Friday Australian poem: #NS4 – A B Paterson “The Old Australian Ways”

The Old Australian Ways

The London lights are far abeam
Behind a bank of cloud,
Along the shore the gaslights gleam,
The gale is piping loud;
And down the Channel, groping blind,
We drive her through the haze
Towards the land we left behind —
The good old land of ‘never mind’,
And old Australian ways.

The narrow ways of English folk
Are not for such as we;
They bear the long-accustomed yoke
Of staid conservancy:
But all our roads are new and strange,
And through our blood there runs
The vagabonding love of change
That drove us westward of the range
And westward of the suns.

The city folk go to and fro
Behind a prison’s bars,
They never feel the breezes blow
And never see the stars;
They never hear in blossomed trees
The music low and sweet
Of wild birds making melodies,
Nor catch the little laughing breeze
That whispers in the wheat.

Our fathers came of roving stock
That could not fixed abide:
And we have followed field and flock
Since e’er we learnt to ride;
By miner’s camp and shearing shed,
In land of heat and drought,
We followed where our fortunes led,
With fortune always on ahead
And always further out.

The wind is in the barley-grass,
The wattles are in bloom;
The breezes greet us as they pass
With honey-sweet perfume;
The parakeets go screaming by
With flash of golden wing,
And from the swamp the wild-ducks cry
Their long-drawn note of revelry,
Rejoicing at the Spring.

So throw the weary pen aside
And let the papers rest,
For we must saddle up and ride
Towards the blue hill’s breast;
And we must travel far and fast
Across their rugged maze,
To find the Spring of Youth at last,
And call back from the buried past
The old Australian ways.

When Clancy took the drover’s track
In years of long ago,
He drifted to the outer back
Beyond the Overflow;
By rolling plain and rocky shelf,
With stockwhip in his hand,
He reached at last, oh lucky elf,
The Town of Come-and-help-yourself
In Rough-and-ready Land.

And if it be that you would know
The tracks he used to ride,
Then you must saddle up and go
Beyond the Queensland side —
Beyond the reach of rule or law,
To ride the long day through,
In Nature’s homestead — filled with awe
You then might see what Clancy saw
And know what Clancy knew.


NOTE: Paterson (1864 – 1941)

Though he lived in Sydney for most of his adult life, Paterson retained a lifelong love of the bush, and his verse tended to romanticise rural Australia and the figure of the outback ‘Bushman’. He was influenced by the work of his friend John Farrell , whose comic ballads drawing on Australian vernacular idioms were also popular in the Bulletin. In its thematic emphasis on the courage and energy of Australian bushmen and their prowess at horsemanship, Paterson’s poetry can also be compared to that of Adam Lindsay Gordon . Paterson’s verse style was simpler than that of Gordon , however, and in his poetry the bushman was a similarly uncomplicated figure – tough, independent, masculine, resourceful – a kind of heroic underdog. Paterson’s representation of the bushman as an iconic figure exemplifying what were seen as the ideal traits of Australian national character was enthusiastically received, though his rosy depictions of bush life were challenged by other writers. In the pages of the Bulletin through 1892 Paterson was involved in a more or less good-natured poetic ‘debate’ with his contemporary Henry Lawson , and other writers, over the relative merits of rural and city life, with ‘The Banjo’ defending life in the bush while Lawson focused on its hardships. In 1895, while on a trip to western Queensland, Paterson wrote the lyrics to what would become his best-known representation of the underdog bushman,Waltzing Matilda.

This poem appeared in Rio Grande’s Last Race and Other Verses by Andrew Barton Paterson, Melbourne Angus and Robertson, 1902. It is very much a period piece, close in time to that iconic Australian poem “My Country” by Dorothea Mackellar, and making a similar contrast between the Old Country and the New. But today I cannot read the last three stanzas innocently; the romanticism has soured somewhat, or other stories inevitably assert themselves over and under Paterson’s glib words.

…The Town of Come-and-help-yourself
In Rough-and-ready Land.

And if it be that you would know
The tracks he used to ride,
Then you must saddle up and go
Beyond the Queensland side —
Beyond the reach of rule or law…


Then too while the period Paterson lived in celebrated the wide lands beyond the coastal ranges, the actual lives of most Australians were anywhere but in that “Outback”. I was reminded of this by a recent library borrowing, Ian Hoskins, Coast: A history of the New South Wales edge.

My history of the New South Wales coast ‘flowed’ out of the history of Sydney Harbour I wrote in 2008-2009.  In particular that project  alerted me to the absence of maritime/coastal/marine narratives in our literature. Sydney Harbour prompted plenty of art but very few stories. And the coast  had only a fraction of the artistic attention of the inland – at least until Australians began their love affair with the waves in the late 1800s, a love affair that began on Sydney’s beaches. Before that there had emerged a national identity that was focused on the inland – the sheep stations, the farmers and graziers, the forests and timber-getters, the wide brown land that the poet Dorothea Mackellar immortalised as late as 1906.  White Australians, or at least those in New South Wales, flipped over the following decades and became ‘bronzed Aussies’ rather than laconic bushmen…

See also An attractive new history book plots the gradual settlement of the NSW coast.


And Ian Hoskins has a noteworthy blog. This entry may especially appeal to Jim Belshaw – as it does to me also, citing one of my favourite poems: ‘Clean, lean, hungry country’: Landscape, melancholy and history around New England.

Behind the grave site was a planked house on the verge of collapse, with a windmill nearby. It turns out that the headstones are those of John and Isabella Perrett who established the village and ran the local hotel and store from the mid-1800s. They died in the 1890s. A century later their plot is being overtaken by tobacco tree and ivy, and the place they created is melting away. More sadness and beauty.


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