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inmate with fountain pen
Australian Poetry

Defying stoicism

It has been said that Australians are taciturn, and not inclined for sentimentality or emotional outbursts. Although it may sound counter intuitive, this may also be why Australia has such a rich poetic tradition. With stoicism prevailing in public, Australians have often turned inwards to reflect on their feelings and subsequently share their feelings through a safer medium.

The origins of Australian stoicism can be traced to the prison systems. In his memoirs, Convict J.F Mortlock wrote that Convict etiquette strictly prescribed that one "suffer in silence."  This was probably because life was tough and the expression of feeling made it even tougher.

Despite trying to be strong, feelings could not be suppressed forever and poetry as a cathartic outburst of emotion which allowed the Convicts to address those feelings that they could not openly discuss. Unfortunately, writing it was difficult as a man could be flogged for merely possessing a piece of paper. As a result, many turned their bodies into their parchments in the form of tattoos bearing poignant messages like "May the rose of England never blow, May the Scotch thistle never grow, May the harp of Ireland never play, Till I poor convict greets my liberty, TCA 20 1830." Others scratched messages on the walls as graffiti, carved scrimshaws or defaced coins with messages like: "from rocks and sand and dangers free, protect my love and me."

The lack of paper (and perhaps illiteracy) also forced the Convicts to turn their poems into songs. Even though etiquette of the time prescribed stoicism, the Convict's songs had melancholic themes. This seems to indicate that they had empathy for the anguish of others as they were feeling anguish themselves. Perhaps expressing their empathy through an artistic medium allowed the Convicts to maintain a degree of emotional distance from their turmoil and that of their friends, while still expressing their anguish, their bond, and their concern.

From these Convict foundations, a rich poetic tradition grew amongst the men of the lonely nomad trades. Some of the poems moved away from mere anguish and instead became emotional triggers of cultural pride with Banjo Patterson's "Man from Snowy River" being one of the finest examples. The poem tells the story of underdog and his rangy horse whose endurance and determination show that first impressions can be deceiving - a quintessentially Australian feel-good story.

World War 1 and 2 produced a lot of poetry; perhaps because it was a medium to reflect and empathise on the hardships the Diggers endured. Kenneth’s Slessor’s Beach Burial was a particularly fine piece of work. It sombrely told the story of unknown sailors being buried by an anonymous person/people and thus finding unity within the sand.  

A sense of nationalism is also found in poems about the Australian land. In "My Country", Dorothy Mackellar tells why she has turned her back on the ordered landscape of Europe to embrace the rugged, pitiless country of Australia. The poem was written after Mackeller had a deeply unhappy visit to England as a teenager. To her, the reasons for her love couldn’t be communicated, they can only be understood by those who have shared the Australian experience.

Although many poems glorify the country, some also contain themes of rebellion; not against authorities but against the culture of stoicism and the land itself. AD Hope's "Australia" is scathing towards the land; describing it as "drab green and desolate grey". He is even more scathing towards the Australian people; describing them as "monotonous tribes" whose boast is not to "live" but to "survive". Yet somewhat paradoxically, Hope seems to redeem Australia; telling how he gladly turns towards it, towards the "Arabian desert of the human mind". For Hope, it is in the desert where life springs; it is where the "prophets come".

Les Murray's "An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow" is another that rebels against the stoic culture of Australians. It tells the story of a man who walks into Sydney and starts crying; a simple outburst of emotion that is so abnormal that it attracts a scene of confused onlookers. Ironically, the man's crying seems to offer far more value to the onlookers than it does to the man himself.

One of Australia's most popular poems is Kenneth Slessor's "Five Bells." Slessor started writing poetry during the War where the same conflict between stoicism and anguish manifested itself into art. Like the Convicts who expressed their empathy through music, Slessor tapped into the humanity of his fellow diggers by writing and reading melancholic poems that captured the emotions that they all felt. Five Bells was written post-war and was about Slessor's friend who drowned in Sydney harbour. In his poem, Slessor imagines the man's dying images; his entire world flashing before his eyes and between the strokes of a ship's bell, and is reminded of the man each time he hears the ship's bell.

