Australian Bush Poems - Peter Myers, November 7, 2001; update June 14, 2003. My comments within the text are shown {thus}.

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When I visited Yunnan Province in Western China in 1987, I beheld a civilisation built with human muscle.

The poems here below remind us of a time in Australia not long ago, when muscle ploughed the fields, cut the wheat, dug the mines, washed the clothes, and pulled the loads.

The difference between management and labour means a lot, when one side is using its sweat and the other is not.

Today, we rely so much on fossil fuels ... we forget that, but for them, we would be returning to muscle power once again.

If these poems seem somewhat male-oriented, it is because there was such a shortage of women in rural and Outback Australia. Life was hard there for both men and women ... and the distances were so great.

Most men were valued, and employed, for their muscle-power and survival skills. They were forced to live in harsh conditions, just to earn a living. Many, no doubt, went without women all their lives.

Animals did much of the work, living a life of slavery. Would we inflict that on them again, if the fossil fuels ran out?

R. Allen ("Guy Eden"), THE BRAIDWOOD COACH

{From AUSTRALIAN BUSH BALLADS, Edited by DOUGLAS STEWART and NANCY KEESING, ANGUS AND ROBERTSON, SYDNEY 1955}

{Braidwood is a small town on the Great Dividing Range, halfway between Canberra and the coast. The name suggests that this coach travelled between Braidwood, elevation about 600 metres, and Moruya, on the coast at sea level. Most likely, the trip included an overnight stop at an inn, from which the passengers now set out.}

Now, all aboard, my sonnies, for the time is slipping past,
We've got to make ten miles before the dawn,
Our team's a spankin' good 'un, but they've never gone so fast
As they must to make the pace this blessed morn!
Just let that buckle out a hole! that's right - now mind your eye,
Or Thunderclap will catch you on the shin!
Are all the mailbags snug? Right-oh! whoa, Dingo! Narrabri!
Now, gentlemen, if you please - tumble in!
Then whoa, steady, whoa! Now, let the beauties go -
They know what they've to do before the dawnin';
And the journey ain't all clover, for the creek is runnin' over,
And we're bound to reach Moruya in the mornin'.

Just pass this rug across your knees and hitch it on the rail,
You'll find the air, sir, pretty cold and chill;
We can't pull up and light a fire when carryin' the mail,
We've got to freeze and bear it sittin' still!
Yes, dark it is, and some might find it difficult to steer,
For where the corners come it's hard to tell,
I've been drivin' here, sir, somewhere close on twenty year
And I'd follow this old bush track by the smell!
Then whoa, steady, whoa! Just hear the beauties go,
All danger or fatigue they're simply scornin',
And no matter what the weather - you can bet they'll pull together
And will land us in Moruya in the mornin'!
 
I met a boundary rider just afore we started out
Who told me that the creek is rising fast;
I've crossed it flooded over, must be twenty times about,
And always prayed each time would be the last!
The water rushes onward in a swirl of crested foam,
Full three foot deep when taken at the flood,
And landed in the middle - well - you somehow sigh for home
When buried to the axles deep in mud!
Then whoa, steady, whoa! Just see the beauties go,
They know that soon will come the golden dawnin',
But if pluck and nerve can do it, you can bet they'll see us through it
And will land us in Moruya in the mornin'!

Just look how old Red Rover, like a young unbroken colt,
Lays down to it at whisper of his name,
I tell you he's a good 'un - my Colonial, what a jolt!
Oh no, sir, don't be sorry that you came!
Hurrah! the dawn is breakin'! now the gum-trees you can see
Like spectres tall and grim on either hand.
Let's reach the creek at daylight, and I then won't care a d --
It's a terror in the dark you understand!
Then whoa, steady, whoa! Just see the darlin's go,
Old Dingo cocks his ears by way of warnin'!
Keep up your heart, my beauty, just for me and home and duty,
And we're bound to reach Moruya in the mornin'!
 
We're getting very near, sir, and the creek will heave in sight
When once we round the tea-tree now in view;
Just close your eyes a moment, sir, and pray with all your might
That I may get the mailbags safely through --
Lay down to it, me darlin's, for the sake of auld lang syne,
Don't fail me, beauties, now we've come so far,
Another fifty yards we'll have the tea-tree well in line;
Hang on, sir, round the corner - here we are!
Then whoa, steady, whoa! Lord! how the waters flow,
See how the white foam glistens in the dawnin',
Lord knows if we shall do it - but I'm bound to rush 'em through it
If we want to reach Moruya in the mornin'!

