11th November 2015
Australian Al McKay offers a personal reflection on the popularity and impact of the Australian Bush Ballad.
How can I take you, in a few words, to the very soul of my patriotism instilled by early Australian poets who so shaped my appreciation of this great island continent? Poetry by Heart was the essence of my Primary School education; we all recited by rote, either in the schoolroom or at home. On poets’ wings I was transported to worlds beyond my comprehension. By the age of ten I had learned, not only of the “old Country’s” poets: Keats, Shelly, Byron and Tennyson but of those quintessentially Australian “Bush Balladists”, Lawson, Mackellar, Paterson, Gordon, Kendall and Anderson.
Their words are forever imprinted into my very being always offering satisfaction. These early poets developed a style of narration that gained great popularity as they portrayed the early pioneers in their struggles to establish a European foothold on what was a hostile shore but one that they tamed to “take now the fruits of our labour…” (“Pioneers”, Frank Hudson). Bush ballads became popular late in the 1800s and were published by a Sydney Newspaper, “The Bulletin”. The poems could be humorous as in O’Brien:
“We’ll all be rooned,” said Hanrahan,
In accents most forlorn,
Outside the church, ere Mass began,
One frosty Sunday morn” 
and they could be sad when Lawson tells of Harry Dale:
“Now Harry speaks to Rover,
The best dog on the plains,
And to his hardy horses,
And strokes their shaggy manes:
“We’ve breasted bigger rivers
When floods were at their height,
Nor shall this gutter stop us
From getting home tonight!”
Alas poor Harry and Rover drowned! Some poems were evocative of a heritage dominated by England as MacKellar wrote,
“The love of field and coppice,
Of green and shaded lanes.
Of ordered woods and gardens
Is running in your veins,…..
I know but cannot share it
My love is otherwise”
and presented a paradox to be pondered by writers many of whom had little knowledge of that semi-mythical “Bush”.
In like vein, Lawson embraced his different world in the South:
“You may sing of the Shamrock, the Thistle, and Rose,
Or the three in a bunch if you will;
But I know of a country that gathered all those,
And I love the great land where the Waratah grows,
And the Wattle-bough blooms on the hill.” 
But the “Bush” could be a reality for any who chose to mentally explore as does Cuthbertson “down the shadowy reaches”  or to commune with those dreaming urbanites like Paterson:
“And in place of lowing cattle, I can hear the fiendish rattle,
Of the tramways and the buses making hurry down the street”
The Bush was a romantic almost fantasy world populated by strong, adventurous men on horseback as they battled “drought and flooding rains”
Many ballads are set to a rhythm of galloping horses painting scenes of courageous action:
“He sent the flint stones flying, but the pony kept his feet,
He cleared the fallen timber in his stride,
And the man from Snowy River never shifted in his seat –
It was grand to see that mountain horseman ride” 
Bush ballads used common words, were couched in simple rhymes and had little of classical reference.
Many poets expressed a perception of embryonic nationalism, a sense of being a new type of man removed from the constraints of his origins in Britain. This ethos became popular towards the end of the nineteenth century as the federation of the Colonies into a Commonwealth became a reality.
The early poets came to this new Eden, a virtual paradise where every bird, animal, plant and indigenous peoples were completely unknown to them. Of course issues surrounding colonisation and the treatment of the Aborigine inevitably underpin any present day consideration of Bush poetry but as a young boy growing up I devoured the balladists appreciation of endless beaches, vast forests, deserts, mountains and plains. It was these Australian poets who taught me how to see. When walking the shores of my youth, I learned from Kendall of:
“The silver-voiced bell-birds, the darlings of day-time,
They sing in September their songs of the May-time”
In this poem he spoke of the different seasons in the South, “their songs of the May-time”, a reference to “Home”, that mythical ancestral Camelot set in England ten thousand miles and six months away.
