Reprint: Obituary: The Late Mr Charles Harpur

A few weeks ago we noticed in the columns of a provincial paper an announcement which was invested with a peculiar and sorrowful interest. It was a notification of the death, by consumption, of Mr. Charles Harpur, who has been called "the father of Australian poetry," and who was generally and justly looked upon as a man of genius. For the last thirty years the name of the deceased has appeared from time to time in association with verses having, in many instances, original power, and, in every case, a pure and elevated tone of thought. Some of his lyrics -- "Under the wild figtree," for example -- are as natural as wood notes, and a few of his higher flights, such as the "Creek of the Four Graves," remind the reader of the strength and solemnity of Wordsworth. "The peace and power of hills," which some one finely attributes to the latter poet, seems to have passed, on more than one occasion, into the writings of Mr. Harpur. The genius, however, of the Australian poet was undoubtedly native, although it appears to have been shaped by a long aud reverent study of Milton, the elder Coleridge, and the bard of the "Excursion." His blank verse is modelled on Milton's; and there is a fitfulness of rhythm in his lyrics,which instantly recalls to the memory certain passages of "Christabel." Notwithstanding the influences implied here, several of his poems contain verses and lines whose syllables must have been caught from the wild and waste places of nature only. The stanzas on the "Wail of the Native Oak," and "An Aboriginal Deathsong," are peculiarly waifs of the Southern wilderness; the latter piece reading like a Keene from the lips of the blacks themselves. These, and other verses of their class are filled with that sense of vastness and spectral silence which the mind cannot help associating with the Australian forests; and which Mr. Harpur, of all writers, has been the most successful in describing. The genius of the deceased was not confined in its expression to poetry alone. He was an eloquent, if not an elegant prose writer; and some of his essays in the domain of aesthetics evince a really high critical faculty. We may note, for example, the papers on Chaucer and Shelley, which appeared in this journal about eighteen months ago. Mr. Harpur was born at Windsor in the year 1818,and he died at Euroma, in the Moruya district, on the 9th of June last. His youth, having been passed in the dark early days of the colony, was doubtless, as his frieuds assert, an unsettled one; and possibly, as a consequence,his education suffered. After leaving the Hawkesbury district, the poet spent some years with his brother Joseph, on the Hunter, near Singleton. In the latter locality many of his most beautiful pieces were penned; and it was there that he married. Mr. Harpur subsequently moved to Sydney, where he met and formed a lasting friendship with the late Mr. Deniehy. During his stay in this city he was also on intimate terms with the present Colonial Secretary, and with Mr. Duncan, then editor of the Australian. These gentlemen assisted the poet, who seems to have been of a wayward and restless nature, in many of his later undertakings; and it was mainly due to their influence that he obtained a situation under Government in the capacity of Gold Commissioner. The site allotted as the field of his official labors caused him to move to Euroma, near Moruya, where he continued to reside up to the date of his death. In 1860 a scheme of retrenchment was carried into effect by the Government, and several of the gold commissioners, including Mr. Harpur, had their salaries struck out of the estimates. The poet felt this blow keenly, and from that date his health -- never of the best -- began to decline. The sorrow, however, which hastened his end was caused by the death of a favorite son, who had shot himself accidentally while on a holiday excursion. Mr. Harpur never rallied after the last mentioned event. His life appears to have been one full of trouble; and there is no doubt that he suffered deeply from what appeared to be the neglect of the public. But all his expression was marked with a brave and persistent hope, and it must have been very trying to witness the spectacle of his strong spirit flickering away into the dark, notwithstanding its courage, its capacity for endurance, and its patience under the heaviest trials.

First published in Sydney Herald, 7 July 1868

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

Note: Charles Harpur was born on 23 January 1813, and died on 10 June 1868.

The formatting here is as it originally appeared. You have to wonder at the ability of the readers of early Australian newspapers to be able to read such small print, published in such slabs. I have to suspect that newsprint was scarce and it was more a matter of words per page rather than anything else.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on October 16, 2009 1:19 PM.

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