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Literature, Poetry

William Charles Wentworth, Sentimental Bloke, Adam Lindsay Gordon, David Malouf, Ashtaroth

Among the earliest poetry published in Australia was First Fruits of Australian Poetry (1819) by Barron Field, an Englishman serving in the Australian judiciary. Four years later the founder of Australian colonial self-government, William Charles Wentworth, a native-born Australian, published a single poem, “Australasia, an Ode,” which is invariably cited as the first poetic expression of a national spirit. The first volume of poetry by a native-born Australian was Wild Notes from the Lyre of a Native Minstrel (1826) by Charles Tompson, who spent the greater part of his life as a government official. Charles Harpur, also a native-born government employee and a farmer as well, was the author of Thoughts: A Series of Sonnets (1845). He continued to publish occasionally during the rest of his life and was the earliest poet of merit. It was not, however, until the time of Henry Clarence Kendall, an Australian by birth, and Adam Lindsay Gordon, an English immigrant, that Australian poetry really became significant. Gordon's sporting poems and narratives, which had great popularity, are at their best in Sea Spray and Smoke Drift (1867) and Ashtaroth (1867). Kendall, often called the national poet, developed a personal idiom equipped to deal with Australian subjects in Leaves from an Australian Forest (1869) and Songs from the Mountains (1880); he was especially successful in describing the scenery of the wooded valleys along the Pacific coast.

These pioneers prepared the ground for a number of poets whose work shows greater distinction. Bernard (Patrick) O'Dowd, a lawyer by profession, was a didactic poet of wide learning who published verses in pamphlet form after 1903. Little emotion is displayed in his work; he is rather a rhetorician of ideas, notably of the belief that Australia has the opportunity to build a nation free from such evils of European culture as economic, political, and social inequities. The classical scholar Christopher (John) Brennan was the most learned poet Australia produced at this time. His work, largely in the symbolist tradition, is characterized by depth of feeling and force of imagery. Not popularly known, Brennan's poetry is esteemed by a small group of discriminating readers. (John) Shaw Neilson, who is considered by some critics to be the best poet of his era, reflects the experience of ordinary people in the simple lyricism of his verse.

The journalist and lawyer Andrew Barton Paterson gave the greatest literary development to the bush ballad, a kind of popular poem about life in the outback, the scrub country of the interior. His ballad “Waltzing Matilda” (1917), which was sung by Australian troops in both world wars, gained great popularity among all English-speaking people. The Man from Snowy River contains Paterson's best ballads. C. J. Dennis was another popular versifier who expressed in dialect the feelings and experiences of the “dinkum Aussie bloke,” or true Australian guy, notably in The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke (1915).

A number of 20th-century Australian poets have written works of the highest distinction. Notable among them is Robert FitzGerald, whose long, semiphilosophical discourses in verse blend themes of Australian experience with those of more universal interest. The work of Kenneth Slessor, written between 1919 and 1939, ranges from examples of pallid aestheticism to amusing realistic sketches of historical characters done in a variety of forms. Among other distinguished modern poets are A. D. Hope; Douglas Stewart, the author of verse drama; Judith Wright, who established an international reputation; and David Malouf, who also writes distinguished fiction. A sampling of Australian poetry, beginning with the work of Harpur, is A Book of Australian Verse (1956; 2nd ed. 1968), edited by Judith Wright.

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