Poetry played a prominent part in the founding of Australian literature. The concept of the Bush became an iconic part of Australian poetry. Bush refers to any sparsely inhabited region and Bush poetry often tells stories of life in the wide open country of Australia. Bush poets Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson are regarded as giants of Australian literature. Among their most famous poems are The Man from Snowy River, Waltzing Matilda and Up the Country. In the 20th century, several Australian poets experimented with Modernism while some also continued the tradition of Bush poetry. The best known Australian poems of the 20th century include Weapons Training by Bruce Dawe, My Country by Dorothea Mackellar and In the Park by Gwen Harwood. Here are the 10 most famous Australian poems of all time.
#10 Clancy of the Overflow
I had written him a letter which I had, for want of better Knowledge, sent to where I met him down the Lachlan, years ago, He was shearing when I knew him, so I sent the letter to him, Just "on spec", addressed as follows, "Clancy, of The Overflow". And an answer came directed in a writing unexpected, (And I think the same was written with a thumb-nail dipped in tar) Twas his shearing mate who wrote it, and verbatim I will quote it: "Clancy's gone to Queensland droving, and we don't know where he are." In my wild erratic fancy visions come to me of Clancy Gone a-droving "down the Cooper" where the Western drovers go; As the stock are slowly stringing, Clancy rides behind them singing, For the drover's life has pleasures that the townsfolk never know. And the bush hath friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him In the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars, And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended, And at night the wond'rous glory of the everlasting stars. I am sitting in my dingy little office, where a stingy Ray of sunlight struggles feebly down between the houses tall, And the foetid air and gritty of the dusty, dirty city Through the open window floating, spreads its foulness over all And in place of lowing cattle, I can hear the fiendish rattle Of the tramways and the buses making hurry down the street, And the language uninviting of the gutter children fighting, Comes fitfully and faintly through the ceaseless tramp of feet. And the hurrying people daunt me, and their pallid faces haunt me As they shoulder one another in their rush and nervous haste, With their eager eyes and greedy, and their stunted forms and weedy, For townsfolk have no time to grow, they have no time to waste. And I somehow rather fancy that I'd like to change with Clancy, Like to take a turn at droving where the seasons come and go, While he faced the round eternal of the cash-book and the journal — But I doubt he'd suit the office, Clancy, of "The Overflow".
Banjo Paterson was a Bush poet who is perhaps the most famous Australian poet of all time. Paterson once sent a letter to a man named ‘Clancy’ at a sheep station named ‘Overflow’. He received a reply that read: “Clancy’s gone to Queensland droving, and we don’t know where he are.” A drover is someone whose job is to make sheep or cattle move from one place to another. Inspired by this reply, Paterson penned this famous poem. In it, the speaker lives in “the dusty, dirty city” but yearns for life in the rural areas of Australia. Clancy in the poem is someone the speaker once befriended by chance. The speaker now envies Clancy and longs for his carefree lifestyle. Clancy of the Overflow was well received by the public when it was first published. Since then it has gained in fame and there have been numerous references to it in Australian popular culture.
#9 Up the Country
I am back from up the country — very sorry that I went — Seeking for the Southern poets' land whereon to pitch my tent; I have lost a lot of idols, which were broken on the track, Burnt a lot of fancy verses, and I'm glad that I am back. Further out may be the pleasant scenes of which our poets boast, But I think the country's rather more inviting round the coast. Anyway, I'll stay at present at a boarding-house in town, Drinking beer and lemon-squashes, taking baths and cooling down. 'Sunny plains'! Great Scott! — those burning wastes of barren soil and sand With their everlasting fences stretching out across the land! Desolation where the crow is! Desert where the eagle flies, Paddocks where the luny bullock starts and stares with reddened eyes; Where, in clouds of dust enveloped, roasted bullock-drivers creep Slowly past the sun-dried shepherd dragged behind his crawling sheep. Stunted peak of granite gleaming, glaring like a molten mass Turned from some infernal furnace on a plain devoid of grass. Read Full Poem Here
Henry Lawson was a Bush poet who, along with Banjo Paterson, is regarded as a giant of Australian literature. However, unlike Paterson, Lawson chose to write about the grim realities of the harsh terrain of the Australian bush instead of romanticizing it. First published in The Bulletin magazine, Up the Country is the most famous poem of Henry Lawson. In it, the speaker recounts his trip to the barren and gloomy Australian bush. Furthermore, he criticizes “City Bushmen” such as Banjo Paterson who tended to romanticize bush life. Paterson and Lawson had a famous rivalry regarding the life in the Australian bush. Paterson later responded to Up the Country with a poem titled In Defense of the Bush, in which he accused Lawson of representing bush life as nothing but doom and gloom.