Five Bells
Ken Slessor

Time that is moved by little fidget wheels
Is not my Time, the flood that does not flow.
Between the double and the single bell
Of a ship's hour, between a round of bells
From the dark warship riding there below,
I have lived many lives, and this one life
Of Joe, long dead, who lives between five bells.

Deep and dissolving verticals of light
Ferry the falls of moonshine down. Five bells
Coldly rung out in a machine's voice. Night and water
Pour to one rip of darkness, the Harbour floats
In air, the Cross hangs upside-down in water.

Why do I think of you, dead man, why thieve
These profitless lodgings from the flukes of thought
Anchored in Time? You have gone from earth,
Gone even from the meaning of a name.
Yet something's there, yet something forms its lips
And hits and cries against the ports of space,
Beating their sides to make its fury heard.

Are you shouting at me, dead man, squeezing your face
In agonies of speech on speechless panes?
Cry louder, beat the windows, bawl, your name!

But I hear nothing, nothing ... only bells,
Five bells, the bumpkin calculus of Time.
Your echoes die, your voice is dowsed by Life,
There's not a mouth can fly the pygmy strait -
Nothing except the memory of some bones
Long shoved away, and sucked away, in mud;
And unimportant things you might have done,
Or once I thought you did; but you forgot,
And all have now forgotten - looks and words
And slops of beer; your coat with buttons off,
Your gaunt chin and pricked eye, and raging tales
Of Irish kings and English perfidy,
And dirtier perfidy of publicans
Groaning to God from Darlinghurst.
Five bells

Then I saw the road, I heard the thunder
Tumble, and felt the talons of the rain
The night we came to Moorebank in dark,
So dark you bore no body, had no face,
But a sheer voice that rattled out of air
(As now you'd cry if I could break the glass),
A voice that spoke beside me in the bush,
Loud for a breath or bitten off by wind,
Of Milton, melons, and the Rights of Man,
And blowing flutes, and how Tahitian girls
Are brown and angry-tongued, and Sydney girls
Are white and angry-tongued, or so you'd found.
But all I heard was words that didn't join
So Milton became melons, melons girls,
And fifty mouths, it seemed, were out that night,
And in each. tree an Ear was bending down,
Or something had just run, gone behind grass,
When, blank and bone-white, like a maniac's thought,
The naphtha-flash of lightning slit the sky,
Knifing the dark with deathly photographs.
There's not so many with so poor a purse,
Or fierce a need, must fare by night like that,
Five miles in darkness on a country track,
But when you do, that's what you think.
Five bells

In Melbourne, your appetite had gone,
Your angers too; they had been leeched away
By the soft archery of summer rains
And the sponge-paws of wetness. the slow damp
That stuck the leaves of living, snailed the mind,
And showed your bones, that had been sharp with
The sodden ecstasies of rectitude.
I thought of what you'd written in faint ink,
Your journal with the sawn-off lock, that stayed behind
With other things you left, all without use,
All without meaning now, except a sign
That someone had been living who now was dead:
'At Labassa. Room 6 x 8
On top of the tower; because of this, very dark
And cold in winter. Everything has been stowed
Into this room - 500 books all shapes
And colours, dealt across the floor
And over sills and on the laps of chairs;
Guns, photoes of many different thmgs
And different curioes that I obtained....'

In Sydney, by the spent aquarium-flare
Of penny gaslight on pink wallpaper,
We argued about blowing up the world,
But you were living backward, so each night
You crept a moment closer to the breast,
And they were living, all,of them, those frames
And shapes of flesh that had perplexed your youth,
And most your father, the old man gone blind,
With fingers always round a fiddle's neck,
That graveyard mason whose fair monuments
And tablets cut with dreams of piety
Rest on the bosoms of a thousand men
Staked bone by bone, in quiet astonishment
At cargoes they had never thought to bear,
These funeral-cakes of sweet and sculptured stone.

Where have you gone? The tide is over you,
The turn of midnight water's over you,
As Time is over you, and mystery,
And memory, the flood that does not flow.
You have no suburb, like those easier dead
In private berths of dissolution laid -
The tide goes over, the waves ride over you
And let their shadows down like shinimg hair,
But they are Water; and the sea-pinks bend
Like lilies in your teeth, but they are Weed;
And you are only part of an Idea.
I felt the wet push its black thumb-balls in,
The night you died, I felt your eardrums crack,
And the short agony, the longer dream,
The Nothing that was neither long nor short;
But I was bound, and could not go that way,
But I was blind, and could not feel your hand.
If I could find an answer, could only find
Your meaning, or could say why you were here
Who now are gone, what purpose gave you breath
Or seized it back, might I not hear your voice?

