Happy Birthday Banjo . . . but
150 years ago today Feb 17, Andrew Barton Banjo Paterson was born on a property in Orange. There are celebrations there, but poetry is a minority sport in Australia.
Banjo was a very good horseman and the nickname comes from a horse. He is best known for two poems, and his ballad forms using assonance, alliteration and repetition helps them become easy to memorise. His poems were enjoyed and known by heart by many Australians, city folk and bushies.
I sang Waltzing Matilda in public just the once with the Australian Society of Authors [one rehearsal] choir, not knowing then that it is an allegory for a violent shearer’s strike. At the time he was well known for a feud with Henry Lawson, the Australian version of city versus county, ‘the city or the bush’.
- In early 1891 the Bulletin published ‘The Voice from the Bush’ – an anonymous poem;
- Banjo Paterson chipped in, describing ‘the broken down man from the bush’. (‘A Voice from the Town’, Oct 1891, a poem in ballad form.
- Henry Lawson, who was brought up on the goldfields and experienced poverty in both the city and the bush, replied that the bush is ‘land where gaunt and haggard women live alone and work like men’. (‘Up the Country’, July 1892)
- Paterson responded by asking if Lawson found the people he met in the bush had faces as sad as those in the city – ‘fallen women’. (‘Defence of the Bush’, July 1892).
- Lawson then accused Paterson of hypocrisy as he was living comfortably in Sydney – Banjo was a Sydney Grammar boy who became a journalist who covered the Boer War and a solicitor (‘The City Bushmen’).
- Paterson had the last word, ‘he feels his flabby muscles with a feeling of regret’. He felt that the bushie is healthier psychically and physically than a city slicker (‘An Answer to Various Bards’, Oct 1892). Lawson died a broken alcoholic, Banjo is on the $10 note and his mythologising of the bush has only recently faded.
The argument continued in Victor Daley’s ‘In Arcady’ (1911):
‘I suppose that this is Arcady…
The farmers use, to break the ground, a fine four-furrow plough
Their ancestors would smile if they could see the Irish now –
for they wrought hard with wooden shares their frugal crops to raise,
When Cecht, the Plough, they worshipped in the old Dedanaan days.
In spite of new machines the world is full of wonder sweet . . .’[i]
Daley’s irony ends the poem, ‘But please the Lord, on Monday morn, I’m leaving Arcady.’
The social conditions Lawson and Paterson argued about are long gone (if they ever existed). Their debate now appears banal up against problems in rural Australia, such as, drought, dying towns, racism, poverty and youth suicide.
Jack Thomson in the Australian a day ago wrote that Banjo “was, and continues to be, an inspirational influence all my life.” By all means celebrate Banjo, but what about poets who are asking contemporary questions about rural condition? About a sustainable future for farmers, for the fauna and flora and for the soil and the habitats we have remaining? I want an Australian poetry adequate to political, economic, social and natural formations of the Australian environment and there is poetry out there that does that, I just wish people would read/listen to it.
[i] Victor Daley, Wine and Roses, Angus & Robertson, 1911. in Leon Cantrell Ed., Writing of the Eighteen Nineties, (1977) UQP, 1991, p147.