#8 In the Park
She sits in the park. Her clothes are out of date. Two children whine and bicker, tug her skirt. A third draws aimless patterns in the dirt Someone she loved once passed by – too late to feign indifference to that casual nod. "How nice" et cetera. "Time holds great surprises." From his neat head unquestionably rises a small balloon…"but for the grace of God…" They stand a while in flickering light, rehearsing the children’s names and birthdays. "It’s so sweet to hear their chatter, watch them grow and thrive," she says to his departing smile. Then, nursing the youngest child, sits staring at her feet. To the wind she says, "They have eaten me alive."
Regarded as one of the finest poets of Australia, Gwen Harwood was a prolific writer who published 386 poems during her lifetime. The dominant theme in the poetry of Harwood is motherhood and the challenges associated with it. In this poem, the speaker, a mother, takes her children in the park; and there she encounters her ex-lover. The two discuss how their lives have progressed. They discuss her children but the conversation is superficial as the man actually thanks God that he did not end up with the woman and her children. The poem talks about the countless sacrifices a woman has to make for her children and how her life can get monotonous and torturous. Moreover, the poem shows symbolically the contrast in the life of the man and the woman. The poem is pessimistic in tone and its dominant theme is how stifling the life of a mother can get.
#7 We Are Going
They came in to the little town A semi-naked band subdued and silent All that remained of their tribe. They came here to the place of their old bora ground Where now the many white men hurry about like ants. Notice of the estate agent reads: 'Rubbish May Be Tipped Here'. Now it half covers the traces of the old bora ring. 'We are as strangers here now, but the white tribe are the strangers. We belong here, we are of the old ways. We are the corroboree and the bora ground, We are the old ceremonies, the laws of the elders. We are the wonder tales of Dream Time, the tribal legends told. We are the past, the hunts and the laughing games, the wandering camp fires. We are the lightening bolt over Gaphembah Hill Quick and terrible, And the Thunderer after him, that loud fellow. We are the quiet daybreak paling the dark lagoon. We are the shadow-ghosts creeping back as the camp fires burn low. We are nature and the past, all the old ways Gone now and scattered. The scrubs are gone, the hunting and the laughter. The eagle is gone, the emu and the kangaroo are gone from this place. The bora ring is gone. The corroboree is gone. And we are going.'
Oodgeroo Noonuccal was an Australian Aboriginal woman who emerged as a prominent political activist and writer during the 1960s. Her 1964 poetry collection We Are Going was the first book to be published by an Australian Aboriginal woman. This poem, which shares the title of the collection, is the most famous poem of Oodgeroo. In it, she talks about the oppression of the aboriginal people of Australia while condemning the western colonization of the indigenous world. Oodgeroo criticizes the white man throughout the poem. Among other things, she says that the white man has no connection or respect for the land as he sees it only as a practical resource. She further says that, in contrast, the aboriginal people have a spiritual connection with the place as they have resided here for centuries.
All day, day after day, they're bringing them home, they're picking them up, those they can find, and bringing them home, they're bringing them in, piled on the hulls of Grants, in trucks, in convoys, they're zipping them up in green plastic bags, they're tagging them now in Saigon, in the mortuary coolness they're giving them names, they're rolling them out of the deep-freeze lockers — on the tarmac at Tan Son Nhut the noble jets are whining like hounds, they are bringing them home - curly heads, kinky-hairs, crew-cuts, balding non-coms - they're high, now, high and higher, over the land, the steaming chow mein, their shadows are tracing the blue curve of the Pacific with sorrowful quick fingers, heading south, heading east, home, home, home — and the coasts swing upward, the old ridiculous curvatures of earth, the knuckled hills, the mangrove-swamps, the desert emptiness… in their sterile housing they tilt towards these like skiers - taxiing in, on the long runways, the howl of their homecoming rises surrounding them like their last moments (the mash, the splendour) then fading at length as they move on to small towns where dogs in the frozen sunset raise muzzles in mute salute, and on to cities in whose wide web of suburbs telegrams tremble like leaves from a wintering tree and the spider grief swings in his bitter geometry - they're bringing them home, now, too late, too early.
