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
Poet: Banjo Paterson
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.
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.
#9 Up the Country
Poet: Henry Lawson
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.
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.
#8 In the Park
Poet: Gwen Harwood
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.
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.”
#7 We Are Going
Poet: Oodgeroo Noonuccal
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.
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.’
Poet: Bruce Dawe
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”.
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
#5 Woman to Man
Poet: Judith Wright
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. Women 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.
This is the maker and the made;
this is the queston and reply;
the blind head butting at the dark,
the blaze of light along the blade.
Oh hold me, for I am afraid.
#4 Weapons Training
Poet: Bruce Dawe
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”.
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
#3 The Man from Snowy River
Poet: Banjo Paterson
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.
And one was there, a stripling on a small and weedy beast,
He was something like a racehorse undersized,
With a touch of Timor pony – three parts thoroughbred at least –
And such as are by mountain horsemen prized.
He was hard and tough and wiry – just the sort that won’t say die –
There was courage in his quick impatient tread;
And he bore the badge of gameness in his bright and fiery eye,
And the proud and lofty carriage of his head.
#2 My Country
Poet: Dorothea Mackellar
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.
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!
#1 Waltzing Matilda
Poet: Banjo Paterson
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.
Up sprang the swagman and jumped into the waterhole,
Drowning himself by the Coolibah tree;
And his voice can be heard as it sings in the billabongs,
“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.