Poetry has helped us in our search for the ‘Australian identity’, it still does. In the ‘golden years’ of the 19th century we were a nation of ‘new chums’ with strong ties to Europe and especially the Anglo Celtic tradition. In our cockeyed way we believed ‘Colonial born’ was superior to ‘Stirling’ (a reference to British born) even if many of us bore the ‘convict stain’. Bush folk were generally keen readers and subscribed to newspapers, magazines, book clubs and the networked School of Arts libraries. Poetry had an ‘everyman’ appeal and ranged from Tennyson and Byron to local doggerel. There was a certain pride to be had by reading and writing, even if the latter was sometimes done with a ‘thumbnail dipped in tar’.
It is to our credit that we so enthusiastically supported poets who were describing the bush environment, the flora and fauna, the ‘outback’, and the people who were proudly calling themselves ‘Australian’. Poets like Adam Lindsay Gordon, Edward Harrington, Thomas Thierney, J.E.Liddle, Edward Sorenson, Randolph Bedford, Edward Dyson, George Essex Evans, Barcroft Boake, Will Ogilvie, W T Goodge, Mary Durack, P J Hartigan, C J Dennis, Edward Dyson, and, of course, A B Paterson and Henry Lawson, to name just some of the great storytellers, did us a service by honouring the pioneering spirit that brought us together, made us a nation, and gave us our unique identity as a people.
Where would we be without the poetical images of Clancy of the Overflow as he stares out of the window dreaming he could swap places with the free spirit of the drover; or the exhilaration of imagining that great flint-flying ride down the Snowy Mountain side; or the pleasure of watching the hilarious Geebung Polo match? Even our unofficial national anthem, ‘Waltzing Matilda’, allows us to dream, to travel, to smile and to feel part of a land that is unique and blessed.