I looked out of my window in the dark
At waves with diamond quills and combs of light
That arched their mackerel-backs and smacked the sand
In the moon's drench, that straight enormous glaze,
And ships far off asleep, and Harbour-buoys
Tossing their fireballs wearily each to each,
And tried to hear your voice, but all I heard
Was a boat's whistle, and the scraping squeal
Of seabirds' voices far away, and bells,
Five bells. Five bells coldly ringing out.
Five bells

Convict poem 
George Barrington

From distant climes, o'er wide-spread seas we come, 
Though not with much eclat, or beat of drum,
True patriots all, for it be understood, 
We left our country for our country's good:
No private views disgraced our generous zeal,
What urged our travels was our country's weal:
And none will doubt that our emigration
Had prov'd most useful to the British Nation.



by Banjo Paterson
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.

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.

But still so slight and weedy, one would doubt his power to stay,
And the old man said, `That horse will never do
For a long and tiring gallop lad, you'd better stop away,
Those hills are far too rough for such as you.'
So he waited sad and wistful only Clancy stood his friend
`I think we ought to let him come,' he said;
`I warrant he'll be with us when he's wanted at the end,
For both his horse and he are mountain bred.

`He hails from Snowy River, up by Kosciusko's side,
Where the hills are twice as steep and twice as rough,
Where a horse's hoofs strike firelight from the flint stones every stride,
The man that holds his own is good enough.
And the Snowy River riders on the mountains make their home,
Where the river runs those giant hills between;
I have seen full many horsemen since I first commenced to roam,
But nowhere yet such horsemen have I seen.'

So he went they found the horses by the big mimosa clump
They raced away towards the mountain's brow,
And the old man gave his orders, `Boys, go at them from the jump,
No use to try for fancy riding now.
And, Clancy, you must wheel them, try and wheel them to the right.
Ride boldly, lad, and never fear the spills,
For never yet was rider that could keep the mob in sight,
If once they gain the shelter of those hills.'

So Clancy rode to wheel them he was racing on the wing
Where the best and boldest riders take their place,
And he raced his stock-horse past them, and he made the ranges ring
With the stockwhip, as he met them face to face.
Then they halted for a moment, while he swung the dreaded lash,
But they saw their well-loved mountain full in view,
And they charged beneath the stockwhip with a sharp and sudden dash,
And off into the mountain scrub they flew.

Then fast the horsemen followed, where the gorges deep and black
Resounded to the thunder of their tread,
And the stockwhips woke the echoes, and they fiercely answered back
From cliffs and crags that beetled overhead.
And upward, ever upward, the wild horses held their way,
Where mountain ash and kurrajong grew wide;
And the old man muttered fiercely, `We may bid the mob good day,
NO man can hold them down the other side.'

When they reached the mountain's summit, even Clancy took a pull,
It well might make the boldest hold their breath,
The wild hop scrub grew thickly, and the hidden ground was full
Of wombat holes, and any slip was death.
But the man from Snowy River let the pony have his head,
And he swung his stockwhip round and gave a cheer,
And he raced him down the mountain like a torrent down its bed,
While the others stood and watched in very fear.

He sent the flint stones flying, but the pony kept his feet,
He cleared the fallen timber in his stride,
And the man from Snowy River never shifted in his seat
It was grand to see that mountain horseman ride.
Through the stringy barks and saplings, on the rough and broken ground,
Down the hillside at a racing pace he went;
And he never drew the bridle till he landed safe and sound,
At the bottom of that terrible descent.

He was right among the horses as they climbed the further hill,
And the watchers on the mountain standing mute,
Saw him ply the stockwhip fiercely, he was right among them still,
As he raced across the clearing in pursuit.
Then they lost him for a moment, where two mountain gullies met
In the ranges, but a final glimpse reveals
On a dim and distant hillside the wild horses racing yet,
With the man from Snowy River at their heels.