Are all you chaps inside awake? That's right, well mind your eye,
The creek must be quite three foot deep or more,
You'd best get on the seat if you'd prefer to come through dry,
The water's bound to cover all the floor --
It's neck or nothin' now, sir, for we can't afford to shrink,
The creek gets only bigger with delay,
Hold on, sir, like blue blazes! for we're comin' to the brink!
Now, Thunderclap and Dingo, show the way!
Now go, beauties, go! See how they breast the flow
And face the stream, all danger simply scornin';
Now, Narrabri! Red Rover! one more pull! Hurrah, we're over!
And thank God we'll reach Moruya in the mornin'!

Henry Lawson: THE OLD BARK SCHOOL

{Charles Dickens lived in London at the same time as Karl Marx, but had a far greater audience and a much bigger impact at the time. Dickens articulated the plight of the poor, having been through it himself in his own childhood.

Henry Lawson was the Charles Dickens of Australia. But his theme, instead of the inner-city poor, was the men and women of the Bush, and the hardships they faced.

Lawson articulated the spirit of the time - the identification with the Bush.

The 60s/70s Counter-culture sought to throw out the icons of "White Australia". Thus, Barry Humphries - alias Edna Everage, alias Sir Les Patterson, alias Barry MacKenzie - ridiculed the working class. Middle class audiences enjoyed it immensely, but no-one was "taking the micky" out of the yuppies.

The yuppies of Sydney have turned their backs on their countrymen in the inland rural areas. Wining and dining, they are unaware of the poverty the politicians have brought to "the real Australia".

Lawson was born in a tent at the goldfields near Grenfell.

This and the following poems by Lawson are from Lloyd O'Neil (ed.), IN THE DAYS WHEN THE WORLD WAS WIDE: Poetical Works of Henry Lawson, published in association with Maubern Nominees, Windsor, Australia, 1970}

It was built of bark and poles, and the roof was full of holes
And each leak in rainy weather made a pool;
And the walls were mostly cracks lined with calico and sacks -
There was little need for windows in the school.

Then we rode to school and back by the rugged gully-track,
On the old grey horse that carried three or four;
And he looked so very wise that he lit the Master's eyes
Every time he put his head in at the door.

(He had run with Cobb and Co. - "That grey leader, let him go!"
There were men "as knowed the brand upon his hide,"
Some "as knowed him on the course" - Funeral service:
"Good old horse !" When we burnt him in the gully where he died.)

Kevin was the master's name, 'twas from Ireland that he came,
Where the tanks are always full, and feed is grand;
And the joker then in vogue said his lessons wid a brogue -
'Twas unconscious imitation, understand.

And we learnt the world in scraps from some ancient dingy maps
Long discarded by the public-schools in town;
And as nearly every book dated back to Captain Cook
Our geography was somewhat upside-down.

It was "in the book" and so - well, at that we'd let it go,
For we never would believe that print could lie;
And we all learnt pretty soon that when school came out at noon
"The sun is in the south part of the sky."

And Ireland ! - that was known from the coast-line to Athlone,
But little of the land that gave us birth;
Save that Captain Cook was killed (and was very likely grilled)
And "our blacks are just the lowest race on earth."

And a woodcut, in its place, of the same degraded race,
More like camels than the blackmen that we knew;
Jimmy Bullock, with the rest, scratched his head and gave it best;
But he couldn't stick a bobtailed kangaroo!

Now the old bark school is gone, and the spot it stood upon
Is a cattle-camp where curlews' cries are heard;
There's a brick school on the flat - an old schoolmate teaches that -
It was built when Mr Kevin was "transferred."

But the old school comes again with exchanges 'cross the plain -
With the Out-Back Press my fancy roams at large
When I read of passing stock, of a western mob or flock,
With James Bullock, Grey, or Henry Dale in charge.

When I think how Jimmy went from the old bark school content,
"Eddicated," with his packhorse after him,
Well . . . perhaps, if I were back, I would follow in his track,
And let Kevin "finish" me as he did Jim.

