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January 2008 Up From Down Under by (c) Les Stephenson

Great Australian Writers:


A.   B. (Banjo) Paterson



Andrew Barton Paterson comes first in my compendium of Australia's greatest writers. He used the pseudonym "Banjo" (the name of a family horse) for his early writing.


Born in the Australian bush at Narrambla, near Orange, New South Wales, on 17 February, 1864, Paterson was tutored at home by a governess. Later, he attended a small bush school in Binalong before being sent to Sydney Grammar School after his tenth birthday.


He left school at sixteen and began a career in law, starting as an articled clerk with a Sydney firm. In 1886, he formed his own legal partnership, Street and Paterson. During1885 his first poem El Mahid to the Australian Troops appeared in The Bulletin. He continued publishing while a successful practicing lawyer.


Angus & Robertson published his first book The Man from Snowy River and Other Verses in 1895. It sold out within a week and four editions in six months. His popularity as a living poet writing in English was second only to Kipling. Here is an excerpt from the lead poem:


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 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.


Can't you feel the urgency and excitement? Men and horses ready to seek and pursue the escaped colt – what a dramatic scene!


The Man from Snowy River was adapted as a screenplay for a movie starring Kirk Douglas and Jack Thompson, with Tom Burlinson in the title role. It first screened in 1981.


Paterson's famous ballad Waltzing Matilda was also composed in 1895. Although it's about a thief who slaughters a sheep and commits suicide when confronted by its owner, Australians look at it as an example of their independence and defiance against despotic authority. Tears well in Australian eyes when they hear:


Up jumped the swagman and sprang into the billabong:

'You'll never catch me alive!' said he;

And his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong,

'You'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me!

Waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda,

You'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me!'


(Pardon me while I dry my eyes and regain my composure. Incidentally, a "billabong" is a small body of water separated from the main stream of a river during dry season.)


Banjo lived an active life. He was a horseman, crocodile hunter, pearl diver, poet, novelist, journalist, and war correspondent. By 1902 he had abandoned his legal practice and adopted journalism as his calling, eventually becoming editor of a newspaper.


Paterson married Alice Walker in 1903 and they had two children, a girl and a boy. He served in Europe during World War I, promoted to Major by war's end.


Paterson died in Sydney on 6 February, 1941, at the age of seventy-seven. We Australians remember Banjo as our principal folk poet, and celebrate his role in our culture on the $10 note.


My favourite lines from Paterson's verses are in his poem Clancy of the Overflow. Here the author expounds on the misery of city life:


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.


Compare that with his idealised view of Clancy's life in the bush:


… he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,

And at night the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars.


Look at those internal rhymes – examples of his skill with language: dingy/stingy, gritty/city, splendid/extended. His mastery of meter and rhyme continues to astound me.



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