Question 4: What are the significant themes of the early Australian poets?
Ans: Literature reflects and is also affected by the historical developments in the
country. Australian literature evolved with the coming of the settlers, as the indigenous people did not have a written script or literature. From the journals of the settlers to the bush ballads to the literature of national consciousness, Australian literature developed along with the socio-political developments in the country. The beginnings of Australian literature were oral rather than written. When first encountered by the Europeans, the Aboriginals in Australia did not have written languages. The songs, chants, legends and stories, however, constituted a rich oral literature, and since the Aboriginal tribes had no common languages, these creations were enormously diverse.
Written literature came to Australia after the settlement of New South Wales in 1788. After the settlement, reports of the new Island were sent back to England. The public was more interested in the details of new flora and fauna. So early publications were dominated by reports of new land and rivers and summaries of what had so far been discovered in the new continent.
Poetry came first in Australia and after that novel and drama followed. The origins of written Australian poetry lay in the prison systems. From 1788 until 1823 the colony of New South Wales was classified as a penal colony consisting mainly of convicts. From 1793 free settlers also started to arrive. Only those people who were educated in their mother country (predominantly England) could read or write because there were no formal schools in Australia. Therefore, it was difficult for early settlers to develop literary skills. Since population was poorly educated, there was no demand for written communication such as newspapers. Sharing jokes and stories was a common form of entertainment at any place where people gathered. These stories were difficult to remember so rhyme was introduced into it, to assist the authors to memorize them. Consistent rhythm and metres were later on added. As a result of these changes Australian poetry was born. The earliest written poetry acted as cathartic outburst of emotions which allowed the convicts to address those feelings that they could not openly discuss. Through their poetry they described their pain in silence. The most notable of these early poets include Michale Massey Robinson, George Barrington and Francis MacNamara also known as Frank the Poet. At this time poetry had melancholic themes. As convicts were feeling anguish, their poetry indicated empathy for the anguish of others. Lack of paper or writing ability forced the convicts to turn their poems into songs.
From these convict foundations a rich poetic tradition grew in the form of Bush Ballads. The farmers, horsemen and a myriad of other everyday people started writing poetry. The bush ballads were deeply ingrained in Australian history and culture. These reflect quite accurately the time in which those people lived. The stories are wonderful and cover all aspects of life in Australia at the time. Among the greats of Australian Bush poetry, Henry Lawson and Andrew ‘Banjo’ Paterson were the best known and loved poets.
In 1802 George Howe (1769-1821), a convict with some printing skills was
appointed government printer and given the task of printing the first published material in Australia at the government press. As Delys Bird also noted, “A printing press arrived with the First Fleet but there was no one to operate it until George Howe, a convict printer, set it up, and used it to print the first colonial newspaper The Sydney Gazette in 1803” (23). The first published work on poetry was First Fruits of Australian Poetry (1819) written by Barron Field. Field published it “at his own expense and circulated only to friends, who include Wordsworth and Charles Lamb” (Webby 56). The early poetry got published in newspapers. “Independent colonial newspapers were important in the literary and socio-political life of the colonies. They not only published a great deal of original poetry, much of it topical and ephemeral, but also encouraged, the development of other genres” (Bird 29). The Bush poetry was largely published in The Bulletin, a newspaper, which started in 1880 and was extremely influential in Australian culture and politics from 1890 until 1917. During this time it was known as The Bulletin School of Australian Literature.
With the launch of the most significant Australian literary journal, Bulletin , in 1880,
a movement for nationalism in Australian literature was initiated. The impact of this
is most felt in the poetry of A.B. Paterson ( 1864 – 1941 ) . Paterson is also known as ‘Banjo ‘ as he used that pseudonym for his early contributions to the Bulletin. His first volume of poems entitled The Man from Snowy River and Other Verses ( 1895 ) sold out in the week of its publication, and it went through six editions in six months. His ballads about drovers, teamsters, bushrangers, picnic race meetings and animosity between squatters and drovers made him a very popular poet. His other books of poems appeared in the twentieth century.
The span of one hundred years of the nineteenth century witnessed not only the
growth and proliferation of western civilization in the newly found continent of
Australia but also the development of poetry in English in a new landscape wherein a new civilization gradually matured. Australian poetry started under marks of inheritance from British poetry but gradually absorbed the Australian themes from the nature and people of Australia and simultaneously developed a matching Australian idiom and poetics. Thus nineteenth-Century Australian poetry offers an interesting scope for studying the growth of a new kind of poetry.