And he ran them single-handed till their sides were white with foam.
He followed like a bloodhound on their track,
Till they halted cowed and beaten, then he turned their heads for home,
And alone and unassisted brought them back.
But his hardy mountain pony he could scarcely raise a trot,
He was blood from hip to shoulder from the spur;
But his pluck was still undaunted, and his courage fiery hot,
For never yet was mountain horse a cur.

And down by Kosciusko, where the pine-clad ridges raise
Their torn and rugged battlements on high,
Where the air is clear as crystal, and the white stars fairly blaze
At midnight in the cold and frosty sky,
And where around the Overflow the reedbeds sweep and sway
To the breezes, and the rolling plains are wide,
The man from Snowy River is a household word to-day,

And the stockmen tell the story of his ride


My Country
by Dorothea Mackellar

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!

The stark white ring-barked forests,
All tragic to the moon,
The sapphire-misted mountain,
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 three-fold.
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.


Denise Scanlan

How often I’ve admired
The pioneers of this great land
Fighting many different battles
A determined band.

Hardship at every crossing
Was luck that they arrived
Their ignorance no barrier
There were many who survived.

Though rarely recognised
Loved ones behind the scene
Who raise the kids and do the work
For their man is very keen

The tend the sick and injured
And tend the crew who toil
On horseback ride the muster
On this hard and barren soil.

So many left the city
To live out on the land
Had no idea what offered
In time they’d understand.

Their love has grown immensely
Despite the stress and strain
While droughts and floods destroy them
They stand and fight again.

These women are the backbone
Oh so gentle, always kind
With strength understanding
The best that you can find.

She many be rough and ready
AS she stands beside her man
These women, unsung heroes
Fought the land because they can.

Salute to all who’ve been there
Salute them without fear
These ladies are victorious
hese perfumed pioneers.



A. D. Hope

A Nation of trees, drab green and desolate grey
In the field uniform of modern wars,
Darkens her hills, those endless, outstretched paws
Of Sphinx demolished or stone lion worn away.

They call her a young country, but they lie:
She is the last of lands, the emptiest,
A woman beyond her change of life, a breast
Still tender but within the womb is dry.

Without songs, architecture, history:
The emotions and superstitions of younger lands,
Her rivers of water drown among inland sands,
The river of her immense stupidity

Floods her monotonous tribes from Cairns to Perth.
In them at last the ultimate men arrive
Whose boast is not: "we live" but "we survive",
A type who will inhabit the dying earth.

And her five cities, like five teeming sores,
Each drains her: a vast parasite robber-state
Where second hand Europeans pullulate
Timidly on the edge of alien shores.

Yet there are some like me turn gladly home
From the lush jungle of modern thought, to find
The Arabian desert of the human mind,
Hoping, if still from the deserts the prophets come,

Such savage and scarlet as no green hills dare
Springs in that waste, some spirit which escapes
The learned doubt, the chatter of cultured apes
Which is called civilization over there.


An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow
Les Murray

The word goes round Repins,
the murmur goes round Lorenzinis,
at Tattersalls, men look up from sheets of numbers,
the Stock Exchange scribblers forget the chalk in their hands
and men with bread in their pockets leave the Greek Club:
There's a fellow crying in Martin Place. They can't stop him.

The traffic in George Street is banked up for half a mile
and drained of motion. The crowds are edgy with talk
and more crowds come hurrying. Many run in the back streets
which minutes ago were busy main streets, pointing:
There's a fellow weeping down there. No one can stop him.

The man we surround, the man no one approaches
simply weeps, and does not cover it, weeps
not like a child, not like the wind, like a man
and does not declaim it, nor beat his breast, nor even
sob very loudly - yet the dignity of his weeping

holds us back from his space, the hollow he makes about him
in the midday light, in his pentagram of sorrow,
and uniforms back in the crowd who tried to seize him
stare out at him, and feel, with amazement, their minds
longing for tears as children for a rainbow.

Some will say, in the years to come, a halo
or force stood around him. There is no such thing.
Some will say they were shocked and would have stopped him
but they will not have been there. The fiercest manhood,
the toughest reserve, the slickest wit amongst us

trembles with silence, and burns with unexpected
judgements of peace. Some in the concourse scream
who thought themselves happy. Only the smallest children
and such as look out of Paradise come near him
and sit at his feet, with dogs and dusty pigeons.

