their bootstraps.” But, as Paterson notes, the meanest man with the smallest soul tends to be the sort most successful in this system. Those who use others to get what they want, who want the lust of power and the pride of place. As a poet, Paterson prefers art. And indeed, in a way, he chose art over his legal career, so there may have been a bit of a personal story here as well.
Ambition and Art
I am the maid of the lustrous eyes
Of great fruition,
Whom the sons of men that are over-wise
Have called Ambition.
And the world's success is the only goal
I have within me;
The meanest man with the smallest soul
May woo and win me.
For the lust of power and the pride of place
To all I proffer.
Wilt thou take thy part in the crowded race
For what I offer?
The choice is thine, and the world is wide --
Thy path is lonely.
I may not lead and I may not guide --
I urge thee only.
I am just a whip and a spur that smites
To fierce endeavour.
In the restless days and the sleepless nights
I urge thee ever.
Thou shalt wake from sleep with a startled cry,
In fright unleaping
At a rival's step as it passes by
Whilst thou art sleeping.
Honour and truth shall be overthrown
In fierce desire;
Thou shalt use thy friend as a stepping-stone
To mount thee higher.
When the curtain falls on the sordid strife
That seemed so splendid,
Thou shalt look with pain on the wasted life
That thou hast ended.
Thou hast sold thy life for a guerdon small
In fitful flashes;
There has been reward -- but the end of all
Is dust and ashes.
For the night has come and it brings to naught
Thy projects cherished,
And thine epitaph shall in brass be wrought --
"He lived, and perished."
I wait for thee at the outer gate,
My love, mine only;
Wherefore tarriest thou so late
While I am lonely?
Thou shalt seek my side with a footstep swift;
In thee implanted
Is the love of Art and the greatest gift
That God has granted.
And the world's concerns with its rights and wrongs
Shall seem but small things --
Poet or painter, or singer of songs,
Thine art is all things.
For the wine of life is a woman's love
To keep beside thee;
But the love of Art is a thing above --
A star to guide thee.
As the years go by with the love of Art
Thou shalt end thy days with a quiet geart --
Thy work is finished.
So the painter fashions a picture strong
That fadeth never,
And the singer singeth a wondrous song
That lives for ever.
The next one is a lot less serious, but rather amusing - and yet so true.
Oh, the new-chum went to the backblock run,
But he should have gone there last week.
He tramped ten miles with a loaded gun,
But of turkey or duck saw never a one,
For he should have been there last week,
There were flocks of ’em there last week.
He wended his way to a waterfall,
And he should have gone there last week.
He carried a camera, legs and all,
But the day was hot and the stream was small,
For he should have gone there last week,
They drowned a man there last week.
He went for a drive, and he made a start,
Which should have been made last week,
For the old horse died of a broken heart;
So he footed it home and he dragged the cart —
But the horse was all right last week,
He trotted a match last week.
So he asked all the bushies who came from afar
To visit the town last week
If they’d dine with him, and they said ‘Hurrah!’
But there wasn’t a drop in the whisky jar —
You should have been here last week,
I drank it all up last week!
When Paterson is on, his humor is delightful. Here is another with a fun pair of twists at the end. Notice again the use of the liberal use of anapests and the feminine rhyme.
A Bush Christening
On the outer Barcoo where the churches are few,
And men of religion are scanty,
On a road never cross'd 'cept by folk that are lost,
One Michael Magee had a shanty.
Now this Mike was the dad of a ten-year-old lad,
Plump, healthy, and stoutly conditioned;
He was strong as the best, but poor Mike had no rest
For the youngster had never been christened,
And his wife used to cry, "If the darlin' should die
Saint Peter would not recognise him."
But by luck he survived till a preacher arrived,
Who agreed straightaway to baptise him.
Now the artful young rogue, while they held their collogue,
With his ear to the keyhole was listenin',
And he muttered in fright while his features turned white,
"What the divil and all is this christenin'?"
He was none of your dolts, he had seen them brand colts,
And it seemed to his small understanding,
If the man in the frock made him one of the flock,
It must mean something very like branding.
So away with a rush he set off for the bush,
While the tears in his eyelids they glistened-
"'Tis outrageous," says he, "to brand youngsters like me,
I'll be dashed if I'll stop to be christened!"
Like a young native dog he ran into a log,
And his father with language uncivil,
Never heeding the "praste" cried aloud in his haste,
"Come out and be christened, you divil!"
But he lay there as snug as a bug in a rug,
And his parents in vain might reprove him,
Till his reverence spoke (he was fond of a joke)
"I've a notion," says he, "that'll move him."
"Poke a stick up the log, give the spalpeen a prog;
Poke him aisy-don't hurt him or maim him,
'Tis not long that he'll stand, I've the water at hand,
As he rushes out this end I'll name him.
"Here he comes, and for shame! ye've forgotten the name-
Is it Patsy or Michael or Dinnis?"
Here the youngster ran out, and the priest gave a shout-
"Take your chance, anyhow, wid 'Maginnis'!"
As the howling young cub ran away to the scrub
Where he knew that pursuit would be risky,
The priest, as he fled, flung a flask at his head
That was labelled "Maginnis's Whisky!"
And Maginnis Magee has been made a J.P.,
And the one thing he hates more than sin is
To be asked by the folk who have heard of the joke,
How he came to be christened "Maginnis"!
I’ll end with one of Paterson’s most famous poems, one written to be the lyrics for a song - although I was unable to find a recording of it. Anyway, it is beautiful, in my opinion, and a good note (sorry) on which to end.
Daylight is Dying
The daylight is dying
Away in the west,
The wild birds are flying
In silence to rest;
In leafage and frondage
Where shadows are deep,
They pass to its bondage --
The kingdom of sleep.
And watched in their sleeping
By stars in the height,
They rest in your keeping,
Oh, wonderful night.
When night doth her glories
Of starshine unfold,
'Tis then that the stories
Of bush-land are told.
Unnumbered I hold them
In memories bright,
But who could unfold them,
Or read them aright?
Beyond all denials
The stars in their glories
The breeze in the myalls
Are part of these stories.
The waving of grasses,
The song of the river
That sings as it passes
For ever and ever,
The hobble-chains' rattle,
The calling of birds,
The lowing of cattle
Must blend with the words.
Without these, indeed, you
Would find it ere long,
As though I should read you
The words of a song
That lamely would linger
When lacking the rune,
The voice of the singer,
The lilt of the tune.
But, as one half-hearing
An old-time refrain,
With memory clearing,
Recalls it again,
These tales, roughly wrought of
The bush and its ways,
May call back a thought of
The wandering days,
And, blending with each
In the mem'ries that throng,
There haply shall reach
You some echo of song.