Bruce Dawe is one of the highest selling as well as one of the most influential Australian poets of all time. He is most renowned for his anti-war poetry. Written in free verse, Homecoming is an anti-war poem protesting Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War during the 1960s. The title of the poem is ironical as homecoming is generally regarded as a positive event marked by joy for the parties who are re-uniting. However, this homecoming is the acts of collecting and processing the bodies of the war dead and shipping them home. Thus no happiness is associated with it and it is marked by only a sense of loss and the question “Why?”. The poem employs repetition to emphasize key points and its rhythm evokes the beat of a funeral drum. Homecoming is a highly popular poem and it has been described as “one of the finest threnodies in the war literature of Vietnam”.
#5 Woman to Man
The eyeless labourer in the night, the selfless, shapeless seed I hold, builds for its resurrection day--- silent and swift and deep from sight foresees the unimagined light. This is no child with a child's face; this has no name to name it by; yet you and I have known it well. This is our hunter and our chase, the third who lay in our embrace. This is the strength that your arm knows, the arc of flesh that is my breast, the precise crystals of our eyes. This is the blood's wild tree that grows the intricate and folded rose. This is the maker and the made; this is the question and reply; the blind head butting at the dark, the blaze of light along the blade. Oh hold me, for I am afraid.
A short story writer, an environmentalist and a campaigner for the land rights of the Aboriginal people of Australia, Judith Wright is still most famous for her poetry. She is known for her concise, traditional verse which was in keeping with the latest poetic trends in the west and which often captured the landscapes and lifestyles of Australia. Woman to Man, the most famous poem of Wright, is an extended metaphor for the developing embryo in the womb of the narrator. It is written from the perspective of a pregnant woman who marvels at the development of the embryo and notices the changes in her body as a result of becoming pregnant. The poem describes the wonder and awe of the speaker as a new life is being created within her. The prominent themes of the poem are unity, life and nature.
#4 Weapons Training
And when I say eyes right I want to hear those eyeballs click and the gentle pitter-patter of falling dandruff you there what's the matter why are you looking at me are you a queer? look to your front if you had one more brain it'd be lonely what are you laughing at you in the back row with the unsightly fat between your elephant ears open that drain you call a mind and listen remember first the cockpit drill when you go down be sure the old crown-jewels are safely tucked away what could be more distressing than to hold off with a burst from your trusty weapon a mob of the little yellows only to find back home because of your position your chances of turning the key in the ignition considerably reduced? allright now suppose for the sake of argument you've got a number-one blockage and a brand-new pack of Charlies are coming at you you can smell their rotten fish-sauce breath hot on the back of your stupid neck allright now what are you going to do about it? that's right grab and check the magazine man it's not a woman's tit worse luck or you'd be set too late you nit they're on you and your tripes are round your neck you've copped the bloody lot just like I said and you know what you are? You're dead, dead, dead
Weapons Training is another anti-war poem of Dawe but it is not as direct as Homecoming. In this poem, he captures a sergeant giving a harsh tirade to the recruits. Among other things, the sergeant’s tirade contains racist remarks like “a brand-new pack of Charlies are coming at you, you can smell their rotten fish-sauce breath”; and sexist remarks like “why are you looking at me are you a queer?”. Through the dramatic monologue of the sergeant, Dawe portrays how the military destroys human traits in common people to make them into insensitive and ruthless killers. He further shows that how all aspects of war are degrading, brutalizing and dehumanizing. Bruce Dawe himself had an experience of military life as he served in the Royal Australian Airforce from 1959 to 1968. He claimed that he didn’t invent all the lines in the poem as some were “addressed to me or other members of the squad of RAAF recruits I was part of in 1959”.
