Cassie has an English assignment to write about an ‘Australian icon’. She’s chosen ‘the bushman’, and as part of her research we were looking together at the poems of Banjo Patterson. He was an Australian poet in the late 19th century who had a lot to do with developing Australia’s national identity. He wrote the words for our ‘unofficial national anthem’, Waltzing Matilda. You might know of the film ‘The Man from Snowy River’, but it really doesn’t do justice to the poem it’s based on – look it up online.
Here are two of his shorter poems. Clancy of the Overflow is probably the purest distillation of the bushman myth:
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, â€œClancy, of The Overflowâ€.
And an answer came directed in a writing unexpected,
(And I think the same was written with a thumb-nail dipped in tar)
â€™Twas his shearing mate who wrote it, and verbatim I will quote it:
â€œClancyâ€™s gone to Queensland droving, and we donâ€™t know where he are.â€
. . . . .
In my wild erratic fancy visions come to me of Clancy
Gone a-droving â€œdown the Cooperâ€ where the Western drovers go;
As the stock are slowly stringing, Clancy rides behind them singing,
For the droverâ€™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 wondâ€™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 Iâ€™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 journalâ€”
But I doubt heâ€™d suit the office, Clancy, of The Overflow.
And Mulga Bill’s Bicycle is just plain fun!
‘Twas Mulga Bill, from Eaglehawk, that caught the cycling craze;
He turned away the good old horse that served him many days;
He dressed himself in cycling clothes, resplendent to be seen;
He hurried off to town and bought a shining new machine;
And as he wheeled it through the door, with air of lordly pride,
The grinning shop assistant said, “Excuse me, can you ride?”
“See here, young man,” said Mulga Bill, “from Walgett to the sea,
From Conroy’s Gap to Castlereagh, there’s none can ride like me.
I’m good all round at everything as everybody knows,
Although I’m not the one to talk – I hate a man that blows.
But riding is my special gift, my chiefest, sole delight;
Just ask a wild duck can it swim, a wildcat can it fight.
There’s nothing clothed in hair or hide, or built of flesh or steel,
There’s nothing walks or jumps, or runs, on axle, hoof, or wheel,
But what I’ll sit, while hide will hold and girths and straps are tight:
I’ll ride this here two-wheeled concern right straight away at sight.”
‘Twas Mulga Bill, from Eaglehawk, that sought his own abode,
That perched above the Dead Man’s Creek, beside the mountain road.
He turned the cycle down the hill and mounted for the fray,
But ‘ere he’d gone a dozen yards it bolted clean away.
It left the track, and through the trees, just like a silver steak,
It whistled down the awful slope towards the Dead Man’s Creek.
It shaved a stump by half an inch, it dodged a big white-box:
The very wallaroos in fright went scrambling up the rocks,
The wombats hiding in their caves dug deeper underground,
As Mulga Bill, as white as chalk, sat tight to every bound.
It struck a stone and gave a spring that cleared a fallen tree,
It raced beside a precipice as close as close could be;
And then as Mulga Bill let out one last despairing shriek
It made a leap of twenty feet into the Dead Man’s Creek.
‘Twas Mulga Bill, from Eaglehawk, that slowly swam ashore:
He said, “I’ve had some narrer shaves and lively rides before;
I’ve rode a wild bull round a yard to win a five-pound bet,
But this was the most awful ride that I’ve encountered yet.
I’ll give that two-wheeled outlaw best; it’s shaken all my nerve
To feel it whistle through the air and plunge and buck and swerve.
It’s safe at rest in Dead Man’s Creek, we’ll leave it lying still;
A horse’s back is good enough henceforth for Mulga Bill.”
I love reading Patterson’s poetry aloud: the rhymes and rhythms are simple and robust, and he uses lots of alliteration and internal rhymes that carry the poem along. I learned a lot of them as a kid (heh – for an assignment once I had to type out The Man From Snowy River from a book, on a manual typewriter, ‘cos there was no cut and paste in those days) and there are still lines that stick in my mind very clearly.