Early Australian Literature

Early Australian Literature #

For such a short history and small population, Australia has produced a lot of great literature. However, there may be a small hypocrisy on the part of people ashamed to admit they have not read a famous book. To reassure them, we need only observe that, however vast any person’s basic reading may be, there still remain an enormous number of fundamental works that we have not read.

All early artists were imitative and derivative. This means they depicted Australia in British terms. Painters portrayed Australian scenes as they were in England while writers modelled their descriptions of the landscape using the styles and language of English writers.

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.

Early Australian literature shows we are uncertain of everything, we feel insecure. What is the cause of this? … First … geography, the tyranny of distance, the hostile environment, the fear experienced when alone … second, the doubt, do we belong here, perhaps this is geography, perhaps history … third, Australia as the harlot, raped by the Europeans, coarse, vulgar, meretricious.

Another major cleft is the Urban vs the Rural divide; Sydney (The big smoke) & the Bush.

Watkin Tench is renown as one of the first chroniclers of the early settlement and the first to see the finer beauty, rather than hostility in the Australian Bush.

Instead of nature being identified with god, Henry Lawson depicted the “hell” pioneers had to endure. The Bush is seen as Scourge; it turns people eccentric, drives them mad - ‘Past carin’.

Banjo Paterson admonished Lawson for his blindness to the romance and beauty of bush life.

Coetzee feels he has a strong pull toward the land and the landscape which appears to have a mysterious dwarfing power over people.

Paul Keating in his inimitable vitriolic style claims: “if you don’t live in Sydney you’re just camping out”. Despite his pithy colourful turn of phrase, Keating is not always right.

By the 1930s, Terry Eagleton says, the re-invention of literature as a semi-spiritual social glue allowed intellectuals to present English literature as “not only a subject worth studying, but the supremely civilizing pursuit, the spiritual essence of the social formation”. That conviction – a sense that literature mattered fundamentally to the nation – sustains most writers.

Curtin, Whitlam and Keating have been some of the best supporters of the arts in Australia, whereas the so called liberal parties (philistines ?) have generally made severe cuts in favour of cutting spending.

Patrick White is another neglected treasure. Though difficult, White’s sharp observations, careful evaluations and meticulous detailings are invaluable. We fail to attend to our own literature, culture and history at our own peril.

Charles Harpur #

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, (his first poem appeared in Sydney papers before he was twenty) 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.

It was Harpur’s belief that poetry should:

“quicken, exalt and purify our nobler and more exquisite passions by celebrating what was beautiful.”

But it should also:

“pour the lightning of indignation upon everything that is mean and cowardly in the people or tyrannical and corrupt in their rulers.”

Few Australians of his time could understand these things, he felt:

“I am not of the present men of Australia, nor could I mass myself down into the dead miry level of their intellectual grossness.”

This level of conflict between the purveyers of culture and those of philistine money changers appears present through to this day. Later he wrote:

“I have had to mingle daily amonst men who have faith for nothing in God’s glorious universe that is not, in their own vile phrase , ‘money’s worth””.

However to our credit, for Australia’s short history and small population, we have produced an abundance of great writers and artists.

Judith Wright claims:

Harpur was the first poet to accept and delight in the strange new landscape of Australia”.

Harpur had keen sense of place. He lived in three different parts and his descriptions of the landscape of hills, forests, rivers and mountains create vivid pictures. He lived along the Hawkesbury and traveled to the Blue Mountains, lived at Jerry’s Plains along the Hunter river and later settled on the south coast in a lush green Tuross valley that ran down to the sea at Moruya.

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 first part is largely descriptive with Miltonic depiction of local color.

Michael Ackland argues that the poem transcends purely descriptive categories and should be read as prophetic, blank verse narrative in the tradition of Milton and Wordsworth. Harpur portrays the struggle between reason and instinct, reenacting man’s fall in the light of Miltonic parallels. Beginning in pictorial terms, like much of Harpur’s verse, the poem proceeds towards the greater issues of spirituality and salvation through an experience of the sublime.

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 also greatly indebted to the vernacular poetry of Wordsworth, Shelley and Tennyson. Later he became a mentor to Henry Kendall.

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. His shortened title was His Natural Life. It was changed after he died at the age of 35.

As a forced immigrant, (his parents died early and he was sent to live with an uncle who was a judge), Clarke became a newspaper reporter and a librarian st Victoria’s State Library, when he was sent to Tasmania to research and write about Port MacArthur where he fashioned this gothic tale. The serialised version ran from 1870 – 72 with the full novel published in 1874. Instead of returning to England as a pardoned convict, in the novel, he remains a convict and dies at sea.

Based on typical novels of his time, it hinges on long dialogues, some coincidental circumstances, fused modalities of realistic documentary style descriptions, creative fiction and fully resolved tying down loose ends - bedding down.

Wrongfully convicted of a crime he did not commit, a young aristocrat, Richard Devine, is sent to pay his dues in Van Diemen’s Land. As a criminal in this new colony, Rufus Dawes is forced to endure tremendous suffering and inhumanity, from the inhumane cruelty of those in power to the harsh brutalities of an untamed country.

Relating the intricate and savage interplay between the gaolers and the gaoled, Marcus Clarke weaves the tragic tale of his wrongfully convicted hero Rufus Dawes. This unforgettable account of the barbarous days of early white settlement has at its heart the enduring belief in the strength of the human spirit and the capacity for love to overcome adversity.

It illustrates how the brutal treatment of convicts can turn them into savages, however Dawes love for Dora saves him from that fate. Clarke’s fiction account is credible and shows how power controls narratives. When he is marooned with Lieutenant Frere, Mrs Vickers and her daughter Dora, he becomes Crusoe, builds a hut and a boat to effect their escape to saftey. However, when Mrs Vickers dies, and Dora’s coma causes her to lose her memory, the authoritarian Frere’s official story of him being the hero and Dawe a villain is accepted and Dawe is put back in chains. Each step, from Macquarie Harbour to Port Arthur, to Norfolk Island, is a regressive decent from England until the ascent to Victoria where the wilderness becomes a more natural prison and slowly Dawes regains his humanity.

Brian Matthews of the Australian Book Review comments:

For the Term of His Natural Life was written not to inveigh against a wrong already righted – what would have been the point? – but as a work of the imagination on crime and punishment, the vagaries of fate, the power of love and guilt, the depths of inhumanity and, as Michael Wilding has pointed out, the antipodean reversal of English social order.

Brian Elliott described it as ‘the one work of fiction produced in the whole first century of Australia’s history to justify description as monumental’.

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.

Henry Lawson #

Lawson was for some, the first Post - colonial writer; the first to describe the country and characters in realistic terms.

More @: https://nebo-lit.com/novel/lawson/Lawson-General-Observations.html

A Fortunate Life #

Bert’ Facey was born in 1894, seven years before Federation and the birth of a modern Australian nation. His life closely mapped the drama of the early decades of the young country, in peacetime and in war. It was touched by adventure and tragedy, though it also contained moments of quietude, beauty and happiness. The manner of his telling combined rustic simplicity with stoic restraint. A sense of decency threaded through the narrative, just as a seam of precious metal folds through rock. Though it is not the work of an educated man, it is well written in a low key understated style.

The title is ironic, as his life anything but fortunate, losing his parents, sent out to word at eight, enlisted in 1914, sent to Gallipoli, repatriated due to heart problems, badly treated as returned soldier, losing his farm due to the depression - these Job like troubles are all surmounted by a positive outlook.

A Fortunate Life could easily have as its epigraph a line by the Roman Emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius:

‘Misfortune nobly born is good fortune.’