Unbeknownst to me during those periods of reciting poetry by heart my perception of the nature of things was being enhanced giving me another depth and dimension of emotion. It was May 1942. I was nine years old, the Battle of the Coral Sea, the war had come to Australia. One morning I was sitting on a cliff overlooking the river that bounded my home engrossed with the precision of two sea-eagles gliding in intersecting circles looking for quarry in the waters below when a flash of light drew my attention to squadrons of “War-birds”, fighters and bombers, marshalling in the sky above. The aircraft came from the safe havens of airfields within a twenty mile radius of my home. Those Kittyhawks, Hudsons and Beaufighters were freshly camouflaged in jungle green, dressed for their new role in the Pacific. All were flying to the bases on our northern shores to fight the Enemy. The analogy of these predators, these birds of prey, was not lost to me. But it was the pilots in their cockpits, new versions of my heroic horsemen, that I longed to join, to emulate and march to war accompanied by the familiar strains of Waltzing Matilda. 
Even today Lawson’s words:
“’tis Australia that knows, that her children shall fight while the Waratah grows,
And the Wattle blooms out on the hill” are still ringing in my ears.
Adam Lindsay Gordon’s “Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes” was published at the time of his death in 1870. He is the only Australian poet whose bust stands in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. His poem, “The Swimmer” became a libretto for a work by Elgar. As he died on that beach his thoughts may have been with horses, those horses of his steeple chasing years:
“Oh! brave white horses! you gather and gallop,
The storm sprite loosens the gusty reins ;
Now the stoutest ship were the frailest shallop
In your hollow backs, on your high arched manes.”
In her Christmas speech of 1992 Queen Elizabeth quoted from his works:”Kindness in another’s trouble, Courage in one’s own..” but failed to acknowledge the author.
Some of my ancestors came to Australia with the First Fleet in 1788 and it was these European pioneers who carved out our modern civilization. Hudson paints a picture of men at work in the forests to which I relate for all are similar to so many photographs in my family albums.
“Our axes rang in the woodlands,
Where the gaudy bush-birds flew,
And we turned the loam of our new-found home,
Where the eucalyptus grew.”
Sometimes, when looking at my grandchildren, I think as he did:
“Take now the fruit of our labour,
Nourish and guard it with care,
For our youth is spent, and our backs are bent.
And the snow is on our hair.”
when I consider my own mortality
That our nation was forged with unequalled endurance is unquestioned; that our children will grow with the wisdom instilled by learning poetry by heart that has stood me in good stead is arguable but initiatives like the UK’s Poetry By Heart suggest a new generation might once again engage with a very old idea.
To conclude with Australian memories it was a woman, Maybanke Anderson, who penned a stirring testimony to Australian men:
”A sturdy gift was the Ironbark
To the men who built Australia.
Walls and roof for the homes they made,
While the billy boiled and the children played,
Rest and peace in the leafy shade,
Love of the gum tree ne’er shall fade
From the mem’ry of Australia.” 
 John O’Brien 1878-1952 Said Hanrahan.
 Henry Lawson 1877-1922 Ballad of the Drover.
 Dorothea MacKellar 1885-1968 My Country.
 Henry Lawson Waratah and Wattle.
 James Lister Cuthbertson 1893 The Australian Sunrise.
 “Banjo” Paterson 1864-1941 Clancy of the Overflow.
 Dorothea Mackellar 1885–1968 My Country.
 “Banjo” Paterson The Man from Snowy River.
 Henry Kendall 1839-1882 Bell Birds.
 A B “Banjo” Paterson 1895 Waltzing Matilda.
 Henry Lawson Waratah and Wattle.
 Adam Lindsay Gordon 1870 Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes.
 Frank Hudson “Pioneers” The Songs of Manly Man and other Verses”, London 1908.
 Maybanke Anderson 1845-1927 To the Iron Bark.
About the author: Al McKay was born on a farm in a remote part of Tasmania 82 years ago. His tertiary education was in Sydney and London. Primarily he is an eye surgeon and lecturer but concurrently has followed careers as an officer and consultant to the RAAF, a cattle farmer, a landscape gardener and a yachtsman whilst still finding time to write.
He has written memoirs on surgical technology and of his youth serving as an infantryman.He has authored and produced a surgical DVD. He has had the same wife for almost 60 years. Little would have been achieved without her.