#3 The Man from Snowy River
There was movement at the station, for the word had passed around That the colt from Old Regret had got away, And had joined the wild bush horses - he was worth a thousand pound, So all the cracks had gathered to the fray. All the tried and noted riders from the stations near and far Had mustered at the homestead overnight, For the bushmen love hard riding where the wild bush horses are, And the stock-horse snuffs the battle with delight. There was Harrison, who made his pile when Pardon won the cup, The old man with his hair as white as snow; But few could ride beside him when his blood was fairly up — He would go wherever horse and man could go. And Clancy of the Overflow came down to lend a hand, No better horseman ever held the reins; For never horse could throw him while the saddle girths would stand, He learnt to ride while droving on the plains. Read The Full Poem Here
This poem by Paterson tells the story of a pursuit to capture a horse. It begins by telling the readers that a prized young colt has escaped and joined the wild horses in the mountains. The best riders assemble for the hunt. The protagonist, a thin and bony youngster with an unimpressive little horse volunteers to join the hunt. The youngster is ridiculed but finally given the opportunity as Clancy of the Overflow vouches for him saying that he belongs to some of the toughest parts of the mountain country. The chase begins and finally the horses descend a seemingly impassably steep slope. While the other riders give up the pursuit, the protagonist spurs his “pony” down the “terrible descent” and accomplishes the mission. The Man from Snowy River promotes virtues like courage, tenacity, endurance and mate-ship; which are highly valued by Australians. It remains one of the most loved poems in the nation.
#2 My Country
The love of field and coppice, Of green and shaded lanes. Of ordered woods and gardens Is running in your veins, Strong love of grey-blue distance Brown streams and soft dim skies I know but cannot share it, My love is otherwise. I love a sunburnt country, A land of sweeping plains, Of ragged mountain ranges, Of droughts and flooding rains. I love her far horizons, I love her jewel-sea, Her beauty and her terror - The wide brown land for me! A stark white ring-barked forest All tragic to the moon, The sapphire-misted mountains, The hot gold hush of noon. Green tangle of the brushes, Where lithe lianas coil, And orchids deck the tree-tops And ferns the warm dark soil. Core of my heart, my country! Her pitiless blue sky, When sick at heart, around us, We see the cattle die - But then the grey clouds gather, And we can bless again The drumming of an army, The steady, soaking rain. Core of my heart, my country! Land of the Rainbow Gold, For flood and fire and famine, She pays us back threefold - Over the thirsty paddocks, Watch, after many days, The filmy veil of greenness That thickens as we gaze. An opal-hearted country, A wilful, lavish land - All you who have not loved her, You will not understand - Though earth holds many splendours, Wherever I may die, I know to what brown country My homing thoughts will fly.
The best known poem of Mackellar, My Country, was written by her in 1904 at the age of just 19, when she felt homesick while travelling in England. The poem is inspired by the time Dorothea spent in her childhood in the rural properties owned by her family in New South Wales. It is thought to particularly describe the land after the breaking of a long drought in Torryburn, a property in the Paterson district of the Hunter Region. My Country presents a romanticized and idealized view of a nation; penned by a person longing to be there. Moreover, the poem contrasts the landscapes of England and Australia concluding that the remoteness and vastness of Australia’s landscape makes its more beautiful and incomparable to England’s landscape. My Country is regarded as the greatest and most iconic patriotic poem about Australia. Its second stanza, which describes Australia, is amongst the best-known pieces of Australian poetry.
#1 Waltzing Matilda
Oh there once was a swagman camped in the billabong, Under the shade of a Coolabah tree; And he sang as he looked at his old billy boiling "Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me." Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda, my darling. Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me. Waltzing Matilda and leading a water-bag — Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me. Down came a jumbuck to drink at the waterhole, Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him in glee; And he sang as he stowed him away in his tucker-bag, "You'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me." Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda, my darling. Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me. Waltzing Matilda and leading a water-bag — Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me. Down came the squatter a-riding his thoroughbred; Down came policemen — one, two, and three. "Whose is the jumbuck you've got in the tucker-bag? You'll come a-waltzing Matilda with we." Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda, my darling. Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me. Waltzing Matilda and leading a water-bag — Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me. But the swagman, he up and he jumped in the waterhole, Drowning himself by the Coolabah tree; And his ghost may be heard as it sings in the billabong "Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?" Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda, my darling. Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me. Waltzing Matilda and leading a water-bag. Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.
The title of this poem comes from Australian slang: waltzing i.e. travelling on foot; and matilda i.e. a swag or pack. It thus refers to a person travelling on foot from place to place with a swag on his back. The poem narrates the story of a swagman who is making a drink of billy tea at a bush camp and who steals a sheep and makes a meal of it. The owner of the ram and three policemen pursue the swagman for theft. When he is caught, he declares “You’ll never catch me alive!” and commits suicide by drowning himself. His ghost then haunts the site. Written by Paterson and first set to music by Christina Macpherson, Waltzing Matilda has become the “unofficial national anthem” of Australia. In 1977, when a national plebiscite was conducted to choose Australia’s national song, it ranked second on the list with 28% of the vote.