Founders of Our Literature: "Banjo" Paterson

He used to sign his work "The Banjo," and that is how he came to be known over a large section of the English-speaking world as "Banjo" Paterson. His real names are Andrew Barton, but nobody ever thinks of him as anything but Banjo.

Paterson is now 70 years of age, having been born on February 17 1864. He is perhaps the last survivor of the little band that can be classed as founders of our literature. Some might not accord him a place, for he was a robust and cheerful versifier, who wrote mostly of the open air and horses. However, we can afford to disregard a lot of his verse when we consider him as a poet, and concentrate on the occasions when he did rise to olympic heights. At the same time there is no reason why the open air and the horse should be barred from the inner circle of poetry.

Paterson was not a bushman in the strict sense that Lawson was. Henry did carry his swag and tramp with his mates in the Outback. Paterson did not. He was a city man with a deep love of the bush. It was the bush that brought out all the poetry in him. He saw it more as a spectator, but that did not make him appreciate it any the less.

After a public school education "Banjo" trained for the law and mixed legal work with writing. He had a passion for horses and was interested in racing. His holidays were always spent on stations where he rode with the stockmen and imbibed their philosophy. Maybe a man in these circumstances gets a truer appreciation of the life than he who actually lives it. Lawson could never get away from the tragedy of the Outback. Paterson saw the cheeerful side of it and wrote it.

When "The Man from Snowy River" and other verse was first published in 1905, there was an instant and strong demand for it. Up to 1925 the book had been sold to the extent of 90,000 copies. Paterson in his time was acclaimed the Rudyard Kipling of Australia, and his cheery, ringing and often humorous verse was in the same ballad vein as that of the author of "Barrack-Room Ballads."

There are things in Paterson's verse that the Outback will never allow to die. Clancy of the Overflow stands as a type for all drovers. The Man from Snowy River is known through the length and breadth of the land. Saltbush Bill, the "drover tough," who lost the fight with the new chum for business reasons is never likely to be forgotten. The Man from Ironbark will remain a gem to the Outback as long as the Outback exists.

Paterson's first regular newspaper work was done in the South African War as correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald. He also saw service in the Boxer Rebellion in China. Later he was editor of the Sydney Evening News for two years, and also of the Town and Country Journal for the same period.

He was too old for enlistment in the European war, but he served in Egypt as a lieutenant in the remount service and returned with the rank of major. The diggers found him out early. There were few of the mounted men who did not know some lines of his verse and when the whisper went round that "Banjo" Paterson was with the troops, the men from the Outback plains and the mountain cattle-runs thrilled at the close association with a man who had provided so much enjoyment for their leisure hours.

"Rio Grande's Last Race" and "Saltbush Bill, J.P." were published in 1902 and 1917 respectively. His collection of short sories and sketches, "Three Elephant Power," which were recently republished in The Herald, also came out in 1917.

One great service Paterson did for Australia was to collect all the old bush songs, which were in danger of dying out, and published them in 1915. His collected poems came out in 1921 and they are still popular.

Poetry is for Youth and Paterson's best work was done in his early days. His passion for horses and the open country enthralled him most of the time, but there were times when deeper things stirred him, and then he was moved to poetry of a high order. "Black Swans" is included in the Golden Treasury of Australian verse and in this Paterson the poet is at his best.

But more people will read his rhymes of Monaro and the Snowy River, and his lilting racing ballads of horse and man, which reveal in the music of words the music of that rougher life which the cities do not know. Romance lies in strange places and if it be the poet's mission to disclose it, then "Banjo" Paterson has surely done so and is sure of his niche among the immortals.

First published in The Herald, 30 June 1934

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on February 8, 2008 8:53 AM.

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