Ridiculous, says a man near me, and stops
his mouth with his hands, as if it uttered vomit -
and I see a woman, shining, stretch her hand
and shake as she receives the gift of weeping;
as many as follow her also receive it

and many weep for sheer acceptance, and more
refuse to weep for fear of all acceptance,
but the weeping man, like the earth, requires nothing,
the man who weeps ignores us, and cries out
of his writhen face and ordinary body

not words, but grief, not messages, but sorrow,
hard as the earth, sheer, present as the sea -
and when he stops, he simply walks between us
mopping his face with the dignity of one
man who has wept, and now has finished weeping.

Evading believers, he hurries off down Pitt Street.


Old Botany Bay - Mary Gilmore

I’m old
Botany Bay;
Stiff in the joints,
Little to say.

I am he
Who paved the way,
That you might walk
At your ease to-day;

I was the conscript
Sent to hell
To make in the desert
The living well;

I bore the heat,
I blazed the track –
Furrowed and bloody
Upon my back.

I split the rock;
I felled the tree:
The nation was-
Because of me!”

Old Botany Bay
Taking the sun
from day to day…
shame on the mouth
that would deny
the knotted hands
that set us high!




Waratah and Wattle
Henry Lawson, 1905
Though poor and in trouble I wander alone,
With a rebel cockade in my hat;
Though friends may desert me, and kindred disown,
My country will never do that!
You may sing of the Shamrock, the Thistle, and Rose,
Or the three in a bunch if you will;
But I know of a country that gathered all those,
And I love the great land where the Waratah grows,
And the Wattle bough blooms on the hill.
Australia! Australia! so fair to behold
While the blue sky is arching above;
The stranger should never have need to be told,
That the Wattle-bloom means that her heart is of gold,
And the Waratah red blood of love.
Australia! Australia! most beautiful name,
Most kindly and bountiful land;
I would die every death that might save her from shame,
If a black cloud should rise on the strand;
But whatever the quarrel, whoever her foes,
Let them come! Let them come when they will!
Though the struggle be grim, 'tis Australia that knows,
That her children shall fight while the Waratah grows,
And the Wattle blooms out on the hill.

Freedom on the Wallaby

Henry Lawson, 1891, during the great Shearer's Strike of 1891

Australia's a big country
An' Freedom's humping bluey,
An' Freedom's on the wallaby
Oh! don't you hear 'er cooey?
She's just begun to boomerang,
She'll knock the tyrants silly,
She's goin' to light another fire
And boil another billy.
Our fathers toiled for bitter bread
While loafers thrived beside 'em,
But food to eat and clothes to wear,
Their native land denied 'em.
An' so they left their native land
In spite of their devotion,
An' so they came, or if they stole,
Were sent across the ocean.
Then Freedom couldn't stand the glare
O' Royalty's regalia,
She left the loafers where they were,
An' came out to Australia.
But now across the mighty main
The chains have come ter bind her
She little thought to see again
The wrongs she left behind her.
Our parents toil'd to make a home
Hard grubbin 'twas an' clearin'
They wasn't crowded much with lords
When they was pioneering.
But now that we have made the land
A garden full of promise,
Old Greed must crook 'is dirty hand
And come ter take it from us.
So we must fly a rebel flag,
As others did before us,
And we must sing a rebel song
And join in rebel chorus.
We'll make the tyrants feel the sting
O' those that they would throttle;
They needn't say the fault is ours
If blood should stain the wattle!



How does it happen?
Your reading the news
Or lighting a fuse
Or straining till you thought you would burst
You sure got a thirst

A hard earned thirst needs an ice cold beer
And the best cold beer is Vic
Victoria Bitter

You can get it jumpin' You can get it pumpin'
You can get it chasing a cow.
Matter o' fact, I got it now

A hard earned thirst needs an ice cold beer
And the best cold beer is Vic
Victoria Bitter





Complaints about cultural comparisons

Emotion & innovation

Group vs individual

Tradition & change

Cults of multiculturalism

Warden & Convicts

Failed revolutionaries

Thinkers and Drinkers

Immigration and emmigration

Colonial masters

Samurai & Convicts

New Zealand
Convicts vs Do gooders

Papua New Guinea
Chiefs and Elites

South Africa
Kaffirs and Convicts

South Korea
The middle-powers