Henry Lawson, PAROO RIVER

{The Paroo River runs through Hungerford, in country often in drought, at which times the river is dry. Yet rains often lead to floods as the water spreads out widely over the flat land. In the 1890s, Lawson stayed at a hotel in Bourke (on the Darling River, further east) to report on the rural workers' strike for The Bulletin magazine, and travelled to Hungerford}

It was a week from Christmas-time,
As near as I remember,
And half a year since, in the rear,
We'd left the Darling Timber.
The track was hot and more than drear;
The day dragged out for ever;
But now we knew that we were near
Our Camp - the Paroo River.

With blighted eyes and blistered feet,
With stomachs out of order,
Half-mad with flies and dust and heat
We'd crossed the Queensland Border.
I longed to hear a stream go by
And see the circles quiver;
I longed to lay me down and die
That night on Paroo River.

The "nose-bags" heavy on each chest
(God bless one kindly squatter !),
With grateful weight our hearts they pressed -
We only wanted water.
The sun was setting in a spray
Of colour like a liver -
We'd fondly hoped to camp and stay
That night by Paroo River.
 
A cloud was on my mate's broad brow,
And once I heard him mutter:
"What price the good old Darling, now? -
God bless that grand old gutter!"
And then he stopped and slowly said
In tones that made me shiver:
"It cannot well be on ahead -
I think we've crossed the river."

But soon we saw a strip of ground
Beside the track we followed,
No damper than the surface round,
But just a little hollowed.
His brow assumed a thoughtful frown -
This speech he did deliver:
"I wonder if we'd best go down
Or up the blessed river?"

"But where," said I, "'s the blooming stream?"
And he replied, "We're at it !"
I stood awhile, as in a dream,
"Great Scott!" I cried, "is that it?
Why, that is some old bridle-track !"
He chuckled, "Well, I never !
It's plain you've never been Out Back -
This is the Paroo River!"

{My own great-grandfather was a bullock driver in the Bourke area. He died, just a year or two before Lawson arrived, through catching pneumonia after his dray become bogged during heavy rains}

Henry Lawson, SWEENEY

It was somewhere in September, and the sun was going down,
When I came, in search of copy, to a Darling-River town;
"Come-and-Have-a-Drink" we'll call it - 'tis a fitting name, I think -
And 'twas raining, for a wonder, up at Come-and-Have-a-Drink.

Underneath the pub veranda I was resting on a bunk
When a stranger rose before me, and he said that he was drunk;
He apologized for speaking; there was no offence, he swore;
But he somehow seemed to fancy that he'd seen my face before.

"No erfence," he said. I told him that he needn't mention it,
For I might have met him somewhere; I had travelled round a bit,
And I knew a lot of fellows in the Bush and in the streets -
But a fellow can't remember all the fellows that he meets.

Very old and thin and dirty were the garments that he wore,
Just a shirt and pair of trousers, and a boot, and nothing more;
He was wringing-wet and really in a sad and sinful plight,
And his hat was in his left hand, and a bottle in his right.

He agreed: You can't remember all the chaps you chance to meet,
And he said his name was Sweeney - people lived in Sussex-street.
He was camping in a stable, but he swore that he was right,
"Only for the blanky horses walkin' over him all night."

He'd apparently been fighting, for his face was black-and-blue,
And he looked as though the horses had been treading on him, too;
But an honest, genial twinkle in the eye that wasn't hurt
Seemed to hint of something better, spite of drink and rags and dirt.

It appeared that he mistook me for a long-lost mate of his -
One of whom I was the image, both in figure and in phiz -
(He'd have had a letter from him if the chap was livin' still,
For they'd carried swags together from the Gulf to Broken Hill).

Sweeney yarned awhile, and hinted that his folks were doing well,
And he told me that his father kept the Southern Cross Hotel;
And I wondered if his absence was regarded as a loss
When he left the elder Sweeney - landlord of the Southern Cross.

He was born in Parramatta, and he said, with humour grim,
That he'd like to see the city ere the liquor finished hlm,
But he couldn't raise the money. He was damned if he could think
What the Government was doing. Here he offered me a drink.

I declined - 'twas self-denial - and I lectured him on booze,
Using all the hackneyed arguments that preachers mostly use;
Things I'd heard in temperance lectures (I was young and rather green),
And I ended by referring to the man he might have been.

Then a wise expression struggled with the bruises on his face,
Though his argument had scarcely any bearing on the case:
"What's the good o' keepin' sober ? Fellers rise and fellers fall;
What I might have been and wasn't doesn't trouble me at all."

