Australian Literature

Early Australian Literature #

Many early Australian writers felt rejected for three reasons; the personal – they don’t fit in, the environmental – a harsh climate, and the professional; “How can you love people who don’t want to read your books?” The true writer demands more than an audience; they want an educated audience, a shared background of mind – an audience that responds, that engages.

Our first native born of pure convict stock was Charles Harpur. His father, Joseph Harpur, an Irishman was indicted in London for highway robbery, reprieved and transported, landing in Sydney in November 1800, assigned to John Macarthur.

His mother, Sarah Chidley at 13 was convicted of a minor offence in 1805 and arrived in Sydney in 1806, also assigned to John and Elizabeth Macarthur.

Charles was born in 1813. By this time his father had gained advancement as Schoolmaster at Windsor, so his children gained an education having access to a number of libraries, including Samuel Marsden’s, known as the “flogging parson”.

Harpur’s early poetry, inspired by the Australian muse evoked the actual beauty of a little town, planned by Governor Macquarie on the cultivated countryside of the river:

For I felt thee- ev’n then, wildly, wondrously musing
Of glory and grace by old Hawkesbury’s side.

Later he picturises the majesty of the Blue Mountain in his signature poem The Creek of the Four Graves, a dated and set piece of the massacre by aborigines. A settler, looking for wider pastures for his expanding flocks and herds, takes four of his men along. Camping out, just before dawn, he hears an imminent attack from the indigenous people. He manages to get one shot away before managing a desperate escape. His men are not so lucky and the creek acquires the name of Four Graves.

The only evidence of questioning the rightness or wrongness of the events, is a vital verse contrasting the violence and the calm beauty of the setting Judith Wright claims editors elided.

For see, the bright beholding Moon, and all
The radiant Host of Heaven, evince no touch
Of sympathy with man’s wild violence –
Only evince in their calm course, their part
In that original unity of love

Under God’s hand, in the beginning chimed
The Sabbath concord of the Universe,

Exactly who transgressed, causing this breakdown in the harmony of the universe.

Written in a stilted Miltonian, descriptive and narrative style, stale and rhetorical, depicting Australian scenes, using old expressions more suited to England. Instead of Edenic possibilities, the poem emphasises the impediments facing the expansionist settlers.

Harpur was renown for his powers of observation, the accuracy of his eye and the truth of his descriptions. What moved him most are the mountains, the clouds and the play of light.

Judith Wright maintains Harpur remains unrecognised because of his convict origins, his radical stances and the lack of feeling for national feeling for native Australian writing. Harpur was a thinking poet rather than a lyric. He became a political advocate, not for the “have nots versus the haves”, but a reasoned passionate and even religious conviction based on a world that allowed equality to all men, not a material right; a spiritual duty.

Wright claims Harpur was robbed of his proper due and place in Australian Literature. He was the fountainhead of opposing but mingling themes and preoccupations of Australian writers: exile from European consciousness and readaptation and of hope, the Utopian but recurrent hope of human brotherhood in the far end of the world:

My country, though rude yet and wild be thy nature,
This alone our proud love should beget and command.
There’s room in thy broad breast for Manhood’s full stature

Landscape #

Much of Australia’s literature has been relentlessly negative. World War I was a disillusionment for all colonial outposts, including Australians. It took about fifty years for recovery. Henry Lawson, A.D. Hope, Patrick White, and others painted a realistic but bleak portrait of the harsh lanscape, while Dorothea McKellar’s, “I Love a Sunburnt Country” provided a romanitc counterpoint.

A. D. Hope evokes the spiritual poverty of our land, condescendingly a nation of trees, drab green and desolate grey, monotonous and dreary. The dark colours suggest insipidness of the landscape. The tone mocks Australian culture, our history, our land, the desolate way we live. His derogatory reference to Australian stupor and lack of culture, calling us second hand Europeans refers to a cultural cringe with colonial mindsets; that we merely try to imitate British artists. The paradox of us being a new country, yet the oldest continent with one of the oldest civilisations inhabiting us for the past 60,000 years.


A nation of trees, drab green and desolate grey
In the field uniform of modern wars
Darkens her hills, those endless, outstretched paws
Of Sphinx demolished or stone lion worn away.

They call her a young country, but they lie:
She is the last of lands, the emptiest,
A woman beyond her change of life, a breast
Still tender but within the womb is dry.

Without songs, architecture, history:
The emotions and superstitions of younger lands,
Her rivers of water drown among inland sands,
The river of her immense stupidity

Floods her monotonous tribes from Cairns to Perth.
In them at last the ultimate men arrive

Whose boast is not: ‘we live’ but ‘we survive’,
A type who will inhabit the dying earth

And her five cities, like five teeming sores,
Each drains her: a vast parasite robber-state
Where second-hand Europeans pullulate
Timidly on the edge of alien shores.
Yet there are some like me turn gladly home
From the lush jungle of modern thought, to find
The Arabian desert of the human mind,
Hoping, if still from the deserts the prophets come,
Such savage and scarlet as no green hills dare
Springs in that waste, some spirit which escapes
The learned doubt, the chatter of cultured apes
Which is called civilization over there.

Gothic #

If Australia has one place where ghosts should walk it is Port Arthur. There are ruins enough here; an atmosphere of violence and decay; almost too many remembrances of human suffering. George Farwell, 1965

The tradition of literature that qualifies as Tasmanian Gothic goes back to Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural Life in 1874, and continues to this day.

The film Nightingale reinforces the ugly brutality of the colonial age.

More than 600 Irish, American, Welsh, Canadian and British political prisoners ended up being deported to New South Wales to become someone else’s problem. They got together to resist authority by peaceful means, but when these failed they resorted to violence and uprisings. In 1804 a group of Irish convicts led by Robert Emnett overthrew their jailers and marched on Parramatta. Looting and destroying farms, the rampaging men began to indulge in rum, becoming undisciplined. Governor King sent out a few soldiers to quill the riot. A trial in 1805 found one of the leaders, Dwyer, “Not Guilty”, however later Governor Bligh overturned the verdict.

In Tasmania’s Port Arthur and Macquarie Harbour became one of the most brutal, prison systems in the world with tyrannical soldiers enacting punishments of raw savagery and remorseless barbarity resulting in the debasement of many of the toughest convicts. Floggings were common, but once they exceeded 50 lashes, few retained any vestiges of humanity. Some who survived, like Michael Fenton, William Coffey and John Flood formed political cells of persistence resistance to demand their rights and force the government towards democracy.

Tasmania is the site of possibly the worst attempted extirpation of Indigenous people in the history of Australia. And the human suffering Farwell refers to above is that inflicted in one of the most brutal convict prisons in the colonial era, Port Arthur, built with forced labour, housing boys as young as nine, with those who died taken over the sea to the Isle of the Dead and an unmarked grave. The ruins of the place still draw tens of thousands of tourists every year. The “ghost tours”, the website apologetically informs us, are heavily booked until the end of May.

The revolt of the Eureka Stockade also demanded political rights. These led to Australia becoming one of the earliest robust democracies in the Western tradition.