But he couldn't stay to argue, for his beer was nearly gone.
He was glad, he said, to meet me, and he'd see me later on,
But he guessed he'd have to go and get his bottle filled again;
And he gave a lurch and vanished in the darkness and the rain.

And of afternoons in cities, when the rain is on the land,
Visions come to me of Sweeney with his bottle in his hand,
With the stormy night behind him, and the pub veranda-post -
And I wonder why he haunts me more than any other ghost.

I suppose he's tramping somewhere where the bush-men carry swags,
Dragging round the western stations with his empty tucker-bags;
And I fancy that of evenings, when the track is growing dim,
What he "might have been and wasn't" comes along and troubles him.

Henry Lawson, SONG OF THE OLD BULLOCK-DRIVER

Far back in the days when the blacks used to ramble
In long single file 'neath the evergreen tree,
The wool-teams in season came down from Coonamble,
And journeyed for weeks on their way to the sea.

'Twas then that our hearts and our sinews were stronger,
For those were the days when tough bushmen were bred.
We journeyed on roads that were rougher and longer
Than roads which the feet of our grandchildren tread.

We never were lonely, for, camping together,
We yarned and we smoked the long evenings away,
And little I cared for the signs of the weather
When snug in my hammock slung under the dray.
We rose with the dawn, were it ever so chilly,
When yokes and tarpaulins were covered with frost,
And toasted the bacon and boiled the black billy -
Then high on the camp-fire the branches we tossed.

On flats where the air was suggestive of possums,
And homesteads and fences were hinting of change,
We saw the faint glimmer of apple-tree blossoms,
And far in the distance the blue of the range;
Out there in the rain there was small use in flogging
The poor tortured bullocks that tugged at the load,
When, down to the axles, the waggons were bogging
And traffic was making a slough of the road.

Oh, hard on the beasts were those terrible pinches
Where two teams of bullocks were yoked to a load,
And tugging and slipping, and moving by inches,
Half-way to the summit they clung to the road.
And then, when the last of the pinches was bested,
(You'll surely not say that a glass was a sin?)
The bullocks lay down 'neath the gum-trees and rested -
The bullockies steered for the door of the inn.

Then slowly we crawled by the trees that kept tally
Of miles that were passed on the long journey down.
We saw the wild beauty of Capertee Valley,
As slowly we rounded the base of the Crown.
But, ah! the poor bullocks were cruelly goaded
While climbing the hills from the flats and the vales;
'Twas here that the teams were so often unloaded
That all knew the meaning of "counting your bales."

The best-paying load that I ever have carried
Was one to the run where my sweetheart was nurse.
We courted awhile, and agreed to get married,
And couple our futures for better or worse.
And when my old feet were too weary to drag on
The miles of rough metal they met by the way,
My eldest grew up and I gave him the waggon -
He's plodding along by the bullocks to-day.
 
A. D. Hope, AUSTRALIA {From A. D. Hope, COLLECTED POEMS 1930-1970, Angus and Robertson, Sydney 1972}

A Nation of trees, drab green and desolate grey
In the field uniform of modern wars,
Darkens her hills, those endless, outstretched paws
Of Sphinx demolished or stone lion worn away.

They call her a young country, but they lie:
She is the last of lands, the emptiest,
A woman beyond her change of life, a breast
Still tender but within the womb is dry.

Without songs, architecture, history:
The emotions and superstitions of younger lands,
Her rivers of water drown among inland sands,
The river of her immense stupidity

Floods her monotonous tribes from Cairns to Perth.
In them at last the ultimate men arrive
Whose boast is not: "we live" but "we survive",
A type who will inhabit the dying earth.

And her five cities, like five teeming sores,
Each drains her: a vast parasite robber-state
Where second hand Europeans pullulate
Timidly on the edge of alien shores.

Yet there are some like me turn gladly home
From the lush jungle of modern thought, to find
The Arabian desert of the human mind,
Hoping, if still from the deserts the prophets come,

Such savage and scarlet as no green hills dare
Springs in that waste, some spirit which escapes
The learned doubt, the chatter of cultured apes
Which is called civilization over there.

{end of poems}

More poems by A. D. Hope: adhope-poems.html.

Henry Lawson on Socialism, Republicanism & Ethnicity: lawson.html.

Humphrey McQueen depicts Henry Lawson as a Fascist & Nazi: mcqueen.html.

Henry Lawson: Rural Australia From the 1870s to 1916: lawson2.html.

Write to me at contact.html.

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